|The Early Gothic 4-part elevation and 6-partite vaults|
of Notre Dame de Paris
Speaking of those Cathedrals
Last week in this my second blog, Opera Nobilia, I mentioned the reference to Biblical numbers in the design of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. One might recall, too, the importance of perfectly measured predetermined relationships in the design of Buddha statues and paintings, like the perfect circle, too, of Mary’s head in Christian icons. As the Classical Greeks had studied nature, and not least the human body, to discover what was ideal (and, reading Vitruvius, the Renaissance in Leonardo’s Vitruvian man and in Palladian proportions followed them), the classics of the 13th century looked rather to the Bible for perfect numbers (not that it is at all clear that its authors chose them for proportions). It was Abbot Suger, who had been reading the 6th-century Syrian pseudo-Dionysios for his mysticism of light, who reinterpreted that and numerology in creating the Gothic style, but it was the builders, the engineers and the ilk of Villard de Honnecourt, who realized Suger’s ideas: made the cathedrals stand and made them lovely. In the century when poets in springtime first looked at real flowers again (instead of working from antique floweriness), Amiens has all the way around its interior a lovely, natural garland of flowers, not just motifs. When sculptors had, quite obviously, been looking at the drapery of Greco-Roman statuary, we see again cloth that hangs softly and enhances a body implied within it. And (shame on NOVA), when builders had for a couple of generations been aware of double-centered arches in the mosques of southern Spain—and don’t forget the crusades—they took up the challenge and created Gothic vaulting. The foregoing merely attempts to draw attention to some of the best studies of the 20th century, by alluding to them; it is no substitute for reading the works themselves. One mid-century study, wordy as it is, contributed a key concept: Du Miracle grec au miracle Chrétien, by Wm. Deonna, though it is not so famous as the works of Wittkower, Panofsky, E. R. Curtius, Katzenellenbogen, et al. It is the 13th century in Europe that rediscovered and revered the way things really look, and based figural arts on close observation of living things, leaving only further development to the Renaissance. Almost all other art had relied very much on schemata. Working from primary experience of reality to make art was the miracle. It isn’t at all just copying. I mean, pace NOVA, the Biblical numerology that we see in Medieval art is not the most important thing about it; it may even be just a sop for Cerberus, for the churchmen and some of the devout. It isn’t what makes the cathedrals great, least of all graceful, harmonious Amiens. NOVA might better have considered the engineering of the cathedrals in more detail and left to others what it seems not to understand fully.