Friday, 12 June 2015

History Book Review: The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century by Emile Male

Illustrated Edition, Translated by Dora Nussey from the third French edition, published in 1913; 1958

Pros: tons of information packed into 400 pages, goes over all the main sources and stories depicted on French Gothic cathedrals, lots of great illustrations  

Cons: can be dry in parts, occasionally expresses prejudices

I read this in university for one of my Medieval Studies courses and was lucky enough to find a used edition.  The book is now out of copyright and can be read for free via (available in black and white and with off white pages.  As a side note, always download the pdf version of old books if possible.  The ebook version tends to get messy when there are page headings and footnotes, and become difficult if not impossible to read).

Though old, this is still one of the best studies of 13th Century French cathedral art and its interpretation written.  In contract to some of his contemporaries and predecessors, M. Male attempted to explain the figures in sculpture and stained glass using texts produced by the middle ages.  By doing so, he clarifies and corrects several misinterpretations of characters and stories.

He writes the book using the organizational style taken from Vincent de Beauvais’ Speculum Maius (The Great Mirror), which explained how everything from history to nature was a type for Christ and spiritual things.  It is separated into four parts: the mirror of nature, the mirror of instruction (or doctrine), the mirror of morals, and the mirror of history.  The final book is further subdivided by Male into the Old Testament, the Gospels, Apocryphal stories, Saints, secular history, and the end of times.  Through these categories, the whole of the cathedrals is laid bare for the reader.

Male assumes a familiarity with the stories of the Bible, though he does detail the stories enough that even those unfamiliar with it should be able to follow along.  The wealth of information contained here is incredible, and if you go in not knowing Bible characters or Christian saints, you’ll leave knowing a lot about them.

There are a lot of great illustrations and photos, though their placement leaves a little to be desired, as you sometimes have to flip ahead or backwards to find the photo of what he’s talking about.

The book mentions some of the renovations that had been done by his time and lamented the damage done to the monuments in the past during the iconoclasm and French Revolution, but of course he had no way to anticipate the even worse damages to come with World War II and acid rain.  So the book preserves some images of things that were already gone by his time (he reproduces some illustrations from older works) and that are now gone or reproduced today.  In a few instances the names he attributes to people aren’t what they’re deemed now, either due to more research or to misinformation.  In a few other instances, he has information about windows and sculptures that no longer exist (as with two black windows in Chartres that he attributes to particular saints).  

The book can be a bit dry and academic at times, but it’s worth pushing through those parts.  And if you’re worried you won’t be able to, skip ahead to the chapter on the Saints and the one on the end of the world, as both were fascinating.

The author on a few occasions expressed some of his own prejudices against peoples of the past.  These aren’t obvious, but there are a couple of disparaging remarks (I specifically remember one about Ethiopia and one about India). 

My other complaint is that he references books that still haven’t been translated into English, meaning if you don’t read Latin you have no way of reading these works yourself.  I’d dearly love to read some of his sources, especially the Speculum Maius, Glossa Ordinaria by Walafrid Strabo, the sermons of Honorius of Autun, Traditiones Teratologiques by Berger de Xivrey, and more.  Perhaps because of this, there are a few places where Male quotes an ancient text and it’s left in the original language with no footnote telling you what it means.   

Despite the age of the book and the few complaints, it really is an amazing book and highly recommended for anyone interested in art history, the middle ages, and saints.

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