Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals

January 22, 2009

This book, published in French in 1999 as Le Croire et le Voir: L'art des Cathedrales (XIIe-XVe siecle), is an ambitious, broad-ranging study of the role and function of the image within the medieval church.

Roland Recht, here in a translation by Mary Whitehall, brings together two subjects that are usually studied separately, architecture and sacred images, and he proposes that the latter cannot be understood or experienced without the former, in both spatial and liturgical terms.

Recht introduces his material with two long chapters on historiography (primarily literature in French and German) and Gothic architecture. He then proceeds to consider images and their function within their architectural context (portals and altars), as well as in relation to doctrine and liturgy.

The second part of the volume focuses on the modes of viewing religious images in relation to the "theatre" of the Mass and as active forces in lay piety. Here there are many important insights, not least of which is the enhanced sacralisation of liturgical space after the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation - that is to say, the real presence of Christ at the altar during the Elevation of the Host.

Recht unfolds his analysis of the complex and multiple functions of medieval church sculpture within the many-sided prism of ambient space, ritual and liturgy and doctrine, enabling viewers who inhabit a different visual and spiritual world to recreate some part of the role of the image for the medieval viewer.

This is a challenging task because the original context has often been irredeemably altered by the displacement, destruction and restoration of the spaces that once informed and conditioned their experiential context. In spite of these constraints, this book is filled with remarkable insights.

Recht's analysis of sacred images as mnemonic devices that engage vision as an active force in a spiritual journey is deeply compelling, and he presents new and powerful interpretations of how sacred space conditioned and participated in a larger system of signification of the image.

Sacred space is thus fundamental to this book, for it shapes and conditions the role of the image as part of a system of signifiers that enforced doctrines, such as the divine nature of Christ (his incarnation as God's wisdom on Earth, his real presence during the Eucharist).

It was not only the liturgy that served as the agent for transmitting the sacred, but also the religious theatre of passion and mystery plays, processions, preaching and a variety of other sacred rituals. Recht makes the important observation that sculpted imagery on portals and the walls of choir screens, for example, provided permanent illustration of the edifying exempla offered by preachers.

Given that this volume is framed in relation to the scholarship and theory on images and space, it is perhaps surprising that the complexities and semiotic valence of vision is not explored at greater length. Who sees what, and from where do they see it? Sacred images existed within different and often reserved spatial zones that were inflected with social meaning. Were these images as accessible to the public as they were to the higher clergy, or was viewing the sacred the reserved privilege of the clergy and wealthy patrons?

No one knows better than Recht that church spaces were not the open spaces we see today, but instead partitioned into distinct zones, access to which was conditioned by gender, lay or clerical status, or other systems of separation and power. It may be, for example, that Veit Stoss' remarkable altarpiece in St Mary's Church of Krakow was visible for all citizens, as this was the burgher's church on the market square (Krakow cathedral was placed high above the town within the fortified precinct of Wawel Castle). But in many other instances, vision of sacred images and reliquaries occurred within tightly controlled zones, access to which was managed by a clergy acting as mediators of the sacred. Choir screens are now mostly destroyed, and although some scholars have argued (incorrectly, in my view) that such screens were not "separators" but "includers", the fact remains that they blocked the view of altarpieces, monstrances and even the Mass itself. Visual access to the sacred may have been as much an instrument of power and authority as a communally shared experience.

There are problems with this title's US edition. In a book concerned with the role and function of the image, the publisher perversely presents plates that are small, grey and often of poor quality. If the image is our subject, if the reader is being instructed on modes of viewing, is the "viewing" in the book not important? Although colours are discussed as important signifiers, there is no colour here, even when it is critically pertinent. In early chapters, the translation is sometimes rustic and does little justice either to the author's intention or the English language.

In spite of these reservations, this volume is of fundamental importance to the study of medieval art, and should become part of the intellectual apparatus of all who concern themselves with the religious image.

Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals

By Roland Recht. University of Chicago Press 392pp, £26.50. ISBN 9780226706061. Published 14 November 2008.

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