Part 2 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.
The perspective of Gothic art is common to the early Christian art that anteceded it, and fundamentally different from the perspective of the Humanist, Baroque and Neoclassical art that followed it. Perspective is more than a matter of convergences and relative sizes; it defines a picture’s entire purpose.
Gothic art is not as abstract as Coptic or Byzantine iconography, but neither does it present a natural and mundane view; the presence of haloes alone makes that obvious. There are no cast shadows. The size of figures is determined by their importance, their placement by the demands of symbolism, hierarchy and symmetry. Chronologically separate events are depicted together in the same scene. Nothing important is hidden behind another object, or cut off by the edges of the picture.
Over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Gothic art became more detailed in its presentation of anatomy and clothing. Landscapes appeared in the background. Yet even in very late Gothic art - the paintings of Jan Van Eyck, for example - the compositions are symbolic, hierarchical and symmetrical. There are no consistent points of convergence for all parallel lines within them. Admittedly (regrettably, I say; this is one fault I find in them) some cast shadows appear, but they rarely fall on anything other than the ground or a wall.
So what, then, does Gothic art represent? Is it a view into Heaven? This sounds correct describing a picture of the Last Judgment, or of a prophetic vision. But it does not entirely make sense describing a picture of an event that has happened on the Earth. If it is a view into Heaven, what is a picture of the Crucifixion? Are Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Apostle acting out a pageant for us on a heavenly stage? Who is playing the part of the bad thief, some angel in a costume?
What, then, does it represent? The answer is revealed in the arrangement and disposition of the image. For while Gothic art cannot be reduced to quantities and extensions, it nonetheless has a mathematical order. Its mathematical order is the opposite of that imagined by the modern mind; quantities and extensions are not the final measure of reality, but are themselves sacred symbols. Consider three ways in which direction is significant in Gothic art:
The ancient tradition of the Church is to pray facing eastward; this is the direction of Heaven, the direction Jesus Christ ascended and whence He shall return. In a Gothic church, the sanctuary is oriented to the rising sun of the vernal equinox.
Another tradition associates north with the Old Testament and south with the New; the events of the Gospel occurred in the northern hemisphere, where north is shadowy, and south is sunlit. Chartres Cathedral, for example, has statues of prophets and patriarchs on its north porch and statues of Apostles and martyrs on its south.
The right hand of God represents Mercy, and the left hand Justice; this is attested many times in holy writ. This is why, in a traditional picture of the Crucifixion, the good thief is invariably to Christ’s right hand and the bad thief to His left.
Mercy and Justice are themselves related to the New and Old Testaments, and thus it is possible to align all three of these directions. Here is a picture of the Crucifixion. There is the good thief at the right hand of Christ, beneath the Sun, symbol of the New Testament; that must be south. There is the bad thief and the moon; that must be north. So what, then, is the perspective of the picture? The artist and the viewer are looking westward.
Consider a picture of the Last Supper. Jesus Christ faces the artist and the viewer. The Holy Eucharist is celebrated ad orientem, so the perspective of the picture must be ad occidentum. In a picture of the Ascension, Christ faces the artist and the viewer as He ascends to the east; again, they are looking westward.
Why should this be? Because Gothic art represents not a view into Heaven but a view from Heaven. It adopts the perspective of a heavenly citizen who sees events on the Earth - sees them, that is, with eyes that are not bound by time or space. Thus a picture of the Crucifixion is truly a picture of the Crucifixion, not of a reenactment. But it is the Crucifixion seen from eternity.
From eternity, happenings of different times may appear in the same inspection. Nothing is hidden due to distance, obstruction or shadow. There is no single vanishing point in the far-off distance, because the infinite (Our Father Who art in Heaven) is behind the artist and the viewer. There is no light source within the picture casting shadows onto the figures, for an overpowering light is again behind the artist and the viewer, illuminating everything with the beautifying distributions of its frontal ray.
Considering this, the development in Gothic art of more detailed anatomy, clothing and landscape is sensible and consistent with the ancient traditions of Christian art and theology.
The same principles that inspired the makers of Gothic art were understood by musicians. Their great invention of the same era was polyphony. In the newly consecrated Gothic cathedrals, singers sang at the same time different notes; then different rhythms, different melodies and different words. Yet the music was not cacophonous, but harmonious and exceeding beautiful. It must resemble what the world sounds like from eternity, what it sounds like in the ears of the unfallen Adam, or of the bodily assumed Virgin Mary.
Historians of art and music employ a remarkable number of misnomers; Gothic art, for example, has nothing in particular to do with the Gothic people or the Gothic tongue. In English-language scholarship, the term Northern Renaissance is often used to describe late medieval art like the paintings of Jan Van Eyck, and the term Renaissance Polyphony to describe late medieval music like the Mass settings of Josquin DesPrez. This too is misleading, for it incorrectly suggests that these proceeded from the ideas of Italian Renaissance Humanism.
Works quoted or referenced:
The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, translated by John Parker, (London: James Parker, 1897).