the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Modernism – The Medieval Brand

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2006

By the twelfth century, Paris was looking like a very different place. Not only had the city grown in population and size, but the buildings that came to dominate the skyline of the city had a new look to them. Since the late nineteenth century, art historians have been preoccupied with this very newness (what, if pressed to use the categories of style, would be termed “Gothic”), and what the drastic changes in architecture during the twelfth century could mean.


Many scholars have had a go in the debate centered on the “modernity” of Gothic, much of which focuses on the Abbey Church of St-Denis. The debate has received much fuel from the sixty-year-old study by Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St-Denis and Its Art Treasures, a work which has earned enough currency to ensure its place on perhaps every medieval art history course syllabus in the United States. The “fuel” alluded to above is the argument advanced by Panofsky, which–to be quick and dirty about it–pretty much chalks up the “invention” of Gothic to Abbot Suger himself, and his subscription to some rather arcane philosophies.

Sounds like a rather grand claim, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, it is. Peter Kidson virtually placed Panofsky on the rack for making such an argument, contesting that the church we see today is the result of architects following the dictates of geometry. What grandeur is there is merely the decorative product of an Abbot who wanted a dramatic setting for the relics in his choir. In short, the novelty of St-Denis “owed nothing to symbolism.”

On the other hand, there are those such as Marvin Trachtenberg, who temper the largeness of Panofsky’s claims by accepting their general theoretical basis (i.e. that there was a conscious effort, intellectually motivated, to create a new kind of church structure), but by removing the attribution to one figure.

Both these newer takes on Gothic modernism, Erwin Panofsky, and Abbot Suger have strengths and weaknesses, though that is not the immediate concern here. More relevant is the matter of modernism itself (which is more directly and explicitly addressed by Trachtenberg). What do we gain by debating the causes and intentions of twelfth-century “modernism” aside from illuminating and enlivening the structures themselves? And, it should be admitted, this latter pursuit is still an important one.


(Ah…I remember these…)
So. Abbot Suger. Inventor or genius marketer of Gothic?

Alternatively. Steve Jobs. Inventor or genius marketer of Apple?

Without the architects, Suger’s notion of this new design (and Suger does use the term modernitas) would have had no physical representation. Without Wozniac and an army of programmers and research and development, Jobs’ mission in personal computing would never have even begun.

What’s important is that, in both instances, we recognize a conscious effort by an individual (Suger/Jobs) to promote an alternative design and make a statement about modernity through this new design. It is not facetious to say that Apple, like Gothic, is a site of cultic worhsip, and it is design and clever marketing that have inspired such a popular reaction. In short, rhetoric is as much a component of invention as is technology.

2 Responses to “Modernism – The Medieval Brand”

  1. […] In looking at Sainte-Chapelle, we can think about earlier discussions of the force of the individual in “inventing” or driving forward an artistic form. While art historians working in the wake of Panofsky debated the role of Abbot Suger in establishing what we have come to call Gothic architecture, we can discuss the role of Louis IX in shaping Gothic art. Abbot Suger used rhetoric and the imposition of a false dialectic to give the appearance of coherence and intentionality to the structure being built under his direction. In so doing, he provided a network of theological and linguistic support for the very new form of architecture seen in St-Denis. The result is a circular form of support in which the power of the Church is established by this imprssive new structure, and general acceptance of this new structure is guaranteed by the language of theology deployed in Suger’s rhetoric. […]

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