Gothic architecture was the supreme achievement of the medieval soul. The men who dared to suspend those vaults on a few stilts of stone studied and expressed their science with greater thoroughness and effect than any medieval philosopher in any summa, and the lines and harmonies of Notre Dame make a greater poem than The Divine Comedy. Comparison of Gothic with classic architecture cannot be made in gross but demands specification. No one city in medieval Europe rivaled the architectural product of either Athens or Rome, and no Gothic shrine has the pure beauty of the Parthenon; but neither has any classic structure known to us the complex sublimity of the Reims façade, or the uplifting inspiration of Amiens’ vault. The restraint and repose of the classic style expressed the rationality and moderation that Greece preached to effervescent Greece; the romantic ecstasy of French Gothic, the somber immensity of Burgos or Toledo, unwittingly symbolized the tenderness and longing of the medieval spirit, the terror and myth and mystery of a religious faith. Classical architecture and philosophy were sciences of stability; the architraves that bound the columns of the Parthenon were the meden agan of the Delphic inscription, laying a heavy hand upon exaltation, counseling steadiness, and almost forcing men’s thoughts back to this life and earth. The spirit of the North was properly called Gothic, for it inherited the restless audacity of the conquering barbarians; it passed insatiate from victory to victory, and finally, with flying buttress and soaring arch, laid siege to the sky. But it was also a Christian spirit, appealing to heaven for the peace that barbarism had alienated from the earth. Out of those contradictory motives came the greatest triumph of form over matter in all the history of art.
Why did Gothic architecture decline? Partly because every style, like an emotion, exhausts itself by complete expression, and invites reaction or change. The development of Gothic into Perpendicular in England, Flamboyant in France, left the form no future except exaggeration and decay. The collapse of the Crusades, the decline of religious belief, the diversion of funds from Mary to Mammon, from Church to state, broke the spirit of the Gothic age. The taxation of the clergy, after Louis IX, depleted the cathedral treasuries. The communes and the guilds that had shared in the glory and the costs lost their independence, their wealth, and their pride. The Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War exhausted both France and England. Not only did new construction diminish in the fourteenth century, but most of the great cathedrals begun in the twelfth and thirteenth were left unfinished. Finally the rediscovery of classic civilization by the humanists, and the revival of classical architecture in Italy, where it had never died, superseded Gothic with a new exuberance. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century Renaissance architecture dominated Western Europe, even through baroque and rococo. When, in its turn, the classic mood paled away, the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century re-created the Middle Ages in idealizing imagination, and Gothic architecture returned. The struggle between the classic and the Gothic styles still rages in our churches and schools, our marts and capitals, while a new and indigenous architecture, bolder even than Gothic, rides the sky.
Medieval man thought that truth had been revealed to him, so that he was spared from its wild pursuit; the reckless energy that we give to seeking it was turned in those days to the creation of beauty; and amid poverty, epidemics, famines, and wars men found time and spirit to make beautiful a thousand varieties of objects, from initials to cathedrals. Breathless before some medieval manuscript, humble before Notre Dame, feeling the far vision of Winchester’s nave, we forget the superstition and squalor, the petty wars and monstrous crimes, of the Age of Faith; we marvel again at the patience, taste, and devotion of our medieval ancestors; and we thank a million forgotten men for redeeming the blood of history with the sacrament of art.