By Douglas Darracott
Art in Context: 2006–2007 Professional Development Workshop Materials (2006)
The articles in this series are intended to provide teachers with resources and classroom ideas relating to these topics.
Introduction: How can the student of art history, especially one who has yet to experience firsthand a medieval cathedral, comprehend the spirit of breathtaking ambition that swept through Europe in the thirteenth century? This spirit, which began around 1140 in the Île-de-France, just outside Paris at the abbey church of St. Denis, was rooted in both religion and politics. There, Abbot Suger, a man of lowly birth, remade himself into a powerful royal advisor and transformed medieval architecture into a vision of material splendor that we now call “Gothic.” This oncederisive label coined centuries later by architects of the Renaissance now evokes a sense of ethereal grandeur made possible by innovative building techniques. The Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims stands today as testimony to that spirit. But what could possibly account for this seemingly miraculous building boom of this High Gothic period? Was this indeed an age of faith, where whole communities were moved by piety to erect a physical manifestation of the Heavenly Jerusalem at such extravagant costs? In order to help students fully understand the mind of the medieval builder and his desire to build on such a grand scale, one must analyze the cultural changes and historical events that shaped medieval life at the beginning of the thirteenth century.