Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dino Marcantonio: Shedding Light on the Gothic Style

Those interested in matters liturgical will also be familiar with the fact that "style wars" will sometimes arise in relation to the ecclesiastical arts.

In the 19th century it was perhaps most famously the matter of gothic versus classical architectural forms. This was perhaps most quintessentially represented in the anti-classical polemics of Pugin's Contrasts and True Principles. In the 20th century, this continued, though the classical seems to have become less the point of focus than the baroque -- further broadened to encompass matters such as sacred vestments.

Recently, architect Dino Marcantonio addressed the former debate, pursuing a consideration of the relationship of gothic to classical as it relates to architecture. Here is some of that discussion.

Shedding Light on the Gothic Style

The Gothic style is a favorite for many, particularly when it comes to ecclesiastical structures. Indeed, who is not impressed with the majesty of the ordered cosmos arrayed on the facade of Reims cathedral, the other-worldly luminosity of the Saint Chapelle (below), or the virtuosic vaulting of King's College Chapel in Cambridge? It can rightly be said that, just as God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, so these masterpieces are that than which nothing greater can be built.

Unfortunately, the Gothic is often opposed to the Classical, as if they were two totally different animals with totally different agendas representing totally different worlds. I suppose we can thank the 19th century style wars for this architectural dualism. Some in that debate went so far as to suggest that Gothic was the Christian style, while Classical was the pagan style. To me that is like arguing that true Christian poetry is to be written in terza rima, while ottava rima is for pagans.

In an effort to restore a hermeneutic of continuity to the question, let's have a brief look at what the canonical Classical forms and the Gothic forms have in common. For the Gothic style did not arise sui generis from the medieval mind and culture. Rather it was a perfectly natural development of the architectural culture which preceded it. The Gothic was a stylistic twist on the Romanesque, which itself was a twist on the Byzantine which preceded it, etc. etc. Each generation experiments with the formal world into which it is born, looking for improvements, recovering lost knowledge, and expressing new ideas.


...the story of the Gothic style is one of continuity with the tradition. The very plans of these churches all derive from the ancient Roman basilica. Many of their facades, like that of Suger's church, the historic Basilica of St. Denis, below, make prominent use of the ancient Roman triumphal arch motif: major arched opening in the center, and minor arched openings to either side, just like the Arch of Constantine. The rose window above, a motif which would go on to be developed to spectacular effect (have a look at Strasbourg Cathedral), originated with the Roman oculus. And the Corinthian order used throughout comes, of course, from the ancient Greeks.

Read the entire piece on Dino Marcantonio's website: Shedding Light on the Gothic Style

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