the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Medieval Architecture and (Looking for) Meaning

Posted by gninja on October 2, 2006

The title of this post is a modification of an article published by Paul Crossley in 1991, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning: The Limits of Iconography.” In it, Crossley provides a useful historiography, reviewing one hundred years of art historians’ struggle with medieval buildings and if/what/how their images and forms mean anything. It’s an interesting question, sure, but even Crossley seems niggled by and hard pressed to answer whether there’s a point in ferreting out such potential meanings.

Several times in his article, Crossley denies the importance–and even the possibility–of locating an original intention in the meaning of a building. We simply can’t determine what was the aim of the many people who contributed towards the construction of, say, Reims Cathedral, no matter how much primary documentation we find. For one, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the structure took almost a century to construct. Imagine the Empire State Building taking from 1920 to 2000 to build. Do you think it would mean the same thing at the completion of its construction as it did when the ground was broken? Unlikely. Additionally, the primary documentation itself can’t be taken as any more reflective of an original intention as the building itself–also a form of primary documentation–is. There’s also the matter of determining where the primary documentation begins and ends, what gets included and excluded, and what is “truthful.” In short: looking for an original intention, a First Motivator in the construction of a building is a fool’s errand, whose success is only determined by the whims of the contemporary intellectual community.

On the other hand, Crossley asserts that these buildings are full of meanings, from their foundations to our own time. The buildings themselves, while they cannot speak, have impelled us to speak for them for centuries, and in so doing acquire meaning every time we look at them or discuss them. (I’ve talked about this a bit in relation to Ely Cathedral.)


(Tree of Jesse Window, St-Denis)

For example, while we cannot know what the original intention was for the splendrous windows at St-Denis, we can know how they have been used. While Abbot Suger may have directed us towards certain meanings, others of his time and since have interpreted their form and imagery differently. The “story” of the creation of St-Denis and the Gothic “style” has followed various different lines, all of which have visible and legible support.

So what’s the point or the use, then, of this historical endeavor to find meaning in these buildings? I would argue that some of the most insightful studies into medieval architecture are those that seek an understanding of how the building has and continues to be used (both physically and rhetorically). By investigating the way in which the (to varying degrees due to reconstruction, erosion, modification, etc) same forms of a building have taken on different meanings at different times, we develop a keener sense of how events and artifacts interact, and how the latter may even shape the former.


Did you know that the Bastille was constructed in the fourteenth century? I didn’t. In any case, what it meant then, and what it came to mean at the end of the eighteenth, and what it means today are all rather different things, are they not? It’s a matter that is not wholly different from that of determing the meanings of forms and figures of medieval churches, when we stop to think about what the rough hewn stones of its exterior represented seven and two centuries ago. And what the forms of the structure on its site and bearing its name mean today.

I can think of some other buildings whose forms have more recently borne the weight of rhetoric, different from their construction to today. Can you?


Unrelated document below:


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