Gothic Architecture and Medieval Theology (failed attempt at a thesis)

notre dame paris cathedral photos LED 11For a long time I wanted to write a DPhil thesis on the relationship of Gothic architecture to the theology of the High Medieval period. I suppose in the back of my mind was this idea that I had largely imbibed from the sort of Radical Orthodoxy-ish theology that this period was the crowning apogee of Western Christian civilization before its demise into heresy, schism and ultimately the cultural and spiritual morass of Modernity, the detritus of which we live with today. My idea was that this movement could perhaps be traced in architectural history as it could be in philosophy and theology, with the Gothic obviously the high point of man’s architectural genius and other forms representing a falling away from the Christian idea into types of neo-Paganism (cf. Pugin’s critique of Christopher Wren etc.) and simple post-Christian crassness and inhumanity. And there might have been a good idea in there somewhere, but after some investigation I quickly realized that I had neither the scholarly ability nor the ingenuity of thought to bring such a thesis to fruition. On the latter, I realized that there are many scholars who have already made the links that probably can be made between the Gothic and Medieval theology and that those chaps know a helluva lot more about both subjects that I did or could. Probably the closest of all to what I was aiming at is Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which makes some interesting links between scholastic forms of theologizing that reach their zenith in the Summa Theologiae and the structure of Gothic Cathedrals. This is all not to mention, of course, that such a thesis would constitute something far more substantial than a mere DPhil and so was hopelessly overambitious in scope. So I jacked the whole thing in and started something else…

But the High Medieval age still continues to fascinate me, and when I read its theology and inhabit its sacred spaces, I am still piqued and haunted by the idea the people really did inhabit the world differently in this time, differently not just in terms of what they believed, but in terms of what they felt and experienced about reality. Their world was a much more spiritual one, a world that was enchanted and full of magic and fantastic creatures like angels and demons and pixies and wood-elves. I am still utterly convinced that the reason modern people are so obsessed with Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and so on is because these things offer us a passage back into that world. And the most thrilling thing of all, the thing that most fascinates me and fills me with the thrill of hope and expectation, is that maybe that world – the world of pixies and wood-elves – is more real than this one. I don’t mean that I think that Hogwarts is a real school for magical children with wands, but I do mean that what it represents – that something more than is offered to us by a reductive scientific view of the universe with all its crass culture, oppressive state politics, and perverse anthropologies – might be. The films of Harry Potter would have been an absolute scandal if they hadn’t utilized Gothic architecture for precisely this reason: Harry Potter is a Gothic story. Everyone knows it instinctively, even without the films.

But what exactly does that mean? I don’t really know. But I do come across from time to time some tantalizing glimpses of the sort of thing I think it means. It was going back to Julian of Norwich that set me thinking about this recently. In the introduction to my Penguin Classics version, I read:

Through the first thousand years of western Christianity, Christ was widely seen as a remote, awesome judge and hero, who had fought and conquered the devil to gain the possibility of salvation for the human souls seized as a consequence of Adam’s sin. In this struggle, human beings were little more than spectators.

And although this view (which could probably be called, a little simplistically, the Christus Victor view of the atonement) never disappeared, in Julian’s time (the late fourteenth century),

Alongside it there grew up a different emphasis on Christ as suffering man, arousing compassion in his fellow human beings. In this new theology, developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries […] God’s Incarnation as man was seen not primarily as a device for defeating the Devil but as a means of drawing human love towards God as an object for identification and imitation.

And this change that comes about in the Medieval period – at the exact same time as the first development of Gothic components in churches and cathedrals – is reflected in its piety, architecture and ecclesial art, which focus much more and with much more detail on Christ’s suffering body, his material flesh.

This all got me thinking about Paul Crossley’s introduction to Paul Frankl’s magnum opus Gothic Architecture, and I went back to that and I did, in fact, find what I was looking for. Paul Frankl, who is, according to my limited understanding, probably the greatest scholar of the Gothic of modern times, did indeed argue that the Gothic is not merely a style of architecture, but that it describes ‘a harmonious civilization’ and reflects ‘a style common to every cultural sphere’. Crossley writes,

The crowning realization of Gothic Architecture […] is the conviction that the root of the Gothic, of ‘Gothic Man’ and ‘Gothic Society’, was the personality and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I think he is referring to the same kind of shift I mentioned in the introduction to Julian, an emphasis not simply on the divine aspect of Christ’s salvific work (though of course that perdures throughout all periods) but also upon ‘the reconciliation of man to God through Christ’s suffering’ (Crossley again).

How, then, is that taken up in Gothic architecture and the Gothic cathedral? This is the point where the claims become the most extravagant and I feel the least able to keep up with them. Frankl claimed that, ‘Where Romanesque art (and style that preceded the Gothic) and architecture present a God who is ‘unapproachable, tremendum‘, Gothic forms ‘symbolize the disappearance of the boundary between Man and God”. And because of this integration between man and God, ‘The principle conviction of ‘Gothic civilization’, and its Christian values, ‘is that man is a fragment of creation, who can find his totality only by taking his place within the kingdom of God”. This understanding manifests itself in Frankl’s idea of the mental and spiritual attitude of the period which he described as ‘partiality’, which means ‘an interdependent relationship between man, God and society’.

I’m not sure whether he means that the kind of rooms within arches within rooms one finds in medieval cathedrals reflect this kind of interdependent partiality or if it is, as Crossley says a bit later, only that ‘Architectural style takes on the psychology of its maker and the mentality of its period’ in a less obviously analogical and more general fashion. But the idea that the philosophical and spiritual currents of the age could bring about something of that beauty and magnitude, indeed surely among the heights of human artistic achievement in all of history, is a suggested that continues to draw me on.

The quotation that first suggested these things to my mind I read first in Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche, more than anyone it seems, understood that the decline of Christianity, which in general he despised, could not simply be waved good-riddance without a serious consideration of the consequences, not least what it would mean for art and culture, which had been, for more than a thousand years, entirely Christian and wonderfully glorious in so many ways. What would it be like once Christianity declined, as Nietzsche believed it inevitable would (and he was right about that)? He wrote of this,

Now if belief in such truth generally diminishes, if the rainbow colours at the outermost ends of human knowing and imagining fade: then the species of art that, like the Divina Commedia, Raphael’s pictures, Michelangelo’s frescoes, the Gothic cathedrals, presuppose not only a cosmic, but also a metaphysical significance for art objects, can never blossom again. A touching tale will come of this, that there was once such an art, such belief by artists.

That touching tale and its implications remain with us in millennia-old stone castles of spirituality that speak of a faith and an artistic achievement that we can no longer hope to replicate or rival. And all of these things make me wonder very deeply what it is that we have lost.

Well, anyway, there is an idea for a project for anyone who has got the skills and tenacity that eluded me. Thanks for reading!





4 thoughts on “Gothic Architecture and Medieval Theology (failed attempt at a thesis)

  1. Take heart. As icebergs are 90% below the waterline, churches and their roles in history and grand architectural construction projects may well represent only a fraction of the saints. The saints are candles. Mere churches come and go. They produce no light. They are mere lampstands, on which saints may rest.

  2. Thank you for this, Jamie Franklin! From the confessional intro to the elucidation of architechture, it was precisely what I needed to see this morning (and probably not merely this morning). I hear there is a new book out by Alison Milbank, ‘God and the Gothic’ which I am sure is amazing and most certainly touches on much of what you have written here.

Please make a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s