Joining the stunning volume, Baroque: Theatrum Mundi, The World as Work of Art in H. F. Ulmann's new series of art books, The Collection of Art Epochs, is the equally elegant Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500. Like Baroque, Gothic adopts what the collection's editor Rolf Toman calls "a new modern approach." Earlier books devoted to specific periods of art history approached their subjects academically and encyclopedically "subdividing concentrated specialized knowledge into 'bite-sized portions.'" The new series aims at something broader. It will look at the period internationally. It will look at the wide variety of genres, and it will focus on the interactions between genres. It is an aim that has been achieved with admirable results.
Gothic gives readers a comprehensive description of the art of the Middle Ages by focusing attention on a selection of representative works in all genres from all over Europe. Of course it spends more time discussing architecture than it does decorative art, more time discussing sacred art, than secular: these after all are the hallmarks of the period, and the things that need to be understood to understand the period. As the introduction points out, visual images were important because they were an effective way of communicating "specific ideas and aspirations in durable form." A castle fortress on a hill communicated one thing, a monumental cathedral in the midst of a bustling city something else. This was not l'art pour l'art. Gothic art served a purpose--religious, social, political, perhaps all three.
Based on some excellent photos by Achim Bednorz, the text, by Bruno Klein, tends to focus on a specific work of art as illustrative of this thesis. There will be a photo of the whole work accompanied by sometimes as many as three or four details. When Klein talks about illuminated hunting books, he is less concerned with its aesthetic qualities than with what it is intended to communicate about the value of hunting as a noble pursuit. The allegorical frescoes depicting good and bad government in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico are pointed to for their didactic lesson. While traditional discussions of Gothic architecture will often dwell on structural issues like vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses, Klein is more interested in the effects of the vaulted ceilings on the viewer. Gothic art then is art with a message.