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Archive for the ‘Paris in the Middle Ages’ Category

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.

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Statements of Authority in Sainte-Chapelle

Posted by gninja on October 24, 2006


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.

But the monarchy of France did not simply allow itself to be dominated by the Church, at least not in the PR battle waged in monumental art. We can find a counterpart to the figure of Abbot Suger in the figure of King Louis IX. As a ruler, Louis IX appears to have been aware of the role of architecture and art in issuing statements of authority. He was a patron of the arts, and Sainte-Chapelle (pictured above) is one of the greatest testaments to his (or, perhaps, his architects’) acuity in the associative power of architecture. As argued in a comprehensive article by Daniel Weiss, Sainte-Chapelle consolidates imagery of royal and religious authority–particularly that of the Throne of Wisdom–thus declaring the royal and religious authority of the commanding occupant of the chapel. In the patronage of Louis IX, then, we see an analogy with the language of Abbot Suger. Whereas the former’s patronage established a standard visual repertoire of authrotative royal imagery, the latter’s language ensured the communication of religious authority through the appearance of a new kind of architecture.

Our view of this matter however, is altered slightly by the following passage in Keith Moxey ‘s “Panofsky’s Concept of ‘Iconology’ and the Problem of Interpretation in the History of
Art” (New Literary History 17.2 (1986). 265-274):

“The focus on the ‘intention’ of the work of art assigns it a ‘terminal’ role in the life of culture, a location representing a synthesis of the ideas current in the culture of the patron or patrons who commissioned it. It ignores the life of the work of art after it has entered a social context. By concentrating on the way in which the work of art ‘reflects’ the life of its times, the preoccupation with the ‘intention’ fails to recognize the function of the work of art as an actor in the development of cultural attitudes and therefore as an agent of social change.”

I think what’s useful here is the notion that whether or not Louis IX set about establishing a visual program to communicate and legitimize his authority, the result was indeed an artistic/architectural language that was used as such, both by him and by kings to follow (as evinced by the various copies of the chapel). Indeed, the associations Weiss makes between Sainte-Chapelle and Solomonic imagery may not even have gained currency until after Louis IX’s canonization, following his successful reign. In other words, the power of the imagery of Sainte-Chapelle and its status as an architectural model for the statement of royal authority depended on both historical associations and current events. Regardless of the original purpose of Sainte-Chapelle, it was used as an instrument in the contest for primacy between the State and the Church.

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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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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.

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Seeing Space Socially: Part 2

Posted by gninja on September 22, 2006

Returning to the Middle Ages, and to the space of Paris, a couple of monuments reveal the applicability of Lefebvre’s comments (but just one will be discussed here). Remember that, in the passage of his cited below, he points out the error in subscribing to the notion that space is strictly segmented and defined narrowly by the function intended for an insulated area. Rather, space (geo/topographical, intellectual, political, etc.) is more fluid, accepting numerous significations bestowed upon it at different times, by diverse individuals, who are all aware to varying degrees of past and present meanings embedded in that space.


(Pilier des Nautes, ca 14 – 37 CE)

Like Blue, this monument (aka “Pillar of the Boatmen“) depends upon the past for its success as a structure. Specifically, this monolith incorporates elements of the Celtic pagan religion that existed in Lutece prior to the Roman arrival, representation of Roman gods, a dedication to the Roman emperor, and images of the local boatmen who commissioned it. This pillar is a model for how newer cultures can successfully dominate their predecessors. Rather than abolishing the worship of Celtic deities, and rather than limiting or effacing the presence of local populations in public art, this monument incorporates both. As a result, it pre-empts any resistance that might occur as an angered populace sees its cultural heritage being blotted out forcefully. Instead, this method blots out through a process of assimilation. Without the foundation of those older gods upon which to build, the Romans might have been hard pressed to establish any kind of religious allegiance among this northern population. Rather, they crash the pagan party and mingle their own Roman gods with the Celtic ones, and by the end of the toga party, it’s difficult to tell the difference.

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Seeing Space Socially: Part 1

Posted by gninja on September 18, 2006


(Lutece, early Roman Paris)

On this blog, I’ve discussed several different forms of art–from buildings to paintings to sculpted chairs–which are not difficult to see as art. But what about a city? How do we go about looking at something so geographically large and spactially varied as a city as a work of art? Because, as mentioned in the previous post, I’ll be focusing on the monuments of Paris for the next few months, now’s a good opportunity to take a glance at the city itself and see how its space functioned from Late Antiquity through the 8th century as a bearer of meaning.

A passage written by Henri Lefebvre helps us to think about this space in a way that might not immediately occur to us when thinking about medieval art:

“A comparable approach is called for today, an approach which would analyse not things in space but space itself, with a view to uncovering the social relationships embedded in it. The dominant tendency fragments space and cuts it up into pieces. It enumerates the things, the various objects, that space contains. Specializations divide space among them and act upon its truncated parts, setting up mental barriers and practico-social frontiers…. The ideologically dominant tendency divides space up into parts and parcels in accordance with the social division of labour. It bases its image of the forces occupying space on the idea that space is a passive receptacle. Thus, instead of uncovering the social relationships…that are latent in spaces, instead of concentrating our attention on the production of space and the social relationships inherent to it…we shall fall into a trap of treating space as space ‘in itself’, as space as such.”

This passage, most apparently applicable to a contemporary city such as New York or London, can also be applied to medieval Paris. From a bird’s eye view at the top of a skyscraper, we can see in both cities a series of streets and avenues, buildings and monuments, which conduct and manipulate our social interactions. There are neglected areas where we tuck away and seek to hide the poor and disenfranchised–these areas are often underserved by public transportation and sanitation. There are the prominent areas of commerce, where sparkling buildings ferry their charges up and away from the chaos and din of below, in well-maintained elevators. This modeling of a city has no meaning in and of itself, its value is not determined purely by aesthetics. Rather, there is a contract between those who manage the space of the city and the space of the city itself, in which the meaning of a space is determined by those who occupy it, yet those who occupy it must be able to perceive a priori their role as embedded within the space.


(Delancey Street, NYC, 2006)

What I’m talking about here can be seen in the ongoing gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In the foreground, we can see a couple of still gritty, lower-priced stores, as well as a McDonald’s on the corner. Across the street are another series of cheap, crumbling shops, and a dive diner, of the greasiest spoon kind. In the background, however, is Blue, a new and very chic condo being built just steps away from the immigrants who pile ten to a tenement apartment, and who shop at discount shops out of necessity. To these immigrants, the Lower East Side isn’t an area with aura. It isn’t the den of cool because of a perceived attitude emanating from its streets. It’s a place where they have to live, because there are still apartments they can (just) afford. On the other hand, however, are the well-heeled who will soon be moving into Blue, and whose cache as New Yorker’s will appreciate not just from the splendor of their new condo, but also from the hipness lent it by its still impoverished surroundings. Though a tenuous relationship which cannot and will not last long (at the expense of the poor inhabitants), for now, the wealth that is flooding into this neighborhood ontologically depends on the poverty currently there.

What this has to do with medieval Paris will be the subject of the next post.

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