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by Jon Lackman | 15 November 2010 | Books, Medieval

Roland Recht’s 1999 book Believing and seeing. The art of Gothic cathedrals has finally been published in English, in a translation by the late Mary Writtall.

In the July 2010 issue of Metascience Ellen M. Shortell writes:

Studies in medieval religion, science, literature, and art, particularly in the past two decades, have focused a great deal of attention on the role of vision in later medieval thought. It is clear that by the year 1200, Richard of St. Victor’s “simple perception of matter” was no longer simple, but was recognised by many as a means to the understanding of profound truths … Recent scholarship on Gothic art and architecture has in fact been interested in related themes—the interrelationship of architectural space, colour, light, and figural imagery; the viewer’s experience of religious buildings; the visual and material properties of medieval art and their relationship to spirituality. Where most studies that aim for an integration of media have focused on specific sites, however, Recht casts his eye more broadly on the phenomenon of Gothic … [T]he book reads more as a wide-ranging compendium of observations gleaned over the course of a distinguished career than as the sustained, in-depth thesis on visual culture that the title suggests …

Recht is convincing when he argues that architects and other artists must have been conscious of the effects of their invention. He suggests that master masons began to invent new forms to fulfill their clerical patrons’ requests, thus gaining greater respect and developing a new sense of their own powers; the Gothic cathedrals could not have come into being without a community of artists who communicated with one another and began to see themselves in a new light. These ideas are extended to sculptors and painters of the fourteenth and, especially, fifteenth centuries in the final chapters of the book.

In the preface to the French edition, the author expressed the wish that this book be seen as a contribution to the history of ideas as much as to the history of visual art, and that colleagues recognise the value of cross-disciplinary approaches. The scope of the undertaking is ambitious, and observations from the well-trained eye of a distinguished scholar are often tantalizing.

In Times Higher Education, Caroline Bruzelius writes:

This book … is an ambitious, broad-ranging study of the role and function of the image within the medieval church … [Recht] 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 … 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’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 … 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 … Visual access to the sacred may have been as much an instrument of power and authority as a communally shared experience.

In The Medieval Review, Charlotte A. Stanford lauds “this translation of a complex study by a noted European art historian”:

[Recht] employed his keen eye and pen in mingling historiography and analysis to explore the phenomenon of Gothic throughout Europe … One of Recht’s greatest strengths as a scholar in this study is his own connoisseur’s eye, especially as he discusses the manipulation of architectural space. These sections are heavy with specialized, but necessary terminology. A case in point is his discussion of the torus moldings on the arch openings of each level of the nave of Sens cathedral, required for explaining how the rich juxtaposition of light and shadow was formed at Sens … In keeping with the title, however, the book’s main thrust is to examine the cathedral as a mingled system of seeing and belief … This system revolves, Recht argues, around an increasing desire to provide eyewitness proof of the miraculous through depictions of the lives of saints and the mystery of the Host … [Cathedrals] paved the way for the development of illusionistic space in Quattrocento painting [he argues]. This concluding claim is bold and thought provoking … Nevertheless, Recht’s book must be treated with caution: it is not a general introduction either to cathedrals or ways of seeing … [It] is ultimately, despite its weaknesses, an intriguing study of Gothic accompanied by investigation of many critical questions in the discipline, written by an observant and thoughtful scholar and now made easily accessible to the English-speaking world.

In the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Paul Binski writes:

Recht’s study can now be seen as part of a trend towards the study of visuality which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and which entailed a broader enquiry into the hierarchy of the senses and epistemology. As an hypothesis about actual historical change it raises several questions … The strength of Recht’s book is its practical engagement with art and architecture especially. It has useful, if rather distended, opening sections on the history of the modern reception and interpretation of Gothic cathedrals.

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