It is always a cause for celebration when a book forces you to look at even familiar works of art with new appreciation. Renaissance Gothic is a remarkably stimulating analysis of architectural ornament from about 1470 to 1540. Yet this book offers so much more as Kavaler sensitively explores the aesthetic preferences and stylistic choices of artists and patrons across most of Europe. The author invites us to examine the walls, vaults, and minutiae of sacred and secular buildings. The bizarrely constructed vault or the decoration that threats to obscure the object that it adorns are not the products of misguided masters. These reflect the enduring, if evolving, taste for Gothic-style ornament. These monuments exemplify artistic virtuosity at the highest level. Such works, however, have been deemed outmoded by many scholars because they conflict with the dominant art historical paradigm that the antique architectural forms revived in the Renaissance are the only true modern style. In France, Spain, and the Netherlands the word modern was used to distinguish the Gothic from the antique (17). Kavaler correctly remarks the “prevalence and prestige of this latest Gothic was consequently something of an embarrassment to many scholars of a northern Renaissance, especially in Europe” (2). It was “often regarded as a lithic manifestation of the Middle Ages exceeding its bounds” (3).
Kavaler describes his book’s title as “an ironic term, a joining of words that signal two radically opposed historical traditions” (3) or as a “provocative oxymoron” (22). Gothic and Renaissance are both loaded labels whose meanings are not as stable as many earlier art historians maintained. Instead of dismissing the late Gothic, Kavaler urges his readers to consider the period’s stylistic pluralism. Realism and naturalism, often cited as prime traits of the northern Renaissance, apply better to painting than to architecture and sculpture. They obscure a deep-seated appreciation for the abstract principles of geometric composition, specifically how lavish surface decorations might convey the designer’s imagination, skill, and, at times, wit. Kavaler emphasizes the growing role of the viewer. Many monuments challenged the viewer by offering visual puzzles, intricate spatial designs whose underlying structure or order was revealed only upon close scrutiny. The introduction provides a succinct historiography of the late Gothic and how this era differs from earlier periods of Gothic art.
Chapter 1 (“Ornament and Aesthetics”) stresses the sensory pleasure of ornament. It is the clothing hung on the structure’s body. Geometry is at the heart of architecture and its decoration. Geometric figures were multiplied, rotated, or inverted. Their very complexity could signal artistic achievement and personal style as exhibited, for instance, in Jan Gossart’s painted architecture or Rombaut Kelderman’s buildings. Kavaler compares architectural ornament with the rhetorical strategies of contemporary music and literature, each with their reliance on patterns of repeated sounds or phrases that establish a perceptible aural or visual structure (90). His discussion of ornament is wide-ranging and highly stimulating. Only his efforts to discern ornament’s theological or narrative meaning are rather under-argued. Yet even here, Kavaler engages his readers in close looking and critical thinking about his chosen examples.
Chapter 2 (“Flamboyant Forms”) addresses the increasing abstraction of architectural forms during this period. Intricate geometric designs come to dominate the façades of churches, such as St. Maclou in Rouen or La Trinité in Vendôme. Their application, which unifies and dematerializes, seems almost independent of the building’s actual structure. Kavaler systematically examines the appearance of elaborate Gothic ornament on façades, interior walls, vaults, and spires across Europe. He is especially fascinated by the stunning diversity of vault patterns, which he categorizes as figured, curvilinear, prismatic (without ribs), flying ribs (a suspended layer of ribs that hangs beneath the actual vault), and examples from England and coastal France. Two-dimensional geometric designs are inventively translated into three-dimensional forms. Kavaler draws attention to the extensive collection of architectural drawings today in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna and originally from the city’s architecture lodge. Many sketches (eg. pls. 33 and 41) display intricate vault designs based on the careful manipulation of geometric shapes. Some document solutions used elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire. Kavaler suggests (133) that this explosion of invention follows great advances in engineering though what these innovations were, other than flatter vault shells, is never explained.
Chapter 3 (“Microarchitecture – Architectural Sculpture of the New Age”) presents a marvelous discussion of the elaborate architectural ornament on pulpits, baptismal fonts, choir screens or jubés, tombs, sacrament houses, and other church furniture. Kavaler defines microarchitecture as standing “between conventional sculpture and architecture proper” (167) and as “the most sophisticated geometrical sculpture – the extrapolation of mathematical shapes in space” (p. 197). Architects and sculptors could create showy, small scale works quickly; projects that if made for an actual building might be structurally impossible or might require decades to complete. Here the personality of the individual master was on display. This chapter contains several extended examinations of specific projects, such as Hans Hammer’s pulpit in Strasbourg Cathedral, Adam Kraft’s sacrament house in St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, and Anton Pilgram’s organ loft and pulpit in Vienna Cathedral.
Chapter 4 (“Natural Forms”) considers the widespread use of vines, branches, and vegetal types to adorn everything from vault ribs and columns to sculpted altarpiece frames. Kavaler sees this manifestation on the one hand as a sign of divine sanctification or mystical apparition and in other contexts as nature’s waywardness. He relates these architectural examples to the foliage in paintings by Bosch and Altdorfer or, later in the chapter, to humanistic views on ancient German heritage. The quest to ascribe meaning, which at times seems forced, needs to be balanced with the artist’s display of his virtuosity and appeal to the careful viewer.
Chapter 5 (“Deconstruction and Hybridity”) reminds us that by the second decade of the sixteenth century, artists and patrons could choose between two separate modes – the Gothic and the antique. Not surprisingly, architects like Benedikt Ried or later Bonifaz Wohlmut (see pl. 17) mastered both styles and at times combined them much as Gossart did within a single painting (see pls. 267-270). This hybridity might infuriate purists but then it demonstrated the master’s knowledge. Particularly stimulating is Kavaler’s treatment of intentional eccentricities. A rope, carved in stone, “repairs” tracery that seems to have pulled apart (see pl. 236) or bolts, again cut in stone, give the illusion of stabilizing malformed ribs (see pls. 239-240). Such whimsies call attention both to the materiality of the architecture and to the architect’s playfulness.
Renaissance Gothic should be a required book for all specialists of this period. It is that good. I suspect, however, that many scholars will mistakenly overlook this book since it addresses architectural ornament rather than the more mainstream media. After all, Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer are only mentioned in passing. Kavaler demonstrates that the Gothic was still the architectural style of choice deep into the sixteenth century (and beyond) for churches and their decoration. This vibrant history enriches our more entrenched narratives of the development of the northern Renaissance. At the risk of geographic whiplash, the author dashes with his readers across the continent from Bohemia to England to Iberia to show the truly pan-European preference for the Gothic. Kavaler’s mastery of this vast body of material is impressive. With admirable descriptive and analytical skills, coupled with his own wonderful photographs, he has crafted a clear, compelling, and important account. Whether discussing Annaberg, Kutná Hora, and Belém or one of the dozens of less familiar sites, Kavaler compels his audience to look anew at the ornamental displays that so beguiled early modern viewers.
Jeffrey Chipps Smith
University of Texas, Austin