Reflecting the increasing stability of the age as well as the growing power and ambition of the Christian Church, the Gothic cathedral was designed as a miniature symbol of God’s universe.
Each element of the building’s design conveyed a theological message: namely, the awesome glory of God. The ordered nature of the structure reflected the clarity and rationality of God’s universe, while the sculptures (reliefs and column statues), stained glass windows and murals illustrated the scriptural messages of the Bible. Craftsmen involved included the greatest sculptors in Europe, but they remained largely anonymous.
This edition of Sacred Sunday is not concerned with buildings or arches, but with sculpture in stone. If the word Gothic has any permanent meaning it must be applicable not only to a cathedral, but to a statue or a relief. But if we isolate an angel from the cathedral of Rheims – from its architectural context – how are we to know whether it is Gothic or not?
How, for instance, does Gothic sculpture differ from earlier Ottonian art (c.900-1050) or Romanesque sculpture? There is no neat answer to such questions. Gothic is a relative, not an absolute term. It is a flavour that can be either hardly detectable, or, in extreme cases, overwhelming. What began to produce the flavour was another outburst of that spirit of visual curiosity which is among the chief motive forces of European art.
Curiosity about the human body produced Greek art; another kind of curiosity was responsible for the Gothic spirit. Greek curiosity was that of a scientist: Gothic curiosity was that of a lover. It was an affectionate curiosity, full of little whimsies and extravagances. Instead of limiting itself to humanity it could range playfully and capriciously across the whole of creation, picking out details, a monstrous form here, a charming turn of the wrist there.
Greece had developed in the direction of greater breadth and simplicity: Gothic developed in the direction of complexity and preciousness, and gaily mingled the grotesque with the elegant. It is this mixture that gives it its true flavour, and, for that reason it can be summed up in no single statue or painting. If Byzantine mosaic is like beer in that one needs a lot of it, Gothic art is like a cocktail in that its separate ingredients do not fairly represent its final flavour. It has all the complexity of life itself.
The west portal of the Chartres Cathedral is called Royal Portal. It has been suggested that the designation “royal” refers to the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. This portal, begun in about 1150, offers an iconographical and technical conception of sculpture that is partially inherited from Romanesque portals.
The theme is a résumé of the Christian doctrine and an illustration to the links between Old and New Testaments: on the jambs are the prophets and the precursors of Christ, and on the tympana, from the left to the right are depicted the Ascension, Christ of the Apocalypse, and the Mystery of the Incarnation. In spirit, the portal is Gothic; tympana and lintels are recessed under the arches, which are decorated with series of statuettes, and each jamb is occupied by a single figure whose core it becomes, to form the famous column-statue.
The picture shows the figures of the left-hand jamb, representing the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.
The picture shows the figures of the right-hand jamb.
The picture shows some of the statuettes: Music (with Pythagoras) and Grammatic (with Donatus).
These are the east jamb figures on central portal of north transept: Melchidezek, Abraham and Isaac, Moses, Samuel and King David.
The figure of Christ Blessing is from the south portal of the Chartres Cathedral. At the beginning of the 13th century there is a relaxation in style of the architectural sculptures. The faces fill out and the features become much more natural and human. In addition, the statues appear rather more as works of art in their own right and less as architectural adjuncts.
Chartres Cathedral was rebuilt after a fire in 1194 destroyed large part of the old cathedral. A completely new kind of building was erected, one whose transept façades have portals that were given as much importance as those on the west front. The oldest of these is the middle doorway on the north façade, the so-called Triumph of Mary Portal, dated 1204-05. The other transept portals are later.
The Visitation Group is on the right north portal.
St Theodore, in the embrasure of the right door of the south transept of the Chartres Cathedral, is stylistically among the later figures at Chartres, probably dating from the last period of the work there – that is about 1230. By then, Gothic art had completed its evolution towards the mastery of three-dimensional form and truth to nature.
Bare-headed and wearing the costume of a 13th-century warrior, the saint is the embodiment of the ideal knight. Gothic statuary had reached perfection. The thin, oval face is still of the great Chartres family, but has a more marked virility, confidence and sobriety than have the faces of the prophets.
The Judgment Portal is on the north transept of the Cathedral. The drapery style is derived from antique sculpture of the fourth century. It is assumed that the original intention was to decorate the whole west façade with sculpture of this style. The east jamb figures shown on the right are St. Andrew and St. Peter.
The most obvious direct imitations of the antique in the 13th century took place at Reims in the years 1211-25. The head of St Peter – shown on the picture from the Last Judgment Portal of the Cathedral – is an example of this, the most famous being the two figures of the Visitation on the west portal.
The figures of the Visitation are the most famous and are located on the exterior of the Cathedral as jamb figures (left side) of the central portal on the west façade. The group consists of Archangel Gabriel with the Annunciate Virgin; Mary and Elizabeth. It is possible that the original intention was to decorate the whole west façade with sculpture of this style.
The detail shows the head of Mary.
The picture shows St Elizabeth from the Visitation Group.
Another view of the figures of Mary and Elisabeth.
This relief (and below) representing the saved souls is on the portal of the northern transept of the Reims Cathedral.
The picture shows apostles wearing togas modeled on Roman drapery from the north transept of Reims Cathedral.
In Gothic art, Synagogue (i.e. Judaism) was conventionally represented as a beautiful woman blindfolded, so that she could not see Christ’s truth, losing her crown and with a broken staff – the end of the Old Covenant.
The figures shown are from the south-west portal. The sculptures represent an austere style as compared with the earlier style of Chartres and Reims.
This figure of Christ treading on the lion and basilisk is popularly known as the “handsome” or “beautiful God” (beau dieu).
In England, the first door with a complete range of French style column figures appeared at St Mary’s Abbey, York. The portal was destroyed and apart from the main figures, like the jamb figure of St John,almost nothing survived. The style of these figures remained an isolated phenomenon in England.
This group is on the tympanum of west portal of south transept. It is the first clear example of first-class sculpture in Germany derived in style from France. The figures are dependent on the style of the best transept sculpture of Chartres Cathedral, with influence in the drapery and the grace of the figures from the intervening sculpture at Reims.
The double portal leading to the south transept of the Strasbourg Cathedral, though Romanesque in style, is decorated with remarkable Gothic reliefs and statues. The large female jamb statues on either side (copies, the originals are in the Cathedral Museum) are allegorical figures.The delicately curved one on the right, blindfolded, symbolizes the Synagoga, while the one on the left a more solemn, forceful figure, represents the Ecclesia, the Church Triumphant. The central figure represents Solomon. The lunettes depict the Coronation and the Death of the Virgin.
The statue representing the Synagogue decorates the south portal of the Cathedral. The original is now in the Cathedral Museum.
The two female figures on the south portal of the Strasbourg Cathedral allegorically represent Christianity and Judaism. In Medieval iconography they were usually shown as engaged in a dispute in which Synagoga, the personification of Judaism, was the inferior and was shown vanquished. Most unusually, however, the figures at SStrasbourg turn toward each other and toward the central figure of the double portal, Solomon. Thus the conflict is reinterpreted and given a conciliatory outcome.
The figure of Ecclesia (below), standing almost stiffly upright, wears a crown. The cross and chalice are replacements, but these attributes seem insignificant compared with the figure’s majestic appearance. She turns to speak her final words to Synagoga, while the latter, already turning toward her opponent, will maintain her attitude of rejection only for a few moments more. She still holds the broken staff and the Tablets of the Law, and turns away, blindfolded, because she has not yet recognized the revelation of Jesus Christ.
These cathedrals are among man’s most extraordinary and moving creations, whether one sees them from afar, rearing themselves proudly above the city that surrounds them and breaking upwards into spires and pinnacles, whether one examines them at close quarters, noting the restless infinity of sculptural detail and fretted texture, or whether one enters them to find oneself in a complex architectural system whose soaring pillars and ribbed vaults arrest the eye so effectively that the walls are hardly noticeable and the effect is rather that of a formalized forest than of an enclosed room.
The anonymity of Gothic art in general and of Gothic sculpture in particular offers an obstacle to the art historian of which he himself is hardly conscious. The three great west doorways of Rheims cathedral alone contain 33 life-size and 200 smaller figures, each of which is the product of a passionately creative mind and a fully developed tradition of craftsmanship. And when one remembers that this amazing collection of medieval sculpture is contained within a comparatively small area of one among a hundred similar buildings, one is amazed at the extraordinary fecundity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in north-western Europe.