Gothic Art: Our Daily Bread

The remnants of the age of Gothic architecture bear witness to a grand intellectual transformation and spiritual “renaissance” of the Middle Ages. It surprises me how little interested much of academia (and popular culture by extension) tends to be concerning medieval studies.

Or perhaps it is not the breadth of knowledge that intimidates, but rather the summation and soaring heights to which the interdependency of all branches of knowledge were carried. Intellectuals like Thomas Aquinas built theological arguments in much the same way that the gothic architect planned out churches. And moreover, they listened to each other. I can imagine a conversation taking place between Thomas and an architect, as they hover over the pre-production blueprints of a cathedral (much in the same way a story team such as the one at Pixar gathers over a screenplay for revision)— “What if we could place the rose window in such a way that it spatially reciprocated in a vertical plane the labyrinth of the nave on the horizontal plane?” “Or what if we could build the entire façade in such a way that it reflected the diatonic scale of music?” “Or what if we placed story X in a window, beneath story Y, and across the nave from story Z?” I think if I lived in the Middle Ages, I would have wanted to be a cathedral architect.

The gothic architects sought ought a vernacular representation of the theological principles at work in the schools of the time—that in the same way that reason might inform faith, so too might mathematics inform one’s construction of a sacred space—an aesthetic between God and man. The supporting buttresses might represent the arguments that support the theological inquiries of men like Thomas Aquinas.

The idea is that if we lay better our spiritual foundations, might we also build better this city of man in reciprocation of the city of God. If sunlight, luminosity, represents God, then there needs to be a way to incorporate it into the sacred spaces of worship. Moreover, the opening of spaces in the walls made room for more stained glass. As such, stained glass was commissioned and installed according to an iconographic program, wherein windows reflect and speak to one another across the liminal space of the church interior. Using techne, artistans become sub-creators, and unlike artists who (akin to Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) would fancy themselves gods in their craft, the medieval Christian artist fashions (or rather re-fashions) God’s creation, not to “impress” God, but as an offering to please him.

The building of the cathedral was NOT motivated by this desire (very postmodern) to say, “Look what I can do!” Rather, creativity and subcreation are offered up to God, and in so doing, look at the result that is the glory of the gothic age. Our buildings on earth ought to show His greatness, even if it takes centuries to construct. So it becomes worthwhile to pour so many resources into the construction of such objects, even for people such as the poor, for men do not only need money, but moreover Beauty. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every Word of God.”


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