The Gothic Cathedral

Author: Emile Male


Note by Princeton University Press [Emile Male's works on religious art now accepted as classics. Monuments of scholarly achievement, they are written in a literary style that conveys with eloquence the power of Male's authority and the fineness of his thought. The complete critical history, originally published between 1898 and 1932, comprises four large volumes. They provide an intimate, living picture of the French Middle Ages, and the grandeur of the artistic Renaissance that accompanied the Counter Reformation.]


To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know--the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts--all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. The pathetic name of Bibliapauperum given by the printers of the fifteenth century to one of their earliest books, might well have been given to the church. There the simple, the ignorant, all who were named "sancta plebs Dei," learned through their eyes almost all they knew of their faith. Its great figures, so spiritual in conception, seemed to bear speaking witness to the truth of the Church's teaching. The countless statues, disposed in scholarly design, were a symbol of the marvelous order that through the genius of St. Thomas Awuinas reigned in the world of thought. Through the medium of art the highest conceptions of theologian and scholar penetrated to some extent the minds of even the humblest of the people....

We shall consider the art of the thirteenth century as a living whole, as a finished system, and we shall study the way in which it reflects the thought of the Middle Ages. In this way we shall gain some idea of the majesty of the whole, some notion of the truly encyclopedic range of medieval art in its prime. The thirteenth century is the central point of our study, for it was then that art with admirable daring tried to express all things. The iconography of the richest Romanesque work is poor indeed beside the wealth of Gothic imagery, and the period we have chosen is precisely that in which the facades of the great French churches were thought out and executed....

It is not because we believe that the art of neighboring nations obeys different rules that we have limited ourstudy to that of French art. On the contrary the character of the art of the thirteenth century was as truly universal as was its Christian teaching. We have satisfied ourselves that the great subjects in which it delighted were conceived of at Burgos, Toledo, Siena, Orvieto, Bamberg, Friburg, just as they were at Paris or at Reims. But we are convinced that Christian thought was not expressed elsewhere so fully or so richly as in France. In the whole of Europe there is no group of works of dogmatic art in the least comparable to that presented by the cathedral of Chartres. It was in France that the doctrine of the Middle Ages found its perfect artistic form. Thirteenth-century France was the fullest conscious expression of Christian thought.



The medieval artist was neither a rebel, nor a "thinker," nor a precursor of the Revolution. To interest the public in his work it is no longer necessary to present him in such a light. It is enough to show him as he really was, simple, modest and sincere. This conception of him is more pleasing to the modern mind. He was the docile interpreter of great ideas which it took all his genius to comprehend. Invention was rarely permitted to him. The Church left little more than pieces of pure decoration to his individual fancy, but in them his creative power had free play and he wove a garland of all living things to adorn the house of God. Plants, animals, all those beautiful creatures that waken curiosity and tenderness in the soul of the child and of the simple, there grew under his fingers. Through them the cathedral became a living thing, a gigantic tree full of birds and flowers, less like a work of man than of nature.

Conviction and faith pervade the cathedral from end to end. Even the modern man receives a deep impression of serenity, little as he is willing to submit himself to its influence.

There his doubts and theories may be forgotten for a time. Seen from afar, the church with her transepts, spires and towers seems like a mighty ship about to sail on a long voyage. The whole city might embark with confidence on her massive decks.

As he draws near her he first meets the figure of the Christ, as every man born into the world meets Him on his voyage through life. He is the key to the riddle oflife. Round Him is written the answer to all men's questionings. The Christian is told how the world began and how it will end; and the statues which symbolize the different ages of the world measure for him its duration. Before his eyes are all the men whose history it is of importance he should know. These are they who under the Old or the New Law were types of Christ, for only in so far as they participate in the nature of the Savior do men live....


On entering the cathedral it is the sublimity of the great vertical lines which first affects his soul. The nave at Amiens gives an inevitable sense of purification, for by its very beauty the great church acts as a sacrament. Here again it is an image of the world. The cathedral like the plain or the forest has atmosphere and perfume, splendor, and twilight, and gloom. The great rose-window behind which sinks the western sun, seems in the evening hours to be the sun itself about to vanish at the edge of a marvelous forest. But this is a transfigured world, where light shines more brightly and where shadows have more mystery than in the world of fact. Already he feels himself in the heart of the heavenly Jerusalem, and tastes the profound peace of the city of the future. The storm of life breaks on the walls of the sanctuary, and is heard merely as a distant rumbling. Here indeed is the indestructible ark against which the winds shall not prevail. No place in the world fills men with a deeper feeling of security.

How much more vividly must this have been felt by the men of the Middle Ages. To them the cathedral was the sum of revelation. In it all the arts combined, speech, music, the living drama of the Mysteries and the mute drama of sculpture. But it was something more than art, it was the white light before its division by the prism into multiple rays. Man, cramped by his social class or his trade, his nature disintegrated by his daily work and life, there renewed the sense of the unity of his being and regained equilibrium and harmony. The crowd assembled for the great festivals felt itself to be a living whole, and became the mystical body of Christ, its soul passing into His soul. The faithful were humanity, the cathedral was the world, and the spirit of God filled both man and all creation. St. Paul's words were realized, and in God men lived and moved and had their being. Something of this was dimly felt by men of the Middle Ages when on a glorious Christmas or Easter-day, standing shoulder to shoulder, the whole city filled the immense church.

Symbol of faith, the cathedral was also a symbol of love. All men labored there. The peasants offered their all, the work of their strong arms. They pulled carts, and carried stones on their shoulders with the good will of the giant-saint Christopher. The burgess gave his silver, thebaron his land, and the artist his genius. The vitality which radiates from these immortal works is the outcome of the collaboration of all the living forces of France for more than two hundred years. The dead too were associated with the living, for the church was paved with tombstones, and past generations with joined hands continued to pray in the old church where past and present are united in one and the same feeling of love. The cathedral was the city's consciousness....


In the thirteenth century, rich and poor alike had the same artistic delights. There was not on the one hand the people, on the other a class of so-called connoisseurs. The church was the home of all, and art translated the thought of all. And so while art of the sixteenth or seventeenth century tells us little of the deeper thought of the France of that day, thirteenth-century art on the contrary gives full expression to a civilization, to an epoch in history. The medieval cathedral takes the place of books.

It is not only the genius of Christianity which is revealed, but the genius of France. It is true that the ideas which took visible form in the churches did not belong to France alone but were the common patrimony of Catholic Europe. Yet France is recognized in her passion for the universal. She alone knew how to make the cathedral an image of the world, a summary of history, a mirror of the moral life. Again, the admirable order as of a supreme law which she imposed on that multitude of ideas is peculiar to France. The cathedrals of other countries, all later than the French, do not reveal so wide a range of ideas or so finely ordered a scheme of thought. There is nothing in Italy, Spain, Germany of England which can compare with Chartres. Nowhere else can be found such wealth of thought. When shall we understand that in the domain of art France has accomplished nothing greater?

From Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century (1913).

Taken from the Summer 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, John J. Mulloy, Editor.