Believing and Seeing

Roland Recht

Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals
by Roland Recht, Professor of Art History, University of Strasbourg
Translated by Mary Whittall
University of Chicago Press 2008, 392 pages, hardcover

This looks to be an essential book for any person with a love for the theology and philosophy of medieval architecture. Here is what Matthew Alderman (blog) says of it in his review for the latest issue of First Things (Jan. 2009):

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Under his watchful eye, we discover the physics and metaphysics of sight that defined the medieval experience of liturgy, as shown through the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the life of the eminently visible St. Francis. Through an examination of architectural precedent and contemporary texts, medieval architects and their patrons are transformed from naive Ruskinian builders and close-minded clerics to skilled, self-aware professionals such as the learned “doctor of stones,” Pierre de Montreuil, and intellectual clients and connoisseurs such as the antiquarian bishop Henry of Blois. Gothic architecture itself is released from the straightjacket of stereotype and allowed to stand on its own as a classically self-contained system with its own rules, geometries, and formulae, intellectual as well as liturgical.

At the same time, Gothic sculpture and painting is re-contextualised by the consideration of its various functions within medieval worship and society, re-establishing distinctions between various traditional artistic typologies previously blurred or ignored. We even get a glimpse into some overlooked aspects of the medieval workshop such as the highly paid craftsmen who, with polychromy and gilt, brought life to pale, stony sculpture. Along the way, we are treated to discussion of the interplay between reality and stylization, as well as the use and transmission of types and precedent. While Recht reminds us that the medieval artist was not creative in the modern sense of the word, the results of his labor could still be appreciated spiritually and intellectually on many levels.

What has often been reduced to pious simplicity by the faithful and secular alike is now rediscovered as vibrant, sophisticated, and flexibly intellectual. Whatever viewpoint one brings to Gothic architecture, one’s understanding of medieval art will be challenged and enhanced by Recht’s scholarly, measured panorama.

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