Friday, March 30, 2007

Some historical notes about the Gothic term

The term "Gothic", admittedly, originated in a confluence of history and architecture. The Goths were a northern Germanic European people whose ways and beliefs differed largely from those of Greco-Roman Classical civilization farther south. To the southern outlook, the Goths were wholly uncivilized and barbarous. When the initiation of architecture that departed radically from the low, heavily-arched forms in "Romanesque" pervasive darkness consequent upon the inability to construct large windows because they would have weakened the stonework, such newer buildings, chiefly the great cathedrals that arose all over northwestwern Europe and the British Isles from the eleventh century onward, provided structures which permitted far more light to illuminate the interiors. Employment of vaulted (pointed) arches within and of huge "flying buttresses" for support outside, gave to these vast, tall cathedrals an appearance of a winged bird or a growing plant. What was essential to architectural soundness was often deemed "grotesque" by those who beheld the tangible forms. Gothic cathedrals speedily make one aware of an innate desire to look upward, and they convey senses of great space. Even with far more lighting than Romanesque buildings afforded, a sense of considerable shadowiness or obscurity is inescapable when one enters Gothic building or their cloisters. To those who objected that such tall structures were often adorned with what the extremely practical mind saw as inessential decorations, the response was that these buildings were, after all, symbols of human attempts to glorify God, and that His eye could see what mere human vision could not.

Great cathedrals that have changed little since the middle ages still dot Continental Europe. In Great Britain, however, once Henry VIII decided that allegiance to the Pope in Rome was no longer necessary and, as a concomitant, that much in the way of the cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries, convents, and, often, churches of far lesser status, would contribute substantially to the wealth of the Crown, many Gothic buildings fell into ruins because they were no longer maintained. In addition to the symbolism in the ruined architecture, the British mind came to associate a downright immorality with some of the thinking and practices in Roman Catholicism. For example, once Henry's decrees for creating the Anglican Church became operable, ties between Roman Catholicism and Continental European political class structures seemed dangerous. Moreover, celibate clergy, especially monks and nuns, eventually came to be anathema in British eyes. The clergy contributed in another way to Gothic tradition. The hooded, flowing robes worn by many members of ecclesiastical orders dovetailed precisely with stereotypical conceptions of ghosts in bedsheets, and, amidst the strange visionary responses otherwise created by Gothic architecture's combination of vastness and obscurities, they offered plausible models for supernatural beings. Another off-center assumption about Catholic practices concerned live burial as punishment for clerical recalcitrance. Since paranoias about actual premature burials persisted well into the early years of the twentieth century, here was a motif with compelling outreach to many readers.

Benjamin Franklin Fisher