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Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order



Bollingen Series/Princeton

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encouragement and protection of St. Bernard's enlightened friend, the daring

cosmological system outlined in Chapter 2 could not have been developed.

It was under Geoffrey that the west facade of Chartres Cathedral, even in

its present composite shape the most beautiful of all medieval facades, was built.

Plate 2$ Its completion, along with the construction of the two great flanking towers,

kindled in the entire population an enthusiasm unheard of until that time. 28 The

entire facade was developed in successive steps. The northern tower, still

isolated from the rest of the edifice, was begun after a fire in 1
1 34 that had

caused considerable damage to the Romanesque cathedral of Bishop Fulbert.
Plate 27 The magnificent Royal Portal, along with the southern tower, was started

somewhat later. Around 1145 work was in progress on both towers. It is

possible that the program of sculptures of the Portail royal was developed

gradually rather than at one stroke. 29

These labors show the importance of religious art at this time; they sug-

gest a surprising concern with problems of design and composition over and

above all practical considerations. The architectural parts mentioned were un-

necessary from a practical point of view. Their function was primarily sym-

bolic. It is of considerable interest that very large resources and a singular ac-

cumulation of artistic talent were employed —and by a friend of St. Bernard's

on an architectural undertaking of this kind.

The west facade of Chartres has for Gothic sculpture the same significance

that the Cathedral of Sens and the choir of St. -Denis have for Gothic architec-

ture. It is, moreover, closely related to the west facade of St. -Denis. The Bishop

of Chartres was a close friend of Suger and a frequent visitor to St. -Denis. Suger

28. See the famous account by Robert of an der Fassade der Kathedr?Ie von Chartres"
Torrigni in MGHSS, VI, 496. (Kunstchronik, VIII, May, 1955). The chro-

29. Lefevre-Pontalis, "Les Facades succes- nology of the sculptures of Chartres West re-
sives de la Cathedrale de Chartres au XI e et au mains unsettled. Besides the works just listed.
XII siecles" (SAELM, XIII, 1904; CA, see also Voege, Die Anfange des monumentalen
Chartres, 1900); Aubert, "Le Portail Royal et Stilrs im Mittehlter, pp. 135 ff. (with splendid
la facade occidental de la Cathedrale de analyses, even though the author's chronological

Chartres" (BM, C, 1941), and La Sculpture conclusions were erroneous); Giesau, "Stand
francaise au moyen-dge, pp. 176 ff. Lefevre- der Forschung iiber das Figurcnportal des

Pontalis' theory, according to which the figure Mittelaltcrs" (Beitrage zur Kunst des Mittel-

portals were originally erected farther to the alters. Vortrage der Ersten Deutsche?! Kimsthi-

east but subsequently taken apart and reas- storiker-Tagung auf Schloss Briihl), and Stod-

sembled at their present location, has become dard. The West Portals of Saint Denis and
untenable in the light of the excavations con- Chartres, pp. 14 ff.

ducted by Fels. See his report "Die Grabung

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mentions a mass that Geoffrey celebrated in the hardly completed choir, and

also his presence at the final consecration.
30 The stylistic affinities between the

two facades reflect the personal relations between the two prelates and basic Plates 24, ip

affinities in their convictions and tastes. The St.-Denis facade precedes that of

Chartres and may, in some respects, even have served as its model. Craftsmen

seem to have been exchanged between the two workshops. But details regarding

the relationship between the facades have so far defied satisfactory clarification.

Since the jamb figures of Suger's portal are not mentioned in his description of it,

they may not have been executed until after the abbot's death in 1

5 1


31 In that

event, they might be later than the corresponding statues from the Royal

Portal at Chartres. The drawings after the St.-Denis statues, on the other hand,

published by Montfaucon (the statues were destroyed in 177 1), as well as three

heads, now in American museums, that may be assigned to these jamb statues,

suggest a more primitive style than that of Chartres West, at least more than

that of the figures attributed to the master sculptor. 32 The same impression is

confirmed by W. S. Stoddard's recent analysis of ornamental details of both
facades. Definitely archaic and of inferior quality is a group of small heads,

now in the Louvre, that seem to have belonged to the statues in the tympanum

and archivolts of St.-Denis.

The comparison of the two facades underscores the singular achievement of

Chartres. It is here that the new style, under the guidance of a great sculptor,

seems to come all of a sudden into its own, realizing the aesthetic vision of the Plate 28

first Gothic with definitive clarity and grandeur. No other work of medieval
sculpture produced an equal impression upon contemporaries; even today we

can trace its influence far beyond the boundaries of the French domain or even

of France. And no other work similarly outdistances its possible prototypes or

models. Inasmuch as the statuary of Chartres West is essentially a part of the

30. Oeuvres completes de Suger, pp. 230, 23 3,. 32. Montfaucon, Les Monumens de la

235. monarchic francaise, I, 16, 17, 18; Ross, "Monu-
31. Cf. Aubert, "Tetes des statues-colonnes mental Sculptures from St.-Denis" (Journal

du portail occidental de Saint-Denis" (BM, of the Walters Art Gallery, III, 1940); Crosby,
CIV, 1945); Sculpture, pp. 182 ff.; and Suger, "Early Gothic Architecture —New Problems
p. 141. Crosby, L'Abbaye royale de Saint-Denis, as a Result of the St. Denis Excavations"

p. 38, maintains that the statues were com- (JSAH, VII, 1948) (on the recently discovered
pleted before Suger's death and hence before relief, which he rightly dates earlier than

those of Chartres. This thesis seems the more Chartres); an illuminating comparison of the
convincing to me. styles of the two facades is in Voege, p. 223.

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The Gothic Cathedral

"This magisterial study ... is the most stimulating and
comprehensive work on the subject to date. . . . Perhaps the
main virtue of Dr. von Simson's book is the clarity which he
brings to the complex interplay of medieval esthetic theory
and practice. Moreover, he has not divorced this intellectual
and artistic ferment from the social realities of the age: the
cathedral is depicted not only in the mystical light of theolog-

ical texts, but against the sterner background of medieval
politics and finance, commerce and war." —Allan Temko,
New York Times Book Review

'The value of The Gothic Cathedral lies in its approach to
two essential problems. The first one is concerned with the
appreciation of Gothic architecture. Was it rational (accord-
ing to Viollet le Due), or was it illusionistic (according to
Pol Abraham)? It was symbolical in its conception, an-
swers von Simson; mystical in its aim, and calculated in its

principles. The second problem pertains to the relationship
between thought, society, and art. Von Simson shows that in
Gothic architecture history creates its own symbols, whether
political, economic, intellectual, or artistic, all of them fol-

lowing an independent but convergent spiritual pattern."

Philippe Verdier, Yale Review

"Dr. von Simson has placed every lover of Gothic architecture

in his debt by this deeply illuminating study. Only the scholar

will appreciate its thoroughness, but, like the Gothic cathedral

itself, it will appeal to many besides the specialist. The
format and numerous plates are worthy of the text."


Literary Supplement

Otto von Simson is professor at the Kunsthistoriches In-
stitut, Freien Universitat, Berlin.


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