An American Definition of Gothic Architecture

THERE is a passage in Reber’s History of Mediæval Art which, after showing how, during the early part of the twelfth century, the mixture of northern and southern blood in certain of the northern provinces of central France first developed the characteristic type of French character and French nationality, states that this region became the birthplace of Gothic art, partly because of the intellectual activity which arose from its favorable political and social conditions, and partly because, having no local traditions and but few architectural monuments, the people of this region were especially prepared to develop a healthy movement in this art, and to introduce new forms.

This observation has a much wider application than the important historical fact to which it relates. Wherever and whenever corresponding social conditions prevail, there must arise some new departure, some fresh impulse, in the progress of mankind, and a new capacity to observe, analyze, discuss, and profit by the experience of the world outside. We, too, are a people made up of diverse elements, which have been gradually moulded into national unity; who, from a state of unparalleled material prosperity, are steadily developing towards a corresponding degree of intellectual activity. We, too, are a nation without traditions and monuments, and should therefore be able to see in true proportion and perspective, and from an unprejudiced point of view, all that has been accomplished in art in the Old World ; and, as capacity for appreciation implies capacity for production, we should know how to make the best use of precedent, and to develop new forms.

What we are accomplishing or may he able to accomplish in art to justify these logical expectations is a matter of curious interest to those who are watching the characteristic tendencies of the time. Apparently, we, as a nation, have not as yet developed a natural taste for artistic expression ; and our representatives in Congress are, perhaps, further removed from intelligent artistic sympathy than those of any other government in the civilized world. Certainly, we are not, in this respect, like the Greeks of the age of Pericles, the first Frenchmen of the Ile-de-France in the twelfth century, or the Italian communities of the fifteenth. But we have all the other elements from which success may be reasonably predicted, and the world is waiting for the natural fulfillment of our conditions. We are, geographically, too great a people, too continental, to be able to act one upon another with that promptness of result which happened in the compact art-producing communities of the Old World. Our movements in art, therefore, have not as yet, so far as we can see, taken any characteristic or ethnological shape, except perhaps in architecture, where we may already detect the beginnings of a national exposition, the promise of which resides not only in our powers of independent invention, but in our capacity to amalgamate the arts of the Old World with the spirit of the New. Here and there our architects are following principles, and not forms, and have begun to appreciate, without local prejudice, what elements of ancient precedents are most fruitful and most capable of further development, and to know how to use these precedents as points of departure, and not as absolute formulas of art.

If, in regard to the practice of art, we are but in the beginning of a national movement (which is none the less real because, by reason of proximity and distractions, we are, most of us, unable to see it), in respect to the history of art we are certainly, if we use aright our opportunities, the only people in the world who occupy a judicial position. Hitherto the writing of this history has been in the hands of the descendants of those who made it. They have been surrounded and overshadowed by the monuments of their ancestors. It has been impossible for them to study these monuments with a mind clear of patriotic partisanship. Thus, an English, a French, or a German history of the same era of art will present it from an English, a French, or a German standpoint of prejudice. It seems evident that an American authority, treating the same subject with equal knowledge, should present it in a manner different from all these writers, occupying, as he does, a point of view uninterrupted by a single national tradition of art. Our literature, however, has, until now, scarcely ventured upon this attractive field of investigation, and we gladly welcome what we may consider the first serious effort of the national mind in this direction.1

Mr. Charles Herbert Moore, the author of the work in question, is an instructor in drawing and the theory of design in Harvard College. He is known as a careful and conscientious observer, of trained intelligence and of scholarly attainments. The purpose of his present essay is to define the characteristics and proper limitations of Gothic architecture, — a purpose which, it is claimed, has not been adequately carried out in any German or English work, and which has been fulfilled by but one French writer, the late M. Viollet-le-Duc. Mr. Moore’s argument is based, not upon dry archæological investigations, but upon a very intelligent and sufficiently lucid discussion of fundamental principles, illustrated and enforced by the results of personal studies of representative monuments. His argument covers a field very familiar to students of architecture, but it is distinguished by a clear, logical precision of statement, and by a boldness, and not unfrequently by an originality of deduction, such as cannot be found in the works of European scholars, who have labored under the disadvantage of writing from a patriotic rather than from a judicial standpoint.

The American argument may be briefly stated as follows: Among the phenomena coincident with and caused by the decay of the feudal system, the diminution of the power of the monastic orders, the strengthening of royal authority, and the establishment of bishoprics and free municipalities, was the necessity which then arose for the building of a series of great monuments which were partly ecclesiastical and partly civil in their character. These monuments were provided not only as centres of popular religious instruction and worship, but as the great meeting-places of the newly established communes ; and as such they were the symbols of municipal power, of social emancipation, and of the beginnings of political liberty. They at first followed the Romanesque traditions of construction, and were distinguished by round arches, thick walls, vaulted ceilings built after the manner of the Roman baths, small windows, and massive supports. But in the districts around Paris, on account of the specially favorable conditions which there prevailed in the twelfth century, the Romanesque methods were then, for the first time, freed from the incubus of ancient traditions, and were so organized, refined, and developed that the church of St. Denis, in which the first conspicuous essay was made, constituted the initial point of a method of building different from all its predecessors, full of the potentialities of artistic life, and worthy to be distinguished by a special name in the history of architecture. This method of building was based on a new system of constructing ceilings of small stones. It consisted in building these vaulted ceilings, not by the intersection of solid barrel vaults, in the Roman manner, but by establishing over the naves and aisles of the churches a skeleton or framework of arched and moulded ribs, connecting opposite piers transversely, adjacent piers longitudinally, with diagonal ribs intersecting these in the centre, thus forming bays of four or six sections, called respectively quadripartite or sexapartite vaults. The open, spherical triangles formed between these ribs were closed in with a paneling composed of slightly arched vaults of light stonework sprung from rib to rib. The important point of detail in this composition resided in the fact that the proper and most convenient intersection of these ribs gave birth to the pointed. arch, which had many constructive advantages. Where these ribs were gathered together over the piers there was a concentrated outward thrust, which was counterbalanced by an exterior arched prop (the flying buttress), which bore at the outer and lower end against a massive outlying-construction of stone weighted with a heavy pinnacle. The inside pier, supporting the point where these delicately balanced opposing forces met, became gradually more slender, and was divided into bundles or groups of columns, each having its function from the foundation to support one of the vaulting ribs.

The peculiar and especial merit claimed for those who used this structure at St. Denis and in the derivative buildings rests upon the fact that they were the first to make it architectural, the first to base upon it the whole decorative expression of the fabric, thus creating a consistent unity of construction and decoration without suppression or concealment of any functional member, and without imposing upon the composition any features extraneous to it. The essential scheme was a framework of piers, vaulting ribs, and flying buttresses. Constructively, the filling in between the ribs, the roof coverings, and the inclosing walls between the buttresses were not essential. Indeed, in respect to the walls, they finally almost disappeared, leaving vast open-arched spaces, subdivided by mullions, which, presently, under the arch, branched into open tracery to support a filling of stained glass. This evolution was developed in a rapid and brilliant succession of experimental cathedrals, of which the form and architectural character generally were made entirely by the structural conditions thus briefly outlined ; and, within a century and a half, it culminated in the cathedrals of Paris, Amiens, and Rheims. From the date of these last buildings the system began to decline in a series of competitive tours de force, where the attenuation, subdivision, and complication of the original structural elements were carried to extremes, until, finally, the natural limitations of human power were reached, and the style had spoken its last word. When the princes and nobles became more potent than the bishops and the people, and when classic forms came with classic learning from Italy, the palace became more important than the church, and the arts of the Renaissance at length supplanted the emasculated mediæval fabric.

This evolution of structural forms differed from everything which preceded or followed it: it was coincident with and expressive of a condition of mankind during an epoch which had a definite historical beginning (the fall of the feudal system) and a definite historical end (the Renaissance) ; it carried with it a distinct system of decorative detail, dependent upon the structure and illustrative of it. It was an architecture of principles, not of formulas, and, as such, Mr. Moore thinks it should be distinguished from the mass of transitional or contemporary monastic, domestic, civic, or military architecture, which, while adopting some of the characteristic features of the great churches, could not exhibit in its structure an equally homogeneous organism, or in its decoration an equal degree of conformity to structure, and therefore occupied a plane much lower in the range of human achievement.

No two writers have entirely agreed upon what should be called and what should not be called Gothic.; and as the question seems thus an open one, our author, in the interest of scientific nomenclature, would confine the term to the style created in the structural evolution which we have described ; all derivative buildings outside of this evolution being distinguished by the general term “ Pointed Architecture,” which would include every building in which the pointed arch, the pinnacle, the traceried window, the cuspidated decoration, and the other characteristic mediæval features occurred, without regard to the degree of conformity between the construction and the architectural manifestation.

Gothic architecture, so defined, Mr. Moore considers " was never practiced elsewhere than in France.” This bold proposition he undertakes to prove by an analysis and comparison of the different pointed styles of Europe. In this he seems to show that every step in this astonishing evolution was first taken in France ; and when it was repeated, later, in England, Germany, or Spain, it was generally found that the foreign example was either developed by imported French masters or by workmen from the school of a French cathedral, or that it was frankly imitated from French models by native workmen, — not, indeed, without undergoing local modifications, which, however, conferred upon the structure no new principles. Thus, according to familiar usage, there is a Gothic of England, a Gothic of Germany, of Italy, and of Spain, distinguished by certain characteristic manifestations, which in reality were either local embroideries on a basis of French structure, or the result of applying French decoration to native structure. He claims that the Gothic in these countries was an imported article; and when national genius inevitably bestowed upon it local character, the foreign transformations, though always interesting as manifestations of the history of races, and often noble, were made at the expense of the fundamental principles of the style, which were always French.

In following this argument to its necessary conclusions, Mr. Moore may not clearly make the further point that, after the pure French Gothic had reached its final legitimate expression in Rheims, Amiens, and Chartres, even French genius, in the subsequent experiments in the cathedrals of St. Ouen, Beauvais, Troyes, and the other Flamboyant buildings, though, apparently, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it never borrowed from other nations, like them, in attempting to improve the already perfected forms, merely succeeded in enriching and finally in debasing them. For, humanly speaking, it is impossible to make perfection more perfect, completion more complete; and architects, whether of the fourteenth or of the nineteenth century, in using styles which have been already fully developed, are rendering no service to the progress of art. They are merely cultivating a spirit of dilettanteism. But the variations made in the French originals by foreign invention in the Middle Ages are, from an ethnological point of view, in their results perhaps the most interesting and instinctive ever made in the history of art. A proper and exhaustive comparative analysis of these differences of style, arising, as they did, directly from the genius and essential spirit of the nations respectively, is yet to be made. What unprejudiced American scholar will at length open for us those prolific pages, and thus give to the world a series of new and brilliant evidences of the growth of the human mind not elsewhere to be discovered ?

We believe that our fellow-countryman has made a good beginning in this work. He has logically defined a great style and fixed its limits. He has proved that it is worthy to be distinguished from the numerous family of its derivatives. He calls this style Gothic par excellence. In the interest of scientific nomenclature, he would make this title honorable, and would confine it to buildings directly concerned in the development and perfecting of a principle of art, and would not give it to buildings which merely played with this principle without advancing it, whether they concealed it with capricious conceits or overlaid it with beautiful inventions. If the buildings which he calls Gothic, because they directly and frankly illustrate this principle, are not all French, he has laid the burden of proof on the shoulders of his English and German critics and reviewers. We are curious to see how they will meet this American argument.

Nowhere else outside of the pages of Viollet-le-Duc, and perhaps not even there, can be found an exposition so clear and so entertaining of the character of Gothic sculpture. Mr. Moore’s chapter on this theme is written with a fine and delicate discrimination for artistic qualities and values. His comparison of the Greek and mediæval spirit in sculpture, his recognition and explanation of the potentialities of archaic or primitive expressions in art and of their fusion with architecture, are fair examples not only of sympathetic, but of intellectual criticism. A mind saturated with classic ideals, but hospitable to the powerful and expressive sincerity of primitive sculpture, is capable of throwing new light upon the functions of art.

We are disposed to think that Mr. Moore exhibits in this part of his work a critical faculty more unusual than is to be discovered in his purely architectural discussions, though these are not only original, but lucid enough to commend themselves even to readers unfamiliar with the technical side of the subject. To such readers, also, the orderly development of the argument, the frequent graphic illustrations, — among which, by the bye, those of Mr. Moore’s daughter are especially clever and sympathetic,— and above all the exhaustive index cannot fail to serve at once as an invitation to enter upon a charming field of study and an inducement to stay until the last words are said.

It is the peculiar duyt and privilege of American scholarship to continue the work thus worthily begun, and to pursue the study of the historical styles until their relationship with the development of the human mind and the growth of nations shall have been definitely established, without bias of partisanship or patriotism. We shall thus discover at what points the progress of incompleted styles was interrupted, and shall be in position to take up the broken threads whenever they may promise to lead us further towards the consummation of a style adequate to represent the complicated civilization of to-day.

  1. Development and Character of Gothic Architecture. By CHARLES HERBERT MOORE. With Illustrations. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1890.