Figures from the Main Portal of the West façade

The Gothic Revival

During the Renaissance, ‘Gothic’ became a pejorative label for all things barbarous. In a model of history probably first posited by Petrach and developed and disseminated by Italian Renaissance Humanists, it was believed that there were two epochs of cultural excellence, the Classical and their own. These were separated by a terrible period of ignorance and barbarism, the Dark and Middle Ages. The Germanic invaders, the Goths, were held to be largely responsible for this culturally catastrophic interregnum. François Rabelais employed the term ‘Gothic’ to describe a vulgar literary style, not reflecting Greek and Latin scholarship, and the most influential condemnation of all things Gothic can be found in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Architects, Painters and Sculptures (1550), in which medieval architecture is simply designated ‘German’ and rejected as mean, disorderly, over-decorative and poorly constructed, the antithesis of the now universally accepted Classical style. By the early-seventeenth century, the use of the term ‘German’ was discarded in this context (Germany having long since embraced the Classical ideal), scholars instead employing the adjective ‘Gothic’ in their polemics.

It was the British, always out of step with their European neighbours, that laid the foundations of a cultural re-evaluation which would later spread to the continent. Parliamentarians, quoting Tacitus, argued that representative government was in fact not a product of Classical antiquity, but of the German tribes; the ‘Gothic polity’ therefore represented free institutions and was opposed to tyranny and privilege. In art, the true Gothic revival began in England with a gradual shift in the crucial, Classicist-dominated, concept of Nature, as writers (influenced by the new vogue for landscape gardening), began to champion irregularity and variety as ‘natural,’ an idea eventually coming under the banner of the ‘picturesque.’ The related aesthetic concept of the (non-Classical) Sublime in opposition to the (Classically) Beautiful suggested that Nature in its highest (Sublime) form was free of the constraints of the Classical. This trend towards aesthetic relativism in England resulted in the pre-Romantic ‘Gothic mood’ which is most famously characterized by the fiction of Horace Walpole, most notable The Castle of Otranto (1764), and the ornamental papier-mâché decoration of Strawberry Hill, his country seat in Twickenham. This style went on to dominate nineteenth century Victorian architecture through the work of such influential figures as the prolific Sir George Gilbert Scott, his pupil George Edmund Street, the High-Churchman William Butterfield, Charles Barry, and the obsessive genius Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Among many fine examples, the most familiar is probably Barry’s re-designed Palace of Westminster (which had been destroyed by fire in 1834), which was specifically inspired by the Perpendicular Gothic style, Pugin assisting.

Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Bridge viewed across the Thames

In 1751, William Warburton, later Bishop of Gloucester, had argued (without a shred of evidence), that the Goths had worshipped in sacred groves, thus developing an organic style for their shrines, giving them the appearance of an avenue of trees. This analogy was developed by Goethe in his Von deuscher Baukunst (1772), which records his response to seeing Strasbourg Cathedral, a building he likens to a ‘tree of God.’ This was as a Romantic manifesto to German Gothicists, but Goethe had been more interested in the cathedral’s architect, Erwin von Steinbach (c. 1244 – 1318), than in its relationship to medieval Christian tradition. This wider aspect of Gothic architecture was soon explored by, among others, Wilhelm Heinse, who described Milan Cathedral as ‘the most glorious symbol of the Christian religion I have ever seen,’ and by Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegal, who also propagated the belief that Gothic architecture was a tangible expression of the Infinite (Schlegal, like Pugin, was a converted Roman Catholic). In 1835, Johannes Wetter laid out the true principles of the Gothic structural system for the first time in his guide to Mainz Cathedral. The German enthusiasm for such architecture led to Cologne Cathedral being completed according to the original thirteenth century plans in 1842, the king of Prussia laying the foundation stone.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

No other country, however, committed itself to Gothic with the passion of the British. The hallmark of German architectural historicism, for example, was actually the ‘Rundbogenstil’ or ‘round-arched style,’ rather than the Gothic pointed. This derived from a synthesis of early-Christian, Byzantine, German, and Italian Romanesque and Renaissance styles. Germany was one of the first countries to get the past out of its system, and was an early exponent of Functionalism (although Gothic style remains in Expressionism). French architecture largely resisted Gothic style in the eighteenth century, turning instead to Classicism (which can be seen in the work of her great architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel), and neo-Classicism, signalling a new attitude to antiquity where a Roman regularity of style was combined with the structural lightness of Gothic, perfectly represented by Jacques Germain Soufflot’s Panthéon in Paris (built between 1757 and 1790), with a Wren-inspired dome resting upon Gothic piers. By the end of the eighteenth century, a new generation of architects had moved towards radical experimentation inspired by Classicism and the theories of Piranesi. There was a certain Romanticism in the jardin anglais, such as the Bagatelle by François-Joseph Bélanger (1778), but the trend was rather neo-Gothic, with the Gothic and the Classical interacting throughout the nineteenth century. The chapel of Louis XVIII at Dreux, for example, was originally Classical (1816 – 22), but when it was enlarged in 1832 it went Gothic. The most committed French Gothicist was Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who analysed the style in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture François (1854 – 68). Viollet-le-Duc saw the Gothic as the product of a secular civilization succeeding the religious domination of the Middle Ages, based on rational construction employing the system of rib vault, flying buttress and buttress. The ribs are a skeleton, and its influence is apparent in the Eiffel Tower and in the work of Baron Victor Horta in Brussels. His theories also inspired some inconclusive Medieval revivalism in Russia.

The Panthéon
The Panthéon in Paris

Finally, in the thoroughly Grecian United States, Gothic had some effect on Church design. Notable Gothic churches include Grace Church, New York (designed by James Renwick and built in 1846), the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn (Richard Upjohn, 1841 – 46), and the Episcopalian Cathedral, Washington (designed by George Frederick Bodley in 1907 and finally completed in 1990). ‘Carpenter’s Gothic,’ an eighteenth century English term is also applied to nineteenth century American wooden buildings with exterior Gothic motifs. Other significant international examples of the Gothic Revival are the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Petrus Josephus Hubertus Cuypers, 1877 – 85), the Vienna Town Hall (Friedrich von Schmidt, 1872 – 83) and the Houses of Parliament, Budapest (Imre Steindl, 1839 – 1902).

By the end of the nineteenth century advances in technology led to Art Nouveau, an attempt to integrate old and new, but as the age of European empire collapsed into the crisis of belief, and therefore representation, that followed the industrial carnage of the First World War, less became more in art, design and architecture. The Romantic excesses of the Victorian era thus gave way to the utility and experiment of Modernism, and a new generation of architects who would disdain the over-ornamentation of the Gothic.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, edited by Chris Murray (2003)


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