Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2001
Norbert Nussbaum German Gothic Church Architecture New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 272 pp.; 50 color ills.; 180 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300083211)

Norbert Nussbaum’s excellent, well-illustrated book, already published in two German editions, is finally available in a clear, readable English translation. It is well laid out and includes extensive and useful notes, a bibliography, a glossary of technical terms, a chronological list of buildings, and indices of persons and places. Given the exceptional quality and quantity of its photographs, plans, and text—all at a reasonable cost—the book will be a classic, a status it has already achieved for readers of the German versions. For English-speaking historians who know too little of this architecture, Nussbaum’s book shows the enormous richness of medieval church architecture in the sprawling lands of the medieval German empire, which included not only present-day Germany, but also Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland. The author has an extraordinary, up-to-date knowledge of the subject, as well as a solid grasp of medieval architecture in France, Italy, and England. He is conversant with the publications of Czech, Polish, Swiss, French, English, and American scholars, among others. Particularly significant is his acquaintance with modern German dissertations.

Like many art-history survey books, the discussion runs chronologically according to style, but even though Nussbaum’s treatment is primarily stylistic (of a fine sort), he handily treats an abundance of other topics throughout the text, such as cathedral lodges, the effect of materials such as brick on a building’s form, asceticism, small venues as sites for testing new architectural ideas, the emperor as church builder, new patronage and the late-medieval construction industry, and the concept of Special Gothic’s “unified space.” His brilliantly nuanced discussion of Late Gothic and its fraught historiography is one of the highlights of his critical mind at work (137-38). In addition, the author considers costs as well as aesthetics in thinking about the variety of forms, their meanings, and the political and institutional effects on architecture. For example, Nussbaum relates the use of ambulatories and elaborate choir designs in parish churches “to the growing power of the burgher classes, whose donations often financed chantry priests…and whose memorial epitaphs were intended to display the family name as close to the main altar as possible” (134). His section on the myriad functions of parish churches during this period is particularly rich. He mentions their use as assembly halls for local government, municipal courts, archives, markets, guild festivals, and libraries, as well as symbols of the importance of the city (139-40). Unfortunately, the range required in the survey and its stylistic perspective seem not to have permitted a detailed examination of these topics.

Nussbaum logically begins his text by discussing the meaning of the matter-of-fact words in the title of his book, which nevertheless invoke complicated academic controversies. Even “church architecture” merits critique: “We know what church construction entails, or at least we think we know” (9). This makes an unexpected but whimsical wink at our self-assured and thus unexamined knowledge of this term in the second sentence of the book. Next, he proceeds with the typical German review of past literature on the subject, but this survey is couched more subtly and interestingly as an appraisal of earlier scholars’ understanding of the changing focus of research. Chapter 2, “The Origins of Style: Gothic and Romanesque,” discusses the beginnings of Gothic in Germany and, as the chapter subtitle indicates, its “French basis.” The sections of Chapter 3 explore the later use of Gothic in cathedral workshops, in regional hall church architecture, in mendicant Gothic seen as a planned antithesis to cathedral architecture, in brick (Backstein) Gothic, and in the invention of the first stellar vaults, which we might more straightforwardly word as “star” vaults. At this point, he has reached the “Stylistic Pluralism of the Fourteenth Century” (Chapter 4), which is followed by a chapter on the foremost architectural family of the Middle Ages, the Parlers (“Architecture in the Time of the Parlers”). Nussbaum advances to “The Fifteenth Century” in Chapter 6. In Chapter 7, “Movement in Stone: A Late Gothic Metamorphosis,” he focuses on Late Gothic changes and its wild exuberances, including ornamental vaults and organic shapes. Appropriately, the final chapter is titled “Gothic and Renaissance.”

Praise notwithstanding, some topics might have been examined more fully and critically, even in the survey format of this book. I would like to have read more discussion on issues surrounding the hall church: its early Gothic diffusion as a type, the reasons that it was so popular in areas of the German Empire, and so on. He mentions that the majority of churches built in the Middle Ages were built in rural areas (140), but does not discuss this aspect further, nor does he consider to what degree rural churches might have looked different or functioned differently from urban ones. The whole question of masons lodges, or workshops, and its corollary, what kinds of organization took place within them, remain largely unexamined, particularly in the early periods of Gothic, as well as what it meant for masters of Late Gothic building to belong or not to belong to a lodge. And what do we know about a lodge at sites smaller than the large cathedral workshops? Similarly, employing the term “architect” also raises questions. Although its anachronistic use in the literature on medieval building is still the rule, I would have preferred to see the term queried so that in the Late Gothic period, when master masons were becoming architects, the distinctive changes might have been explored. In other places, modern formalist thinking colors comments as in this observation: The lateral sections of the façade “bear no organic relationship to the rest of the structure” (113). Next to the many invaluable qualities of this book and the sense of the book as a whole, however, these quibbles are distinctly minor.

Although the English edition is a translation of the second German edition of 1994, the author has included many more references to literature, including some later than the date of that text. Thus, the English version has the most expansive and up-to-date bibliography and notes, and makes some additions and clarifications in information, as well as corrections to the second German edition. The scale of the plans is generally large enough to see details that are less legible in the smaller German editions.

The translation follows the German text carefully and is generally very good, even if it sometimes imitates the Teutonic sentence length of the original. Not to underestimate the task, it was a formidable job to have dealt with Nussbaum’s exuberant and pictorial verbal descriptions and the rather fiendish technical vocabulary of Late Gothic architecture. Occasionally, the complicated, technical prose gets away from the translator, as witnessed by his frequent use of quotation marks and some awkward English syntax. Curiously, some words and terms are left needlessly untranslated, e.g., Erzgebirge (Harz Mountains), Kartäuser (Carthusian), Empore (tribune), Langchor chancel (choir or chancel of several bays), Privatoratorium (private oratory), and sanctuarium (sanctuary). More understandable as a quasi-technical term is Backstein Gothic (brick Gothic), but Sondergotik is unnecessarily translated as Special Gothic. Other specialized vocabulary is mistranslated or awkwardly transliterated, e.g., “chapelled extensions,” “‘rosed’ lancets,” “register” instead of story, “Louis the Holy” instead of St. Louis, “staired tourelles” for stair towers, “constructeurs” for builders of vaults (Gewölbebauer), the French “travée” instead of bay, and “structural sculpturing” for bauplastischen Aufwand. Rarely is the job really botched, as in note 405 (242), where westenglische Beispiele is rendered as “west-of-English churches.” Nevertheless, the book is well produced, but careful proofreading should have caught the hyphen-split syllables in the middle of lines and errors such as “lead” for “led” and “site” for “cite.”

Although general readers will delight in the abundant, beautifully photographed illustrations, art historians will also savor the energetic description. All scholars will revel in the astounding usefulness of the prolific notes, which are almost worth the price of the book itself. Yet it is Nussbaum’s authoritative and informative text that is the greatest benefit to this subject. Thus, German Gothic Church Architecture is something of a rarity these days—a gorgeous book that is well researched, thoroughly scholarly, reliable, and interestingly enlightening.

Virginia Jansen
University of California, Santa Cruz