V. FRENCH GOTHIC: 1133–1300

Why did the Gothic revolution begin and culminate in France?

The Gothic style was not a virgin birth. A hundred traditions joined in a fertilizing flow: Roman basilicas, arches, vaults, and clerestories; Byzantine themes of ornament; Armenian, Syrian, Persian, Egyptian, Arabic ogives, groined vaults, and clustered piers; Moorish motifs and arabesques; Lombard ribbed vaults and façade towers; the Germanic flair for the humorous and grotesque…. But why did these streams of influence converge in France? Italy, as in wealth and heritage the favored country of Western Europe, might have led the Gothic flowering, but she was the prisoner of her classic inheritance. Italy excepted, France was in the twelfth century the richest, and most advanced, nation of the West. She above all others had manned and financed the Crusades, and profited from their cultural stimulus; she led Europe in education, literature, and philosophy; and her craftsmen were conceded to be the best this side of Byzantium. By the time of Philip Augustus (1180–1223) the royal power had triumphed over feudal disunity, and the affluence, power, and intellectual life of France were congregating in the king’s own domain—that lie de France loosely definable as the region of the middle Seine. Along the Seine, Oise, Marne, and Aisne a fruitful commerce moved, leaving behind it a wealth that turned to stone in cathedrals at Paris, St. Denis, Senlis, Mantes, Noyon, Soissons, Laon, Amiens, and Reims. The manure of money had prepared the soil for the growth of art.

The first masterpiece of the transition style was the magnificent abbey church of St. Denis, in the Paris suburb of that name. It was the work of one of the most complete and successful personalities in French history. Suger (1081?-1151), Benedictine abbot and regent of France, was a man of refined tastes, who, while living simply, thought it no sin to love beautiful things and to gather them for the adornment of his church. “If the ancient law,” he replied to St. Bernard’s criticisms, “ordained that cups of gold should be used for libations, and to receive the blood of rams … how much rather should we devote gold, precious stones, and the rarest of materials to vessels designed to hold the blood of Our Lord?”10 So he tells us proudly of the beauty and cost of the gold and silver, the jewels and enamels, the mosaics and stained windows, the rich vestments and vessels, which he gathered or had made for his church. In 1133 he brought together artists and artisans “from all lands” to raise and adorn a new home for France’s patron St. Denis, and to house the tombs of the kings of France; he persuaded King Louis VII and the court to contribute the necessary funds; “following our example,” he says, “they took the rings from their fingers” to pay for his costly designs.11 We picture him rising early to superintend the construction, from the felling of the trees that he chose for timbers to the installation of the stained glass whose subjects he had selected and whose inscriptions he had composed. When he dedicated his edifice in 1144 twenty bishops officiated; the King, two queens, and hundreds of knights attended; and Suger might well have felt that he had won a crown more glorious than any king’s.

Of his church only parts remain in the present edifice: the west front, two bays of the nave, the chapels of the ambulatory, and the crypt; most of the interior is a reconstruction by Pierre de Montereau between 1231 and 1281. The crypt is Romanesque; the west façade mingles round and pointed arches; its sculptures, mostly from Suger’s time, include a hundred figures, many well individualized, and all centering about one of the best conceptions of Christ the Judge in the whole sweep of medieval art.

Twelve years after Suger’s death Bishop Maurice de Sully paid him the compliment of bettering his instruction, and Notre Dame de Paris rose on an island in the Seine. Its chronology suggests the immensity of the task: the choir and transepts were built in 1163–82; the nave in 1182–96, the westernmost bays and the towers in 1218–23; the cathedral was finished in 1235. In the original design the triforium was to be Romanesque, but in the completion the whole structure adopted the Gothic style. The west front is unusually horizontal for a Gothic cathedral, but that is because the spires that were meant to top the towers were never built; perhaps for that reason there is a firm and simple dignity in this façade that has led able students to rank it as “the noblest architectural conception of man.”12 The rose windows of Our Lady of Paris are masterpieces of bar tracery and coloring; but they were not meant to be described by words. The sculptures, though injured by time and revolution, represent the finest work in that art between the age of Constantine and the building of Reims Cathedral. In the tympanum over the main portal the Last Judgment is carved with greater calm than in most later renderings of that ubiquitous theme; the Christ is a figure of quiet majesty; and the angel at His right is one of the triumphs of Gothic sculpture. Better still is La Vierge du trumeau—the Virgin of the Pillar—on the north portal: here is a new delicacy of treatment, finish of surface, naturalness of drapery; a new ease and grace of stance, with the weight on one foot and the body thereby freed from stiff verticality; in this lovely figure Gothic sculpture almost declared its independence from architecture, and produced a masterpiece quite capable of being taken from its context and standing triumphantly alone. In Notre Dame at Paris the transition was ended, and Gothic came of age.

The story of Chartres illuminates the medieval scene and character. It was a small town fifty-five miles southwest of Paris, just outside the royal domain, a market for the plain of Beauce, the “granary of France.” But the Virgin was said to have visited the place in person; the pious lame or blind or sick or bereaved made it a goal of pilgrimage; some were healed or comforted at her shrine; Chartres became a Lourdes. Furthermore, its Bishop Fulbert, a man mingled of goodness, intellect, and faith, made it in the eleventh century a shrine of higher education, alma mater to some of the most brilliant figures in early Scholastic philosophy. When Fulbert’s ninth-century cathedral burned down in 1020 he set himself at once to rebuild it, and lived long enough to see it finished. This, in turn, was destroyed by fire in 1134. Bishop Theodoric made the construction of a new cathedral a veritable crusade; he aroused such devotion to the task, financial and physical, that in 1144, according to the eye-witness account of Abbot Haimon of Normandy,

kings, princes, mighty men of the world, puffed up with honors and riches, men and women of noble birth, bound bridles upon their proud and swollen necks, and submitted themselves to wagons which, after the fashion of brute beasts, they dragged with loads of wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams, and other things necessary to sustain life or build churches…. Moreover, as they draw the wagons we may see this miracle, that although sometimes a thousand men and women … are bound in the traces … yet they go forward in such silence that no voice, no murmur, is heard…. When they pause on the way no words are heard but confessions of guilt, with supplication and pure prayer…. The priests preach peace, hatred is soothed, discord is driven away, debts are forgiven, unity is restored.13

This cathedral of Bishop Theodoric had hardly been completed (1180) when, in 1194, fire gutted the nave, brought vault and walls to the ground, and left, as scarred survivors, only the subterranean crypt and the west façade with its two towers and spires. We are told that every house in the town was destroyed in that awful conflagration, whose traces are visible on the cathedral today. The discouraged people for a time lost faith in the Virgin, and wished to abandon the town. But the indomitable papal legate Melior told them that the calamity had been sent by God to punish their sins; he commanded them to rebuild their church and their homes; the clergy of the diocese contributed nearly all their income for three years; new miracles were reported of the Virgin of Chartres; faith was rekindled; multitudes came again, as in 1144, to help the paid workers pull the carts and set the stones; funds were contributed by every cathedral in Europe;14 and by 1224 toil and hope completed the cathedral that makes Chartres again a goal of pilgrimage.

The unknown architect had planned to top with towers not merely the flanks of the west front but also the transept portals and the apse. Only the two façade towers were built. Le Clocher vieux—the Old Bell-Tower (1145–70)—rose with its spire to 351 feet at the south end of the façade; it is simple and unadorned, and wins the preference of professional architects.15 Its northern mate—Le Clocher neuf—twice lost its wooden spire by fire; the spire was rebuilt in stone (1506–12) by Jean le Texier in flamboyant Gothic style of crowded and delicate ornament; Fergusson thought it “the most beautifully designed spire on the continent of Europe”;16 but it is generally agreed that so ornate a spire mars the unity of an austere façade.17

The fame of Chartres rests on its sculpture and its glass. In this palace of the Virgin live 10,000 carved or pictured personages—men, women, children, saints, devils, angels, and the Persons of the Trinity. There are 2000 statues in the portals alone;18 additional statues stand against columns in the interior; visitors who climb the 312 steps to the roof are astonished to see carefully carved life-size figures where none but the vigorous curious can ever notice them. Over the central portal is a splendid Christ, not, as in later façades, sternly judging the dead, but seated in calm majesty amid a happy throng, His hand held out as if to bless the entering worshipers. Attached to the recessed “orders” of the portal arch are nineteen prophets, kings, and queens; they are slender and stiff as befits their station as literally pillars of the church; many are crude and unfinished, perhaps injured or worn; but some of the faces have the philosophic depth, the gentle repose, or the maiden grace, that were to be perfected at Reims.

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FIG. 26—Cathedral Rheims

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FIG. 27—St. Nicaise Between Two Angels Rheims Cathedral

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FIG. 28—“The Annunciation and Visitation” Rheims Cathedral

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FIG. 29—Wrought lron Grille Abbey of Ourscamp

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FIG. 30—Cathedral Canterbury

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FIG. 31—Hôtel de Ville Ypres

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FIG. 32—Cathedral Salisbury

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FIG. 33—Cathedral Interior Durham

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FIG. 34—Cathedral Interior Winchester

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FIG. 35—Westminster Abbey London

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FIG. 36—Cathedral Strasbourg

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FIG. 37-“The Church” Strasbourg Cathedral

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FIG. 38—“The Synagogue” Strasbourg Cathedral

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FIG. 39—Saint Elizabeth Detail from “The Visitation” Bamberg Cathedral

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FIG. 40—Mary Detail from “The Visitation,” Bamberg Cathedral

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FIG. 41—Ekkehard and His Wife Uta Naumburg Cathedral

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FIG. 42—Rose Façade Orvieto Cathedral

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FIG. 43—Façade Siena Cathedral

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FIG. 44—Pulpit of Pisano Siena Cathedral

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FIG. 45—Rear View of Cathedral Salamanca

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FIG. 46—Cathedral Interior Santiago di Compostela

The transept façades and porches are the fairest in Europe. Each has three portals, flanked and separated by beautifully carved columns and jambs, and almost covered with statues every one of which is so individualized that several have received names from the folk of Chartres. The south porch centers its 783 figures around Christ enthroned on His judgment seat. Here Notre Dame de Chartres is subordinated to her Son; but in compensation she is endowed, as in Albertus Magnus, with all the sciences and philosophy, and in her service, on this portal, appear the Seven Liberal Arts—Pythagoras as Music, Aristotle as Dialectic, Cicero as Rhetoric, Euclid as Geometry, Nicomachus as Arithmetic, Priscian as Grammar, Ptolemy as Astronomy. St. Louis, in the words of his charter of 1259, caused the north porch to be completed “by reason of his particular devotion to the church of Our Lady of Chartres, and for the saving of his soul and the souls of his forefathers.”19 In 1793 the French Revolutionary Assembly defeated by a narrow margin a motion to destroy the statues of Chartres Cathedral in the name of philosophy and the Republic; “philosophy” compromised by chopping off some of the hands.20 This north porch belongs to the Virgin, and tells her story with reverent affection. The statues here stand out in the round, as fully matured sculpture; the drapery is as graceful and natural as in any Greek carving; the figure of Modesty is French girlhood at its best, where modesty gives to beauty a double power; there is nothing finer in all the history of sculpture. “These statues,” said Henry Adams, “are the Aeginetan marbles of French art.”21

As one enters the cathedral, four impressions mingle: the simple lines of the nave and vault, hardly comparable in size or beauty with the nave of Amiens or Winchester; the ornate choir screen, begun in 1514 by the flamboyant Jean le Texier; the peaceful figure of Christ on a pillar of the south transept, and, suffusing all with soft color, the unequaled stained glass. Here, in 174 windows, are 3884 figures from legend and history, ranging from cobblers to kings. It is medieval France seen through the richest colors ever developed—dark reds, soft blues, emerald greens, saffron, yellow, brown, white; here above all is the glory of Chartres. We must not look to these windows for realistic portraiture; the figures are ungainly, sometimes absurd; Adam’s head, in the medallion of the Expulsion from Eden, is painfully askew, and the bilateral charms of Eve could hardly divert the worshiper to concupiscence. It seemed to these artists enough that the pictures told a story while the colors fused in the viewer’s vision, and in their mingling painted the cathedral air. Excellent in design is the window of the Prodigal Son; famous for color and line the window of the symbolic Tree of Jesse; but better than all the rest is Notre Dame de la belle verrière—“Our Lady of the Beautiful Window.” Tradition holds that this lovely panel was rescued from the fire of 1194.22

Standing at the crossing of transept and nave, one may see the major roses of Chartres. In the main façade the central rose spans forty-four feet, almost as wide as the nave that it surveys; some have called it the finest work in glass known to history.23 Flooding the north transept is the “Rose of France,” given by Louis IX and Blanche of Castile, and dedicated to the Virgin; facing it across the church is the “Rose of Dreux,” in the south transept façade, given by Blanche’s enemy, Pierre Mauclerc of Dreux, and opposing Mary’s Son to Blanche’s Mother of God. Thirty-five lesser roses and twelve still smaller roselets complete the roster of Chartres’ circular glass. The modern spirit, too hurried and nervous to achieve patient and placid perfection, stands in wonder before works that must be ascribed not to the genius of singular individuals, but to the spirit and industry of a people, a community, an epoch, and a faith.

We have taken Chartres as typifying mature or rayonnant Gothic, and we must not indulge in similar tarrying over Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais. But who could pass hurriedly by the west front of Reims? If the original spires still rose from the towers, that façade would be the noblest work of man. Astonishing are the unity and harmony of style and parts in a structure raised by six generations. The cathedral finished by Hincmar in 841 was burned down in 1210; on the first anniversary of that fire a new cathedral was begun, designed by Robert de Coucy and Jean d’Orbais to be fit for the crowning of France’s kings. After forty years of labor, funds ran out; the work was stopped (1251), and the great church was not completed till 1427. A fire in 1480 destroyed the spires; the savings of the cathedral were used up in repairing the main structure, and the spires were not rebuilt. In the First World War shells smashed several buttresses, and tore huge gaps in roof and vault; the outer roof was destroyed by fire, and many statues were ruined. Other figures have been mutilated by fanatics, or by the erosion of centuries. History is a duel between art and time.

The sculptures of Reims, like its façade, mark the acme of Gothic art. Some are archaically crude; those in the central doorway are unsurpassed; and at various points on the portals, the pinnacles, the interior, we come upon figures that have almost the finish of Periclean statuary. Some, like the Virgin in the pillar of the central portal, are perhaps too graceful, and suggest a weakening of Gothic force; but the Virgin of the Purification at the left of the same portal, and the Virigin of the Visitation at the right, are among those achievements, of conception and execution, before which tongue and pen are stilled. More renowned, but not so near perfection, are the smiling angels in the Annunciation group of this façade. How different those joyous faces are from the St. Paul of the north portal!—itself one of the most powerful portraits ever carved in stone.

The sculptures of Amiens Cathedral excel those of Reims in elegance and finish, but fall short of them in dignity of conception and depth of revelation. Here on the western porch is the famous Beau Dieu, a little formal and lifeless after the living figures of Reims; here also is St. Firmin, no frightened ascetic but a firm, calm man, who never doubted right would triumph; and ‘here is a Virgin holding her child in her arms with all the absorbed tenderness of young motherhood. On the south portal the Vierge dorée, the Golden Virgin, smiles as she watches her child playing with a ball; she is a bit prettified, but too gracious to deserve Ruskin’s ungallant epithet, the “soubrette of Picardy.” Pleasant it is to see how the Gothic sculptors, after a century of serving theology, discovered men and women, and carved the joy of life on church façades. The Church, which also had learned to enjoy the earth, winked at the discovery, but thought it wise to have a Last Judgment on the main façade.

Amiens Cathedral was built in 1220–88 by a succession of architects-Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont, and his son Regnault. The towers were not completed till 1402. The interior is the most successful of Gothic naves; it rises to a vault 140 feet high, and seems rather to be drawing the church upward than to be bearing a weight. Continuous shafts from ground to vault bind the three-storied arcades of the nave into a majestic unity; the vaulting of the apse is a triumph of harmonious design over baffling irregularities; and the heart stands still at first sight of the clerestory windows and the roses of transepts and façade. But the nave seems too narrow for its height, the walls too frail for the roof; an element of insecurity enters into the awe aroused by this buoyant stone.

In Beauvais Cathedral this vaulting ambition of Gothic overleaped itself and reached its fated fall. The magnificence of Amiens stirred the citizens of Beauvais to jealousy. In 1227 they began to build, and vowed to raise the vault of their shrine thirteen feet higher than Amiens’. They brought the choir to the promised height; but hardly had they roofed it when it fell. In 1272a recuperating generation built the choir again as high as before, and in 1284 it fell again. Once more they built the choir, this time to 157 feet from the ground; then their funds ran out, and they left the church for two centuries without transepts or nave. In 1500, when France had at last recovered from the Hundred Years’ War, the gigantic transepts were begun; and in 1552—to top the spire of St. Peter’s in Rome—a lantern tower was raised over the transept cross to a height of 500 feet. In 1573 this tower collapsed, and brought down with it large sections of the transepts and the choir. The brave Beauvaisois at last compromised: they repaired the choir to its precarious pitch, but never added a nave. Beauvais Cathedral is therefore all head and no body; externally two rich transept façades and an apse engulfed in buttresses; internally a cavernous choir aglow with magnificent stained glass. If, ran an old French saying, one could combine the choir of Beauvais with the nave of Amiens, the façade of Reims, and the spires of Chartres, one would have a perfect Gothic cathedral.

In later ages men would look back to that thirteenth century and wonder what fountain of wealth and faith had poured out such glory upon the earth. For no man can know what France accomplished in that century—besides her universities, her poets, her philosophers, and her Crusades—unless he stands in person before one after another of the Gothic audacities that can here be only names: Notre Dame and Chartres and Reims and Amiens and Beauvais; Bourges (1195–1390) with its vast nave and four aisles and famed glass and lovely sculptured Angel with the Scales; Mont St. Michel with its marvel of a monastery (La Merveille, 1204–50) set in a fortress towering on an island rock off the coast of Normandy; Coutances (1208–1386) with its noble spires; Rouen (1201–1500) with its ornate Portail des libraires; and Sainte Chapelle in Paris—a “jewel box” of Gothic glass built (1245–8) by Pierre de Montereau as a chapel adjunct to the palace of St. Louis, to house the relics that the King had purchased from the East. It is good to remember, in ages of destruction, that men, when they will, can build as once they built in France.

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