Saturday, July 12, 2008

Were there architectural drawings for Chartres?

Michael Lewis has given Universe of Stone a nice review in the Wall Street Journal. The reason I want to respond to the points he raises is not to score points or pick an argument, but because they touch on interesting issues.

Lewis’s complaint about the absence of much discussion of the sculpture at Chartres is understandable if one is led by the American subtitle to expect a genuine biography of the building. And it’s natural that he would have been. But as my UK subtitle indicates, this is not in fact my aim: this is really a book about the origins of Gothic and what it indicates about the intellectual currents of the twelfth-century renaissance. The Chartrain sculpture doesn’t have so much to say about that (with some notable exceptions that I do mention).

Lewis’s most serious criticism, however, concerns the question of architectural drawings in the period when Chartres was built. As he says (and as he acknowledges I say), drawings for Gothic churches certainly did exist: there are some spectacular ones for Strasbourg and Reims Cathedrals in particular. As I say in my book, ‘These are extremely detailed and executed with high technical proficiency.’ They date from around 1250 onwards.

The question is: were similar drawings used for Chartres? Lewis is in no doubt: ‘analogous drawings would certainly have existed for Chartres.’ That's a level of certainty that other historians of Gothic don't seem to share - unsurprisingly, given that we lack any evidence either way. But most importantly, I would surely and rightly have been hauled over the coals if I had committed the cardinal sin of assuming that one period in the Middle Ages stands proxy for all others. The mid-thirteenth century was a very different time from the late twelfth, in terms of building practices as in many other respects: in particular, architecture became much more professionalized in the early thirteenth century than it had been before. My guess, as it is no more than that, is that if drawings existed for Chartres – which is certainly possible, but nothing more – they would have looked more akin to those of Villard de Honnecourt, made around 1220 or so, which have none of the precision of the Strasbourg drawings. Lewis says that the sophistication of the latter speaks of a mature tradition that must have already existed for a long time. That seems reasonable, until you consider this. Suppose all cathedrals before Chartres had been destroyed. We might, with analogous reasoning to Lewis’s, then look at its flying buttresses and say ‘Well, they certainly must have had good flying buttresses in the 1130s, since these ones are so mature.’ And of course we’d be utterly wrong. (What’s more, the skills needed to make flying buttresses are considerably more demanding than those needed to make scale drawings.)

I think Lewis may have misunderstood my text in places. I never claimed that the architect of Chartres designed it all ‘in his head’. I simply said that this is what architectural historian Robert Branner claimed. (I'm not sure I'd agree with him.) Neither did I say that architectural drawings would all be simply ‘symbolic, showing codified relationships without any real attention to dimension’ – I said that this was true of medieval art and maps.

I’m grateful to Lewis for raising this as an issue, and his comments suggest that it might be good if I spell things out a little more explicitly in the paperback (which, in the US, will probably have a different subtitle!).