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Flamboyant Gothic

( Originally Published 1910 )



MUCH a spirit as fired the church builders of the thirteenth century could not burn with that unparalleled glory for long—after ecstasy comes reaction. Moreover, marked changes; were taking place in the social fabric, change were taking place in the social fabric, changes in trade, in science, and in idealism, that must inevitably record themselves in contemporary architecture.

Three important and disturbing paths of discovery were opened in this era, each, curiously enough, by way, of a different nation. By way of Spain came a great influx of new gold to Europe from the New World, and old monetary standards were so disturbed thereby as to affect seriously the entire commerce of the continent. In France a revolt against the philosophical and scientific traditions that ecclesiastical power had congealed and that men were outgrowing created a hunger for new intellectual pabulum that started discoveries in the arts and literature of the East. In Germany a revolt against the ritualism of the much overloaded politico-religious church institution of the time precipitated the rediscovery of the simplicity and directness of doctrine of the early fathers.

The transitional period preceding a readjustment of also the climax of architectural expression—the most perfect record of a temple to an ideal that we have. You re-member that Saint Louis died of the plague in Africa while leading a crusade against the infidel. The spirit that unfalteringly undertook this wearisome march to the Holy Sepulchre, daring all for the ideal, is the spirit of Sainte Chapelle.

Standards on the basis of the new discoveries was necessarily one of groping and confusion in every department of life. It was inevitable that there should be a slackening of effort, a loosening of the fabric. The people felt blinded and uncertain whichever way they might turn. All the old values were destroyed or questioned. The business depression, discussed with fear in home and shop, on the streets and in the markets, was an unaccountable terror presaging they knew not what. Rumors of strange discoveries in the arts and sciences, of old manuscripts and old laws long buried in the mysterious East, added con-fusion in the intellectual field. This condition was intensified by the cry for help from the Greek Church, the embassies of bishops and learned men from Constantinople, and the councils of the Roman Church in Italy held to consider the wisdom of a war against the invading Turks in the East. The authority of the Church, not only in temporal but in spiritual matters, was beginning to be accepted only tentatively and was soon to be largely rejected altogether, so that men knew not which way to turn for guidance or salvation.

An interesting effect, and one not without merit, of this state of things was the eradication of the intense fear of con-sequences in the next world. The terror of hell had been preached until it had become a bugbear, for the Church had become weak in its inspiration and sought to substitute fear as a controlling force. But becoming alarmed about this time at the growing atheism and the terrible toll of crime accruing, the heads of the Church tried to limit murder, arson, and other horrors to certain days in the week. It was too late, however. The Church had cried "Boo!" until few paid much attention, and finally the entire country rose in its new-found intellectual might and practically erased Hell from the map—then more or less calmly proceeded to raise it again and again on their own accounts.

The new order of things had its relative influence on architecture, which, you remember, was, when we left it, Gothic at its noblest.

As we have seen in earlier times, among the Greeks, the Romans, and the Norman builders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, religion was the ideal to which science had built. Now, in these later times in Europe, the cord of idealism discloses a new and more highly colored strand, the true chivalry of the gentlemen of the order of knighthood. The chief purpose of the knightly orders had been the redemption of the Holy Sepulchre from the control of the infidel. With this went the protection of the Christian ideal, the succoring of those in distress, and the upholding of the power of the overlord, to whom the knights owed faithful allegiance.

There has never been a time in the history of the world when personal honor and success in personal achievement were placed on so high a pedestal. To such a degree had this spirit grown that often the religious idea of knight-hood became secondary. "For God and the King!" had been the battle-cry of the knights, but later it might justly have been rendered "For the King and God, to say nothing of the Ladies!" Nevertheless, the triple inspiration led men individually and collectively to the highest plane of one sort of achievement—to glory in war and the highest development of personal honor.

Here again is shown an apt parallel in the creations science raises to an ideal. Because of the glorification of the individual in personal combat on the highest Ievel of feudal formalism, the harness and accoutrements of the knights of necessity represented the dignity of the wearers, and science created such works of art in the war harness of the knights, in the decoration and design of the armor originally worn for protection against the bows and arrows of the enemy, that we in these modern times lose our-selves in admiration and wonder. These instruments, the expressions by science of this ideal, now became useless against the strange black powder introduced from the East, but were retained as the garments of knightly ritualism. In the formal jousts or ceremonies before the king and ladies of the court, these gallant gentlemen still sought the smiles of fair women, while encased in these honor-able garments, and on parade. The smiles of the ladies grew in importance. A glove, a rose, a handkerchief had been in the heyday of knighthood the inspiration for daring deeds on the fields of battle, but, while the introduction of gunpowder had reduced the usefulness of the knightly coat of mail, its glories had correspondingly in-creased in the eyes of the charming and witty ladies of the court. We need not wonder that a larger and larger body of knights entered the lists in this fascinating game of romance. We can only envy them. Here again architecture tells the story of the time in its expression of the gallantry of the knights and the charm of their fair ladies, and it tells it without equivocation, very gracefully and aptly.

Froissart, in his chronicles, calls it the "Age of Love," a very natural reaction from the burning intensity of the age of religious chivalry. With the appearance of religious carelessness we find a certain decline of the high ideal from the honor of chivalry to the license of chivalry and the parallel decadence of the monuments to the dominant ideal as it became less spiritual. But that the ideal still had power to move men to create beautiful things, we have ample proof.

The churches were still Gothic, but the style was trans-formed by the changed ideal into one quite different from that of the austerely aspiring cathedrals. It was sensuous, flamboyant, studiously careless, joyfully flippant, but still very beautiful, so that you must love it. The term flamboyant (flaming) has been retained as most expressive of the style, and it fits admirably.

The influence which this new translation of idealism had on the treatment of the churches can be understood more clearly by a reference to one of the most beautiful examples in Europe. In St. Maclou, at Rouen, with its wonderful perforated tracery, its decorative elaboration of the structural basis of the supporting buttress, and the feminine delicacy of the treatment of every de-tail, we can see plainly the direction in which the creative influence is travelling. And its later quick transition into the classic was to color further the remaining austerity of the Gothic rigid line, as we shall see, in precisely the same way. The change in idealism which was taking place, from the purely religious of the thirteenth century to the clear-sighted intellectuality of the sixteenth in passing through the medium of this period of charm and cleverness, gathered color for the benefit of the intellectual Renaissance period—and for our own.

Architecture has another expression by which it tells us what manner of people these fifteenth-century gallants were, for while a few churches and cathedrals were erected, the efforts of the time were directed largely toward the evolution of the isolated mansion or château and of courts of justice.

The seigniorial residence or fortified palace of the over-lord is found throughout France since the time of the Gallic invasion, surrounded by the village of the retainers, and primarily considered as a fortress. Now, as the kings grew in power and the smaller lords correspondingly decreased in power, the kings wisely forbade the building of these forts, which, in case of rebellion, could be used against their authority. The lords turned to the building of beautiful residences after the modern fashion, with license from the king and for the ladies.

It is true that the builders of these châteaus were so frequently engrossed in jousts with Cupid that they neglected to pay their bills for the creations of the architects, but they have long since paid whatever was to pay, and we have as heritage the remarkable result of their romantic inclinations, their undoubted good taste, and that splendid fearlessness that remains from their Norman-blooded, cathedral-building fathers. The results in buildings of this Age of Love are as truthful and as important in architectural progress as are the parent cathedrals, and so you will see it if you remember that we are concerned with the development of style and not with questions of morals.

Our most vivid picture of the social life of this time, then, is of the foppish and extravagant nobles basking in the smiles of beautiful women. It is evident that the tendency is away from the splendid socialism of the earlier Gothic period. The style of architecture was merely melted in the fires of human passion, and became a more lavish, more luxurious and flowery thing, albeit still a beautiful one, for there was not wanting a nobility even in this decaying chivalry.

The arch of the fifteenth century is no longer the simple, upward, aspiring curve of the churches. It has become fleshly double-curved, suggesting the double phase of the social life. First it was deeply concave, then, half way up, it reversed itself and became convex, ending in a sharp point with the moldings which project and thereby serve as protection, continuing and culminating in an ornamented and foliated finial. Surely the bare line of this new arch in contrast with the old, alone tells vividly the story of this new ideal, as does also a change from the use of the equilateral triangle to the pentagon and the isosceles or unequal triangle in the legal construction of the composition.

The desire for ornament was carried to such a point that we lose the naked and vigorous supporting lines of the piers and buttresses, while constructural "freaking" was attempted with these buttresses and the points of support. Solid walls and balustrades are perforated and panelled with delicate lace-like quatrefoils, trefoils, and interlaced and double curves. The steeply pointed pediment or gable which crowns the deeply arched entrances is perforated and treated with geometrical interlacing forms. The strongly cut moldings of the arches are filled with extravagant translations of the flower forms used in the earlier type. It is not idealism beyond control but rather one of extravagant conceit and assurance, always, how-ever, with the restraint which inherited good taste demands.

It is exceedingly interesting that the flamboyant has its counterpart in this country and in our time, our ideal in life corresponding, in a degree, to the strange fearlessness and independence of the French nobility of the fifteenth century. We can see here plainly the equivalent of a château-building period, for we are Latin in temperament, versatile, and in the direct line of succession for world control as the trade pendulum swings westward—our industrial feudalism has given us the equivalent of the Norman fearlessness, for our traditions we have the great public and private collections of ancient works of art—a poor substitute, but 'twill do.

But, curiously enough, while we are more akin to the Northern temperament, we do not, to any great degree, indulge ourselves in the use of their grammar or language, having accepted the method of the Renaissance, or the revival of the early classic. Yet there are a few isolated cases where the use of Gothic in our architecture is extremely interesting. If the architect's temperament is in harmony with the creators and inventors of the Middle Ages the result is likely to be worth while, otherwise we must have an academic and scholastic creation, a mixing of dry bones and book details, or parts, which is in no sense evolutional.

It is always necessary that a practitioner should be an enthusiast, but in the case of the Gothic self-trained man there must be even more than this. An analytical mind may create good Classic, but for great Gothic work an enthusiastic reverence for form and sentiment is necessary in order to obtain results above mediocrity.

In the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, we can feel the book. We have, therefore, a magnificent library cathedral with Byzantine and fifteenth-century Gothic on the shelves. While this may be a true and natural expression of our time, it is unfortunate that it lacks inspiration. The new West Point is an example of inspired Gothic, and altogether a flowery expression which could have been appreciated by the Freemason architects of the Middle Ages. Goodhue, the designer of the new West Point, created on paper an imaginary Gothic city with the most charming inns and magnificent cathedrals, which is lost for us because an English firm, to which the plan was submitted, declined to publish on the ground that "there was no such city in existence."

St. Thomas's, on Fifth Avenue, New York City (Fig. 63), is a good example of the Gothic of the French, but so buried and lost in the brownstone that the beauties are not appreciated.

W. K. Vanderbilt's home on Fifth Avenue is a chateau flamboyant with a suspicion of the new Italian ornament in its parts, whereas the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion farther up the Avenue has many of the book details but little of the essence of the old.

The Lady Chapel of St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Madison Avenue, is a magnificent example of the best of the French, and was evidently inspired by the Ste. Chapelle, in Paris, while the cathedral itself is colored somewhat by the Teutonic translation. You will notice that while there are pinnacles to hold the buttresses, there happen to be no buttresses, as the groined arch of the roof is plaster, and,, therefore, would neither need nor support the weight of these flying braces. With a Gothic essential missing, is it not true that the result is only partial and pedantic and not in any sense evolutional, and is, therefore, a true expression of our times ? There is a doorway in the dry-goods district of New York City which is in itself a charming and truthful interpretation of the Age of Love of the flamboyant period. The double lines in the arch are crowned with babies in lieu of flowers, and it has a freedom of line which marks it as a perfect translation of the period. It serves its purpose as a doorway, but tells no story to the unseeing, though in itself a little book of the successors of Sir Galahad and their love-jousts resting on a shelf with account-books, the Talmud, and the Old Testament.

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