Art History Book Challenge – No. 1 Emil Mâle “Gothic Art”

My previous post explained my challenge to read the 16 “Books That Shaped Art History” in 2016.  You should consult that book for serious or academic criticism since what follows are simply personal responses to reading these books.

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I grew up with the gothic.  My small Ayrshire town is dominated to this day by a twelfth century Cistercian Abbey.  But, this being a very protestant Scotland and not northern France, the Abbey is in ruins and what decoration there was is long gone apart from a single, heavily worn carving of what may be Adam and Eve.

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Processional arch, Kilwinning Abbey: Detail of “Adam & Eve” carving c.1190

To be fair, as Umberto Eco tells me, the Cistercians were never that keen on over luxuriant church decoration.  There is a Cistercian statute that denounces the misuse of gold, silk, silver, stained glass, sculpture , paintings and carpets.  That sounds remarkably like the views of the church that currently occupies what would have been the main aisle of the Abbey.  And it’s the reformation that Emil Mâle blames for the loss of knowledge about the meaning of 13th century religious art which his book “L’Art religieux du XIIIe siecle en France: Etude sur l’iconographic du Moyen Age et sur see sources d’inspiration” attempts to redress.

For something written by a French academic, in a niche field, in 1898, it is a remarkably accessible book.  The prose is clear, pithy even, and often quotable, starting with the opening line:

“To the Middle Ages art was didactic.”

It then launches into an iconographic study of the stained glass and sculptures on and in the 13th century cathedrals at Chartres, Notre Dame Paris, Amiens, Laon and Sainte-Chapelle.  It is almost exhaustingly immersive.  You are fifty pages in before there is any let up in the – this image means this, it comes from this medieval manuscript – approach.  I find myself taking him at his word since I have no knowledge of the books he refers to and the case he makes does appear compelling.

As the essay by Alexandra Gajewski on the book makes clear, Mâle’s life was dominated by “order, disciple and education” and it is that intense focus that means the book is still in print today.  It is also my main problem with the book.  After a few hundred pages you crave a personal comment, a little human detail or, at the very least, an appreciation of the art rather than a explanation of its meaning.  I want him to say not just “this is a statue of the Virgin standing above the burning bush” but look how serene it is.

Chartres Cathedral, North Porch, The Visitation

Chartres Cathedral, North Porch, The Visitation.

I want to know more about the artists – did they understand what they were portraying and why or did they simply cary out specific commissions from the clergy?  Who decided on the overall plan for the decoration?  Mâle does mention this issue but only, in passing, in the final pages of the book.

I suspect these minor criticisms (I am not, as others seem to be, that concerned that is is so centred on French art) are very 21st century views since this really is a book about iconography and theology.  I have learnt a lot of theology from this book, some of which is very helpful for looking at later religious art.

The book was illustrated and it certainly helps to see examples of what is described in the text but I did find myself looking up images on the internet (I suspect this will be common for these early books).  Modern, high definition, colour reproductions really help appreciate the beauty of the images, especially with the stained glass which, given the limitations of the time, is represented by line drawings.

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“The Sky, Water and Trees” Legend of St Eustace, Chartres

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I’m glad I read this.  I would never have done so without the prompt from the The Books that Shaped Art History. I fear however that the next time I go to Paris and stand at the foot of Notre Dame I will be a very boring person to be near.

Next up: Bernard Berenson “The Drawings of the Florentine Painters”


I read, the still in print, Dover (2000) unabridged “Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century” a republication of the work originally published in New York in 1913.

I also read Umberto Eco’s “Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages“, Yale University Press, 1986, originally published 1959.

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One Response to Art History Book Challenge – No. 1 Emil Mâle “Gothic Art”

  1. Robert A. Wood says:

    We have a large painting in our home that we purchased from an art auction. On a trip to Scotland from which we just returned, we saw a small picture of that painting in a castle. We noted that the painting was Sir Mungo Murray of Garth. Prior to this, I just called him Charlie. Can you give me more specifics about the original painting. My wife placed the picture in our bedroom after we purchased it so we wake up to his presence every morning.

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