Mod Gothic

French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries

by Jean Bony
University of California Press, 625 pp., $115.00

Jean Bony’s French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries is the most ambitious book on a major aspect of medieval architectural history to appear in the last fifty years. Bony’s vigorous study has none of the dutiful classifications—with a separate discussion for towers, vaults, pillars, capitals, bases, and so on—of the old-fashioned architectural treatise. His view of Gothic architecture is imbued with the twentieth century’s enthusiasm for the modern and its conviction that the avant-garde must make a break with the past. This view revives and transforms the eight-hundred-year-old cathedrals and abbey churches into the spacious structures of a distinctively modern aesthetic experience.

The art we call Gothic was,” according to Bony, “the assertion of a spirit of modernity which went on renewing itself for centuries, almost ceaselessly.” For him the historian’s task is to relive the past “as what it was when it was happening: a sequence of distinct and unforeseeable presents.” This approach yields many surprising insights that help to make this a brilliant book. But Bony also raises questions that may leave the reader of 1984, who has inevitably become something of a skeptic concerning many values of modernity, torn between feelings of the highest admiration and, upon reflection, of uneasiness.

The book grew out of the Charles T. Mathews Lectures delivered more than twenty years ago, in 1961, in New York. The text has been enlarged and brought up to date through the use of at least part of the recent bibliography, but the basic ideas seem to have remained unchanged. As the title indicates, Bony has concentrated on Gothic architecture in France from the end of the reign of Louis VI (1108–1137), exemplified by Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris and above all by Saint-Denis, to 1298, the year after the canonization of Louis IX, when work was begun on Saint-Louis at Poissy, a royal monastic church. The geographical focus is naturally the northern half of France, where Gothic building methods were exploited for the first time. In the course of a hundred years these methods were enlarged and intelligently refined, and they evolved into a sort of “international style” which spread rapidly over Europe in the thirteenth century.

But Bony is far too open-minded and well informed to restrict this evolution to the “Gothic lands” around Paris. On the contrary, he never tires of stressing the part that Flanders and Burgundy, Normandy, and above all England had in the elaboration and the enrichment of the Gothic style. And as much as he admires and praises the big cathedrals—Paris, Chartres, Amiens, and especially Bourges—he again and again goes out of his way to draw the reader’s attention to “divergent trends,” or to a “bypassing” or “peripheral” movement. Little-known monuments such as Juziers or Mussy-sur-Seine take on far-reaching historical significance, and neglected provinces, such as Gothic Normandy, find for the first time their rightful place in the vast and diverse panorama of thirteenth-century architecture.

The book is …

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