Relativizing the Lateness of Late Gothic Architecture: Contrasting Approaches
I’m grateful to Alice and Kyle for organizing this session, since I share their sense that the lateness of Late Gothic deserves reassessment. Because I love Gothic architecture, I have long been frustrated by the way its later history has often been relegated to the margins of art-historical discourse. Today I aim to show how this situation has arisen, discussing various contrasting approaches to this fascinating material. I will address this topic in three steps.
First, I will say a bit about the what and when of Late Gothic architecture, by which I mean its nature and historical context.
Second, I will discuss the long history of judgmental attitudes toward Late Gothic architecture, noting how this history relates to the problem of the so-called “Northern Renaissance”
Finally, I will describe the emergence of more sympathetic approaches to Late Gothic, emphasizing developments in the past decade.
In assessing late Gothic as a category, it makes sense to ask, late compared to what? The history of European architecture has often been seen as moving from Gothic, to late Gothic, to Renaissance, here exemplified by Reims Cathedral, Sankt Lorenz in Nuremberg, and San Lorenzo in Florence, respectively. As many of you may recognize, this model fails to fully capture the enduring vitality of the Late Gothic tradition, which flourished for over a century after the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.
The choir of Sankt Lorenz, for instance, was designed several decades after Filippo Brunelleschi developed the strongly classicizing design of San Lorenzo. Innovative Late Gothic schemes were still being developed in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and the Gothic mode continued to be used in certain contexts even longer than that, before enjoying a revival that reached its zenith in the nineteenth century. It would be misleading, therefore, to suggest that the Late Gothic preceded the Renaissance in the way that a naïve layer-cake model of history might suggest.
It is also difficult to draw sharp distinctions between the phases of the Gothic era itself. The eastern chapels of Prague Cathedral, designed in the 1340s, are usually seen as fairly traditional, but the choir superstructure designed starting a decade later has been seen as marking a decisive step into the Late Gothic mode, in part because it incorporates complex tracery and vault forms that anticipate those seen a century later at Sankt Lorenz. Although such forms are often seen as capricious, Late Gothic buildings typically have a rigorous geometrical logic.
For Prague’s choir, this can be seen in an original drawing that fortunately survives.
There are three sculptures in the drawing: a mask in the triforium, and two gargoyles emerging from the buttresses.
The line between them connects the center and the corner of a large half-octagon that governs the composition. This drawing was created when the Prague workshop was led by Peter Parler, who is often credited with pioneering the Late Gothic manner in Central Europe.
This sculpted bust of Parler occupies a place of honor in the Prague triforium, testifying both to the high status of Gothic architects, and to the existence of realistic figural art in Gothic architectural contexts. The latter point matters in terms of periodization because the emergence of realism has been widely seen as marking the onset of the Northern Renaissance.
This term is often used, for instance, to label the compellingly realistic sculptures produced around 1400 by Claus Sluter and his workshop, like these mourner statues standing in Gothic niches supporting the tomb slab of Burgundian Duke Philip the Bold.
The even more realistic paintings produced a few decades later by Jan van Eyck are also often described as Northern Renaissance, although his architectural context remained emphatically Gothic, as his image of the Virgin Mary in a church reminds us.
By van Eyck’s day, though, Brunelleschi had begun to develop his more classicizing mode in churches such as San Lorenzo. These two modes coexisted for most of the fifteenth century, with classicism remaining mostly confined to Italy throughout this period.
One of the first northern artists to study the Brunelleschian mode was Jean Fouquet, who worked around mid-century. In this bifolio from a book belonging to the courtier Etienne Chevalier, Fouquet tellingly placed classical pilasters behind Chevalier on the left page, while framing the Virgin and Child in a Gothic portal on the right. This arrangement illustrates the association of the classical with the earthly, and of the Gothic with the sacred. In the decades around 1500 rulers across Europe eagerly embraced Renaissance classicism as a visual language of secular authority that evoked the prestige of both imperial and papal Rome. This change in the patronage climate was probably the biggest single factor contributing to the eclipse of the Gothic mode in the sixteenth century. That is not, however, how the story has usually been told.
Giorgio Vasari, who pioneered art-historical writing with his Vite in 1550, unfairly disparaged late medieval architecture as wayward and disorganized, failing to appreciate its geometrical order. He also misleadingly associated late medieval buildings with the barbarian Goths who had sacked Rome a millennium earlier, thereby planting the seeds of the term “Gothic architecture.” Faced with this rhetorical assault, northern European authors basically abandoned medieval architecture, choosing instead to extol the realism of northern figural arts.
One of the first to adopt this strategy was Domenicus Lampsonius, who in 1572 published the Pictorum Effigies, a set of 23 engraved portraits of northern painters accompanied by brief poems lauding their achievements. These artists ranged from Jan van Eyck to his own contemporaries.
Three decades later Karl van Mander built on Lampsonius’s work in his far more expansive Schilderboek, which considers painters from the ancient world and Renaissance Italy as well as from northern Europe. Van Mander based his discussion of the Italians on Vasari’s work, and his discussion of Northern artists reads as a rejoinder to the Vite. However, while Vasari had discussed architects and sculptors, van Mander followed Lampsonius in concentrating on painters and graphic artists. Northern painters could be celebrated as equals of the Italians, and as worthy successors of the ancients, because they had excelled since the days of Jan van Eyck in creating realistic images.
Northern architecture, though, had been dominated well into the sixteenth century by the Gothic tradition, which had become unfashionable by van Mander’s day. In defining an architecture-free canon of great northern art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Van Mander stressed the continuity of northern tradition, while minimizing the revolutionary impact of Italianate classicism after 1500. This framing remains influential even today, despite the many advances in scholarship and interpretation that the intervening centuries have witnessed.
I have no time to trace these developments today, but in broad terms it’s clear that the classical and medieval traditions continued to serve as touchstones for subsequent European culture, as Thomas Cole’s painting here suggests. I distinguish, though, between the innovative thriving of the Gothic tradition in Middle Ages, and the retrospective evocation of that tradition that came later. Despite the Gothic revival movement in the long nineteenth century, moreover, I think it’s fair to say that the classical and Renaissance traditions have typically enjoyed greater prestige and support than medieval revivalism.
In his 1860 book Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, Jacob Burckhardt celebrated the Italian Renaissance as a first step into the modern world. By 1890, Louis Courajod had begun to react against the art-historical part of this thesis, arguing instead that the roots of the Renaissance lay in Flanders and France.
These views gained currency with expositions held in Bruges in 1902 and in Paris in 1904. These exhibits celebrated northern primitives, with that term defined positively to mean pioneering and fundamental to the later history of art. These exhibits thus responded to Burckhardt much as Lampsonius and Van Mander had to Vasari, offering the realism of northern painting as evidence for the vibrancy of a largely autonomous northern visual culture.
Johan Huizinga, by contrast, adopted a critical tone towards northern fifteenth-century culture in general, and to its architecture, in particular. In his 1919 book Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, first published in English as The Waning of the Middle Ages, but more properly translated as The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Huizinga wrote that:
“The flamboyant Gothic is like an endless organ postlude... That horror vacui, which may perhaps be identified as a characteristic of end periods of intellectual development, dominates in this art…The further the departure from purely pictorial art, the more unrestrained the wild overgrowth of formal ornamentation covering content.”
This critical attitude toward Late Gothic virtuosity should be seen against the background of early twentieth-century design trends, in which the spartan modernism seen here in Walter Gropius’s Fagus factory marked a strong rejection of nineteenth-century historicism. The influence of modernism grew even greater after the Second World War.
It is thus not surprising that authors including Erwin Panofsky embraced the idea of the Northern Renaissance, in which the realism of fifteenth-century painting could be framed as marking an early phase in the development of a modern worldview. This interpretation, however, stands in sharp contrast to Huizinga’s view of the period as one of autumnal decline.
Reacting to contradictions such as these, Jan Bialostocki in 1966 published a still-useful survey article entitled “Late Gothic: Disagreements about the concept.” Bialostocki observed four main trends in the treatment of this material:
Late Gothic as Renaissance, Late Gothic as Baroque, Late Gothic as German, and Late Gothic as a thing in itself. Bialostocki rightly saw the last of these as the least problematic, but even in this framework disagreements arise about the boundaries of the category in terms of time, space, and medium.
Just a year after the appearance of Bialostocki’s article, Francois Cali published L’Ordre Flamboyant, which considered the visual culture of the late Middle Ages in a holistic manner strongly influence by Huizinga.
Like Huizinga, Cali described the period as one of darkness and doubt, devoting chapters to themes such as the dance of death, depicted here, and comparing late Gothic buildings to the negatively coded Tower of Babel.
So, while the book’s excellent black-and-white photos nicely capture the virtuosity of late medieval design, Cali’s likening of these complex forms to tears and to the flames of war underscored his dark judgment of the era.
In 1971 Roland Sanfacon presented a far more positive view in his book on French Flamboyant architecture. Unlike Huizinga and Cali, Sanfacon saw the late Middle Ages as a time of increasing liberty. As you can see from the chapter titles at right, he stressed the ideas of individual expression and autonomy, which he saw as compatible with communitarian spirit. In all these respects, Sanfacon saw positive parallels between the late Middle Ages and the late 1960s, when he had been writing his book. As his third and fifth chapter titles indicate, moreover, Sanfacon was interested in regionalism and in revivals of local tradition, which provided alternatives to the constraining legacy of thirteenth-century High Gothic and Rayonnant conventions.
His book’s pages thus abound with photos of quirky details that suggest emancipation from those conventions. Sanfacon here implied parallels between Flamboyant builders and the student revolutionaries of his own day who rejected the values of their square parents. Importantly, too, he contrasted the supposed liberalism of the late Gothic era with the more totalitarian approach to art embraced by Renaissance rulers. He thus concludes his book with these two sentences:
“It was the kings of France who, in order to better display their worth and impose their power, ultimately suppressed an artistic tradition that had promoted participation and exchange between all people. It is not impossible for our contemporaries to rediscover Flamboyant architecture and to discern bit by bit the meaning of its forms.” I’ll return to this provocative thesis at the end of my talk. In the decades following the publication of Sanfacon’s book, though, his ideas had no direct sequels.
One of the few synthetic books on late Gothic to appear in this era was Wim Swaan’s Art and Architecture of the Late Middle Ages, from 1977, which covered the period from 1350 to the advent of the Renaissance. As you can see, Swaan began his book with a chapter on the tenor of the age, which he saw as dark and troubled, as Huizinga had. Unlike Cali, though, Swaan moved beyond this judgmental frame to celebrate late medieval achievements in a more neutral geographically organized survey, as the subsequent chapter headings show.
In each chapter, Swaan’s excellent photos give vivid impressions of the architecture, sculpture, and painting produced in each region. I should note that it was my purchase of Swaan’s book early in college that first introduced me to much of this material, placing me on the path to our session today. In the decades following the publication of Swaan’s book much excellent work was done on Late Gothic architecture, but most of it was monographic or narrowly focused.
The arrival of Matt Kavaler’s book Renaissance Gothic in 2012, therefore, marked the advent of what I see as a vibrant new era in the study of Late Gothic. Kavaler’s chronological scope was narrower than Swaan’s, covering only the period from 1470 to 1540, and his chapters were thematically rather than geographically organized, as you see at right. Kavaler places a strong emphasis on ornament, and many of his chapters thus emphasize the viewer’s perception of complex forms. His final chapter is particularly interesting, because it introduces the ideas of deconstruction and hybridity.
By hybridity, Kavaler means the combination of classicizing and Gothic decorative modes often seen after 1500, as in the pendant vaults of Saint-Pierre in Caen seen at left.
By deconstruction, he means the architect’s deliberate incorporation of fictitious errors into the fabric of the building. At right, for instance, you see the aisle vault ribs at Wimpfen am Berg, which appear to slide past each other, held to the piers only by fictive bolts whose presence has induced the opening of fictive cracks in the stone. Kavaler finds these witty details interesting because they suggest the builder’s self-consciousness both about the nature of Gothic structure and about the uses of representational illusionism. Kavaler is an excellent photographer, as you see, but his book’s greatest value lies in its provocative framing and Pan-European scope.
Pablo de la Riestra’s brand-new book Die Revolte der Gotik provides a beautifully illustrated survey of late Gothic in the Germanic world from 1350 to 1530, thus covering a broader chronological range than Kavaler’s study, but a narrower geographical range. Like Kavaler and Sanfacon, De la Riestra concerns himself mostly with formal developments.
His book is subdivided into 40 short chapters, most dealing with specific motifs such as ogee arches, complex vaults, and gable formats. Some of the longer chapters, though, deal with larger problems such as the relationship between Antiquity, Gothic, Late Gothic, and Renaissance.
As you see here, De la Riestra seeks to show both how Gothic skeletalization left the Roman legacy behind, and how Late Gothic builders further innovated by creating new patterns of space and structure in which the last vestiges of classical detailing were abandoned.
Like Kavaler, De la Riestra considers the deliberate witticisms, disjunctions, and fictive errors that give many late Gothic monuments a mannered flavor very different than the more serene and systematic flavor typical of French High Gothic and Rayonnant buildings.
De la Riestra’s main thesis, in fact, is that German late Gothic designers revolted deliberately against the conventions of French Gothic design. His book thus incorporates many opposing photos like the pair below, contrasting the craggy forms of Beauvais Cathedral, at left, with the smoother and boxier outlines of Sankt Severi in Erfurt, at right. Since De la Riestra prefers the latter mode, he celebrates the emancipation of Late Gothic designers from thirteenth-century convention much as Sanfacon had, while adding a contrast of national traditions unseen in Sanfacon’s work on France. In the past two decades I have enjoyed many conversations with Kavaler and De la Riestra, whose work I greatly admire. None of the books on late Gothic that I have read, however, really addressed the questions that I wanted to answer, so I decided to write my own.
As my subtitle indicates, I sought to understand the evolution, extinction, and reception of Late Gothic architecture. I aimed, in other words, to understand how Late Gothic developed from early Gothic, how it was displaced by Renaissance classicism, and how its story has been told in the five centuries since then.
To tackle these questions, I adopted a chronological approach, going from antiquity to the present day, with most of my energy focused on the period between 1300 and 1600. As you can see from my table of contents, I divided that span into 50-year slices, or in one case a 25-year slice, and within each of those I have created geographically defined sub-chapters. This approach is tedious, as I can attest after writing the whole thing, but it also has significant advantages in terms of juxtaposing simultaneous events that are usually considered separately, thus giving a clearer sense of how the cultural changes in question actually unfolded. Unlike the other books that I’ve discussed today, moreover, mine includes Italian developments alongside transalpine ones.
In my introduction, for instance, I juxtapose Late Gothic buildings from Germany, Spain, and England with San Lorenzo in Florence, which Brunelleschi had designed more than half a century before any of them. Unlike most of my colleagues who have recently written on late Gothic, moreover, I give detailed consideration to developments from before 1350 that helped to set the stage for Late Gothic.
One early section of my book, therefore, discusses the English Decorated style of the early fourteenth century, in which one can already see forms such as flying ribs, cusped ogee arches, and complex network vaults that would figure prominently in the latest phases of Gothic around 1500. As you see, typical pages in my book include only black-and-white images.
Fortunately, I was able to include color images at the back, which may tempt readers into engaging with my massive text, which runs to over a quarter million words. The book got so long in part because I was attempting to trace not only formal developments, but also their political contexts.
Ultimately, I came to believe that Sanfacon was right when he argued that French Gothic had been abandoned because the kings of France adopted Italianate classicism as their visual language of quasi-imperial propaganda. I found that similar dynamics unfolded all over Europe, and that this cultural sea change was responsible for displacing Gothic architecture from its long-standing position of artistic leadership.
Because I agree with Sanfacon’s basic diagnosis, I was pleased to learn last year that a new version of his book is being published, enriched with new illustrations and with extra chapters written by younger scholars to contextualize his contributions. My talk today, in fact, derives largely from the essay that I wrote for this volume. Building on Sanfacon’s final lines, I developed the idea about cultural climate change into a governing metaphor for my book.
I argue that the extinction of the Gothic tradition paralleled the extinction of the dinosaurs. While most scientists once believed that the dinosaurs succumbed to some inherent flaw that made them evolutionary dead ends, it was recognized in 1980 that they had in fact been wiped out by a catastrophic asteroid impact that quickly changed the global climate. Late Gothic architecture, similarly, has often been derided as an artistic dead end, but I argue that the Gothic tradition was developing fine on its own terms before the royal appropriation of Renaissance art and the chaos of the Protestant Reformation conspired to destabilize the foundation of patronage on which large-scale Gothic construction projects had long depended.
My dinosaur metaphor thus stands in stark contrast with Huizinga’s autumnal metaphor. While Huizinga naturalizes the demise of late medieval art the outcome of inevitable cultural senescence, I stress instead the contingency and complexity of historical process. I agree with Huizinga, though, that it makes sense to view fifteenth-century northern art as the product of late medieval culture, rather than as an early manifestation of the Northern Renaissance.
There is, of course, much more to say about these questions, but for the moment I will conclude by saying that I am happy to be part this conversation, and that I am glad to be participating in this session, which further contributes to the recent revival of sympathetic interest in Late Gothic architecture. Thanks for your attention.