Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2020
Maile S. Hutterer Framing the Church: The Social and Artistic Power of Buttresses in French Gothic Architecture University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 224 pp.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271083445)

Flying buttresses are massive masonry structures wrapping around the exterior of (usually) a church: rows of robust uprights and bridge-like flyers form a lithic forest sometimes so thick it obscures the church itself. Developed in the mid-twelfth century in Île-de-France and quickly becoming an identifier of Gothic architecture, flying buttresses have been credited for their structural prowess. Little wonder that generations of scholars have analyzed how flying buttresses stabilize and support magnificent churches.

For Maile S. Hutterer, buttressing is far more than a structural wonder. In Framing the Church: The Social and Artistic Power of Buttresses in French Gothic Architecture, she seeks to provide “a contextual understanding of these structural frames[,] . . . [their] artistic, social, and iconographic ramifications for ecclesiastical architecture” (7). She considers not only the basic components of the system—uprights, flyers, buttress piers—but also pinnacles, gargoyles, and sculptures. Together, they form a complex “buttressing-frame system” (7) that envelopes the space around a structure, with multivalent implications. Hutterer defines specialist terminology in her well-organized introduction, which includes essential historiography on the origins and modern structural studies of this quintessential Gothic phenomenon. She limits the bulk of her examples to the French royal domain of the thirteenth century.

Chapter 1, “Visualizing Buttressing and the Aesthetics of the Frame,” addresses the visual effects of the buttressing system, while acknowledging the lack of medieval texts on “the aesthetic intentions behind [the] designs” (19). Hutterer starts with the widespread popularity of openwork flying buttresses, despite their proven structural fragility. Her pairings of Saint-Jean-au-Marché in Troyes with Troyes Cathedral and of the Abbey of Saint-Riquier with nearby Amiens Cathedral demonstrate how often architects/patrons chose the delicate, almost diaphanous openwork flyers “to the detriment of structural integrity” (25).

Hutterer’s discussion of Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals goes beyond surface articulation. By examining the construction history and flying buttress designs, Hutterer explains why the exterior silhouettes of two structures sharing similar plans and sections would emerge so drastically different. This important discussion would have benefited from additional illustrations, such as ground plans and sections, to help readers visualize her descriptions and arguments. Instead, only a head-on view of the Bourges chevet (14, fig. 7) and a chevet buttress detail of Le Mans (38, fig. 24) are provided. This chapter concludes with a richly illustrated section addressing projecting buttress piers as a compositional device on stained glass, illuminated manuscript pages, and other media. Pages from the Psalter of Yolande de Soissons and the Psalter of Saint Louis, as well as the example of the destroyed Shrine of Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, demonstrate amply how architectural elements often “provide an organizational armature” (49).

With chapter 2, “Negotiating Buttress Spaces,” Hutterer examines buttress interstices—the spaces between buttress piers—and their appropriation for nonliturgical functions at Reims, Chartres, Paris, and Laon. For Reims, Hutterer cites three thirteenth- and fourteenth-century documents to describe a bustling market scene near the cathedral. For Chartres, Hutterer focuses on the cloister, which, since a charter of 1224, accommodated commercial activities financially benefiting the clergy (75). According to Hutterer, “[some] buttress interstices . . . provided sufficient [financial] value as exterior spaces, [that they] offset any enticement” for the clergy to enclose them for chantry chapels (74). This is the first of many discussions to which Hutterer will return to examine the economic implications of buttress interstices.

Notre-Dame of Paris offers a contrasting story. There, twelfth- and thirteenth-century statutes restricted nonclerical access to the cloister and areas around the cathedral. Consequently, commercial activities centered instead on the parvis, such as the foire au jambon held annually during the Holy Week (77–78). “The absence of value made the buttress interstices at Paris ripe for architectural experimentation, ultimately facilitating their interiorization” (81). Tantalizing as this suggestion may be, it is difficult to establish the real motives behind the pioneering addition of Paris’s lateral chapels, which, according to recent scholarship, provided much needed space to accommodate the increasing belief in purgatory and attendant services. Hutterer offers a similar story for Laon, where the canons “constructed houses and small shops between buttress piers” on the north side, adjacent to the market on the parvis (84). With the rest of the church periphery inaccessible to commercial activities, the “disuse . . . ultimately facilitated the construction of the lateral chapels” (85). These four case studies illustrate the decisions made by clergy about “the relative value of buttress interstices as interior and exterior spaces” (85). While financial calculation likely figured into whether buttress interstices stayed exposed or were enclosed, it is worth considering the ease with which interstices can be incorporated into interior spaces without the acquisition of additional land—a practical factor likely as important as fiscal concerns.

Hutterer’s third chapter, “Sculptural Programs and the Assertion of Ecclesiastical Hegemony,” considers five surviving figures of Chartres Cathedral, each standing inside an aedicula atop flyers on the north side of the nave. Citing liturgical manuals and other texts describing “bishops as the columns that support the building,” Hutterer suggests that sculptures such as the Chartrian bishops symbolized the living stones with which the universal church is constructed (95). With Reims Cathedral, which is literally covered with sculptures, Hutterer focuses on two groups of angels: under the cornice of the radiating chapels and in tabernacles surmounted by pinnacles of buttress uprights. While she agrees with scholars that the chapel angels are engaged in a liturgical procession, she questions the prevailing interpretation of the tabernacle angels as “guardians of the gates of Heavenly Jerusalem,” arguing that “no reasonable combination of the Reims angels finds numerical correspondence with the twelve gates of Heavenly Jerusalem as recorded in Revelation” (102). That some of the tabernacle angels carry instruments of the Passion convinces Hutterer that the two groups of angels “probably constitute a unified ensemble, in which the upper [tabernacle] angels act as an amplification of the lower [chapel] procession” (104). Although no extant medieval text corroborates her interpretation, her taking a global view and attributing to each of these sculptures a part in a larger scheme is consistent with the well-planned narratives of the exterior. Hutterer next discusses the six deteriorated, barely legible figures standing just under the chevet clerestory cornice at Saint-Quentin. Although often referred to as musical angels in procession, the figures are wingless, and only two can be safely identified as carrying musical instruments (107–8). Hutterer’s investigation moves from exterior musical processions to the liturgical use of musical instruments in the interior. In the end, she settles on seeing the sculptures as representing “a celestial symphonic ensemble meant to evoke the heavens” (111). The concluding section of this chapter, “Buttress Sculpture, Stained Glass, and Artistic Integration,” examines the glazing and sculptural programs of the choir of Reims Cathedral. While buttress sculptures’ iconographic role in a larger architectural context is intelligently explained, her analyses of examples at Beauvais, Bayeux, and Le Mans are sometimes hampered by the poor condition of the sculptures themselves.

In the final chapter, “Buttressing-Frame Systems as Signs of Spiritual Protection,” Hutterer examines buttresses as defense system. Delving into the church as consecrated ground (128–31), she investigates the sanctity of the structure, its apotropaic power, and its status as refuge. She then surveys such “fortified features” as crenellations and machicolated arches employed at ecclesiastical structures. Some projected “symbolic fortifications” (131); others were necessitated by real threats of violence in the Midi region. Primary documents, for example an 1173 text of Louis VII giving permission to the cathedral of Agde to fortify itself, “for fear of the Saracens and . . . the frequent incursion of evil men,” provide indisputable proof of the original intent of fortified churches (132). The most interesting is a 1349 document in which the master mason of Narbonne Cathedral—in the heart of conflict-rife Languedoc-Roussillon—denied the defensive function of ostensibly fortified features. Instead, he declared their creation “only for the grace and beauty of the work of the church” (134). Anchoring the next section on regularly spaced vertical buttress projections in ecclesiastical and secular architecture, Hutterer privileges their structural and visual roles over the “passive” walls stretched between them. A detour into theologians’ critical response to towers and buttresses as a form of moral excess (135–37) somewhat distracts from this thought-provoking section.

Framing the Church expands considerably on the author’s doctoral dissertation of 2011. The book is nicely produced but regrettably with a number of editorial mishaps: J. B. Rigaud’s engraving of Chartres Cathedral is dated to the 1730s in the text (72) but to 1769–80 in the caption (fig. 49). Readers may find it irksome that building dates are omitted from the captions. The bibliography is impressively extensive for both primary and secondary sources, save a curious omission of Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon, Notre-Dame de Paris: Neuf Siècles d’Histoire (Parigramme, 2013/19), the most recent monograph on Notre-Dame of Paris.

Hutterer is to be congratulated for exploring the many implications of the flying buttress, hitherto primarily considered through a structural lens. Her book is best appreciated as a collection of case studies, each offering distinct circumstances. Collectively, they tell a rich and compelling story of one of the most quintessential features of Gothic architecture.

Nancy Wu
Senior Managing Educator for Public Programs, The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art