Tag Archives: gothic architecture

The 12th century

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The Ambulatory at St-Denis, the birth of Gothic architecture

Every once in a while you are confronted with ‘important’ periods in history — 135 BC to AD 14, for example, takes us through the collapse of the Roman Republic to the death of Augustus, the first Emperor. Or the fourth century, with the continuation of Diocletian’s reforms, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the various church councils and associated theologians, all culminating in what Peter Brown calls the ‘second’ Golden Age of Latin literature. Or the 16th century, an age of Reformation and print and philosophy and war.

The 12th century is similarly important, especially its middle decades.

The final year of the 11th century is the year the Crusaders took Jerusalem. The final decades of 1000s also saw the Investiture Controversy and the Gregorian Reform, which continued beyond 1100 and adjusted the balance of secular and ecclesiastical power in Europe. In the midst of this is St Anselm (1033-1109), whose Cur Deus Homo was completed in the year 1100; this brilliant logician and theologian was to die in 1109.

Not that Latin theology was left with no new lights in the upcoming decades — St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helped drive forward the new Cistercian Order and is a high point in western mysticism, particularly his sermons on the Song of Songs, begun in 1135; he is often called the Last of the Fathers and is a ‘Doctor’ of the church. Bernard sharpened his wit in intellectual combat against Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who is an early ‘scholastic’ theologian (whereas Bernard was a monk) who was more given over to Aristotle than to Plato, to logic than to mysticism, and who was involved in the methodological revolution in the universities that we call ‘Scholasticism’.

Abelard was important and is known even to non-medievalists today, often because of his relationship with Heloise and their illegitimate son, Astrolabe (we have even a Penguin Classics translation of their letters!). However, some of his controversial conclusions were rejected by the succeeding tradition; one of his successors, Peter Lombard (1100-1160), on the other hand, wrote what would become the standard textbook of theology for the Middle Ages, the Sentences (1147-50), on which the luminaries of the next century, such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), would write commentaries. Although his orthodoxy, like Abelard’s, was challenged, his memory was acquitted at the Lateran Council of 1215.

Around the same time as Peter Lombard’s greatest work and the mystical masterpieces of St Bernard, but in the final years of Abelard, Gratian wrote his Decretum — or, rather, ‘Concord of Discordant Canons’. This is one of the most influential works of canon law from the Middle Ages, drawing together the various sources of the law under systematised headings and providing Gratian’s own dicta to sort out the discrepancies between. It is at once a source for canon law, a juristic text for legal principles, as well as a study in Christian sacraments. The Decretum is a wondrous piece of 12th-century learning, born in the university at Bologna in 1139 with final edits in the 1140s. Like Lombard’s Sentences it would become a standard textbook for the rest of the Middle Ages.

These are what initially inspired me to write this post. Nonetheless, this is also the century of the birth of Gothic art under the vision of Abbot Suger of St-Denis; the great architecture of Norman Sicily comes this century as well. Towards the end of the century the Nibelungenlied — Germany’s great vernacular epic — was written (I’ve blogged on it here often in the past). The latter half of the century also sees Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1191), Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), and Hartmann von Aue (1160-1210s). This the century of that medieval stereotype, the troubadour.

No piece about the twelfth century should go without mentioning the dubiously historical work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155), that famous History of the Kings of Britain was written, including many famous tales of King Arthur. More reliable was William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), who wrote several important works of English history in Latin prose.

One could go on. It’s interesting to see these convergences, especially the significant pieces written 1140-60.

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St. Denis and Notre Dame

When the great minds of the so-called ‘Renaissance’ wanted to denigrate the art, architecture, and bookhands of the previous generation(s), they chose the word ‘Gothic’, as opposed to their re-birth of alleged Graeco-Roman ‘humanism’ in architecture, handwriting, and the visual arts.

In what follows, do take a look at the hyperlinks, for they take you to images on my Flickr photostream; the Notre Dame photos are not up yet, though! I am having trouble with file sizes and WordPress, soo….

I have recently visited two Gothic masterpieces here in Paris, Basilique St. Denis and Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris (the world-famous cathedral). Neither is worth denigrating (nor is the mindblowing Duomo of Milan).

The Basilique St Denis is north of the centre of Paris, in one of the <em>banlieux</em> where you feel like you’re in a mélange of French North Africa and French Subsahara with European architecture everywhere. In the Middle Ages, this was not Paris. The community would have arisen up here around the basilica and monastery.

St. Denis was, as tradition has it, founded by St. Denis, third-century bishop of Lutetia (Paris) who was beheaded on Monmartre (Mons Martyrorum) with two companions. Having been beheaded, he picked up his head and walked with it to where he wished himself to be buried. That was up in St. Denis. So they buried him in what would become his basilica’s crypt.

True story, if Hincmar of Reims (806-882) has anything to say about it.

St. Denis was conflated with another person of the same name, (Pseudo)Dionysius the Areopagite, writer of early sixth-century pseudepigrapha of a very mystical nature worth a read or two. It’s about reaching the uncreated Light and all that jazz.

So in the 12th century, Abbot Suger of the monastery at St. Denis decided to make a cathedral of light in honour of St. Denis, theologian of the light of God.

He (re?)built the chevet, the entry point of the church before you reach the narthex as well as a double ambulatory. An ambulatory is a place for walking behind the apse of a church (an apse is the round bit that sticks out like a bump at the back, where the high altar is in traditionally-arranged churches), and a double ambulatory has an extra arcade full of altars for the celebration of private masses.

This space is full of light, because a pointed Gothic arch can span a very wide distance, leaving room for naught but coloured glass.

Later, Suger’s successors rebuilt the Carolingian and Romanesque portions in the mid-twelfth century. This includes the high and lofty nave that reaches in a light, airy manner into the reaches of the heavens above, as well as the addition of transepts. If you imagine a mediaeval cathedral as a cross, transepts are the arms of the cross. Using the weightlessness of Gothic architecture, the transepts include very beautiful rose windows.

St. Denis basically blew my mind, architecturally. It is light and airy and is ribbed with magnificence.

Two nights ago, while Jennie was visiting, we turned up in Notre Dame during one of the Masses for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We thus had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and experience Gothic architecture the way it was meant to be experienced — with choir and priests and bishops chanting out prayers and scripture readings and alleluias:

The nave was full, so I am unable to compare the height and grandeur of Notre Dame with the height and grandeur of St Denis. But here as well we have the high, fluted columns stretching to pointed arches and walls made of stained glass. We have rose windows.

And we have the chapels of a double ambulatory.

These chapels at Notre Dame are interesting. I do not know whether the painting is original, but I do not doubt that they represent an image of how such places were intended to look — full of colour and vibrance, dazzling the eye with the wonder of God’s good creation.

When I visit these large, airy Gothic places, I cannot side with anyone who would think poorly of them. They are magnificent, whether Notre Dame, St Denis, York Minster, Rosslyn Chapel, the Milanese Duomo!

I recommend a visit.