Are We Living in a Second Gothic Age?

“[T]he Gothic era,” Bruno Klein writes in the introduction to Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500, “was a time of seeing, in which much was discussed in words, but even more conveyed with the help of images.” In this massive new study of the period published by h.f. Ullmann as part of the Collection of Art Epochs, we reunite with a generation powerfully like our own—a group of visual learners more comfortable with meaning filtered through images than through words. What separates this new book from previous encyclopedic surveys of the Gothic past is the photographic processes of the present. By zooming in and digitally manipulating images for maximum clarity and detail, Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 pulls the distant past into our immediate future. Thrust literally face to face with this strangely different yet strangely similar time, we can ask, “Are we living in a second Gothic age?”

Edited by Rolf Toman and photographed by Achim Bednorz, the team that gave birth to Ars Sacra (the monumental study of all of Christian art; which I reviewed here), Gothic launches the Collection of Art Epochs series. As informative and illuminating as the text of scholars such as Klein is, the true star of the Art Epochs series is undoubtedly Bednorz’s photography. Bednorz employs the so-called “zoom principle” of digital photography. As shown here, Bednorz would take multiple photographs of a single artwork or scene and digitally combine them into a high-definition version that’s not “just like being there,” but actually better than being there. Details seen in giant cathedrals only through binoculars (if at all) “zoom” right to us. Tiny objects appear as if placed under a magnifying glass. If you love your HD TV, you’ll love Bednorz’s photography. (Bednorz also explains his techniques in this video.)

“The aim of this book is to do justice to the dominance of visual culture” in the Gothic age, Klein adds, “and to help the reader to see.” All Klein and the other visionaries behind Gothic ask is that you look “with an open mind, but also critically, and above all intensely.” It’s that intensity that makes Gothic, whose 568 oversized glossy pages weigh in at a little over 16 pounds, sometimes a heavy experience, as if you’ve just walked into one of the great cathedrals of Europe with no guidance as to where to look. Fortunately, the overall structure and design of Gothic quickly gets you on your way.

Klein explains how a Gothic cathedral was “a highly differentiated structure, in which various groups each had their special place, and in which they communicated with each other directly or by means of images.” Depending on your level of verbal and/or visual literacy, you would be drawn towards the written gospels, the spoken sermons, or the visual sermons of artwork such as the unforgettable Rose Window of Chartes Cathedral (shown above). Klein sees Chartes losing the “richness of early Gothic architecture,” but compensating with “unusual size and laconic language of forms” to set a new standard as the “epitome of the ‘Gothic cathedral.’” While Klein’s writing situates Chartes Cathedral in the tradition of the Gothic cathedral, Bednorz’s photography brings you in closer and closer and almost impossibly even closer to see details in breathtaking color and richness. The temptation for non-experts faced with monumental Gothic architecture is to come away thinking that if you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you’ve seen them all. Gothic clearly proves that each cathedral’s unique in its beauty and its embodiment of the devotional zeal of those who built it. In fact, an arms race of sorts arose as communities battled to build the biggest and best cathedrals both as gestures of faith and symbols of community pride.

Gothic covers all aspects of the period both great and small. Devotional objects such as the mysterious, weirdly wonderful Roettgen Pieta, whose grotesqueness was meant to leave believers “prostrated over the immensity of Christ’s self-sacrifice,” break the stereotype of a homogeneous Gothic art. A wonderful visual map of the society itself, Gothic demonstrates how town halls became “secular cathedrals” with appropriately corresponding artwork. “[T]he refinement of manners and the emancipation of art” from serving religious purposes exclusively may have come from the “courtly culture” of the elite, but, Klein argues, “without the stimuli provided by the cities” teeming with an increasingly diverse population of merchants and tradesmen, those cultural advances would have never happened. This “internet” of societal exchange comes across beautifully in the artwork displayed, especially in the remarkable murals of the Castello del Buonconsiglio, Torre dell’Aquila, in Trento, Italy. This series of murals showing the progress of a year in the life of a castle and its surroundings captures everything from a young nobles’ snowball fight in January to a mixed hunting party of nobles and peasants together in November. Although social norms still prevented interaction as equals between the classes, proximity led to a fruitful coexistence passed down to us in their art.

Familiar landmarks such as the Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece find new life in Gothic as the embodiment of a new “internalization of religiosity and the world of feeling” as the times shifted towards a different sense of the individual’s place in the greater whole. Figures unfamiliar to non-specialists such as German printmaker Martin Schongauer leap off the page with their inventiveness and sophistication. As enriching as it is to work through Gothic from front to back, simply diving into pages at random will allow you to resurface with pearls of newfound wonder such as Schongauer and others.

Klein fingers the development of printing as the main culprit in the demise of the Gothic age. Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald enter just at the end of the era, stretching Gothic rhetoric to its extreme while simultaneously introducing the new rhetoric of the Renaissance. By the end of Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 you recognize more clearly the continuity between the Gothic and the Renaissance, which is still too often portrayed as an escape from the Dark Ages into the light of the neoclassical humanism of Michelangelo and friends.

In saying that we might be in a second “Gothic age,” am I saying we’re in a second “Dark Ages”? No, and not just because, as this book proves, the “Dark Ages” were anything but a dark, empty time. But the way that Gothic reconnects that period with modernity both through our cutting-edge visual technology and cultural visual orientation strongly suggests that we have at least as much in common with them as with the Renaissance idealists we so wish to emulate. The very term “Gothic” originated as an insult, a sneer from the Renaissance elites looking back on the “darker” past with disdain and likening them to the barbaric Germanic tribes that sacked Rome, thus hastening the inevitable end of the classical period. Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 asks us to look, and look intensely, before we sneer, because the face of the Gothic age might be much like the one in our mirror.

[Image: Chartes Cathedral, Rose Window in the North Transept, circa 1230-1240. Copyright Achim Bednorz.]

[Many thanks to h.f. Ullmann for providing me with the image above from and a review copy of Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500, edited by Rolf Toman, text by Bruno Klein, photographs by Achim Bednorz, and produced by Thomas Paffen.]

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