Art – The Middle Ages

ONE of the forces ready to be utilized in an awakening world was the monastic orders, among them the Clunisian; the powerful monastery of Cluny in France was independent of either secular or episcopal power and acknowledged no authority save that of the Pope; Clunisian monks took numerous journeys to all the countries of Europe and established many branches of the order. At Cluny, as a consequence of the constant intercourse kept up between this as a centre and its offshoots in Italy and elsewhere, a strong school of architects, sculptors, and painters was formed. Schools were organized in which both the monks of the order and the laity were instructed. The Cluniacs had established their monasteries in many cases upon the ruins or in the remains of old Roman buildings, and the architecture of these had naturally the strongest influence upon the increasing passion for building. Churches began to rise, exhibiting new arrangements and modulations of the old forms of architecture, suited to the needs of the time. There is a remarkable unity in the style of all the buildings erected everywhere during this period, which only received such modifications as materials at hand or some difference in local taste might dictate. Thus, this style, the Romanesque or Monastic, is rather inclined to refinement and delicacy in Southern France, and in Normandy is bold and sturdy, expressive in each case of the nature of the people. As remarked above, for the first time Christian mankind was united in a common bond of spiritual sympathy, for all the peoples of Europe were enlisted under the banner of the Cross, and this contributed to the spread and unity of the new style. In the south of France we find the influence of Byzantium in the ornament. In the North, ornament is more abstract, less related to or dependent upon vegetable forms, and we find zigzag lines and various arbitrary treatments of the stone-work to give light and shadow. In all districts grotesques of animals and the human figure were used extensively. Little by little the Abbey of Cluny became more and more refined and luxurious and the work of the order began to reflect this elegance; workmanship had arrived at a high pitch of excellence; more and more daring experiments in construction were tried and the time was ready for the next stage.

The Clunisians were by no means the only monkish order. There were the Cistercians, whose headquarters were in Burgundy at Citeaux; the Benedictines, founded in Southern Italy in the sixth century by Saint Benedict, who ordered that all branches of art should be taught by the order; the Augustinian, very like the Benedictine; the Carthusian order, whose chief seat was the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble in France; the Dominican and Franciscan orders, preaching friars; and many others. The whole period of art from the seventh and eighth centuries to the twelfth has been aptly called Monastic as well as Romanesque; the term very accurately indicates its immediate human origin as Romanesque does its material, less direct, derivation.

The increase of luxury and license in some of the orders had brought discredit upon all, as monastic life with all its negation of the inherent nobility, courage, and independence of the human soul was doing everywhere. And in spite of the fact that the Papal power and that of the bishops and princes of the Church had been steadily increasing and were to rise to their zenith in the thirteenth century, the laity began to feel their own strength and a sense of their dignity as men, to throw off monastic fetters and refuse to look at life through glasses colored by clerical thought. And the Lay or Gothic Spirit arose. And as its visible sign the style that reigned supreme in Europe during three centuries and influenced the work of two more, the Gothic or Medival, the architecture of the Communes, came into being.

The countries and nations of Western Europe, England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, were beginning to define themselves.

Broadly speaking, the Gothic style developed in France in the twelfth century, reached its perfection in the thirteenth, and began to decline thereafter. We find at the close of the twelfth century a style transitional between Romanesque and Gothic in which both the round and the pointed arch occur; the Primary period in the thirteenth century; the Secondary in the fourteenth; and the Tertiary in the fifteenth, known as the Flamboyant from the flamelike lines of the window tracery. Between each of these periods in their full development are transitions shading off into each. In England, the period from the end of the twelfth to the end of the thirteenth centuries is designated as Early English and Advanced Early English; during the fourteenth, Early and Late Decorated ; and, from the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth when England began to feel the belated influence of the Renaissance, Early and Advanced Perpendicular and Tudor.

In the first period of French Gothic the ornament is rather naturalistic, in the second almost entirely so, and in the third it begins to stiffen into conventionalized types of, nevertheless, luxuriant growth. In every period figure sculpture is freely and finely employed in statues of saints, figures of animals, and grotesques. The ornamental forms are usually copied or conventionalized from the flora of the district in which each building is erected. In English Gothic the ornament varies with the period much more strongly; in Early English the foliage is so highly conventionalized that it is difficult to say from what it is derived; in the Decorated period it tends toward naturalism and we recognize the ivy, the grape, and oak; in the Perpendicular it becomes conventionalized again and all the architectural lines begin to stiffen as though they felt the impending changes of the Renaissance. It is curious to compare the third period of French Gothic, so full of fire and freedom, with the English third period, so rigid and restrained.

Gothic art never flourished in Italy as it did in the North; classical tradition was too strong to permit the new style more than a superficial modification of structure. It was never liked by the Italians, who failed to understand it as a fundamental constructive system and inclined strongly to adhere to their native, Roman, principles. In the Netherlands the style was affected by both French and German influences, and in Spain it is impure although interesting from the luxury of its forms, and has certain analogies with the Gothic of the Netherlands due no doubt to the conquest of the Low Countries by Spain.

Gothic architecture is above all a constructive system. The mere application of characteristic details of decorative carving or of window tracery to a structure does not proclaim it Gothic in principle. The fundamental principle of Gothic construction is that of counter-balancing a thrust by a thrust. Thrust is the force or push exerted by the weight of any mass upon some other mass. In an arch each of the wedge-shaped arch stones, voussoirs as they are called, presses against its fellow and transmits its own weight and part of whatever weight the arch as a whole is carrying. This pressure, push, thrust, is therefore carried down from stone to stone to the wall or pier which supports the arch. In Roman work these forces were absorbed in great masses of masonry, and the Monastic, Romanesque architecture followed in the same path until the master builders gradually learned to perforate these great thick walls with arches, and became so well acquainted, empirically at least, with the lines these thrusts follow, that they were able eventually in the full Gothic period to do away with walls altogether as a structural system, and to build merely a series of isolated piers to support the arches and the weights of vault and roof and the light screen-walls needed to enclose the building. Hence the splendid windows occupying the whole space from pier to pier of a Gothic cathedral and the added wonder of their glass. The thrust of an arch or vault was met by the thrust of another arch or vault so that one just neutralized the other; the architects became more and more daring, the vaults soared ever higher, the supports became ever more slender until at last, as at Beauvais, the limit was reached and the fabric collapsed.

This structural principle suddenly flowered in the Ile de France, the district which included Paris, Rheims, Amiens, and Beauvais, and some of the adjacent provinces, into the most glorious structures the genius of man has ever raised. It was a spontaneous and natural outcome of the new-won freedom, of the mind from the monks, and of the body from the feudal oppressions of the noblesse; and it was the Communes who gave their money, their hearts, and their brawn, to the erection of these great flowers in stone quivering up-ward to God. The period of burgeoning coincides with the growth of the French Kingdom, gradually consolidating the many counties and dukedoms of that time into the France we know. The Communes were friendly to the King, and worked upon their churches under the leadership of their bishops as though enlisted in a new Crusade. The glories of the cathedrals of Notre Dame de Paris, of Rheims, of Amiens, Laon, Chartres, and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, in wrought stone, in sculpture, in stained and painted glass, in hangings of tapestry, in embroideries, goldsmiths’ work, were like ecstatic prayers. And then, the first impulse exhausted, we find many of the northern communities lavishing their efforts and their treasure upon their secular buildings, a natural manifestation of the growing wealth and power of the burghers and of an awakening civic consciousness; and such structures as the Palais de Justice at Rouen arose, together with many private houses in stone, in brick and stone, and in half-timber.

Superficially no two styles would seem more dissimilar than the Gothic and the Greek; as systems of construction this is true; but in matters of detail they are based upon precisely the same principle, the basic principle of all plastic art: the use, control, and direction of the play of light. The profiles of Greek and Gothic mouldings are wonderfully similar and define the outlines of surfaces on which the play of direct and reflected light is modulated in precisely the same way, through a profound knowledge and thoughtful application of the same principle. Not until Bramante’s work, at the very height of the Renaissance, do we encounter it again.

To some minds the Gothic period in art means the spiritual aspirations of man expressed through buildings dedicated to the service of God, the impulse wholly religious. It may be suggested, however, that spiritually the Western World was under the rule of the Church, that is to say of the priest-hood, and that while the laity labored with and for it, they frequently did so with reservations, if not with the tongue in the cheek—a state of mind indicated by the many ribald and scurrilous jokes upon the clergy and monks carved in wood and stone in the cathedrals and churches of the Middle Ages. Others look upon it as the early stage in the emancipation of the human reason from priestly control, as a visible sign of the mental as well as the spiritual unrest of the times, finding in these vast fabrics an outlet for unformulated aspirations toward the freedom of the soul, the dignity of man as man. There is a view suggested by Guizot that in the very earliest days of Christianity the Christian congregations were essentially democratic, electing their clergy and bishops; that this freedom they speedily lost and for centuries the invincible spirit of liberty in man, his passionate craving for self-government, his predisposition to think for himself, were in dumb and desperate conflict with a theocratic oligarchy, a despotic Church which demanded that her children should surrender to her and her clergy their very right to independent thought, and that after the eleventh century these aspirations toward personal liberty could no longer be suppressed. The student should read the whole history of the period and choose his own interpretation.

The buildings were rich with sculpture of great vitality and character, but of sculpture independent of architecture there was little save the mortuary portrait figures on the tombs of the great. Of painting there was little, of color there was a great deal—in other words, of the art of representation, aside from very conventional figures of Divine Personages, there was little, but of the decorative coloration of statues and of the walls, piers, and vaults of buildings there was much, and all the new-found glory of stained and painted glass. The textile arts had flourished all through the Dark Ages, for people must be clothed; and in this art, in that of enamelling, and in rude works in gold and silver, as well as in mosaics of glass and colored marbles of Byzantine workmanship, we are able to trace more clearly even than in architecture the reactions of people upon people, of art upon art.