Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2015
Ethan Matt Kavaler Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe, 1470–1540 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 344 pp.; 80 color ills.; 210 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300167924)

In the Lombeek altarpiece in Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Lombeek (Belgium), created by artists from Brussels in ca. 1525, ornamental fields vary with the biblical subject matter of the figural scenes and, indeed, sustain a secondary discourse. As Ethan Matt Kavaler writes in Renaissance Gothic: Architecture and the Arts in Northern Europe, 1470–1540, “Forced to assimilate the tabernacles [above the figures] to the realm of human actors, [a] viewer might think of the visible world as a finite index of the divine matrix” (108). On the west facade of the Church of La Trinité at Vendôme (France), designed by Jean Texier de Beauce in ca. 1500, “The tracery bars . . . seem to gyrate and flicker as the viewer moves about the façade . . . the eye oscillates between reading [the forms] as pattern and as texture” (119). At the Church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, Adam Kraft’s “sacrament house appears as a winnowing scaffold that not only contains the religious scenes but also suggests the armature of time” (173).

Within a hierarchy of values that situated the Italian Renaissance at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment, late Gothic works of art and architecture such as those analyzed masterfully above were long regarded as the overwrought and therefore morbid products of a decadent culture (far from the freshness of “true” invention) or as grotesquely vital—examples of an art that had run amok and lost the sober discipline of earlier centuries. Such ideas persist in some treatments of the period and in popular perception. In Renaissance Gothic Kavaler debunks the laziness and prejudice of interpreters who assumed designers had gone on autopilot or, conversely, had shifted into Gothic overdrive in an orgy of excess. Instead, situating his study within a larger scholarly discourse on ornament, he takes seriously what was once derided as ridiculously superfluous and argues that it is precisely the lively ornament that best expresses an aesthetic supplement or frame become indispensable and meaningful in its own right. Such (self-)conscious innovation testifies to new ideas in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, ideas that in the past were typically cornered by apologists of the Italian Renaissance but are here manifested differently in what Kavaler provocatively and polemically calls “Renaissance Gothic.”

Working against a narrowly nationalist or parochial point of view, Kavaler treats works from Poland to Portugal (making the case that “Renaissance Gothic” is “pan-European”) and from architecture to painting to precious arts, primarily in the sacred realm but encompassing some secular examples. With this array of examples, he succeeds in identifying a broadly shared culture of expression even as he pinpoints the differences that manifest local aesthetic traditions, specific patronage, or patterns of interpretation. The “scalelessness” of characteristic motifs such as mouchettes and trefoil arches that are manifested in both macro- and micro-works reinforces the argument about a shared design culture.

The volume begins with a lengthy and bracing treatment of the historiography of late Gothic and a thorough historical and theoretical contextualization of ornament. These two chapters carry the main theoretical weight of the volume. With one exception, the subsequent chapters, although written as continuous analyses, read more like catalogs of examples listed in paratactic array (chapter 2, “Flamboyant Forms”; chapter 4, “Natural Forms”; chapter 5, “Deconstruction and Hybridity”). Specific works are thoroughly and often elegantly analyzed, but the text here often serves less as the elaboration of an argument and more as illustration of the themes broached in the first two chapters. The one exception is chapter 3, on microarchitecture. This is the only chapter lacking the copious subheadings that fragment the other texts. Instead, Kavaler presents an extraordinary discussion of the elaborate sacrament houses, fonts, pulpits, screens, and arches that focused sacred space and provided a rich arena for liturgical practice. This chapter is also the only one that ends with a formal summary (a recital of points perhaps necessary in the absence of subheadings), one which makes the case that “Microarchitecture occupies a central position in northern European architecture around 1500” (197). Here and in the conclusion to the volume, Kavaler describes microarchitecture as locus for a thrilling experimentation, one feasible at small scale in works that were realizable within finite amounts of money and time.

Renaissance Gothic sheds welcome new light on northern European work of the later fifteenth and first half of the sixteenth century. Kavaler discusses how luxurious ornament was both generated and controlled by geometry, a geometry cultivated in workshop practice and also in some cases recorded for posterity in finished drawings bearing authority in their own right. In both settings, the structure of ornament testified to a Renaissance reconception of the designer as someone whose powers of reason have been trained and channeled via intellectual study of the liberal arts. Geometry was central to the organization not only of abstract shapes but also of the verdant flora seen in many instances of tracery, vault ribs, and microarchitecture of the period. These intriguing organic forms signified the intersection of ineffable divine creativity, thematized by geometry in the hands of designers on earth, and the irreducible materiality of nature—by turns beautiful, even paradisal, and threatening—which the arts imitated. The tension between such elaborate ornamental flora and the underlying architectural forms gave vault ribs, arches, and other elements a compelling presence to the senses, while posing an intriguing puzzle to the mind.

Broaching the “shared culture of expression” mentioned above requires attention to both sides of the communicative scenario, of course: the enunciation by a designer and the reception by a viewer. Kavaler is quite effective in addressing these. He evokes the idea that a viewer is “constituted” by a work of art but has more to say about how she or he understands its principles of organization. Kavaler does this by taking the linearity of late Gothic art and architecture and considering the line and geometric figures as ductus or guide (100) to the viewer’s eye, body, and memory: “The viewer identifies the screen or altarpiece as an object of experience while simultaneously recognizing agreement with a significant conceptual structure. Art can thus give presence to vague and transitory impressions in the form of a stable sensory phenomenon; its aesthetic truth would be its potential for disclosing an accepted truth” (101). Lest the performative operation be seen to reside entirely in the viewer, Kavaler follows this discussion with a section entitled “Narratives of Ornament.” While he may here push the boundaries of the definition of “narrative” further than is reasonable, it is indeed helpful to see the geometric transformations on a work such as the Ulm Minster sacrament house as “performances of mathematical operations on a given figure” such that “Each resulting new shape is as much a register of such an operation, an act, as it is a distinctive entity in itself” (103). More familiar is his presentation of spatial sequences of ornamental figures as architectural “plots” that are read over time.

Throughout the book, Kavaler returns to works that for him exemplify Renaissance Gothic: Benedikt Ried’s Vladislav Hall in Prague (1493–1503); the Church of St. Annen in Annaberg, Germany (begun in 1499); Hans von Nussdorf’s “Tulip” pulpit in Basel Minster (1484–86); Kraft’s sacrament house in St. Lorenz at Nuremberg (1493–96) and that by Lorenz Lechler in St. Dionys at Esslingen, Germany (1486–89); the Church of St. Nicholas-de-Tolentin in Brou, France (1517–25) and its altarpiece of the Joys of the Virgin (ca. 1515–22 and 1526–28); Jan Gossaert’s Malvegna Triptych (1513–15); and the vaults of the Liebfrauenkirche in Ingolstadt, Germany, subject of an earlier article (Ethan Matt Kavaler, “Nature and the Chapel Vaults at Ingolstadt: Structuralist and Other Perspectives,” The Art Bulletin 87, no. 2 (2005): 230–48). These serve as proof-texts of the grace, beauty, complexity, and inventiveness of Renaissance Gothic. Kavaler is careful to clarify his concern with form first and foremost, although he does supply capsule information about patrons and designers and broaches aesthetic parallels in other media in his first chapter. Still, certain analyses would benefit from a slightly broader approach, especially inclusion of more liturgical information or even simply a more fully described theological context. Kavaler does signal the ways in which opulent, luxuriant ornament “marked boundaries and signaled sacrality” (31) as well as testified to patrons’ wealth, social status, and aesthetic discernment. However, the discussion of sacrament houses, for instance, does not adequately reflect literature on the sacraments, their theological definition, and the evolving practices around them (both sanctioned and unsanctioned). As a result, in Kavaler’s text the index of God that the consecrated host was believed to be within a church is not evoked in its full power. Nor, for that matter, is the water of baptism. These seem like missed opportunities.

Kavaler identifies multiple examples of hybrid works that combine Gothic and classicizing (“Renaissance”) forms and of “bi-modal” designers able to work in both idioms, sometimes simultaneously. Gothic in this period, he argues, was not an automatic or default choice but a deliberate one, for deliberate effects. As happened with neomedievalism and neoclassicism in the nineteenth century, what began as a plurality of stylistic modes seen distinctly and alternatively in different works quickly evolved into a pluralism of stylistic maneuvers, sometimes evident in the hands of the same master or even in the same work. In the early sixteenth century, designers did not perceive an unacceptable contradiction between the two modes; the multiplicity of choices that evolved, however, meant that no single mode bore absolute authority. As a result, “Gothic could no longer claim to represent the world in its totality. Its metaphysical service as an expression of spiritual concerns and its social function as a vehicle of secular power were compromised” (20). It is to Kavaler’s credit that he does not see this as a function of a state of cultural and therefore moral collapse, as authors of the past have done, but as a symptom of a period of intellectual and aesthetic expansionism, when there was the impetus of new discoveries, when old forms could be made to do new tricks, and when the friction between “old” and “new” issued an invigorating challenge to the interpretive competence of eyes trained in certain conventions. If anything bespeaks the Renaissance, it is that expansionism, seen equally, if differently, in northern and southern Europe.

Overall, Renaissance Gothic has the power to change minds, as it did with this reviewer. It helps the student of late Gothic, who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the complexity of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works, to find a way through the thicket of lines and figures, as well as damning critical judgments of the past. The seduction of curvaceous lines, the intrigue of interpenetrating forms, the transparency and visual effects of dissolving forms or oscillating surfaces seen in many Renaissance Gothic works—all are conducive to sensory saturation, to use a phrase coined by Conrad Rudolph of the Early Gothic stained glass of Saint-Denis (Artistic Change at Saint-Denis: Abbot Suger’s Program and the Early Twelfth-Century Controversy over Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, 73). This ornament, however, as Kavaler convincingly explains in chapter 2, does not simply beautify the work that it adorns; it expresses it. “Ornament is the sensory instantiation of the architecture,” he concludes (261). Depending on the period and using architecture as an example, the “expression” of ornament might relate to the tectonics of a structure, itself perhaps geometrically derived. In the case of Renaissance Gothic, Kavaler asserts that geometry serves as a “metalanguage, an inscription in the pure communicative channel of mathematics considered an approximation of divine thought” (50). The sensory overload apparently occasioned by Renaissance Gothic works is, in the final analysis, intelligible via the hierarchies and narratives that do in fact govern the ornament—until the systematicity of Gothic was compromised by deliberate play and the violations of conventions that grew in frequency over the course of the period under study. It was the interpolation of Italianate forms that finally called the entire Gothic system into question, such that visual appearance might be divorced from structural reality, the wittily mimetic might infiltrate what had been more fully abstract, and distortions could be cultivated that highlighted the human-crafted materiality of the work. A new world, indeed. The theatricality of these ruptures, “mistakes,” and radical transformations anticipated later Baroque sensibilities.

Laura H. Hollengreen
Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology

Please send comments about this review to