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The Gothic Vision
Order and knowledge in the Gothic world
In his book, Gothic Art: Glorious Visions, Michael Camile suggests that the modern experience of the Gothic cathedral is very different than those who inhabited the cathedral during the Gothic period. For us, the cathedrals amaze by their soaring empty spaces; for them, the space amazed because those they were full of colored images. As Camille notes, these images were presented not so much to give a key or cipher to how the Christian universe existed, but to provide a new way of seeing—a “Glorious Vision”—that used the cathedral and the Gothic art it contained as “a powerful sense organ of perception, knowledge, and pleasure” that was used to help order the world. (11).
This system of order was active and animated, it had to be sought, it had to be practiced. The overall effect of the understanding of the world provided by the cathedral came through the “multi-media combinations in which whole environments are constructed by teams of masons, sculptors, and painters, often working together.” (180). Knowledge in the Gothic world came not through clarity but through the way things were connected, or how things were arranged. As Erwin Panofsky suggests in his book, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, with knowledge in the Gothic “we are faced neither with “rationalism . . . nor illusion. We are faced with what may be termed a ‘visual logic’ . . .” (58).
Unfortunately, this order of connectivity between objects is one of the toughest aspects of Gothic visions to recover. Art objects created in the Gothic period are now often exhibited as single objects in the rarefied space of a museum. Consequently, one would need to assemble all the elements together again in a specific order in the original space to recreate that vision. Paintings were on panels, manuscripts, and, in places, frescoes, in addition to being illuminated in glass. Statuary were not only architectural elements of cathedrals, they were free standing and placed at important positions in the chapel. Objects, such as the relics of the saints were crammed in the altarpieces or on display. Surface were covered in colored fabrics and tapestries. Many of the cathedral's columns were painted and the floors were often tiled in geometric patterns.
Still, there are places and times where this vision can be productively glimpsed. The photograph above provides a powerful demonstration of the ephemerality of some of this "visual logic". While cleaning soot off the exterior of the Amiens Cathedral, workers noticed that the statues in the cathedral had all been painted in bright colors. Sometimes now on summer evenings, the original colors are projected onto the statues using colored lasers to provide a facsimile of one small part of this cathedral of gothic vision.