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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 dedicated to the memory of Henri Focillon, with whom Bony studied before World War II. When Focillon taught at the Sorbonne, beginning in the late Twenties, he successfully challenged longstanding doctrinaire traditions of studying medieval art in France. He opened up new horizons beyond the French borders by putting archaeological, documentary, and iconographic problems in second place and concentrating with a deeply modern sensibility on what he called “la vie des formes.” Bony’s dedication of his great study of Gothic architecture to this venerated master is more than a matter of mere decorum. Much of Bony’s subtle analysis of the space and texture of Gothic buildings was evidently stimulated by Focillon’s teaching and method.

Bony’s approach is fundamentally different from such widely influential books as Otto von Simson’s The Gothic Cathedral: The Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (1956). Von Simson had, so to speak, spiritualized the history of architecture. He treated his subject as part of the history of ideas, writing nearly as much about twelfth-century philosophy and the political order around the king of France as about Gothic buildings. For Bony, the evolution of Gothic architecture is an autonomous movement—a sort of architecture for architecture’s sake. He is well aware of the technical conditions that made Gothic buildings possible, and gives some attention to the historical circumstances under which Gothic architecture prospered. But Bony prefers to explain the astonishing rise of Gothic cathedrals—from Saint-Denis to Beauvais and Cologne—as the result of an inner drive, a kind of “Kunstwollen,” an “urge” or “yearning for increased spaciousness.” Such a view seems strangely outworn in a time when the whole concept of “art for art’s sake” is regarded as not only dead but even as morally and socially reprehensible.

But I would argue the contrary: precisely by its old-fashioned approach, Bony’s book has much to teach us. Reading through these four hundred pages, one is again and again astonished to find what a formalist argument, when it is handled subtly, can still achieve for our understanding of the visual aspects of Gothic architecture.

Following a line of thought that goes back to the great architectural historians of the nineteenth century—such as Quicherat, Choisy, and, above all, Viollet-le-Duc—Bony opens his narrative with a discussion of “The Technical Bases of Gothic Architecture.” Such a beginning is welcome because the “spiritualized” view of the Gothic cathedral had dealt with these technical problems—the problems of rib vaulting and the pointed arch, for example—all too casually. Bony is well informed on the most recent research in the techniques of Gothic building, and he presents its results clearly. But none of this is—or could be—very original. He begins to move into new ground when he adds to these traditionally recognized fundamentals of Gothic architecture a further, less conventional criterion, what he calls “the skeleton quality of structures.”

The argument will be familiar to anyone who knows Bony’s earlier studies. He began his scholarly career in the Thirties with extremely thorough descriptions of the wall structures of Romanesque churches in Normandy: the “mur mince,” the “mur épais,” and above all the “mur évidé.” He returns to his earlier findings, with slight variations, in order to demonstrate that “various types of structural openness” in Romanesque monuments had prepared the ground for the Gothic skeleton. The open triforia (or elevated galleries of arches) of Saint-Etienne at Caen—William the Conqueror’s church—and the loggia treatment of the clerestory in the nave of the same building are particularly telling examples. Throughout Bony’s modern—or modernist—examination of Gothic architecture, the fascination with open space and structural openness remains a leitmotif.

Bony is well aware, however, that the “thick” walls of Norman churches on the Continent and in England, as open as their structures might be, were fundamentally different from the “thin” skeleton in the first truly Gothic buildings. So he turns to an examination of what he calls “The Ile-de-France Milieu” in which the Gothic style was formed. In a brilliant analysis, he demonstrates that it was the inherent conflict between a regional tradition of thin masonry and the newly imported rib vaulting that created in the Ile-de-France, and only there, the need to invent a new technical structure for projecting rib vaults from thin walls. The solution—Bony calls it “a sharp response to a self-made challenge”—consisted in thinning out the vaults and in reinforcing or buttressing the thin walls at the critical points. This is what was done during the 1130s in buildings such as Sainte-Etienne at Beauvais, Notre-Dame at Etampes, and Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre in Paris. In the course of this “response,” the basic structural principles for all Gothic architecture far into the thirteenth century were established.

Bony’s ingenious demonstration seems thoroughly pragmatic. It is also lucid, and it undertakes to follow history as it seems really to have happened. So Bony can dismiss with an ironic comment some of the myths that have surrounded the origins of Gothic:

Racial explanations are of no avail here (they have often been discreetly hinted at, in self-flattery): the Frenchmen of the Ile-de-France were not, by virtue of birth, more logical or clear-minded than their neighbors.

Bony would be the last to pretend to originality. In a certain sense he has only worked out in detail and supported by historical argument an opinion held more than a hundred years ago by the liveliest mind that ever thought about French Gothic architecture, that of Viollet-le-Duc. When Bony claims that the architecture of the early thirteenth century displays the “ultimate results” of an initial impulse toward “an extreme of material thinness,” he adds that “Viollet-le-Duc was probably right in his general conception of Gothic as an art of visionary engineering.” Viollet-le-Duc had praised Gothic architecture as a sort of anticipation of the iron constructions of his own age. He saw the cathedrals of the thirteenth century as monuments to the progressive ideal. That this was the opinion of an enlightened bourgeois of the mid-nineteenth century, and that it was accompanied by many factual errors, is self-evident. But the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc, which were anathema thirty years ago, during the vogue for the “spiritualized” cathedral, emerge with refreshed vitality in Bony’s discussion.

The rehabilitation of Viollet-le-Duc is by no means a central issue for Bony. His discussion of technical problems is only a prelude. When he turns his attention to his main subject, “Gothic Spaciousness,” his argument sounds like a manifesto: “In nearly all great ages of architecture the final aim has been one of spatial magnificence: the creation of some new style of spaciousness.” The first part of the book presents a rich perspective on Gothic architecture in the twelfth century before the rise of the big cathedral-skyscrapers such as Chartres or Bourges in the 1190s. One can hardly praise this section of the book too highly. Bony’s vast knowledge of buildings not only in northern France but also in Flanders and England, and his particular gift for recognizing how central architectural problems arise even in secondary buildings, allow him to show that the development of early Gothic architecture was a surprisingly diverse phenomenon. He is not fond of comfortable evolutionary explanations. While stressing the importance of the choir at Saint-Denis, he also points to the major position the cathedral at Sens held among the earliest Gothic buildings. He does full justice to the early importance of Paris, yet he also shows—and for the first time in such clear terms—that the extreme north of France, with its cathedrals at Arras, Cambrai, or Valenciennes, was of no minor importance for the elaboration of the Early Gothic style.

Bony’s text focuses on central structural problems: “the basic pattern of bays,” “detached shafting,” “the double wall system,” “the four-story grid.” He avoids pedantry while choosing appropriate examples for his always lucid analysis. This is a very intelligent book on a very intelligent kind of architecture, and it is often a sheer pleasure to read. Of the exterior of the choir at Mantes, for example, he writes that its

broken roofline was deliberately masked by an austere screen of wall, in a manifest declaration of aesthetic choice. Here at Mantes is something as pure and abstract as a Le Corbusier of the 1920s, and yet Gothic in that Parisian Gothic style of the late twelfth century which has such a paradoxical flavor of intellectual absolutism.

Bony likes to organize his analysis around contrasting Early Gothic examples, emphasizing for instance the difference between the Parisian and the northern cathedrals. When he proceeds to the so-called High Gothic cathedrals after 1195, he contrasts Bourges and Chartres. He is at his best when he dwells on the “vision of global unity” that he claims is the hallmark of the grandiose interior of Bourges. He seeks an explanation for the “sense of wonder” evoked by “the world of Bourges,” and finds it in the “awareness of a vastness of space simultaneously in height and width.” Bony’s customary lucidity of analysis suddenly yields in these pages to enthusiastic expressions of awe, for example at “a magnificent vision of spatial splendor.” That Gothic architecture could produce this kind of inspired reaction has been, since the days of the English pre-Romantics, its great appeal to any form of modern irrationalism. When Bony refers to “visionary engineering,” he makes it clear that he has carefully chosen this ambiguous formula to express his deeper sense of Gothic architecture.

With Chartres, the pendulum swings to the opposite side. Chartres for Bony is a “statement”—it is for him “the very source of…’functional’ architecture”; he writes that “power is the key word at Chartres: power in constructional engineering.” He finds that Chartres, “altogether simpler [than Bourges] in its effects,” offered, with its “elementary contrast[s],” a “much more radical solution to the problems of the day.” Bony has always been drawn to the idea of an opposition between the “revolutionary style” that emerged from Chartres and the refusal of other Gothic builders to adopt “the newest forms of Gothic” that were created there. Twenty-five years ago he dramatized this contrast by speaking of a “resistance to Chartres.” His observations here are admirably rich and subtle, and no doubt his sense of polarization helped to evoke them. And yet there is something strangely disturbing in Bony’s argument. Is it not, one may ask, an all-too-“modern”—indeed, an already outmoded—idea of the conflict between “avant-garde” and “tradition” that has inspired this division of Gothic churches into a few that are praised as “revolutionary,” and many, many others that are said to stand for a “refusal of the newest forms”?

Bony’s story stops on the threshold of Late Gothic, around 1300. He has a long and often brilliant discussion of the “Rayonnant style,” taking up ideas developed two decades ago by the late Robert Branner in his excellent book, St. Louis and the Court Style in Gothic Architecture. Bony calls attention to the “spiderwork texture” of the Rayonnant style, its “incisive analytical elegance,” and its “apparent fragility and brittleness.” But, consistent with his previous argument, he concludes that the “new style was still above all a renewed version of the thin stone architecture of the Paris of the later twelfth century.” Bony’s remarks on the choir of Amiens are excellent, and the Gothic aspects of the cathedral at Tournai have never received such penetrating analysis. He concludes his book with a discussion of late-thirteenth-century architecture throughout Europe, in which the “diffusion of the Rayonnant” was of central importance. In the final pages, he returns to the favorite topic of the whole book: the perception of space. He hails the “unity of space” in the church of the Jacobins at Toulouse, the “spatial clarity” in the nave of the cathedral of Minden in Westphalia, and, finally, the “overwhelming spatial presence” in Arnolfo di Cambio’s Santa Croce in Florence. These remarks are sensitive, but the account of the architecture of the last decades of the thirteenth century remains somewhat unfocused and haphazard. Evidently the author was more at home among the buildings of the twelfth and the early thirteenth centuries.

As a purely visual approach to Gothic architecture, Bony’s book cannot be praised highly enough. But the self-confident absolutism of this formalist analysis may leave the reader of 1984 somewhat bewildered. We are asked to share the impression, for example, that the axial chapel of Saint-Martin-des-Champs at Paris has a width “as if the choir was bursting open in the middle under the pressure of the expanding space of the building.” In a similar vein, the chapels of the ambulatory at Chartres open “as though the interior space, in an effort to expand ever outward, had managed to break through the restraining cage of the buttresses at three points.”

Reading such statements, we begin to wonder how an account of ecclesiastical buildings that is so completely detached from any consideration of their original function can still remain meaningful. Do such melodramatic impressions really correspond to the structure of buildings that are both extremely complex and highly conditioned by local history, liturgical demands, special cults, and so on? The twentieth-century beholder, the contemporary of Le Corbusier and Giedion, may well be haunted by this disquieting dynamism of space. But these basilicas were not originally open spaces; they were filled with the ecclesiastical furniture—tombs, tapestries, etc.—that accompanied a rich liturgical life. Even today Burgos, Toledo, Westminster Abbey, or Cologne give an impression of this earlier state of things. When Bony complains that in the choir of the cathedral at Chartres “it is rather difficult now to be…conscious of that width and of that continuity of space from right to left because of the early sixteenth-century choir screen…, which manages to destroy the interior unity,” this suggests an estrangement of the art-historian from actual history. Should the canons have broken down their choir stalls so that the art-historian could perceive the spaciousness of the architecture?

This modernist approach has other disturbing consequences. French Gothic architecture is characterized by an extreme refinement of moldings, and by surprising innovations in the shape of capitals. Certainly it was tiresome to listen to the traditional archaeologist, who often saw nothing but these moldings and did nothing more than classify them as if he were a botanist. But Bony’s Gothic buildings are mere shells to enclose space, and their texture, when at its best, is smooth and linear. It is as if the long shadow of modern architecture, the modern scorn of ornamentation, had simply erased all eloquent detail.

Only by choosing a point of view, however, can one revivify any period of past architecture, and Jean Bony’s single-minded approach has provoked an astonishing number of insights. His modernist perspective stands out sharply at a moment when art historians have adopted, for good or ill, a “postmodernist” sensibility. It would be wrong to conclude that this is simply a splendid book which appears at the wrong moment: amid our dreary discussions concerning the conditions and the social meanings of architecture, Bony reminds us what a fine tool the subtle visual analysis of buildings can be, when carried out by a master.

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