Gothic on the Edge


"The greatest works of architecture? should be regarded as the deposit left by a nation, as the accumulation of the centuries, as the residue of successive evaporations of human society, briefly, as a kind of geological formation."
-Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Over a period of several hundred years between late antiquity and the end of the medieval period in Europe and the Near East, masonry-vaulted structures became the dominant fabric for congregational buildings, replacing the wooden-roofed basilicas of the Romans.[1] At the beginning of this period, we see heroic efforts in masonry vaulting, such as the elliptically vaulted hall in the Sassanian palace at Ctesiphon and the domed basilica of Justinian's Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, both constructed of brick. These buildings were built to great heights and spans supported by massive walls and buttressing systems.

In later building campaigns, particularly in France, stone-vaulted systems using precisely cut ashlar blocks employed inventive techniques to reduce the supporting mass, and in doing so, allow more light to stream in through apertures in the walls and load-bearing structures.  
 
These later buildings, which we most commonly refer to as Gothic, had structural systems tuned to support their static loads primarily in the vertical direction, leaving them more vulnerable than their predecessors to contingencies of the natural environment such as earthquakes or high wind storms. In the High Gothic period in France, we see this sequence taken to the extremes in Beauvais and Amiens cathedrals.

All stone-vaulted buildings share both the universal challenge of defying gravity using vaulted masonry construction and the desire to provide light-filled space for communal worship.  Scholars who have focused on style in tracing the evolution of Gothic have, however, missed an important force in the shaping of Gothic form?namely a dialectical struggle between the desire to open apertures in the walls to fill the interior with light and the need for physical support of the vaults, a struggle as contentious as that depicted in the Christian dualism of spirit and flesh.[2] 

These somewhat conflicting conditions of light and support, spirit and flesh, fostered similarities between congregational religious monuments from the Islamic Near East to Île-de-France, allowing for a consistent typological comparison.  At the same time, this art of light and levitation manifested itself in building projects that, as a chronological sequence, expressed greater structural daring over time ? a sequence that is easily observed, but difficult to explain without falling into a teleological story. 

The present investigation starts with a simple hypothesis: The desire for dematerialized light-filled space was shared across a large region from the Near East to Western Europe, a region that in the medieval period saw many experiments in stone-vaulting occur with varied results. The localities that were more seismically stable supported generally more daring experiments than areas that were more seismically active. The rise of Gothic is not determined exclusively by physically geography, but it is permitted with consent of the natural environment. 

In stone-vaulted structures, the technical considerations are extensive, and, though it has been fiercely debated to what degree technical developments have driven stylistic changes, there can be little doubt that structural needs and invention weighed heavily on formal outcomes.[3]  Some of these structural needs can be seen as responses to contextual challenges that vary geographically, particularly in the case of seismic hazard.

In our study, we will essentialize the buildings in our corpus geometrically and structurally, and compare many cases though these abstract representations in an effort to identify the structural responses to geographic problems. By intellectually stripping away surface decoration and detail (the visible attributes that traditionally have provided the bulk of the grist for the art historical mill), we will isolate the formal changes that are closest to the bone of architectural structure.[4] Through this process, we will be able to see what is normally invisible, as it were, and reveal evolutionary patterns in formal changes over successive building campaigns that have been previously overlooked.[5]
 
Aided by the overlay of historical seismic data, this study will provide a longue durée view of the ?development? of medieval religious architecture and the degree to which it was shaped by physical and environmental constraints, forces that could not be seen directly by the builders, but were encountered via the cultural memory of building collapses and cataclysmic natural events.  Considering that these buildings were built over a wide-ranging and varied geography spanning Europe to the eastern Mediterranean ? a varied landscape that, in many places, was relentless and unforgiving, and in other locales, permissive of structural daring in the monumental architectural endeavors of ecclesiastic patrons ? we may ask to what degree landscape contributed to the forms of these religious buildings and how such knowledge would help us reassess prior theories of the development of medieval architecture and particularly the rise of Gothic architecture in France. 

Because French Gothic architecture achieved extremes in height, light and attenuated skeletal mass, it has dominated histories about medieval stone-vaulted architecture. Due to its success, it has a narrative gravity that bends historical treatments toward it, bestowing on French Gothic architecture an importance as both a culmination of previous experiments and the center of a supernova-like expansion out to a far-flung periphery, extending beyond the boundaries of French political power.
  
Some have resisted the narrative pull of specific monuments such as Chartres or of French Gothic in general, critical of the assumption that all stone-vaulted enterprises outside of France are provincial failures of sorts, or colonies of a ?Parisian architectural empire.??[6]  In this dissertation, we call into question the traditional notions of center and periphery in Gothic (that Gothic productions at the periphery were less daring or poorly executed) by conceptualizing Gothic architecture as part of a continuum that includes projects in more seismically active regions of the Mediterranean. 

While not dealing specifically with the transmission of core building technologies such as the pointed arch from the East to France, or the retransmission of specific Gothic solutions to regions outside of France, this dissertation focuses on ecological filters other than provincial proximity to a center of cultural production. The thesis here is that the physical attributes that made the great Gothic buildings possible, such as the pointed arch, were forged in a crucible of sorts: the seismically active eastern Mediterranean ? which may be thought of as the actual center of Gothic production.  France, particularly the Paris basin, situated on the seismically stable edge of this super region, had a greater theoretical capacity for building height and daring.  It is as though the region from Europe to the Levant was governed by a zoning envelope, one not defined by civic law, but rather by natural law. This dissertation does not tell a teleological story of how Gothic came to rise first in France, but rather why the extremes structural daring of Gothic architecture attained in France was one of the more likely of many possible outcomes. 

In the first chapters, we consider an important corpus of Gothic buildings in the Levant and Cyprus, and make a case for a method of integrating them into a greater study of Gothic development. In the following chapter, we establish a lens ? through which to peer at the buildings across a vast landscape from Europe to the Eastern Mediterranean ? namely modern evolution theory. In the remaining chapters we discuss the shared desires and constraints in Gothic production and focus on a specific evolutionary selective filter that can explain the range of forms found in different locales.

The historian of medieval architecture may feel uncomfortable considering so large a corpus of buildings that includes both Crusader Romanesque churches of the twelfth century, and French Gothic of the thirteenth because each church is individual, built by local people with local desires and challenges. While this is certainly true, what is common about them can help us understand the individual buildings better. As William Durand wrote in the thirteenth century:

?The reader should not be disturbed if he reads about things in this work that he finds are not observed in his own church, or if he does not find something that is observed there. For we shall not proceed to discuss the peculiar observances of any particular place, but the rights that are more common and more ordinary, since we have labor to set forth the universal teaching and not one of particular bearing; nor would it be possible for us to examine thoroughly the peculiar observances of all places.?[7]

At the outer periphery of the super region of French political influence in the medieval period, the remains of more than 40 Gothic churches are standing or partially standing on the island of Cyprus. These remains represent a uniquely large corpus of medieval stone-vaulted architecture unmatched by the remains of Frankish buildings elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the mainland Levant, Anatolia, Rhodes, Crete and the Balkan Peninsula.  Built primarily by French patrons during the 297 years of Lusignan rule on the island beginning in 1192, these works, despite being well-documented by scholars interested in the region, have not yet been critically considered in research regarding the development of 12th and 13th-century stone-vaulted architecture, namely Gothic architecture.[8]

A problem exists with how to integrate these Cypriot works into research regarding the development of Gothic architecture.  In the absence of any evidence of a transmission of ideas from the periphery to the center, the most likely scenario is that the Frankish-Cypriot builders simply received ideas from the center of production in France and executed them with local modifications and under local constraints ? thus making their only role in the story of Gothic being that they copied the French. 

In this chapter, we will take a critical look at the idea that Gothic architecture in the eastern Mediterranean is a provincial architecture, and we will find that the Cypriot buildings do have something important to demonstrate to us about the evolution of Gothic in regions outside of Cyprus, including France and England, a thread we will explore in the following chapters. 

The Gothic churches in Cyprus are clearly not as elegant, magnificent, structurally daring or sublime as the cathedrals and abbey churches built in France during the twelfth and thirteeth centuries.  This has understandably led to an academic marginalization of the buildings as artistically inferior to Gothic production in France and barely worth a mention in the story of Gothic architecture.[9]  

Even the heated scholarly debates in the nineteeth century over the idea of Eastern origins of Gothic architecture excluded Cypriot churches for the most part.[10] The language of these debates indicates that they were fueled by intense interests in national origins ? exemplified by the Marquis de Vogué?s research in the eastern Mediterranean to understand "l'origine oriental de notre architecture."[11] In their search for the transmission of the pointed arch and the rib vault, de Vogué and others turned to the Latin buildings in the East that preceded the rise of Gothic in France, buildings that were produced within the milieu of Byzantine and Islamic cultures, and well before Cyprus became a Frankish kingdom.  
 
Although not directly in a developmental line with the churches of France, the corpus of buildings in Cyprus is irresistible in both number and level of preservation.  Although they may be seen as trailing French developments, the Cypriot buildings bear key evidence to the selective forces of seismic geography in the development of Gothic form.

In his discussion on the debate as to whether Byzantine church architecture in Cyprus should be treated as provincial or regional, Slobodan ?ur?i? begins by admitting that it is not fair to compare the small, but lavishly painted, Greek churches in Cyprus with the grander productions in Constantinople; yet, at the same time, he rightly asserts that the Cypriot buildings represent a unique regional expression of Byzantine architecture within the challenges and constraints of a particular context, specifically the structural problems posed by seismic hazard.[12]  The same is true of the Frankish buildings in the Mediterranean compared with those in Île-de-France.  As previously mentioned, the Cypriot Gothic buildings cannot be compared to the French Gothic ones in terms of elegance and apparent structural daring; but to better understand the sequence of changes in form in both the Gothic mega-region and each individual region, compare them we must. As other scholars of Gothic architecture on the periphery have asserted, there is much about the edge that can teach us about the center.[13]  

Focusing on the Latin churches in Cyprus, with particular emphasis on the cathedrals in Nicosia and Famagusta as case studies, we will explore specific ways in which Cypriot Gothic architecture differs from French Gothic architecture, and the specific contextual factors that may have favored these differences.    

Given that the Cypriot builders of Gothic architecture were operating in a context that could be conceptualized as a space between France and the mainland Levant, and a time between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and the rise of the Royal Domain in France, we will begin with Frankish church production in the Holy Land to help us understand the context within which the Lusignan builders were operating, and their particular position in the grand dureé sequence of architectural copies and their alterations (what evolutionary biologists refer to as descent with modification).

Notes:
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[1] Europe?s broad adoption of stone-vaulting was somewhat rapid as it accompanied a resurgence of church building at the beginning of the medieval period. Rodulf Glaber in his chronicle of the millennium described the sudden surge in church production  at the beginning of the Romanesque period: ?...as if the whole world were shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.?  Rodulfus Glaber. 1989. The Five Books of the Histories. Edited by J. France. Oxford: Oxford University Press.    Kenneth Conant attributes the transition from wooden-roofed structures to stone-vaulted ones to a need for fireproofing that was so strong that the conservatism of the monks and the prestige of Roman basilicas had to be overcome. Kenneth Conant,1942. ?The Place of Cluny in Romanesque and Gothic Architecture.? The Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians 2 (3) (July 1): 3?5.
[2] ?For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another?? (Galatians 5:17).  In this analogy, we do not use the gnostic interpretation that flesh equals bad and spirit equals good, but rather, that that the flesh presents practical constraints in the journey to salvation, as in ?Christ became flesh,? and was, in the Christian mind, subjected to  the constraints of physical existence. (John 1:14, Cor. 6:16)
[3] Early functionalists, who took the view that Gothic form is primarily determined by structure were Robert Willis and Viollet-le-Duc. Pol Abraham countered Viollet-le-Duc?s extreme rationalist views by critiquing the function of elements like rib vaults, arguing that these are decorative and illusionistic rather than structural. This idea carried into Robert Branner?s discussion of illusionism in Burgundian Gothic. The degree to which forms are structural or illusionistic is hard to conclude since stone-vaulted structures confound even modern engineers like Jaques Heyman and John Ochsendorf. 
 See Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. 1990. The Foundations of Architecture?: Selections from the Dictionnaire Raisonné. New York: G. Braziller; Pol Abraham. 1934. Viollet-le-Duc et le rationalisme médiéval (Ouvrage illustré de 49 figures dans le texte). Paris: Vincent, Fréal & Cie.,, Robert  Branner. 1961. Burgundian Gothic Architecture. London: A. Zwemmer.
[4] Georges Cuvier, the founder of comparative anatomy, developed systems for classification of species.  Focusing on the function of organs rather than their forms, he proposed that the organic correspondence, or interdependence of all organs, allowed one to reconstruct an entire organism from only fragments.  For Cuvier, internal organs are more important and reveal longue durée relationships of the organism with environmental conditions (forces in selection), while the external organs such as skin pigment and fur patterns reveal shorter-term specifics of locale.  Georges Cuvier. 1800. Leçons d?Anatomie Comparée. 5 vols;  Viollet-le-Duc, with his restoration work on buildings like Vézelay and Notre-Dame in Paris, was able to see parts of the buildings normally invisible to the visitor. He subscribed to Cuvier?s view of rational, organic correspondence and, like Cuvier, ignored evolution as a means of understanding the development of the organs. For Viollet-le-Duc, the mason as intelligent agent designs every interdependent component of the structure. Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. 1858. Dictionnaire raisonné de l?architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle,. Paris: B. Bance [etc.]. particularly in the section ?Restauration? vol 8, 14-34.
[5] Michel Foucault observed that Cuvier, in representing the specimen at a level that included internal organs,  ?opposed historical knowledge of the visible? and focused on ?philosophical knowledge of the invisible.?  ?Animal species differ at their peripherals, and resemble each other at their centers; they are connected by the inaccessible, and separated by the apparent.? Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 1971, New York: Pantheon Books. p. 138, 267.
[6] Jean  Bony. 1957. ?The Resistance to Chartres in Early Thirteenth Century Architecture.? Journal of the British Archeological Association XX-XXI. 3: 35?52;  Marvin Trachtenberg. 1991. ?Gothic/Italian ?Gothic?: Toward a Redefinition.? Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 50 (1) (March 1): 22?37. p. 22.
[7] William Durandus, Rationale, Prohemium.14. As qouoted in Durand, Guillaume, T. M Thibodeau, and Guillaume Durand. 2007. The rationale divinorum officiorum of William Durand of Mende?: (a new translation of the prologue and book one). New York: Columbia University Press., p. 5.
[8] Camille Enlart provided the first and, to this day, the most complete study of the Frankish monuments of Cyprus in Enlart, Camille, and David Hunt. 1987. Gothic art and the Renaissance in Cyprus. London: Trigraph in association with the A.G. Leventis Foundation.

During the British administration of the island from 1878 to 1960, the Department of Antiquities documented and restored many of the medieval monuments. During this period, George Jeffery published a survey that extended Enlart?s work. Jeffery, George. 1983. A description of the historic monuments of Cyprus.?: Studies in the archaeology and architecture of the island. London: Zeno.
[9] The Gothic scholars who have used a large inter-regional corpus of Romanesque and Gothic buildings in theorizing a grand narrative of the development of Gothic architecture include Viollet-le-Duc, Henri Focillon, Paul Frankl, Jean Bony, Louis Grodecki, and others. In their work, Cypriot buildings are omitted entirely. Large surveys of Gothic architecture by Günther Binding, Christopher Wilson and Rolf Toman  neglect to include any Cypriot Gothic architecture as well.
[10] One of the earliest treatments regarding Eastern origins of Gothic was de Vogué?s response to the assertion of George Wigley that the Crusader building in the context of the Holy Land generated the development of Gothic. deVogué, Charles Jean Melchoir. 1860. Les Églises de la Terre Sainte. Paris. pp. 403-4
See also Wigley, George J., and Royal Institute of British Architects. 1856. Archaeological studies in Jerusalem?: two lectures delivered at the Royal Institute of British Architects, February 25th and March 10th, 1856.London: C. Dolman.  Creswell, K.A.C., and James W. Allan. 1989. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Aldershot: Scolar.  Warren, John. 1991. ?Creswell?s Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture.? Muqarnas 8 (January 1): 59?65. doi:10.2307/1523154.  Conant, Kenneth John. 1959. The Pointed arch - orient to occident. Osaka.  Conant, Kenneth J. 1971. ?Early Examples of the Pointed Arch and Vault in Romanesque Architecture.? Viator 2: 203.  Armi, C. Edson. 2004. Design and Construction in Romanesque Architecture?: First Romanesque Architecture and the Pointed Arch in Burgundy and Northern Italy. Cambridge, U.K.?; New York: Cambridge University Press.   Draper, Peter. 2005. ?Islam and the West: The Early Use of the Pointed Arch Revisited.? Architectural History 48: 1?20.
[11] de Vogué, 1860. pp. 403-4.
[12] Slobodan ?ur?i? and Trapeza Kyprou. Politistiko Hidryma. 2000. ?Byzantine Architecture on Cyprus: An Introduction to the Problem of the Genesis of a Regional Style.? In Medieval Cyprus?: Studies in Art, Architecture, and History in Memory of Doula Mouriki. Nicosia: Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation.
[13] Rocío Sanchez Ameijeiras echoes  Madeline Caviness? remark that ?period?s styles are ideological? as he argued that the fact  that Catilian Gothic sculpture as been neglected by mainstream scholarship by ?ideologies relying on historical construction? and that because the portals at León were carved as a complete program in one stylistic period, they provide a rare opportunity to better understand Gothic sculpture in France.  Rocío Sanchez Ameijeiras. 2011. ?The Faces of the Words: Aesthetic Notions and Artistic Practise in the Thirteenth Century.? In Gothic Art & Thought in the Later Medieval Period?: Essays in Honor of Willibald Sauerländer, edited by Colum Hourihane, 90?118. [Princeton, New Jersey]; University Park, Pennsylvania: I. p. 94-95.   Christopher Wilson thought it important to include the  churches in the Gothic ?frontier states,? explaining that including examples of regionalism in Gothic style at the periphery helped develop a better sense of what the ?great church? was. Christopher Wilson. 1990. The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church, 1130-1530, with 220 Illustrations. New York, N.Y. (500 5th Ave., New York): Thames and Hudson.
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