Gothic art and the inclusion of ugly

Roland Recht

There are a lot of dubious interpretations of Gothic art. Victor Hugo’s Romanticist anti-clericalism is one example, and it is a popular one among those more inclined to view religion from its populist-sociological angle, which tends to forget dogmas and doctrinal trends. As such, the gospel commission of the Church is less important than discerning the human yearnings projected by the community.

However, those who are more inclined toward extolling the value of theology and the work of the Church, in forming piety and artistic expression, will appreciate Roland Recht’s interpretation of Gothic art, in his volume, Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals (U. Chicago, 2008). The following excerpt is from the final, concluding chapter. The last paragraph reminds me of Flannery O’Connor.

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[The focus on structural form] does not do justice to three other factors that complement and reinforce each other, without which no “Gothic” art would ever have seen the light of day: the way the sacrament of the Eucharist developed; the mysticism of the Passion inaugurated by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and extended in the practices initiated by St. Francis; and the new standing of the visual arts in a society where the written word surrendered its dominant position to them. The result was necessarily a rethinking of architectural language. The mysticism of the Passion, thanks to the renewal of modes of figurative expression, acquired an ever more elaborate mode of representation, and thanks to architecture it acquired a space entirely governed by the “eucharistic perspective.”

“Gothic” art is first and foremost an abundance of visual images that make architecture their support. But the architecture itself is treated as an image; it solicits attention continually, one form pointing to another in accordance with a play of relationships, never allowing the human eye to rest. Never were forms so numerous or so complex, giving the visible shapes to the teachings of Scripture, with pride of place taken by the Incarnation and its final, tragic act, the Passion — which allowed evil, cruelty, hatred, and suffering to enter the artistic representation. Everything that Neoplatonism had dismissed from the definition of beauty thus found a place in the story of salvation. Christ is God, “but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” as we read in the Epistle to the Philippians.

St. Augustine wrought a revolution in the classical art of oratory by rejecting the hierarchical classification of the three modi, or genera, of discourse, handed down from Cicero and deemed to correspond to, respectively, sublime, intermediate, and lowly subjects. This distinction has no relevance, St. Augustine argued, to spiritual subjects concerning the salvation of mankind. In the Christian view, nothing is low or despicable; everything has its place in the overall plan of salvation. Similarly, the comical, the obscene, the ugly occupy a position equal to that of the beautiful. Thus ugly is not the diametrical opposite of the beautiful, which means that it is possible for the devil to adopt the lineaments of divine beauty. If the truth of the Scriptures remains inaccessible to many, it is not because their style is too lofty but because the truth is lodged in the most profound depths of the text, where greatness and littleness mingle. It is humility that will show us the only path of access to this truth.

pp. 308-309

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