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From the Publisher
"These are the kinds of books that are themselves works of art."
Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 by Bruno Klein, Photos by Achim Bednorz
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.
Review By Jack Goodstein, BLOGCRITICS.ORG
"This visual feast for the soul will appeal to art historians, theologians, armchair travelers or anyone who appreciates art. It sets the bar by which other art publications will be measured and is more then well worth the price."
Book Review: Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages 1150-1500
This stunning volume is every bit as opulent as the Gothic period artwork it depicts and the perfect companion to the equally magnificent Baroque. Both hand bound books weigh in at over sixteen pounds and feature the jaw-droppingly beautiful photography of Achim Bednorz and the concise, knowledgeable text of Bruno Klein. Focusing on the middle ages from 1140 to 1500, the largely illiterate population relied more upon visual representations of important religious events then the printed word and this need drove the Gothic art movement.
As with Ars Sacra, it is the photography that elevates this book into a class of its own. The images of the 1278 brick Albi, Cathedral of Sainte-Cecile with the detailed view of the south portal canopy and the rose window in the Cathedral of St-Nazaire are just a couple examples of Bednorz's art. However, Gothic art is not limited to glorious cathedrals and stained glass windows; there are also exquisitely worked tapestries like The Lady with the Unicorn. This visual feast for the soul will appeal to art historians, theologians, armchair travelers or anyone who appreciates art. It sets the bar by which other art publications will be measured and is more then well worth the price.
Book review by Sandy Amazeen, Nov 20, 2012, Monsters and Critics, www.monstersandcritics.com
Are We Living in a Second Gothic Age?
"[T]he Gothic era," Bruno Klein writes in the introduction to Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500, "was a time of seeing, in which much was discussed in words, but even more conveyed with the help of images." In this massive new study of the period published by h.f. Ullmann as part of the Collection of Art Epochs, we reunite with a generation powerfully like our own--a group of visual learners more comfortable with meaning filtered through images than through words. What separates this new book from previous encyclopedic surveys of the Gothic past is the photographic processes of the present. By zooming in and digitally manipulating images for maximum clarity and detail, Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 pulls the distant past into our immediate future. Thrust literally face to face with this strangely different yet strangely similar time, we can ask, "Are we living in a second Gothic age?"
Edited by Rolf Toman and photographed by Achim Bednorz, the team that gave birth to Ars Sacra (the monumental study of all of Christian art; which I reviewed here), Gothic launches the Collection of Art Epochs series. As informative and illuminating as the text of scholars such as Klein is, the true star of the Art Epochs series is undoubtedly Bednorz's photography. Bednorz employs the so-called "zoom principle" of digital photography. As shown here, Bednorz would take multiple photographs of a single artwork or scene and digitally combine them into a high-definition version that's not "just like being there," but actually better than being there. Details seen in giant cathedrals only through binoculars (if at all) "zoom" right to us. Tiny objects appear as if placed under a magnifying glass. If you love your HD TV, you'll love Bednorz's photography. (Bednorz also explains his techniques in this video.)
"The aim of this book is to do justice to the dominance of visual culture" in the Gothic age, Klein adds, "and to help the reader to see." All Klein and the other visionaries behind Gothic ask is that you look "with an open mind, but also critically, and above all intensely." It's that intensity that makes Gothic, whose 568 oversized glossy pages weigh in at a little over 16 pounds, sometimes a heavy experience, as if you've just walked into one of the great cathedrals of Europe with no guidance as to where to look. Fortunately, the overall structure and design of Gothic quickly gets you on your way.
Klein explains how a Gothic cathedral was "a highly differentiated structure, in which various groups each had their special place, and in which they communicated with each other directly or by means of images." Depending on your level of verbal and/or visual literacy, you would be drawn towards the written gospels, the spoken sermons, or the visual sermons of artwork such as the unforgettable Rose Window of Chartes Cathedral (shown above). Klein sees Chartes losing the "richness of early Gothic architecture," but compensating with "unusual size and laconic language of forms" to set a new standard as the "epitome of the 'Gothic cathedral.'" While Klein's writing situates Chartes Cathedral in the tradition of the Gothic cathedral, Bednorz's photography brings you in closer and closer and almost impossibly even closer to see details in breathtaking color and richness. The temptation for non-experts faced with monumental Gothic architecture is to come away thinking that if you've seen one Gothic cathedral, you've seen them all. Gothic clearly proves that each cathedral's unique in its beauty and its embodiment of the devotional zeal of those who built it. In fact, an arms race of sorts arose as communities battled to build the biggest and best cathedrals both as gestures of faith and symbols of community pride.
Gothic covers all aspects of the period both great and small. Devotional objects such as the mysterious, weirdly wonderful Roettgen Pieta, whose grotesqueness was meant to leave believers "prostrated over the immensity of Christ's self-sacrifice," break the stereotype of a homogeneous Gothic art. A wonderful visual map of the society itself, Gothic demonstrates how town halls became "secular cathedrals" with appropriately corresponding artwork. "[T]he refinement of manners and the emancipation of art" from serving religious purposes exclusively may have come from the "courtly culture" of the elite, but, Klein argues, "without the stimuli provided by the cities" teeming with an increasingly diverse population of merchants and tradesmen, those cultural advances would have never happened. This "internet" of societal exchange comes across beautifully in the artwork displayed, especially in the remarkable murals of the Castello del Buonconsiglio, Torre dell'Aquila, in Trento, Italy. This series of murals showing the progress of a year in the life of a castle and its surroundings captures everything from a young nobles' snowball fight in January to a mixed hunting party of nobles and peasants together in November. Although social norms still prevented interaction as equals between the classes, proximity led to a fruitful coexistence passed down to us in their art.
Familiar landmarks such as the Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece find new life in Gothic as the embodiment of a new "internalization of religiosity and the world of feeling" as the times shifted towards a different sense of the individual's place in the greater whole. Figures unfamiliar to non-specialists such as German printmaker Martin Schongauer leap off the page with their inventiveness and sophistication. As enriching as it is to work through Gothic from front to back, simply diving into pages at random will allow you to resurface with pearls of newfound wonder such as Schongauer and others.
Klein fingers the development of printing as the main culprit in the demise of the Gothic age. Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald enter just at the end of the era, stretching Gothic rhetoric to its extreme while simultaneously introducing the new rhetoric of the Renaissance. By the end of Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 you recognize more clearly the continuity between the Gothic and the Renaissance, which is still too often portrayed as an escape from the Dark Ages into the light of the neoclassical humanism of Michelangelo and friends.
In saying that we might be in a second "Gothic age," am I saying we're in a second "Dark Ages"? No, and not just because, as this book proves, the "Dark Ages" were anything but a dark, empty time. But the way that Gothic reconnects that period with modernity both through our cutting-edge visual technology and cultural visual orientation strongly suggests that we have at least as much in common with them as with the Renaissance idealists we so wish to emulate. The very term "Gothic" originated as an insult, a sneer from the Renaissance elites looking back on the "darker" past with disdain and likening them to the barbaric Germanic tribes that sacked Rome, thus hastening the inevitable end of the classical period. Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 asks us to look, and look intensely, before we sneer, because the face of the Gothic age might be much like the one in our mirror.
Big Think coverage, by Bob Duggan
April 11, 2013
"Rolf Toman is the editor of both volumes, and succeeds with his team in presenting not only some superlative works of art, but in presenting the vision -- an emphatically Christian vision -- that animated works of such surpassing ambition that they would be impossible to conceive of today, in a world of technological genius but narrow horizons... The history of art can be spiritual reading, and Ullmann's bold project achieves something of that.
Art and the beauty of faith
One of my favourite insights from Joseph Ratzinger's long life in theology is that the Church does not convincingly propose the faith by the work of theology alone. Before his election as Pope he wrote that in the end the Church only has two compelling "arguments" for her faith being true. The first is the saints who have lived the Gospel fully and who the Church proposes as models of Christian witness. The second is the art that she has nurtured in her midst, her faith expressed in beauty, whether in painting, sculpture, architecture or music. Theology is necessary, but it is holiness and beauty that persuades.
The Church's faith provides to the world this gift, the gift of beauty. We do not live in a very beautiful world. To our world the Church continues to offer from her patrimony the service of beauty. The Church offers to our common life that which is beautiful. Not just art, but beautiful lives, lives of saintly people from every time and place. The role of faith in our common life is to give our cntemporaries reasons to look up, to raise the eyes of a disenchanted culture above the daily grime to that which is beautiful. That is the role of the Christian in ugly time, to make present that which is beautiful. Like the biblical steward we bring out our treasures old and new, beauty from our history and from our current circumstance.
I discovered recently a marvelous publishing project which does precisely that, brings out the treasures of art from Christian history. A few years back the German publisher, h.f. Ullmann, which specializes in high-end art books, the lavishly illustrated tomes about cars, homes, couture, geography, architecture and the like that you might find on the coffee tables of great mansions, decided on a bold experiment. They would produce a mammoth book -- 800 pages, 1,100 photographs, 11 kilograms -- on the entire history of Christian art. Entitled Ars Sacra, it was not a coffee-table book, but a kitchen table book.
It was a most pleasant publishing surprise, that it the age of the Internet a book heavier than a set of twins could sell, and sell well. So last fall, h.f. Ullmann launched an even more ambitious project, a series on the different epochs of art. The first two volumes deal with major periods in Christian art history: Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages 1150-1500 and Baroque: Theatrum Mundi. The World as a Work of Art.
Compared to Ars Sacra, and only relative to that behemoth, are these volumes smaller: 600 illustrations on 600 pages, seven kilograms. These two are to be read at the desk. The publisher sells them for $150, but they can also be ordered online at two-thirds of that price. And, remarkably, both in terms of cost and heft, they are more than good value.
Rolf Toman is the editor of both volumes, and succeeds with his team in presenting not only some superlative works of art, but in presenting the vision -- an emphatically Christian vision -- that animated works of such surpassing ambition that they would be impossible to conceive of today, in a world of technological genius but narrow horizons.
The Gothic volume highlights the magnificent French cathedrals -- Chartres taking pride of place -- whose influence is seen in so many places in Canada. The Baroque volume offers one sacred exemplar -- St. Peter's Basilica -- and one profane -- the Palace of Versailles. In all cases, we see the marvels of what human ingenuity can achieve when it is unconstrained. And the great works of the gothic and the baroque -- even the secular ones -- required a spirit sustained by the transcendent. Otherwise, why build a cathedral or palace that you would never live to see finished, or why decorate exquisitely an obscure part of a ceiling that no one, save for God, would ever see?
We read the lives of the saints so that their holiness might attract us. The Ullmann books are analogous to that, works that move us by presenting the beauty that is born from the faith. Spiritual reading for Lent usually emphasizes the ascetical life. A lavish art book may therefore seem incongruous in Lent, but many of the pages in these books are worthy of meditation on the love of God that can make this sinful world beautiful. The history of art can be spiritual reading, and Ullmann's bold project achieves something of that.
The Catholic Register coverageWednesday, 06 February 2013 16:20 Written by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza