'The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century' by Emile Male (1899)


The following selection is from Emile Male's 'The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century', 1899:


To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know- the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts- all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. The pathetic name of Biblia pauperum ['Paupers Bible'] given by the printers of the fifteenth century to one of their earliest books, might well have been given to the church. There the simple, the ignorant, all who were named 'sancta plebs Dei,' learned through their eyes almost all they knew of their faith. Its great figures, so spiritual in conception, seemed to bear speaking witness to the truth of the Church's teaching. The countless statues, disposed in scholarly design, were a symbol of the marvellous order that through the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas reigned in the world of thought. Through the medium of art the highest conceptions of theologian and scholar penetrated to some extent the minds of even the humblest of the people.
But the meaning of these profound works gradually became obscure. New generations, with a different conception of the world, no longer understood them, and from the second half of the sixteenth century medieval art because an enigma. Symbolism, the soul of Gothic art, was dead. 

The thirteenth century is the period when the thought of the Middle Ages was most fully expressed in art- hence our choice of it- but it was very far from originating all the modes of expression which it perfected. It had inherited a multitude of types, of dispositions, and of ideas from previous centuries. The long evolution of Christian art is one of the most interesting, as it is one of the most elusive subjects of research that can be undertaken by the scholar. Nothing could be more instructive than to follow the representation of a given person or scene, from the art of the catacombs to that of the cathedrals. Careful study of the same type, observing its development in chronological order from firth century mosaics, through Byzantine miniatures, Carlovingian ivories and Romanesque capitals to the sculpture and glass of the thirteenth century, would reveal a long series of stages in the evolution of Christian thought. It would be seen, for example, that the art of the catacombs does not venture to show to the faithful the image of the crucified Christ, that Romanesque art of early period represents Him on a jewelled cross, crowned and triumphant, with open eyes and lifted head, and that the art of the thirteenth century, less doctrinal and more human, shows the crucified figure with closed eyes and drooping form.

Close study of subtle changes of this kind would show how fluid and mobile, in a word how living a thing medieval Christianity was.... . [...] We shall consider the art of the thirteenth century as a living whole, as a finished system, and we shall study the way in which it reflects the thought of the Middle Ages.  

Introduction Chapter 1


The Middle Ages had a passion for order. They organised art as they had organised dogma, secular learning and society. The artistic representation of sacred subjects was a science governed by fixed laws which could not be broken at the dictates of individual imagination. It cannot be questioned that this theology of art, if one may so put it, was soon reduced to a body of doctrine, for from very early times the craftsmen are seen submitting to it from one end of Europe to the other. This science was transmitted by the Church to the lay sculptors and painters of the thirteenth century who religiously guarded the sacred traditions, so that, even in the centuries in which it was most vigorous, medieval art retained the hieratic grandeur of primitive art.

The art of the Middle Ages is first and foremost a sacred writing of which every artist must learn the characters.

...we have a veritable hieroglyphic in which art and writing blend, showing the same spirit of order and abstraction that there is in heraldic art with its alphabet, rules and symbolism.

...medieval art may be called a sacred script.

It was well for the art of the thirteenth century that it did... piously preserve the rudiments of... ancient symbolism, for by that means it attained the grandeur peculiar to works to which successive centuries had contributed.

Medieval art is like medieval literature, its value lies less in conscious talent than in diffused genius. The personality of the artist does not always appear, but countless generations of men speak through his mouth, and the individual, even when mediocre, is lifted by the genius of these Christian centuries.

The second characteristic of medieval iconography is obedience to the rules of a kind of sacred mathematics.

To begin with, the whole church is oriented from the rising to the setting sun, a custom dating back to primitive Christian days for it is found even in the Apostolical Constitutions. In the thirteenth century Gulielmus Durandus cites this as a rule without exemption:- "The foundations must be disposed in such a manner that the head of the church lies exactly to the east, that is to the part of the sky in which the sun rises at the equinox." And, as a matter of fact, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century it is difficult to find a badly oriented church.

Each cardinal point has its significance in churches oriented in this way. The north, region of cold and darkness, is usually consecrated to the Old Testament, and the south, bathed in warm sunlight, is devoted to the New... . [authors note: It was scrupulously observed at Chartres. The heroes of the Old Covenant are sculptured in the north porch, those of the New in the south porch. In Notre Dame at Paris the great rose-window to the north is devoted to the Old Testament, that to the south to the New. At Reims the rose-window to the north (mutilated) again shows scenes from the Old Testament (the Creation, Adam, Cain, Abel, &c.), that to the south (restored in the sixteenth century, but doubtless on the old model) is filled with figures of Christ and the Apostles. [...] At St. Ouen at Rouen and at St. Serge at Angers the windows to the north portray the prophets, those to the south the apostles. The practices was also known to the East. In the monastery of Salamis the Old Testament is to the left, that is to the north, and the New to the right, the south. ] The western facade- where the setting sun lights up the great scene of the evening of the world's history- is almost invariably reserved for a representation of the Last Judgement. [authors note: The west front of almost all the great cathedrals, and a few rose-windows to the west (rose-window at Chartres, at St. Radegonde at Poitiers, &c.).]

Regard for the traditional order is especially evident when it is a question of representing the blessed who compose the Church Triumphant. On the Portail du Jugement of Notre Dame at Paris the saints ranged in the orders of the arch form, as in Dante's Divine Comedy, concentric bands round the figure of Christ. The ranks of patriarchs, prophets, confessors, martyrs and virgins are seen in succession. 

Above the choirs of saints are the choirs of angels. These are frequently ranked by the artists in the order devised by St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who first described the invisible world with the precision and grandeur found later in Dante [authors note: Dante placed Dionysius the Areopagite in the Paradiso (x., 115-117)]. His Celestial Hierarchy... was often expounded by the doctors, notably by Hugh of St. Veictor. It inspired the artists who carved the nine choirs of angels in the south porch at Chartres. They are there ranged in the following orders: Seraphim, Cherubin, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. All these celestial beings, according to the doctrine of the Areopagite, form as it were great luminous circles round the throne of God, their brilliance increasing in measure as they approach the source of all light. 

But no disposition met with more favour than that controlled by symmetry. Symmetry was regarded as the expression of a mysterious inner harmony. 

Schemes of this kind presuppose a reasoned belief in the virtue of numbers, and in fact the Middle Ages never doubted that numbers were endowed with some occult power. This doctrine came from the Fathers of the Church, who inherited it from those Neo-Platonic schools in which the genius of Pythagoras had lived again. It is evident that St. Augustine considered numbers as thoughts of God. [...] "Divine Wisdom is reflected in the numbers impressed on all things." (St. Augustine, De libero arbitrio, lib. II., cap. xvi. Patrol., vol. xxxii., col. 1263.) [...] We feel that the charm of the dance lies in rhythm, that is in number; but we must go further, beauty is itself a cadence, harmonious number. 

The same ideas are found in the works of almost all the mediaeval doctors. 

The number seven, regarded by the Fathers as mysterious above all others, intoxicated the mediaeval mystic. It was observed first of all that seven- composed of four, the number of the body, and of three, the number of the soul-... expresses the union of man's double nature.  [...] ...but it also expresses the harmonious relation of man to the universe. The seven planets govern human destiny, for each of the seven ages [of man] is under the influence of one of them. [...] Finally, when all is said and done, what are the seven tones of the Gregorian mode but a sensible expression of the universal harmony. 
There is no doubt that the mystical schools in particular were led astray by conceptions of this kind. 

But apart from the mystics there was hardly a mediaeval theologian who did not seek in number the revelation of hidden truth. Some of their computations vividly recall those of the Cabbala. 

Many examples... might be given, but it is enought to have indicated a peculiar characteristic of mediaeval thought. It might truly be said that there was something of this sacred arithmetic in all the great works of the Middle Ages. Dante's "Divine Comedy" is the most famous example, for it is built up on numbers. [...] He disposed the universe according to the laws of a sublime geometry. He placed the earthly Paradise at the antipodes of Jeruslam so that the tree which caused man's fall was exactly opposite to the Cross through which he gained salvation. [...] Beatrice herself became a number. She was in his eyes the number nine, which has its roots in the hold Trinity [my note: his Latin translators took the liberty to render Beatrice as 'the holy spirit']. 
It was thus that "cum pondere et mensura," Dante raised his invisible cathedral. 

After all that has been said it would seem natural to look for traces of this sacred arithmetic in the cathedrals. 

We believe that it would be possible to find mystical numbers in... the cathedral, but such studies are still in their infancy and so far more imagination than method has been brought to bear on them. 

The third charactestic of mediaeval art lies in this, that it is a symbolic code. From the days of the catacombs Christian art has spoken in figures, showing men one thing and inviting them to see in it the figure of another. 

A detail of apparent insigificance may hide symbolic meaning. 

In the art of the Middle Ages, as we see, everything depicted is informed by a quickening spirit.
Such a conception of art implies a profoundly idealistic view of the scheme of the universe, and the conviction that both history and nature must be regarded as vast symbols. [...] Christian liturgy like Christian art is endless symbolism, both are manifestations of the same genius.

It is evident that in such a ceremony [the example he gives is Easter] no detail is without symbolic value.
But it is not only on special occasions such as this that the Church makes use of symbols to instruct and move the people. Daily she celebrates the sacrifice of the Mass, and in that solemn drama every detail has its significance. 

The vestments worn by the priests at the alter and the objects used in the ritual of the church are so many symbols. [...] The stole which the priest passes round his neck is the light yoke of the Master, and as it is written that the Christian should cherish that yoke, the priest when putting it on or taking it off kisses the stole. The bishop's mitre with its two points symbolises the konwledge he should have of both the Old and the New Testaments, while the two ribbons attached to it are a reminder that the interpretation of Scripture should be according to both letter and spirit. The sanctus bell is the voice of the preachers. The frame to which it is suspended is a figure of the Cross, and the cord made of three twisted treads signifies the threefold interpretation of Scripture, in a historical, allegorical and moral sense. 

Such constant use of symbolism will astonish those unfamiliar with mediaeval writers. 

For the historian of art there are no books of greater value than the liturgical treatises, as through them he may learn to understand the spirit which moulded plastic art.

Chapter 2

The thirteenth century was the century of encylopaedias. At no other period have so many works appeared bearing the titles of Summa, Speculum or Imago Mundi. It was in this century that Thomas Aquinas co-ordinated the whole body of Christian doctrine, Jacobus de Voragine collected the most famous legends of the saints, Gulielmus Durandus epitomised all previous writers on the liturgy, and Vincent of Beauvais attempted to embrace universal knowledge. Christianity came to full consciousness of its own genius, and the conception of the universe which had been elaborated by previous centuries received complete expression. It was believed to be possible to raise the final edifice of human knowledge, and in the universities which had recently been founded throughout Europe- above all the young university of Paris- the work was carried on with enthusiasm.
While the doctors were constructing the intellectual edifice which was to shelter the whole of Christiandom, the cathedral of stone was rising as its visible counterpart. It too in its fashion was a Speculum, a Summa, an Imago Mundi into which the Middle Ages put all its most cherished convictions. These great churches are the most perfect known expression in art of the mind of an epoch. ...in them a whole dogmatic scheme found expression in concrete form. 

The difficulty lies in grouping in logical sequence the innumberable works of art which the churches offer for our study. [...] It is necessary to discard modern habits of mind. It we impose our categories on mediaeval thought we run every risk of error, and for that reason we borrow our methods of exposition from the Middle Ages itself.


The history of the Christian world is presented in the cathedrals as it is in Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale, where periods are reckoned not by the deeds of emperors and kings but by the lives of saints. The windows and statuary of the churches proclaim that since the coming of Christ the really great men are the doctors, confessors and martyrs. Conquerors who filled the world with their fame appear in the humblest of attitudes; tiny figures smaller than children, they kneel at the feet of the saints.

We know from the Speculum historiale that such was the mediaeval conception of history. Nothing could be more surprising than the scheme of the great work from which so many generations of men and the kings themselves learned history. At the beginning of each chapter Vincent of Beauvais mentions the emperors of the East and of Germany and the kings of France, and devotes a few lines to their battles and their treaties. He then reaches his subject, the story of the saints who were contemporaries of these kings and emperors. His heroes are abbots, anchorites, young shepherdesses, beggars. The translation of relics, the founding of some monastery, the healing of a demoniac, the retreat of a hermit to the desert, are to him the most important facts in the history of the world.

In this way mediaeval history becomes merely a record of a few pure souls who lived far from the haunts of men. One gets the impression that the world in the ninth and tenth centuries was inhabited by saints, a world like that landscape in the Campo Santo at Pisa where one sees only anchorites at prayer. With the exception of the crusades, even great contemporary events never take the foremost place in Vincent of Beauvais's book. The battle of Bouvines passes almost unnoticed between the stories of St. Mary of Oignies and of St. Francis of Assisi. The saints form a spiritual chain reaching from St. Louis to the apostles, and from them through the patriarchs and prophets to Abel, the first of the just.

In the eyes of the thirteenth century the real history of the world was the story of the city of God. It is necessary to bear in mind such a conception of history in order to understand the innumerable legends of saints which are painted or carved in the cathedral of Chartres, where each window or bas-relief is like a chapter from the Speculum majus. In this reading of history the enormous number of images of saints which decorate the churches find at least partial explanation.

But for the Christian of the Middle Ages the saints were not only the heroes of history, they were also his intercessors and patrons... .The Christian received at baptism the name of the saint who was to be his patron and example. These names were not chosen at hazard, but were preferably those of ancient local bishops or monks whose relics worked wonders, and many baptismal names, today proper names, point to the native district of the family who bear them. When the child grew up, chose a trade and entered a guild, a new saint welcomed him. If he were a mason he celebrated the feast of St. Thomas the apostle, if a wool-carder the feast of St. Blaise, if a tanner the feast of St. Bartholomew. On that occasion he forgot the hard work and the long days, and proud as a knight walked behind the banner of his patron saint, went to mass with the master and wardens, and later sat at table with them. The name of a saint was associated with the happiest memories of his youth. The patronal festival was the great festival when the town gave itself up to spectacle; splendid processions passed by, bearing gorgeous reliquaries, and mystery plays were performed. In the rudest little town in the France of that day men were gay at least once in the year, and they danced under the elm-tree near the cemetery on the feast-day of the saint whose relics were in the church. In provinces in central France the village festival is still called the apport, a name reminiscent of the offering which on that day every good Christian should present at the altar of the local saint.

In the Middle Ages by the influence of the saints men were torn away from their monotonous lives, and compelled to take a staff and set out through the world. All travellers were then pilgrims.

Then, too, in each province there were sacred spots, consecrated by some bishop, hermit or martyr... . [...] Sanctuaries, hermitages and sacred wells made up the geography of the day.

It was to the saints that a man looked for healing in sickness.

In the crises of life, in times of sickness of body or of soul, the comforting name of some saint came to mind.

In the little calendars carved by unlettered peasants the chief dates of the year were marked by the attributes of some saint. An arrow stood for St. Sebastian's day, a key for St. Peter's, a sword for St. Paul's, and such hieroglyphs were universally understood.

The saints marked the rhythm of the year. Like constellations they seemed to rise in turn above the horizon. They retained something of the pagan charm of nature and of the seasons. St. John's day, celebrated at the time ou toute herbe fleurit, was in some measure the festival of the sun. St. Valentine's day, marking the end of winter, was (especially in England) the festival of early springtime. It was said that on that day the birds mated in the woods, and every youth should place flowers at the window of the beloved.

All nature proclaimed the glory of the saints. The Milky Way was called St. James's path, the phosphorescence of the sea St. Elmo's fire. In Flanders the little hedgerow berries which ripen in winter were known as lamps of St. Gudule, and in the north of France the plantain which cured the king's evil as herb of St. Marculphus...

One can well understand how it is that the figures of the saints fill so large a place in the churches, and why so many windows are dedicated to them. The people never wearied of seeing their protectors and friends... Neither did they weary of hearing them spoken of, and famous miracles and illustrious examples from the lives of the saints were commemorated in poems in the vernacular, in popular drama and in sermons. The Church was the faithful depository of almost all this endless history. Each cathedral or monastery kept the acts of the saints of the diocese, and solemnly read them on their festivals, while the lives more or less abridged of the saints famous throughout Christendom were contained in the lectionary. For centuries the saints lived in the memory of the Church through the lectionary, and when in the course of the thirteenth century the various old liturgical books were replaced by one book, the lessons of the lectionary passed into the breviary. The lectionary was made up of extracts from the more famous legends. The Historia apostolica of Abdias, the Historia erimitica, translated by Rufinus of Aquileia, the Dialogues of St. Gregory, the Martyrology of Bede, and many anonymous stories were all requisitioned with great simplicity and a complete absence of the critical spirit. It was a summary of the lives of the saints, invaluable at a time when books were scarce.

Thus it was no new departure when at the end of the thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine wrote the famous Golden Legend, for in it he simply popularised the lectionary, preserving even its sequence. His compilation is in no sense original. He is content with completing the stories by recourse to the originals, and with adding new legends here and there. The Golden Legend became famous throughout Christendom, because it put into the hands of all men stories which until then had hardly been found outside the liturgical books. The baron in his castle, the merchant in his shop could now enjoy the beautiful tales at will.

The attack made on Jacobus de Voragine by scholars of the seventeenth century misses its mark [these polemics are repeated in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy]. The Golden Legend, which they accused of being a legend of lead, was not the work of a man but of the whole of Christendom. The candour and the credulity of the writer belonged to his time. The stories of St. Thomas's voyage to India or of St. James's miraculous cloak, recounted so naively in the Golden Legend, though displeasing to the strict theologians trained in the school of the fathers of the Council of Trent, were universally accepted in the thirteenth century. They were read in public in the churches, and they were illustrated in the windows. To condemn Jacobus de Voragine is to condemn all the ancient lectionaries, and with them the clergy who read them and the faithful who listened.

In one of the chapters of Notre Dame de Paris, that book in which rare rays of light break through the darkness, Victor Hugo says: "In the Middle Ages men had no great thought that they did not write down in stone." What the poet grasped with the intuition of genius we have laboured to demonstrate. 
Victor Hugo was right. The cathedral is a book. It is at Chartres, where each Mirror finds its place, that this encyclopaedic character of mediaeval art is most evident. The cathedral of Chartres is mediaeval thought in visible form, with no essential element lacking. Its ten thousand figures in glass or in stonework form a whole unequalled in Europe. 

At the end of the sixteenth century Christianity had lost its plastic power, and had become solely an inward force. 

In 787 the Fathers, assembled for the second council in Nicaea, expressed themselves as follows: "The composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative of artists, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and by religious tradition." And again: "The execution alone belongs to the painter, the selection and arrangement of subject belongs to the Fathers."

In the east as in the west this was the doctrine of the Church in the thirteenth as it had been in the eighth century.

It should not be forgotten that in the Middle Ages each cathedral was also a school. 

Through him [the artist] the cathedral became a living thing, a gigantic tree full of birds and flowers, less like a work of man than of nature. 

Seen from afar, the church with her transepts, spires and towers seems like a mighty ship about to sail on a long voyage. The whole city might embark with confidence on her massive decks. 

On entering the cathedral it is the sublimity of the great vertical lines whcih first affects his soul. [...] The cathedral like the plain or the forest has atmosphere and perfume, splendour, and twilight, and gloom. The great rose-window behind which sinks the western sun, seems in the evening hours to be the sun itself about to vanish at the edge of a marvellous forest. [...] Already he feels himself in the heart of the heavenly Jeruslaem, and tastes the profound peace of the city of the future. The storm of life breaks on the walls of the sanctuary, and is heard merely as a distant rumbling. Here indeed is the indestructible ark against which the winds shall not prevail. No place in the world fills men with a deeper feeling of security.

[Editors note: from Spengler's Decline of the West:

The character of the Faustian cathedral is that of the forest. The mighty elevation of the nave above the flanking aisles, in contrast to the flat roof of the basilica; the transformation of the columns, which with base and capital had been set as self-contained individuals in space, into pillars and clustered-pillars that grow up out of the earth and spread on high into an infinite subdivision and interlacing of lines and branches; the giant windows by which the wall is dissolved and the interior filled with mysterious light-- these are the architectural actualizing of a world-feeling that had found the first of all its symbols in the high forest of the Northern plains, the deciduous forest with its mysterious tracery, its whispering of ever-mobile foliage over men's heads, its branches straining through the trunks to be free of earth.]