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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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4. The Apotheosis of Gothic. The nineteenth cen-
tury was to see a complete reassessment of the qualities
of Gothic architecture, for building now became the
central concern of those who admired Gothic. For
some enthusiasts a startling reversal of values occurred,
and medieval architecture, at least in its culminating
phases, was seen to tower immeasurably over the aes-
thetic muddle of Renaissance work. In the atmosphere
of widespread disillusionment with the Enlightenment
tradition and the complementary fascination with me-
dieval civilization engendered by the romantic move-
ment, Gothic architecture came to be regarded as a
quintessential embodiment of true spiritual values—
and specifically as the vehicle of the highest aspirations
of the Christian religion. At the same time more atten-
tion was paid to the historical variations of medieval
building. Gothic was clearly differentiated from the
preceding Romanesque period, and its various phases
clarified. The enthusiasm for Gothic architecture par-
alleled the glorifying of pre-Renaissance painting—
the so-called taste for the primitives—which was espe-
cially promoted by English and German collectors,
artists, and critics. This interest led to a great revival
movement championed initially by the group of
German brethren known as the Nazarenes (founded in
1809 as the Lukas-Brüder, or Guild of Saint Luke) who
in Vienna and later in Rome tried to recapture the
devotional purity and innocence of late medieval
painting. The Nazarenes were followed at a distance
by analogous movements elsewhere, notably the Italian
purismo and the English Pre-Raphaelite group.

The trend toward a revaluation of the architecture
and painting of the Gothic era was furthered by a
powerful impulse toward a return to traditional
Christianity in the early nineteenth century. In fact,
many of the key figures in this movement either were
or became Roman Catholics. Enthusiasm for medieval
antiquities was undeniably broadly diffused among the
romantics; in 1832 Heinrich Heine went so far as to
claim that romanticism was “nothing but the re-
awakening of the poetry of the Middle Ages, as it
manifested itself in songs, sculptures and architecture,
in art and life (V, 217). In some respects this enthusiasm
for the Middle Ages and for Gothic architecture in
particular was a matter of fashion: thus Parisian letters
of 1834 record as superlatives current in the salons—
alongside such curiosities as pyramidale, babylonien,
and apocalyptique—the epithets gothique, ogival, and
flamboyant. Yet in the long run the contribution of
this enthusiasm, vague and unfocussed as it sometimes
was, to the understanding of medieval architecture and
the culture that produced it was enormous.

It is an ironic fact that a key role in the rehabilitation
of the concept of the Gothic was played by a figure
who later turned his back on the style and in fact on
romanticism as a whole. Goethe's Von deutscher
(1772), written in a highly rhapsodic style,
records the impact of Strasbourg Cathedral (or more
precisely the structure's west façade) during Goethe's
stay in the city. Despite the obscure circumstances of
its publication, this pamphlet came to be cherished by
all the principal German eulogists of Gothic during
the romantic era as a manifesto of prime significance.
Goethe likens the cathedral to a “tree of God,” its
marvelous wholeness accruing from the harmonious
interaction of countless tiny details. The German poet's
emphasis on the organic and living quality of the
building was to evoke a powerful response among his
younger contemporaries. At the same time, in his ex-
plicit polemic against the Abbé Laugier, whom Goethe
unfairly pilloried as a typical representative of narrow
French taste, he links his admiration for the cathedral
with the burgeoning German effort to escape from
French tutelage by rediscovering what would appear
to be one of the great landmarks of the national past
(actually Strasbourg Cathedral displays strong French

Moreover, Goethe, in exalting the creative genius
of the cathedral's architect Erwin von Steinbach, ig-
nored the building's character as a product of medieval
Christian ethos—quite apart from its national and
personal affiliations. This broader aspect of Gothic
architecture was, however, singled out a little later by


the novelist Wilhelm Heinse whose diary of 1780 de-
scribes Milan Cathedral as “the most glorious symbol
of the Christian religion that I have seen.” The Chris-
tian and mystical character of Gothic architecture was
strongly emphasized by the romantic critic and theorist
Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel, who is also responsible
for diffusing the concept of Gothic architecture as the
tangible expression of the Infinite, a view which had
been adumbrated by the Englishman John Milner in
1800. The German enthusiasm for Gothic architecture,
tinged as it was by national and Christian accents,
culminated in the decision to complete Cologne Ca-
thedral according to the thirteenth-century plans

It was the English, however, with their greater eco-
nomic resources, who took the lead in the actual con-
struction of Gothic revival buildings. Neo-Gothic
structures erected in the first three decades of the
nineteenth century varied considerably as to archaeo-
logical accuracy. Yet the gradual diffusion of illustrated
handbooks assembled by such men as John Carter, John
Britton, and Thomas Rickman permitted the architects
to achieve a higher standard, while at the same time
helping to educate public taste.

The Gothic revival movement found an eloquent
champion in Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, like
Friedrich Schlegel a convert to Roman Catholicism.
Apart from his emphasis on the essentially Christian
character of Gothic building, Pugin is important for
his early formulation of what was later to become the
functionalist credo in architecture. At the beginning
of The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architec-
(London, 1843), he laid down two guiding rules:
(1) “That there should be no features about a building
which are not necessary for convenience, construction
or propriety,” and (2) “that all ornament should consist
of enrichment of the essential construction of a build-
ing.” In addition, Pugin linked the understanding of
Gothic architecture with the older idea that architec-
ture was the direct outgrowth of a society; in the effort
to return to Gothic standards no mere mechanical
copying of Gothic forms could suffice, for what was
needed was to recapture the spirit of medieval civili-
zation in its entirety.

Pugin was an eloquent spokesman for two important
doctrines, functionalism and the ethical evaluation of
architecture, both founded on his personal view of the
strengths of the Gothic style. The functionalist credo,
transmitted by William Morris and the English Arts
and Crafts Movement, was to come to fruition in the
German Bauhaus and related and widespread twentieth-
century trends. The ethical approach to architecture
had a shorter efflorescence, mainly in the middle years
of the nineteenth century when it was championed by
a host of writers associated with the Cambridge
Camden Society. Echoes of this approach, and even
dogmatic reformulations of it, are nonetheless occa-
sionally found in later writers such as Ezra Pound; cf.
his well-known usury Canto of 1937 (Canto XLV). The
veritable Lucifer of the ethical approach, however, is
John Ruskin, who despite his often strident advocacy
of the merits of Gothic, weakened the force of the
revival by various equivocations, among which was his
glorification of the bastard Venetian Gothic, an alien
model which undercut the claim of Gothic to eminence
as the characteristically northern (and consequently
English) style.

Despite these critical confusions, an enormous
amount of building was done in the revived Gothic
style, and the success of such nineteenth-century
English Gothicists as the prolific Sir George Gilbert
Scott, the sensitive George Edmund Street, and the
forceful William Butterfield greatly assisted the
emergence of analogous movements on the European
Continent and in North America. In the United States,
alongside much work that was imitative of the English
and European examples, there developed an indigenous
type of skyscraper Gothic, as exemplified by Cass
Gilbert's Woolworth Building (1913) in New York.
Perhaps the most creative figure to develop from the
matrix of the Gothic revival was the Catalan architect
Antonio Gaudì, for whom Gothic forms served as the
starting point for bizarre and personal experiments.
Moreover, beginning in the late nineteenth century the
effects of faceting and fragmentation suggested by
Gothic buildings attracted progressive painters in
search of new principles of visual organization. Claude
Monet's series on Rouen Cathedral was succeeded by
cubist and expressionist interpretations of Gothic
structures, such as those of Robert Delaunay, Lyonel
Feininger, and Chaim Soutine. The impress of Gothic
forms is also evident in the sets of German expressionist
films, notably Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Dr.
(1919). Incidentally, in Germany in the trou-
bled times after World War I the Gothic cathedral
might serve as a symbol of social reconciliation, as in
Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1925), where the repre-
sentatives of capital and labor join at the end before
a huge Gothic cathedral façade.

Paralleling the various efforts to make creative use
of Gothic forms, however, were serious efforts to gain
a better understanding of the principles, sources, and
course of development of the style. Those following
this approach, which Paul Frankl (1960) terms “the
scholarly trend,” could draw on a considerable body
of antiquarian research, especially that accumulated
in England from the mid-seventeenth century onwards.
Jean-François Félibien des Avaux (1658-1733) had


been exceptional in France (and elsewhere in Europe)
in giving a clear statement of the difference between
the light and elegant mode of building we now know
as Gothic and the more massive work that had pre-
ceded it (Recueil historique de la vie et des ouvrages
des plus célèbres architectes,
Paris, 1687). This neces-
sary distinction was at best fitfully observed in the
following century, and one of the urgent tasks con-
fronting nineteenth-century scholars was still to sepa-
rate clearly Gothic architecture from the preceding
style, which was baptized Romanesque (a term ap-
parently invented independently about 1819 by
William Gunn and Charles de Gerville). The true prin-
ciples of the Gothic structural system were first eluci-
dated by the German scholar Johannes Wetter, in a
guide to Mainz Cathedral (1835). A little later his
fellow countryman, Franz Mertens, conclusively dem-
onstrated that the style had first appeared in France,
at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, and not in Germany or
England, as writers in these countries had chauvinis-
tically assumed. In France the greatest theorist and
historian of Gothic architecture was the brilliant and
industrious Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who,
benefitting from the labors of such archaeologists as
Arcisse de Caumont and Alexandre de Laborde,
worked out a prodigiously detailed account of the style,
embodied in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture
française du XIe au XVIe siècle
(Paris, 1854-68), and
Entretiens sur l'architecture (Paris, 1863-72), that re-
mains unsurpassed. Viollet-le-Duc regarded Gothic
architecture primarily as a system of equilibrium, and
emphasized the rationality and economy of its proce-
dures. His theories exercised a strong influence on
nineteenth-century building in iron and steel, as seen,
for example, in Gustave Eiffel's famous tower in Paris
and in the work of Baron Victor Horta in Brussels.
Viollet-le-Duc's rational approach to the interpretation
of medieval buildings was, however, to receive severe
criticism from Pol Abraham in Viollet-le-Duc et le
rationalisme médiéval
(Paris, 1934). Abraham con-
sidered the earlier scholar's method to be fantastic, a
mécanique romancée. More specifically, Abraham de-
nied the functional value of the rib; this debate, which
involved many scholars in the interwar period, has not
yet been conclusively resolved.