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.
Take for example the discussion of the splendid tomb of England’s Edward II. As a monarch Edward was a considerable failure. His reign was one disaster after another. Why then was he accorded such a magnificent tomb in Gloucester Cathedral? The splendid tomb, the text argues, is meant to demonstrate the idea that the idea of king is more important than any individual king, certainly an interesting thesis.
Once again, as I have already pointed out in my review of Baroque, the real glory of Gothic is in the photography. Not only are there full page details of significant works, there are two-page details and even two four-page fold outs. Moreover, digital photo technology has given the photographer new tools to capture the image. Some of the process is described by Bednorz in the brochure that accompanies the book. He takes shots in different lighting and then combines them to produce an accurate visual. In the past for example, as he explains, photos of stained glass windows were able to capture the colors but not the tracery. The new technology allows him to get both. The illustrations of the windows from Notre Dame de la belle verrière and the Passion Window from the Cathedral of Saint-Étiene provided excellent evidence of the effectiveness of the process.
Each volume in the collection runs 568 pages in a 15 x 11 inch format and is bound by hand. They must weigh in over 15 pounds. These are the kinds of books that are themselves works of art.