Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism

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Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism

Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism presents a compelling connection between the architectural styles of Gothic Cathedrals and the order and form of the Scholastic school of thought. Focusing on the “100 mile zone around Paris” during the years between 1130-40 and 1270 where and when Scholasticism was the dominate theory of education and Gothic architecture began to take a stronghold over the ageing Romanesque style. In Panofsky’s own words “A connection between Gothic art and Scholasticism which is more concrete than a mere “parallelism”…the connection which I have in mind is a genuine cause-and-effect relation.” But is there a more meaningful conviction that Panofsky is trying to present by explaining this “cause and effect”? Before diving deeper into Panofsky’s theory, the terms Scholasticism and Gothic Architecture need to be defined.

Scholasticism is a method of learning taught by the academics of medieval universities from the 11th until the 15th century, originating in Paris. This method of learning was based on dialectical reasoning, with the purpose of answering a question or settling a disagreement through the use of the Scholastic method. The Scholastic method would compare two or more writings of a related source. The sources would be read aloud to a class of pupils or academics to point of the contradictions between the texts. Then through a series of dialectics focusing on philological and or logical (commonly Aristotelian logic after the Second Crusade circa 1149) analysis the two sides of the contradiction would be interoperated to essentially agree with each other.

Gothic Architecture is a style of architecture originating near Paris with the construction of the abbey church of Saint-Denis. The gothic style flourished during the High and Late Medieval periods. Classic features found in gothic architecture include thin columns and surrounding walls supported by flying buttresses, stained-glass, ribbed vaults, and detailed sculptural elements. Gothic vaulting allowed for the pointed doorways, large windows and high ceilings creating a high heavenly environment worthy of being described as the house of God.

The connection between Gothic architecture and Scholasticism begins with the town professionals of each field. The two most well read professionals in the medieval “town” would have been the scholar and the architect. The scholar commonly a cleric devoted his life to writing and teaching. As well as being properly schooled in the Scholastic method. While the architect who frequently rose from an ordinary laborer to the overseer of an entire structure through hard work and diligence would become a well traveled, often well read man.

“The architect himself had come to be looked upon as a kind of Scholastic”The Scholastics were the first medieval educators to divide books in to chapters leading the reader “step by step, from one proposition to the other and is always kept in formed as to the progress of his process.” This orderly concept of Scholasticism was applied to Gothic architecture through the standardized structure of the Gothic portal. “…In imposing order upon the formal arrangement, simultaneously clarifies the narrative content.” The use of frames in High Gothic frescos also added to the realism and structure of wall paintings in comparison to the pre-Scholastic Romanesque models.

The Scholastic summa, one of two types of Scholastic literature (the other being quæstiones), is a system of questions formulated to answer every question about Christianity one could ever pose. The most famous summa was written by Thomas Aquinas titled Summa Theologiae. The High Gothic cathedral aimed to mirror the summa by representing the whole of Christian knowledge within the structural design. “In structural design, it similarly sought to synthesize all major motifs handed down by separate channels and finally achieved an unparalleled balance between the basilica and the central plan type.”The Scholastic method was created in large part due to Abelard’s Sic et Non.

In Sic et Non Abelard exposes 158 disagreements between church authorities and the Scripture of the Bible. Through the use of Aristotelian logic applied to the Scholastic Method scholars processed each disagreement. The Scholastics had no problem following the orders of the authorities; rather they prided themselves on exploiting the authorities for their own gain then expressing their own thoughts. The builders of High Gothic cathedrals also had no problem following two limited designs both sanctioned by authority on the structures of the rose window in the west façade, the wall beneath the clerestory and the nave piers.

Panofsky closes his work by explaining the only piece of hard evidence connecting Scholastic thought with High Gothic Architecture, an inscription on a tablet of the ideal ground plan of a chevet. Two High Gothic architects discussing a quaestio, and a third architect commenting on the dialogue with the strictly Scholastic term disputare instead of the more common term colloqui. The result of this dispute is creation of the chevet the perfect Scholastic answer to the east end of the Gothic cathedral, using semi-circular chapels instead of classic square chapels creating a more efficient vaulting system with the use of one keystone per chapel. “Here Scholastic dialectics has driven architectural thinking to a point where it almost ceased to be architectural.” Panofsky’s final sentence verifies with hard evidence the effect of Scholasticism on Gothic architecture.

Erwin Panofsky’s theory on the “cause and effect” relationship between Gothic architecture and Scholasticism proves to be much more then just a historical parallel. The concept of one school of though taking over the most educated city of the western world allowing the corruption of the Bible is an unsettling fact. The Bible, the guiding text for over 30% of the population of the modern world and the most influential text in the formation and foundation of the most dominate nation in the world today, the United States of America. Perhaps Panofsky’s deeper message in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism is showing how Scholasticism, a relatively irrational school of thought, has clearly affected much more then just Gothic architecture.

Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.20Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.26Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.32Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.40Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.45Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Pg.88


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 July 2016

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