It’s the Little Things… (Microarchitecture)
Posted by gninja on November 14, 2006
Up to this point, I’ve discussed large-scale monuments in Paris, focusing implicitly on the interaction(s) between them and the public spaces they dominate. However, because medieval artists did not make the kinds of distinctions and separations we now do between the various arts, a lot of what I’ve said regarding architecture can be applied to the small objects populating churches and chapels throughout medieval Paris.
Francois Bucher, in his article “Micro-architecture and the ‘Idea’ of Gothic Theory and Style”, makes several important observations about these down-sized objects. Most notably, he recognizes their similarity to the very structures in which they are housed.
(Reliquary Shrine, second quarter of the 14th century, Attributed to Jean de Touyl, Paris; The Cloisters Collection)
I say that this is an important observation because, obvious as it is, its implications are necessary to articulate. Bucher is interested in a more absolutist/universalist notion of “Gothic” and how micro-architecture allows this notion to be embodied, due to a lack of technical concerns that prevented architects from realizing their ideals. However, I think it’s more useful to understand how these instruments and artifacts embody the social idea of Gothic. By that, I mean to say that what we have come to call Gothic architecture, and the monuments we have assigned to this corpus, may exhibit numerous stylistic or formal differences, yet they share the same general social concerns. In (very) short, Gothic architecture combines in one structure religious, local, and contemporary history to convey to its viewers their communal participation in a shared Christian history, culture, and narrative. When we look at the map of medieval Paris,
we are looking at a complex of sacred sites that define a city, both geographically and conceptually. Neither the city nor the sacred sites could exist without one another, as they each mutually reinforce the identity of the other. St-Denis is a prime example of such a monument in which its eponymous saint rose to such fame because of his ties to the area of Paris.
Returning, then, to micro-architecture, I would say that its function is similar to the one I just described in Gothic architecture. Objects such as the shrine shown above, as well as liturgical instruments, and the ceremonial appurtenances of kings all deploy a host of recognizable imagery also seen on the facades and in the interiors of Gothic churches. They further draw audiences, congregants, and ceremonial participants together into a collective culture through the heavily associative forms used and the seemingly infinite repetition of those forms. Whether the forms originate in the monuments or in the micro-architecture is irrelevant. What matters is that their appearance in both micro and macro reaffirm the notion that there is a divinely ordained order that remains consistent throughout the cosmos and embracing all memebers of the Christian community.