The Gothic Period

In the thirteenth century a long-standing contention between the popes and the Germanic emperors ended in the complete downfall for many centuries of imperial territorial power, and the consequence was that even as German kings the emperors also lost their power. The contention between the emperors and popes was one regarding episcopal appointments, which the emperors wished to control on account of the enormous dimensions of the spiritual territories which they themselves had created in order indirectly to keep the territorial power in their own hands. This was constantly tending to slip from their grasp, owing to the hereditary power of the feudal sovereignties. The popes naturally preferred to have the appointment of bishops made for ecclesiastical and not for territorial and political reasons, and to retain the privilege of confirming or rejecting the appointment, which practically gave them a share in making it.

As one result of the success of the popes in this contest, aside from the great increase in their own political significance, we may mention the complete independence of the Italian civic states from the Germanic emperor. Another result was the reduction of the titular king of Germany and titular emperor of Christendom to such a condition of weakness that he was frequently worse off in estates and influence than many of his own supposed vassals.

On the other hand, France now became what Germany had been—the leading state of Europe. Her kings began to consolidate their territories and to master them in fact, as well as in name. In this rise to power they were assisted by an alliance with the Communes (that is, the cities of France), who were in turn protected and assisted by the kings in their own contentions with the feudal nobles.

The crusades had been especially favored and supported by France, and their reacting influence on European history was also most apparent in this country. This influence was partly to further commerce, partly to increase the power of the kings, partly to weaken the influence of the feudal nobles—all results which in one way or another raised the importance of the cities.

Now the first Gothic cathedrals were built in France and within the individual domain of their kings. Their architectural style was a French invention. Its spread throughout Europe signifies French ascendency and influence in the later Middle Ages, as the Romanesque especially signifies Germanic power and greatness in the earlier Middle Ages. As regards England, Germany, and Spain, the Gothic was a borrowed style. As far as it very slightly influenced Italy the same point holds.

In Gothic architecture we have therefore to consider two distinct movements. One was the evolution as accomplished in one spot. The other was the gradual displacement of Romanesque methods in countries exterior to France, where they were supplanted by a style directly introduced and, so to speak, ready made.

As the rise and spread of Gothic cathedral architecture was undoubtedly the most important feature of art history between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries (1200–1500 A.D.), this period is accordingly named ; but most interesting developments in the art of design were made in Italy during these centuries, which were quite independent of it, as was also mainly the Italian architecture, which is notwithstanding, for the given dates, known as the “Italian Gothic.”

The word “Gothic” itself is one of Italian coinage and was used by the Italians of the later Middle Ages to designate all buildings of Northern Europe without reference to any of our own distinctions of period or style. We still speak of the “Goths and Vandals” when we wish to designate barbarism, and the word “Gothic” simply meant to Italian comprehension “Germanic,” in the large sense, or as we should say—”medieval.” Both the Visigoths and Ostrogoths had been invaders of Italy during the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. The word Goth was thus a characteristic designation for the Germans at large, and although France in the later Middle Ages had lost all vestige of her Frankish Germanic origins, the Italians were good enough historians, or bitter enough haters, to remember that all the countries of the western empire had been Germanized and that Italy had suffered most from their invasions because she had the most to lose.

This historic prejudice of the Italian against Germanic and Northern Europe explains the first use of the word “Gothic,” which was subsequently adopted by Northern Europe with the style and taste of the Renaissance during and after the sixteenth century. It was this Renaissance style (revival of the Greco-Roman classic style) which finally then displaced and supplanted the Gothic. This was abandoned more or less rapidly all over Europe and there is, broadly speaking, a gap of three hundred years between the modern copies of Gothic buildings and the old originals, which gap is filled by the Italian Renaissance style.

In Northern Renaissance Europe the word “Gothic” was also applied indiscriminately to medieval buildings of all dates and without reference to the peculiar style which we distinguish by it. The word was also used in the same contemptuous and prejudicial sense. It was not till the nineteenth century that a revived interest in the Middle Ages at large led to a revived interest in the latest, largest, and most numerous cathedrals, and a distinctive name was then required for their style. This was obtained by confining the word already in use to the one period and coining new ones for the earlier styles.

This history of the word is therefore a history of the causes which led to the overthrow of the style, and also of the causes which have recently led to its revival and to the modern study of its ancient monuments.

Although the earliest Gothic buildings are in the French territory surrounding the city of Paris, the choir of the Cathedral of St. Denis, Cathedrals of Noyon, Laon and of Notre Dame in Paris, it is through the fully developed buildings that we can most distinctly explain Gothic traits and we shall select examples for illustration without reference to early date accordingly.

The elementary explanations of the rise of the Gothic style are all connected with the increasing areas and size of the great cathedrals and this increase of dimensions as found, for instance, in France, is related to the growth of the French cities under the political and historical conditions just explained. And what held especially for France at this time in the first instance, held also for Europe in general in its Gothic period. The prosperity of England was never so great, at least since the days of the Roman Empire, as it was from the time of Edward the First on (thirteenth century), and the beginnings of the English Gothic date from the times of John and the Magna Charta (early thirteenth century). The prosperity of the Netherland cities, owing especially to their manufactures of cloth, was something phenomenal in the later Middle Ages. Although the monarchy had been depressed in Germany the free cities had risen in importance. Now came the great days of the Hansa trading league and of the commerce of the Baltic. There have never been in Europe since that time such imposing buildings, such enormous church interiors. St. Peter’s at Rome and St. Paul’s at London are rare exceptions of large interiors for modern (Renaissance) times as compared with the general rule for all the important Gothic cathedrals.

In laying stress on this point of the commercial prosperity of the cities and the consequent demand for large cathedrals, we must of course also take account of conditions which would explain why commercial prosperity in later times has not had an equal influence in the same direction.

One main explanation is that the public spirit of these cities was more active because they were more independent. They were practically independent civic states. The league between them and royalty in France was much more one of joint partnership of opposition to the power of the nobles, than a condescending protectorate on the one hand or a dependent submission on the other. In all countries of the late Middle Ages, excepting Italy, where there was no monarchy, the general rule holds of an alliance between the monarchy and the commercial classes. Contrary to possible supposition, monarchy and aristocracy are by no means synonymous terms or natural allies. In original development they have always been rivals and were avowedly so in Europe down to the eighteenth century. The kings wanted money and it was only the cities which could give it. Standing armies and artillery to crush feudal opposition to the monarchy were thus obtained. Backed by this alliance the public spirit of the cities of that day corresponded to the patriotism of a modern nation, but was a much more active force in art because the relation between art and the people was more direct and more obvious. The cathedral, when it was built, was seen and used by all the citizens who had helped to pay for it. They all took a personal pride in it and all felt a personal rivalry with each other city which was boasting or preparing to boast of its own great structure. Humanity only reaches great results when combined and organized in masses ; but these masses must not be so large that the individual loses his sense of relation to the whole, or that his individual interests are not visibly a part of the whole. In the modern states a national public art corresponding to that of the Greeks or of the Middle Ages has been so far impossible because public art, to be good, must be visible to all the people who pay for it and must represent their personal interests and show forth their personal ambition and personal pride. The modern state is too large as compared with the free city of the Middle Ages to obtain such results in art as were then obtained as far as society has been organized since that time.

All explanations or comprehensions of a great art must start from the conditions which produced it. Therefore, we must first consider the Gothic architecture from this point of view. Its masonry is vital with the life of an epoch and this we must first try to seize. One grand point is that modern states and modern nations did not exist in the Middle Ages. There were corporations, there were cities, there were religious orders, there were feudal estates with their owners (chiefs or “barons”), and warrior supporters, and there were kings but there were no countries and no nations. That is to say, there were no national countries. Each language of modern Europe is the development of a dialect. In the language of a given nation there were then as many dialects as there are now languages in Europe, and these were as incomprehensible to the other districts of the country as a foreign language now is to one who has not learned it. This was one great cause of the power of the clergy, who all spoke one language, viz.: Latin. Now a nation and a country, as we understand the word, must have a common language. This is the first necessary bond between men to be understood. In the absence of a country and of obvious national interests, the corporations, cities, religious orders, and feudal estates were the units of society. National states were being organized by the monarchies, but they did not exist in a developed form until the sixteenth century, when the Gothic cathedral style was abandoned.

An equally important consideration concerns the religious faith of the people and the importance of this faith in their daily lives, and consequently in their art. In the absence of the scientific, historical, poetic, and romantic literature of modern times, the literature of the Bible had an absorbing historical and poetic, as well as purely religious, interest for the Middle Ages. The lessons and the stories of the Bible were taught and told by painting and sculpture in default of printed books. In paintings and sculptures and stained glass, the cathedral was a monument of literature in stone. The interest in church matters is shown by the number of minor churches which were built. There is a beautiful church in Cologne which is said to have been built in the leisure hours of the masons of the cathedral, and the tradition is significant without any relation to its truth. That smaller churches were constantly built in the close neighborhood of the cathedrals in times when there were no denominational sects, is also very significant. This brings us to the uses and public significance of a cathedral.

For the Gothic period the cathedrals were almost as much civic buildings as they were churches, and in the sense that they embodied the pride, the ambition, and the rivalries of the cities, this was eminently the case. But they were also actually used for town meetings, for public festivals, and for theatrical exhibitions-the “Miracle Plays ” and ” Passion Plays,” which have survived in one famous modern instance at Ober-Ammergau. In the Middle Ages the church and the cathedral were always open, like the Catholic churches of our own day. Here the poor man was the equal of the rich. The beggar and his lord met on terms of equality in the liberty of using the building and in the theory of its religious teachings. There were no pews for favored owners. The cathedral was the palace of the poor, and its entire space outside the sanctuary was open to their daily visits and sojourn at will, without disturbance.

The cathedral was the museum of art; a museum made, not to display the ostentation of the rich or the luxury of his life, but to teach by pictures and reliefs the history of the world as then known and comprehended by the traditions of the church, and the lessons of faith and of sacrifice. Here were, moreover, the actual memorials and relics of past ages ; for here was the treasury not only of the art of the present but also of the art of the past. Finally, the cathedral was the sanctuary of the famous and illustrious dead. Their tombs were its decoration and its pride.

This popular significance and these popular uses hold for the cathedrals of all periods, consequently for the Byzantine and Romanesque as well as the Gothic. But the Byzantine cathedrals were more largely the erections of the clergy, the Romanesque cathedrals were largely the erections of the Germanic emperors or of the great religious orders, while the Gothic cathedrals were especially the buildings of the municipalities. The union in these buildings of the arts of stained glass, of fresco ornament and sculptured stone decoration, of panel pictures, of metal work in the altars, shrines, and chandeliers, and of wood carving in the seats of the clergy, is to be constantly kept in mind. The pulpits were also objects of special artistic splendor.

Thus the industrial arts of the Gothic period as a whole are illustrated through these buildings, which are moreover, as monuments of engineering execution, worthy of all admiration. The mathematical, geometrical, and statical science requisite for their construction is our best authority for the high civilization of their time. Their architects were moreover not, like our own, educated apart from the artisans and masons and sculptors who were their servants.

The architect of the cathedral was the master-mason, a fact of supreme importance for the perfection of these buildings, for the understanding of their subtle art, and for the comprehension of the changed conditions in our own time which make it impossible for us to rival them.

It was, in other words, the actual combination of theory and practice in the person of one designer which made their perfection. Our greatest modern architects spend their lives in an office where they employ a number of draughtsmen to prepare their plans. The modern constructor who is employed by the architect belongs to another profession, also living in an office, and, again, distinct from a series of contractors who are employed by him. These again employ the artisans and actual builders. The architect of the Middle Ages was a man of the people and a trained mason who spent his life on the scaffolds of his buildings in actual superintendence of the work. The masons and carvers themselves were persons of experience and standing, banded together in guilds or societies which perpetuated their traditions of method and technical skill. These corporations never died and their art was immortal while it lasted. The ” Masonic” societies of our own time are survivals of these masonic guilds.

I should be far from underrating, among all these considerations, the influence of the church itself and its clergy. The clergy of the Middle Ages were its men of science and of learning, its teachers and masters of foreign languages, its literary workers and students, the guardians, moreover, of the literature of the present and the past. They were the librarians, the diplomats, and the courtiers of the age, skilled in political art and the knowledge of men ; even warfare was not always foreign to their life. Finally and above all they were teachers of religion. At once the guardians of the literature and civilization of Roman antiquity, in the time of the German invasions and early German states, when every convent was a center of instruction in the industrial arts and every priest a mediator between the barbarian and his helpless prey, they had become the revered and honored masters of their age. The wealth of their corporations and their Orders was only equaled by their charity to the poor. While the power of the king and the baron was inherited by birth, the highest honors of the church were open to the son of the humblest serf. Visible and material signs and results of this power of the church the cathedrals undoubtedly were, but the Gothic cathedrals, especially, were undoubtedly built, in the main, by the energy and offerings of the people at large. There are records of the donations by women of their jewels, and by poor people of various modest offerings and small sums of money, which prove this to have been the case.

We have been led into an account of the general causes which contributed to the grandeur of the Gothic cathedrals, by insisting first on the average increase of area and dimensions in important churches, as due to a particular rise in power of the cities of the Middle Ages in which France led the way. We may begin our explanation of the style itself in structural details by showing that the pointed arch, which is one main feature of it, was adopted on account of this increased dimension.