Undergraduate Thesis: Medieval/Modern Mindsets

Chartres Cathedral

At the Salon de La Section d’Or of 1912, Cubist painters from Paris and its suburbs as well as Rouen showed their work together in the most comprehensive exhibition of Cubist paintings yet.  Amidst the modern paintings, viewers would recognize familiar architectural elements of Gothic cathedrals and churches.  Of particular note was one small painting of Chartres Cathedral by Albert Gleizes (Figure 1).  The fragmented spires and rose windows of the famous cathedral presented multiple views of the massive church in one frame.  The viewer could see the integration of the cathedral in the landscape while looking at the geometry of the rose windows.  Those who were familiar with the building would not be able to place exactly from which direction Gleizes was looking at the church, for both rose windows face the exact same way, and the two uneven spires rest behind the façade.  In the actual building, looking from the north, one can see both rose windows and the spires that are flush with the western façade (Figures 2, 3).  Yet in the painting, to the right of the western façade, a flying buttress seems to crowd in front of the righthand spire, which it certainly does not do in the actual building.  In fact, when looking at either window from that direction, it is impossible to see that row of flying buttresses. 

Upon closer inspection, flying buttresses repeat themselves throughout the painting. On the left, buttresses stagger along the side, guiding the eye to the second window.  To the right, arches echo behind the one attached to the façade. Without the title, it might be hard to even recognize this cathedral as that of Chartres.  The windows, generally such a recognizable feature of Chartres, are so reduced in the painting that they retain little of the actual design.  Gleizes captures the effect of the windows akin to the way he captures the effect of the buttresses.  It is not the windows or buttresses themselves, but an abstracted version of them that captures the viewers experience of the architecture rather than the architecture itself.  That in and of itself suggests the question, why include such general features of a Gothic cathedral when the painting depicts a specific one?  Why not highlight Chartres’s unique features, so it is easier to identify?

For Albert Gleizes and his fellow Cubist painters, their interest was not so much in the specific cathedrals and the history behind them, but in the meaning of the Gothic to their present day.  The Section d’Or exhibition was staged two years before World War I, right at the peak of French nationalism and the popularity of the spatial fourth dimension. One might not initially see any connection between French nationalism and the fourth dimension; however, the cathedral is the connecting factor. 

Overview of the Gothic and Modern Mindsets

In the Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedral was a visual representation of heaven on earth for medieval clergy and laypersons.[1]  In addition, as Elena Papastavrou claims, “Pour la pensée chrétienne, l’Église avait été conçue avant toute chose; elle est la raison d’être du monde.”[2]  Cathedrals as the embodiment of Gothic theology encouraged a dualistic way of seeing the world—contrasting the vision of heaven suggested by the cathedral’s interior to the physicality of the visible world.  There was greater meaning and purpose behind what the eye could see.  Over time, the cathedrals came to stand as more than a symbol of faith; they became a symbol of French history as well.  For example, because Chartres cathedral was built and rebuilt over such a long period of time, it revealed the development of the Gothic style from its  early stages to peak perfection.[3]  As Whitney Stoddard writes in Art and Architecture in Medieval France : Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries, “Every part of the entire façade was modern when it was constructed— every part a moment in the history of the cathedral between 1134 and 1513, the date of completion of the north spire.”[4]  Though so much had changed in French cities since the Middle Ages, the cathedrals, despite the odds of time and war, still stood tall.  By the nineteenth century however, the buildings were in serious need of repairs.

The popular fourth dimension began to capture the imagination of the public beginning in the 1880s/1890s, right around the time of the cathedral repairs and restorations.  More than anything, the fourth dimension provided artists with a new way of understanding the world.  They now had a greater perspective than they could perceive with the naked eye alone.  This, in combination with the discovery of the X-ray, created a great distrust in the physical world and an increased interest in the unseen.[5]

The juxtaposition of interest in the fourth dimension and in medieval architecture led to a program of Cubist painting that accessed both the medieval and modern realms of the unseen.  This allowed, if not encouraged, the use of multiple perspectives, condensed space, and an emphasis on volumetric form. Alexander Nagel suggests in his book Medieval Modern significant connections between medieval and modern-day icons, a similar inclusion of the viewer in the art space, and the expansive influence of the cathedral over time.[6]  According to Nagel,  his goal is not “to deepen the register of historical influences or to retrieve a new set of legitimating precursors for modern practice, thus rendering it traditional and familiar to all, but to activate a wider set of reference points that cannot be arranged chronologically.”[7]  The use of the cathedrals in Cubist paintings is an anachronism on the surface, but in actuality it  expands the impact of the cathedral throughout history.

The goal of this thesis is to examine the reciprocal nature of medieval and modern ideology and to demonstrate the impact of this ideological exchange on the art produced at the time.  I will analyze the publications the artists were reading and writing at the time as well as how the course of their stylistic development could encourage an interest in the Gothic.  While I have included the art of numerous painters and sculptors, I focus particularly on Albert Gleizes, who, in art historical writing, is generally considered the Cubist with one foot still planted in the Middle Ages.  However, as this thesis will reveal, he was one of many.

For the full paper, please personally request a copy through my contact form.

[1] Otto Georg von Simson. The Gothic Cathedral; Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964), xv.

[2] Elena Papastavrou, “L’Idée De l’ « Ecclesia » Et La Scène De l’Annonciation. Quelques Aspects.” (Deltion of ChAE 21 (2000): 227–40.), 228, doi:10.12681/dchae.561.

[3] Whitney S. Stoddard, Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries (New York, New York: Routledge, 2018) 175.

[4] Whitney S. Stoddard, Art and Architecture in Medieval France, 175.

[5] Linda Dalrymple Henderson, “Editor’s Introduction: I. Writing Modern Art and Science – an Overview; Ii. Cubism, Futurism, and ETHER Physics in the Early Twentieth Century,” Science in Context 17, no. 4 (2004): pp. 423-466, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0269889704000225. 447.

[6] Alexander Nagel, Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time (London: Thames Hudson, 2012), Introduction.

[7] Nagel, Medieval Modern, 22.

Using Format