Notre Dame

Warning: subjective artistic judgments ahead!

Why were the medievals such supreme architects, and yet so shitty at all the other arts? The great Gothic cathedrals of France, especially, have never been surpassed, while the literature, music, sculpture, drama and painting of the age pretty well languished until the Renaissance came along to buck them up. Rheims, Chartres, Salisbury and Durham are not only supreme aesthetically, but also in terms of their science. No-one after around 1450 was able to build structures as high and delicate as these merely by putting stones one on top of the other, and then to arrange and ornament them so beautifully. I once wrote a book about those who tried to revive the style in the nineteenth century, but who never succeeded in emulating their models. Those skills were lost to us when the early moderns came in.

The middle ages, in other words, marked the high point in all European history for one particular branch of culture, amidst a sea of pretty mediocre art otherwise. Talk up Dante, Chaucer, Giotto, and Guillaume de Machaut as much as you like; but none can hold a candle to these glorious achievements of an otherwise – by modern standards – primitive and oppressive time. To my mind the great cathedrals justify the European Middle Ages, in the same way that Mozart justifies the eighteenth century, in spite of all those centuries’ horrors otherwise. Let everything else on earth plunge into the sun, as apparently is our destiny ultimately; so long as the Sainte Chapelle and the Gran Partita – or at least memories of them – remain.

I’ve not yet pondered much on the reasons for this. Obviously Catholic Christianity was a factor – its ambition, lucre, and I guess its spirituality; together with developments in the science of construction; and the best of humanity’s instinctive desire to express the ineffable. Stone, of course, also lasts. I’ve read Panofsky on the relationship between mediaeval scholastic philosophy and the cathedral architecture of the time. But the answer to the question of ‘why architecture?’ still eludes me. I must look more into other cultures’ devotional architectures: Islamic and Buddhist, for a start. Were they as much ahead of the other arts of their times, as French Gothic was?

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Notre Dame

  1. AbsentMindedCriticofEmpire says:

    Dear Bernard, I watched a documentary about restoring Notre Dame a while ago and it left me amazed at the achievement of the original builders. I would like to put in a good word for medieval art – I used to dislike it because of the subject matter, but I now appreciate it more and realise what Britain lost to whitewash. What about Sweden?

    As for high art and architecture counterbalancing epochal misery, I think maybe you were not being entirely serious, after all it would be a very dubious sort of calculation. At any rate, I would hate to think that British society in the year 2000 could be judged by the Millennium Dome!


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