Plotting Gothic

Plotting Gothic

by Stephen Murray


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A historian of medieval art and architecture with a rich appreciation of literary studies, Stephen Murray brings all those fields to bear on a new approach to understanding the great Gothic churches of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Plotting Gothic positions the rhetoric of the Gothic as a series of three interlocking plots: a spatial plot tied to the material construction of the churches, a social plot stemming from the collaborative efforts that made Gothic output possible, and a rhetorical plot involving narratives that treat the churches as objects of desire. Drawing on the testimony of three witnesses involved in church building—Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, Gervase of Canterbury, and the image maker Villard de Honnecourt—and a range of secondary sources, Murray traces common patterns in the way medieval buildings were represented in words and images. Our witnesses provide vital information about the way the great churches of Gothic were built and the complexity of their meanings. Taking a fresh approach to Gothic architecture, Plotting Gothic offers an invigorating new way to understand some of the most lasting achievements of the medieval era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226191805
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/06/2015
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen Murray is the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History at Columbia University and the author of many books.

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Plotting Gothic

By Stephen Murray

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19194-2


Villard de Honnecourt

Ymagier and Interlocutor

Imagine traveling from city to city in early-thirteenth-century France and beyond, witnessing the astonishing spectacle as thousands of artisans labored on the walls, supports, vaults, and windows of great cathedrals and churches rising above city walls and rooftops, dominating the surrounding country. Notre-Dame of Paris and Laon Cathedral substantially complete, Reims well under way, Amiens and Beauvais recently begun. Would our experiences in visiting these sites and interviewing the builders lead to new ways of looking at each church and a clearer understanding of the human circumstances of its construction and meaning? And beyond the individual monument, would we finally discover a means of plotting the relationships linking multiple buildings and discovering the force lying behind what we call the Gothic "style"?

Our dream is, of course, unrealizable—but are we able to summon a witness with direct personal experience of Gothic in the thirteenth century, one who actually left a graphic record?

Possessing Villard

Because it was clearly cherished by its early users and owners, a little book with a unique combination of images and words has survived the centuries and now resides in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. We read in the opening colophon: "Villard de Honnecourt greets you, and beseeches all those who will work with these devices that you find in this book that they will pray for his soul and that they will remember him. For in this book you can find good advice in the great craft [or law] of masonry and carpentry devices, and you will find the great craft [or law] of portraiture, the outlines thereof, just as the art of geometry commands and teaches."

Although this greeting, penned on the reverse side of the first folio (fol. 1v), promises three chapters dealing with matters of masonry, woodwork, and portraiture or figure drawing, the user of the book is in for a surprise. Already on the front surface of the same folio we find an astonishing combination of seemingly random images: a seated bishop, a pelican, an owl, and a magpie teasing a crouching hybrid devil. And, turning the pages, we encounter a continuing procession of unforgettable images: mostly human beings, some frozen in the recognizable iconography of church art (the crucifixion on 2v, for example), but many others who are far from frozen: strange, funny, or even shocking, for example, the lifelike male nude on folio 11v (see fig. 12), who engages us directly with an enigmatic stare. The images, rendered in pen and ink with occasional addition of chiaroscuro in ink wash, are imbued with a kind of "reality effect." Heavy linear emphasis and the application of rudimentary "perspective" cause some of the architectural images to fold into, or to pop out of, space (Reims Cathedral chapels, fols. 30v and 31r, see fig. 9). We are startled to find some images entered upside down or sideways. Animals scuttle across the pages or turn to confront us (the knight and his horse, fol. 23v; the lion, fol. 24r and v). Then there are extraordinary combinations of geometric and human forms, foliage that turns into faces, bits of buildings and carpentry, as well as an unlikely selection of automata and arcane-looking geometric drawings that seem to promise some kind of hidden code: the "secrets" of the medieval mason? To top it all, at the end of the little book we read a recipe for an elixir of cannabis. The reader is surely entitled to wonder whether this substance facilitated a new and more intense way of seeing.

This unruly collection of vibrant images that refuse to obey the retroactively superimposed three-chapter organization exercises an immediate, visceral power that belies the small size of the pages, mediocre quality of the parchment, and haphazard arrangement. Such was the force of the project that it soon began to transform itself as the originator, joined by co-conspirators, manipulated and redefined the mission, adding (perhaps with the help of a scribe) written explanations, imposing "order" upon formlessness, word upon image, storytelling upon databasing. In this way the identity and intention of the presumed originator, Villard, has become irretrievably blurred. By identifying differences in handwriting and language, an earlier generation of scholar/connoisseurs had discovered two additional "masters" who added texts and drawings. Most recently, however, Carl Barnes, through painstaking detective work, has extended that number to eight, three of whom followed soon after Villard. Thus the "Villard Enterprise," as I would like to call it, changed from an intensely personal project—the collecting of favorite images on loose parchment leaves probably folded as bifolia—to the propagation of a didactic agenda claiming to deal with masonry, carpentry, and "portraiture," conveyed within the authoritative framework of a book where the bifolios are gathered together and sewn into a leather binding.

These ambiguities, coupled with the power of the images themselves, made the appropriation of the identity and creative force of "Villard" both desirable and easy. Thus, beyond the additional "masters" who added content soon after the inception of the project, we find on the opening page a half-obliterated inscription (the date, 1482, is a falsification) in which the writer announces that his ancestor Alexis Félibien had made the drawings in the book, and asks the user to remember him and all his family of engineers. The Félibien family was in possession of the book by the seventeenth century; members of that family did not hesitate to claim the illustrious author of the drawings as one of their own.

The little book, as far as we know, then fell into oblivion in the libraries of S-Germain-des-Prés and the Bibliothèque royale/nationale, where it received call numbers and pagination, then to be "rediscovered" in the mid-nineteenth century, when we find a new kind of desire to possess. Instead of wanting to appropriate the identity of the author or to join the "Villard Enterprise," nineteenth-century interlocutors desired a kind of possession that would turn the identity and "mission" of Villard de Honnecourt to serve their own purposes. Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc were at this time attempting to convince the wider French public that French medieval architecture, especially Gothic, was more appropriate than Italianate forms to express le génie français. What was needed was a Gothic Vitruvius—a document to provide an "encyclopedic" validation of the forms of Gothic. This was found in Villard, and seduced by the combination of fluent prose, wide-ranging interests, and engaging images of architectural projects then current, proponents have until quite recently continued to argue that Villard was an architect or master mason: one who not only built Gothic churches but also theorized in the pages of a book. Hans Hahnloser, author of the authoritative edition of the mid-twentieth century, interpreted the engagement of Villard's followers and the presence of the architectural images as evidence that this was a "lodge book" that actually found continuing service in the training of young masons. This belief was perpetuated by Hahnloser's former student François Bucher.

Where are we now with Villard scholarship? It seems to me that here are two continuing problems. The first is the scholarly compulsion to proceed directly to the role of detective, reading between the lines in order to address what are considered the "essential" questions: who was Villard de Honnecourt, why did he gather his collection of images, and what were his sources? If we could only strip away the later layers of added texts and images, some have believed, we could discover the genius and mission of the original author and the problem would be solved. Following clues in the pages of Villard's little book, art historians have detected "special knowledge" of the close connections between the builders of the cathedrals of Cambrai and Reims: if elements of the former project are completed correctly, Villard tells us, Cambrai will resemble Reims Cathedral. Villard promises us drawings of Cambrai but instead shows us Reims—are these intended to indicate the appearance of Cambrai? Such inside knowledge is also found in the renderings (though imperfectly understood) of masonry coursing of the piers and the templates necessary for production of the tracery elements of the windows of Reims Cathedral as well as the resemblances (more or less) between details given in his drawings and elements in real buildings (Villard's rose at Chartres and an engraved rose in one of the radiating chapels of the collegiate church of S-Quentin, for example). If Villard and his followers were indeed attempting to establish a kind of textbook for masons, an Academy of Gothic, then the little book would provide prime evidence of how the essential principles of Gothic were communicated.

More than forty years ago, however, many of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, had already questioned the notion of Villard de Honnecourt as a practicing master mason and the carnet as a lodge book. A procession of indignant scholars has pointed to the ways in which Villard's architectural drawings depart from the "truth" of the buildings themselves, arguing that no person who had ever built a cathedral could possibly have slipped into errors as gross as, for example, placing the capitals of the clerestory windows of Reims at the top of the clerestory wall, where they are much too high to receive the enclosing arch of the window (fol. 32v, fig. 6). But the strongest evidence against the idea that Villard was the master mason of Cambrai can be found in the opening colophon. The title maistre maçon, maistre de Notre Dame de Cambrai would be a proud one, and it is most unlikely that a master mason who held this position would have neglected to add his full title it to his name.

I propose to move the old debate forward with the following thoughts. Given the corporate nature of the Villard Enterprise, we must recognize the limits of our ability to respond to the questions "who was Villard?" and "what was the function of the 'book'?" The former question has focused upon what Villard did for as a job: this we can never know. Rather than continuing to pursue unattainable certainty, we should embrace abundant ambiguity; rather than seeking the individual, we should reflect on the corporate nature of the Villard Enterprise, which provides access to what Pierre Bourdieu would call the field—a human interactive environment so closely knit that it is difficult to discern the distinct identity of a professional master mason or a clerical administrator. Gothic architecture may be understood in social terms as the product of conversations projected beyond the isolated group or class to bring together the churchmen who initiated the project, the artisans who conducted it, and the members of the urban community (bourgeois) who supported it—entities that might also be locked in bitter conflict. The designation magister operis, or master of the work, might be applied either to the master mason who directed construction or to the person who organized logistics and budgets (the proviseur). 23 And then there were certainly other members of the clergy and layfolk who were privy to the "secrets" of each building. It was precisely this "field" that formed the creative forum for Gothic, providing a cognitive framework and appropriate language and appreciation and ensuring the "triumph" and "spread" of the phenomenon. The probability that "Villard" was not a master mason, paradoxically, allows us to see the power of Gothic more clearly: what we find is imperfect understanding on the part of a contemporary enlightened beholder, an amateur, who was nevertheless overwhelmed with admiration of these extraordinary buildings, which he wanted to collect, to possess, and to propagate. Thus Villard tells us that he collected the image of the window at Reims "because I liked it best"; he had traveled in many countries, he tells us, but never seen a tower like that of Laon Cathedral. This was a compulsive looker and recorder of works of art and nature—works that became objects of desire to be collected as "virtual reality" surrogates of the original. The author's eyes have caressed the surfaces of the buildings and other objects and may have also passed over project drawings that presumably would have remained in the hands of the master mason (hence his "inside information").

The individual who drew and gathered the images was an ymagier: an epithet that can be applied to any kind of image maker regardless of medium or employment. We know of the activities of such image makers mainly through the existence of carefully programmed illustrations in the pages of illuminated manuscript and sculptured figures in the Gothic portal. Astonishingly, in the Villard Enterprise we find the work (and pleasure) of ymagiers who have escaped the tyranny of the commissioned project and, for a while, the power of the written text.

But images were not enough: the little book bears witness to the final necessity of adding words to images. The initial ymagier, "Villard," probably came to see the need for explanations of images that he may have initially thought self-explanatory: he grew increasingly aware of the fact that images and buildings do not speak. The "eloquence" of architecture, in particular, needs the intervention of the rhetoric of an interlocutor. In this way, a project that may have begun as a few drawings made as a result of the author's compulsive desire to look, to possess, and to collect was turned into a "book" with "chapters" and organization intended for didactic purposes and a wider (although still very limited) audience. Storytelling was, in this way, imposed upon databasing.

We must now move our conversation beyond the positivistic expectations of a previous generation (yes, he was a master mason; no, he was not ...), and beyond the stultifying hunt for sources, to an exploration of the dynamics of the word-upon-image imposition in the Villard Enterprise and how, in speaking the artifact (or building), the interlocutor makes that artifact directly available to the comprehension of the viewer.

The Role of the Interlocutor in the Villard Enterprise

The key strategy in the Villard Enterprise, to impose the ymagier's process of looking and drawing upon the looking/responding/comprehending of the user, is expressed with the word vesci, or the phrase ves ent ci, repeated more than twenty times. The translator tends to slip into the colorless "Here is ...," but we should remember that the word voici comes from the combination of voire, "look," and ci, "here": "Look here!" or "Look at this!" The words may be left separate, ves aluec, "look here," or ves ent ci. Echoes of oral delivery are preserved in the exhortation to the reader to "listen well" (entendez bien) and "remember what I'll say to you" (retenez ce que je vous dirai). As user of the book, you may feel that the ymagier /interlocutor wants to take you by the arm and, pointing forcibly, direct your attention to his object of interest as the work of art is "performed." The image becomes a medium or bridge to the real thing as the interlocutor emphatically inserts himself, with repeated use of the first-person singular, into the relationship between members of the audience and the objects they are invited to consider. Whether the architectural images actually resulted from an ymagier sitting in front of the building and sketching what presented itself to his eyes, whether he had access to project drawings, or whether the image has anything at all to do with "reality" is immaterial here. The combination of text and image creates slippage in the mind of the user, who conflates the "portrait" with the subject of that portrait; signifier with signified. It might be noted that this kind of sleight of hand and the eloquence that invites the audience to participate with all the senses, ear, eye, and memory, are the standard tricks of the medieval preacher anxious to grasp and to retain the attention of his congregation.


Excerpted from Plotting Gothic by Stephen Murray. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Part I: Three Eyewitnesses of Gothic

1 Villard de Honnecourt: Ymagier and Interlocutor
Possessing Villard
The Role of the Interlocutor in the Villard Enterprise
Animating the Artifact
Animating the Beholder
Controlling the Artifact
Conclusion: Deceit and Desire in the Villard Enterprise

2 Gervase of Canterbury: Cronicus and Logistics Man
Mnemonics: Remembering the Old
The Means of Production: Controlling the New
Old and New Reconciled
Apocryphal Storytelling: A Building That “Speaks”
Conclusion: Signs, Miracles, and Illusionism

3 Suger, Abbot of S-Denis, and the Rhetoric of Persuasion: Manipulating Reality and Producing Meaning
Rhetorical Structure of De consecratione: Manipulated Dialectic
Production of the Text: From Oral to Written
Making Connections
Production of the New Church, Production of Salvation
Apocryphal Stories
Conclusion: The Abbot Who Spoke the Building

Part II: Staking Out the Plot

4 Interlocutor and Monument

5 Material Contexts: The Means of Production
How on Earth Did They Do That?
Economic Means
Reading the Signs: Construction History

6 The Production of Meaning
Similitude to Nature; Local Roots
Similitude to Other Buildings
Modernism and Reason
An Image of Heaven

Part III: Animating the Plot

7 Picturing the Three Agents of Construction

8 The Cathedral as Object of Desire
Triangulating Desire
The Gap between Vision and Realization
Compression and Expansion: Plotting
My Desire

9 Conclusion: Gothic Plots—Synchronic, Diachronic, and Spatial


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