Flanders imported Gothic from France at an early date. St. Gudule’s, proud on its hill in Brussels, was begun in 1220; its chief glory is its stained glass. St. Bavon’s, at Ghent, built a Gothic choir in 1274; and St. Rombaut’s, at Mechlin, surveyed the countryside from huge towers never finished but still too ornate. Flanders was more interested in textiles than in theology; its characteristic architecture was civic; and its earliest Gothic triumphs were the cloth halls at Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent. That of Ypres (1200–1304) was the most majestic: a 450-feet-long façade of three-storied arcades, with colonnaded corner pinnacles and stately central tower; it was reduced to ruins in the First World War. The Cloth Hall of Bruges (1284f) still dominates its square with a superb and world-famous belfry. These fine buildings, and those of Ghent (1325f), suggest the prosperity and just pride of the Flemish guilds, and constitute some part of the charm of these now quiet and pleasant towns.
As Gothic spread eastward into Holland and Germany it encountered increasing resistance. In general the grace of the Gothic style did not accord with the sturdy force of the Teutonic frame and mind; Romanesque was more congenial, and Germany clung to it till the thirteenth century. The great cathedral of Bamberg (1185–1237) is transitional: the windows are small and round-arched, and there are no flying buttresses; but the vault is in ribbed and pointed form. Here at the outset of German Gothic we find a remarkable development of sculpture: at first imitating the French, but soon advancing to a style of splendid naturalism and power; indeed, the figure of the Synagogue on the Bamberg church is more satisfying than the similar figure at Reims.29 The Elizabeth and Mary in the choir are far from replicas of like subjects in France; Elizabeth has the face and form of a togaed Roman senator, and Mary is a woman of physical substance and vigor, such as Germany has always loved.
Almost every German cathedral surviving from this period contains outstanding statuary. The best is in the cathedral of Naumburg (c. 1250). In the west choir is a series of twelve statues portraying local dignitaries with a ruthless realism that suggests that the artists were underpaid; as if in atonement, the portrait of Uta, the margrave’s wife, is a wistful German’s conception of an ideal woman. A frieze on the screen of the choir shows Judas taking money to betray Christ; the figures are crowded together in bold composition, but without damage to their individuality; Judas is represented with some sympathy, and the Pharisees are powerful personalities. This is the masterpiece of German sculpture in the thirteenth century.
In 1248 Conrad of Hochstaden, Archbishop of Cologne, laid the foundation stone of the most famous and least German of German cathedrals. The work progressed slowly in the chaos that followed the death of Frederick II; the cathedral was not consecrated till 1322; much of it dates from the fourteenth century; the elegant spires, complex with crockets and open-work tracery, were built in 1880 from fifteenth-century designs. Modeled on Amiens, Cologne followed French style and methods closely. The lines of the façade are too straight and hard, but the tall, slender pillars of the nave, the brilliant windows, and the fourteen statues on the piers of the choir make an attractive interior, almost miraculously spared by the Second World War.
The cathedral of Strasbourg is more satisfying. There, as at Cologne, proximity to France made a French style seem no more foreign than it would seem in Strasbourg today (1949). The exterior is French grace, the interior is German force. The cathedral is approached through a picturesque congestion of gabled houses. Statues adorn the façade, but are outshone by a rose window of great compass and splendor. The single tower at one corner of the front gives the structure a crippled look. But the combination of dignity and decoration is here perfectly successful; we come to understand Goethe’s description of this façade as “frozen music,” though we should use a warmer phrase. “Brought up as I was,” Goethe wrote, “to looking upon Gothic architecture with contempt, I despised it; but when I went inside I was struck with wonder, and I felt the attraction of its beauty.”30 The stained glass here is very old, perhaps older than any in France. The sculptures of the south transept portal (1230–40) are of rare excellence. The tympanum over the door is a deep relief of the Virgin’s death; the apostles gathered at her bedside are inadequately individualized; but the figure of Christ is well conceived and skillfully carved. Rising alongside this portal are two pre-eminent statues: one representing the Church—a buxom German queen; the other a slim and graceful figure, blindfold but beautiful, symbolizing the Synagogue; remove the bandage, and the Synagogue would win the argument. The French Revolutionary Convention, in 1793, ordered the destruction of the cathedral’s statues to transform it into a “Temple of Reason”; a naturalist known to us merely as Hermann rescued the figures of Church and Synagogue by concealing them in his botanical garden, and saved the tympanum reliefs by covering them with a board bearing a French inscription: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.31