am 28. Februar 2006
There aren't many books available looking at the phenomenon or idea of the Gothic Cathedral as a whole, and few of those are generally accessible reading. There are countless books on particular cathedrals and churches - Notre Dame, Salisbury Cathedral, Chartes, the Abbey of St. Denis. There are other books that look at particular aspects of the architecture or function; particular books on flying buttresses, stained-glass windows, and such are also numerous.
This third edition of Otto von Simon's book (originally published in 1956, updated in 1962 and again in 1987) looks at the Gothic Cathedral as a whole from many different standpoints - architecture, artistic value, spiritual value, economic value and influence, functional and practical concerns. 'The cathedral,' Simson wrote in his first preface, 'was designed as an image, and was meant to be understood as one.' Simson is direct in his admiration of Gothic style, calling Gothic architecture 'perhaps the most creative achievement in the history of Western architecture'. It is indeed hard to find rivals to this claim.
The Gothic Cathedral, according to Simson, is the earthly representation of supernatural reality. It is a physical manifestation of the theological ideas and aspirations of the Middle Ages. However, Gothic has become a bit too commonplace in some respects - being at the centre of many European and North American cities and towns, it also suffers from being seen as a relic more appropriately the object of archaeological examination than current appreciation.
Simson highlights many of the aspects of Gothic architecture, including the use of light in new, unparalleled ways, and the relationship between structure and appearance. Stained glass windows, according to Simson, 'are structurally and aesthetically not openings in the wall to admit light, but transparent walls.' Gothic also took advantage of advances in design and building materials to emphasise verticality beyond what earlier architectural forms could do. This together with the sense of geometric precision and orderliness made the Gothic church a reflection of heaven. Simson develops Augustine's idea of architecture and music as enjoyments of transcendence, 'since both are children of number; they have equal dignity, inasmuch as architecture mirrors eternal harmony, as music echoes it.'
In addition to talking about the aesthetic principles of Gothic style, Simson develops the political and social history out of which it emerged. He gives an extended biography of Abbot Suger of St. Denis, in most regards the father of the Gothic style. Simson shows the competing ideas political and religious in the world, as well as the different influences and forces at work on Suger. 'Suger undertook the rebuilding of his church in order to implement his master plan in the sphere of politics. His vision as a stateman imposed itself upon the architectural project; he conceived it as the monumental expression of that vision.' This place was to be thought of in the same regard as Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. However, this political vision was far from the only image for Suger, for such an image most likely would not have endured. Simson explores the various aesthetical and practical influences upon Suger, what prompted him to make the decisions he did, and what came to be the birthplace of Gothic churches.
Simson explores other structures as well - most notably, he concentrates on the cathedral of Chartes as one of the principle examples of high Gothic style. This discussion not only examines the building and design aspects, but also the economic aspects of the community of Chartes and surrounding areas and how this impacted the building of the great cathedral, and vice versa. Of Chartes, Simson says we may 'well define it as a "model" of the cosmos as the Middle Ages perceived it. But this "model" was ontologically transparent. It reflected an ultimate reality.'
The book contains 52 black-and-white plates with pictures and graphics, and 8 text figures as line-art drawings. It has sections of addenda and a postscript of revisions of earlier editions. There is a very extensive bibliography for further research, and a reasonable index. The book itself is footnoted throughout, many of the footnotes being rather substantial. This is not a 'popular' book, and is written in an academic style. However, the content is so intriguing that that is a minor consideration. My one wish for the text would be that there were colour pictures or plates included with the text.
This is a very interesting and worthwhile text, good for anyone interested in the history of architecture, Gothic design, cathedrals and worship spaces, and the intersection of faith and the physical world.