Gothic Mystique Part One: Outfoxing the Poor

PART 1: OUTFOXING THE POOR 

If Goths begot Gothic, who begat the Gothic novel? And when was today’s Goth sub-cult begut and by what? Enjoy this first part of a series by Stryder Simms on the ages of Gothic art.

Notre Dame Gargoyle, photo by photo Brian Jeffery Beggerly, ArtGothic.com

During the period between the 11th and 14th centuries, the human face as depicted by masters of paint, stone and glass, finally cracked a smile. Nature began to look like a paradise again, instead of a crime scene where our ancestors committed the original sin.

But by the 18th century, Gothic referred to a type of romance, typically cursed or tragic. And in a further transition, the Gothic novel eventually gave birth to the horror genre in literature.

Let’s travel back in time to see how all this transpired.

The symbolism in the art and architecture of the Romanesque era, which immediately precedes the Gothic, was geared toward the learned, sophisticated minds of Catholic aristocracy. These centuries in Europe were tough. Bloody battles erupted everywhere. Refugees were shifting and drifting. Pandemics struck aristocrats and peasants alike.

It was a tricky job to keep a congregation hopeful when God seemed indifferent. So the church made the audacious claim that God was actually being kind by not letting us get comfortable in this inferior realm. The poor needed to be outfoxed, the proud to be comforted, so they could both be taxed. The church had to deflect accusations that God turned his back on the congregation, so they pushed a doctrine of asceticism. We were instructed to “ignore the flesh” and only be concerned with the “other world”, the realm of heaven where we would be rewarded for our righteousness, and hell where we’d be punished for our negligence.

This world of ours was a way station where folks were tested—sinful and righteous alike. That’s why facial expressions on statuary were so grim and determined. Worship was shrouded in those Abbey chapels. They were illuminated from within, by wick and flame.

The Gothic era took place during the mid-Middle Ages. The term “Gothic style” refers mainly to a type of building design, which is a comprehensive arrangement of opposing thrusts and counter-thrusts in which all parts act in alignment with the whole. Literally and simply, it preaches the message of Christian salvation as depicted by artists of their day.

Wells Cathedral, photo by Seier + Seier

The walls of a Gothic cathedral often appear to be made entirely of windows, emblazoned with illustrations from the Bible. Imagine the light in a massive interior like that, during the day, or the lantern-like reverse at night. Besides what else it is, that’s an early movie prototype that has been projected 24 hours a day, seven days a week for eight solid centuries. The Gothic cathedral was designed to attract the masses to the faith and to keep them believing.

The story of Christianity played underneath those arches to unify the Second Roman Empire. We bought it en masse, if for no other reason than for protection from assorted invaders. But those cathedrals were certainly meant to give us a conscience, too. God’s house was staggering in scale, to emphasize the most high. But God was not just looking down on us from way up in the sky. Think of all those saints and holy hosts. In those times, we really believed they were watching us. The Pope’s stained-glass spies were an ingenious invention to promote order—and an early form of modern mass surveillance.

A first encounter with such an edifice must have seemed supernatural in the old days. A Gothic cathedral spire can reach 150 feet or more into space. So, with Christ, came all kinds of revolution, not just the religious one. Gothic style was compelled to reach toward the holy light. The doctrine of heaven, hell and salvation birthed its own architecture.

Gothic is revolutionary.

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NEXT TIME: PART 2: PRE-GOTHIC RELIGIOSITY

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Recommended Reading for this series:

Great Cathedrals
Gothic Art NowTestament: The Life and Art of Frank FrazettaGreat Monasteries of Europe


Comments

  1. Stryder, thanks for this beginning! I can’t wait to read the next installment

  2. Elisabeth says:

    “The poor needed to be outfoxed, the proud to be comforted, so they could both be taxed. ”

    Your post in general and this statement in particular sheds light on my read of “Pillars of the Earth.”

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