I sometimes am asked what my doctoral research is about, and my answer is likely “Gothic Architecture”.
If I am pressed further, and the interest is there I might give a more detailed reply. Sometimes the research is not as interesting for those unfamiliar with architecture, so a cursory response is most appropriate as to not bore anyone nice enough to show interest. The argument for Gothic architecture as defined in the ninety word thousand document makes many points that are not immediately accessible outside of the larger discussion.
What I am suggesting in my Ph.D. on Gothic architecture is something not said by other writers on the subject. Essentially I am attempting to define the extent of theological influence upon Gothic architecture despite the absence of written documentation about the designers intentions.
Gothic architecture has been explained within its economic, social, political, religious, and aesthetic contexts. Otto Von Simson, Erwin Panofsky, and Paul Frankl each defined Gothic architecture in their own way, but all attempted to explain architecture within its religious context. Paul Frankl spent twenty years writing his grand history of Gothic architecture, so finding something that was not said is seemingly an insurmountable task. The importance of the religious context is unquestioned for understanding Gothic, as the church was the foremost organizational force of the period. Christianity and the resulting social structures had an unquestionable influence on the architecture of the period, and all scholars agree on this point.
However the consensual misunderstanding of Christianity brought to bear upon medieval religion is understandable even if Paul Frankl dismisses writers who demonstrate socialistic, nationalistic, or ideological concepts patched onto Gothic. While Paul Frankl emphasises a Gothic aesthetic development, Otto Von Simson and Erwin Panofsky specifically use theological precepts to suggest an understanding of Gothic architecture within the most significant context of religious social organization.
Otto Von Simson is fixated with Dionysian light metaphysics, and Erwin Panofsky attempts to define a proto-cosmology from the Scholasticism prevalent at the time. The attempt to reduce the religious understanding of the period to one theologian, and suggest that one source inspired the creation of the Gothic style, as Simson did, misrepresents how medieval man understood himself and his religion. Furthermore Panofsky intuitively understood the need to elucidate the general consensus at the time about how the world worked, and man’s place in God’s creation. Unfortunately he isolated his argument to a correlation between how Scholasticism structured the world, and how the Gothic cathedral was structured. Disregarding Scholasticism not reaching its full maturity and articulation a century after Gothic architecture began, it is inappropriate to attempt to define the historical cosmology that underpinned the Gothic cathedral to such a narrow source. Historians like Panofsky and Simson have attempted a scientific understanding in that isolating a single precise cause would allow for an explanation of the Gothic effects.
My research then takes up this task of understanding Gothic architecture, as much as possible, as medieval man understood it; as religious. This implies forsaking modern conceptions about man’s place in the cosmos, and God’s absence in how we understand the world. Defining the religious cosmology of the period requires accessing the theological precepts of the period, including mysterious and exotic notions about God and his influence on daily life. Such a religious foundation that understanding Gothic architecture calls for is antithetical to the past attempts of historians looking for a quasi-scientific narrative. No such scientific narrative is available if searching for an authentic understanding of Gothic architecture, which is why previous historians have not been able to answer to what extent theology influenced cathedral architecture in medieval Europe.