Tuesday, April 09, 2013

`No One Signed His Name'

“We should finally dispose of the myth of cathedral builders’ anonymity. Scores of their names have been preserved, not only in chronicles and financial registers. The medieval constructors signed, if this is an appropriate term, their work with joy and pride.” 

To prove the tailleurs de pierre were not entirely nameless, Zbigniew Herbert in “A Stone from the Cathedral” (Barbarian in the Garden, 1962) describes an inscription in the cathedral at Amiens: the bishop in 1220 was Evrart, the King of France was Louis VIII, the master of works was Robert de Luzarches, followed by Thomas de Cormont, followed by his son Renaud, “who placed the inscription in the year of Incarnation 1288.” 

Philip Ball cites the same inscription in Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral (2008), and adds: “But of the masters who devised Chartres we know nothing, for the record books of the cathedral from that period have not survived.” But Herbert has something else in mind, as his third sentence above suggests. Most of the “constructors” of the great cathedrals, from laborers to architects, remain forever anonymous, as is appropriate for a structure built ad majorem Dei gloriam.  In contrast to contemporary architects, those prideful vandals, their very lack of identity expresses humility and, paradoxically, their “joy and pride.” Elizabeth Jennings addresses a similar theme, introducing the role of money, in her “In Praise of Anonymity” (Familiar Spirits, 1994): 

“I think now of the Middle Ages when
Some clever men carved perfect gargoyles or,
In Chartres for instance, God creating man
Somewhere high up where few could see the pure 

“Creative fervour. No one signed his name
But was content to work with the reward
Of money only. No dark need for fame
Shadowed those artists. Their deft minds were stored 

“With images that owed a little to
Sermons they'd heard, bells that rang the Hours.
Who knows to what religious debts were due 

“Those churches which stand up today, their powers
Still vigorous? These men of long ago
Rest in kind peace beneath the spurned wild flowers.” 

It’s a stretch to say “No dark need for fame / Shadowed those artists.” Human nature hasn’t changed that radically in eight-hundred years. The final image of workers resting in “kind peace” is beautiful and fitting. Even the wild flowers go unnoticed.


Buce said...

Other refs: Jean Gimpel, The Cathedral Builders; Alain Erlande-Brandenberg, The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages.

Got another that I bought in Brussels last year, at home on the bedside table. In French though I think originally English.

I set out to explore the topic on the premise that they took so long a-building because there was no developed capital market. Turns out to be a fantasy. Some of the builders had the money in pocket; others were able to raise it in a hurry; others got distracted by political/power issues unrelated to finance.

Buce said...

Right, here it is: Henry Kraus, Gold was the Mortar: The Economics of Cathedral Building . US publication date is 1994; seems to be out of print. But I bought my French edidtion, L'Argent des cathédrales, published a s a cerf imprint in 2012. Note comprehensive but there is a chapter on Amien.

And speaking of unknown, have you ever visited Canterbury? There is (used to be) a model of the cathedral with a little guy hanging in mid-air on a piece of near-invisible thread. Evidently the builder was killed in a fall...