Sky-Scraping Gothic

The Editors

Notre-Dame as it was in 1830, by Feodor Hoffbauer (1870s).

John Sturrock, for many years the LRB’s consulting editor, translated Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Parisfor Penguin Classics in 1978. In his introduction, he wrote:

Notre-Dame is a book written in praise of, and to some extent in imitation of, the Gothic style of architecture. This was a style that had long been under a cloud in France, from which it took Romanticism to save it. Hugo was not the first French writer to campaign in favour of the Gothic; Charles Nodier and Madame de Staël were already its champions. nevertheless, even by late adolescence, he was aware of the injustice and partiality of current architectural preferences, which could accept the Romanesque style that had preceded the Gothic and extol the inert Classicism that finally succeeded it, while having only contempt for what it saw as the disorder and uncouthness of the Gothic itself.

Notre-Dame is thus meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse. Hugo redeems it not simply with his applause and the attention he pays to its visible merits, but also by associating it with the Romantic spirit of the age, with the congenial movement of the contemporary mind towards a greater flexibility of thought. The Gothic style, for Hugo, is one of populism, aspiration and caprice. He compares it, whenever practicable, with the style that came before it in north-western Europe, the Romanesque. The Romanesque, whose defining characteristic is the rounded arch, he judges to have been a hierarchical and dogmatic style, the imposition of a superior caste on an immobile society. The Gothic, in which the rounded arch has been replaced by the pointed arch or ogee, is, on the contrary, a freer style, encouraging licence and dissent from authority.

It is also an architecture of the vertical rather than the horizontal axis. Hugo, in the words of Nodier, was early seized by ‘the demon ogee’ and all through Notre-Dame he lays stress on the pointed, upward aspects of Gothic architecture – its spires, steeples, staircases and lancets – as well as on the altitude of the cathedral itself. This pervasive feature of the Gothic consorts perfectly with Hugo’s humanist philosophy, because he saw humanity as engaged on a long but inevitably triumphant ascent from ignorance and crime to a harmonious state of grace on earth. Hugo cherishes the sky-scraping side of Gothic because it represents the opening of men’s minds to hopes denied them by the autocracy he reads into the Romanesque, and the cathedral of Notre-Dame, begun in a Romanesque age and finished in a Gothic one, is presented, very reasonably, as a monument of the transition from one style to the other and thus, more important, of the transition from one outlook to the other. It is an impoverishment of the novel to suppose that Hugo’s interest in architecture was merely that of a connoisseur or antiquarian; one should bear in mind that he interprets architecture as a sign of a much larger ideological shift.

There is something else besides in the Gothic which he esteems and on which he capitalises, and that is the part it allows to the grotesque, as in the gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Hugo felt much solidarity with an art form which realised a part of his own Romantic programme by acknowledging that reality was compounded of both the beautiful and the ugly and had given the ugly at least a token part to play in a harmonious whole. This was to enlarge the art and at the same time to popularise it, for Hugo is clearly right to maintain that the inclusion of such motifs is a blow against the elitism of classical styles.


  • 16 April 2019 at 2:58pm
    Brian Durrans says:
    I'm neither an architectural historian nor a specialist on Victor Hugo, but if the best tribute the LRB can pay to the sadly diminished Notre Dame is to argue that Romanesque is 'horizontal' by contrast to the 'vertical' Gothic, and the former's curved arches are about authority whilst the latter's pointed ones are about freedom, you might as well claim the fire was a punitive Act of God against idolatry, though it might be harder to explain why He took so long to get around to it.

    • 16 April 2019 at 8:22pm
      Blake Elder says: @ Brian Durrans
      Totally agree. I love the LRB, but there's a time to intellectual and literary and refined, and there's a time for something simple and plain. Maybe a simple statement of sadness and solidarity? It can be done without sounding like a Hallmark Card.

      To be clear, I think all the Abrahmic religions, all religions, are a plague on the earth, but I'm willing to concede the occasional beauty and inspiration of their churches, mosques, and temples. Notre Dame was one. Against my better judgment, I like Chartres. And the mosque of Mohammed V in Rabat.

  • 16 April 2019 at 8:55pm
    Hera says:
    The Notre Dame was a relic which supported the prestige of an extremely wealthy religion which has spent the past 3 decades denying justice and financial recompense to the victims of child sexual abuse by priests. For many of those people the basic structure of their self was damaged and no donations have poured in. It is only due to the efforts of victims, activists and lawyers that the Catholic church has been forced to change policies of supporting the perpetrators and undermining the victims. Furthermore the Catholic Church also has been and continues to be a pillar of misogyny and the repression of women and the repression of female sexuality (though the LRB is not too hot on this front). Money should be flooding elsewhere (maybe I should rethink my sub....).

  • 16 April 2019 at 11:56pm
    wse9999 says:
    Sense all round in these comments.
    Yes debating the merits of Gothic v Romanesque seems bizarre. When both are products of the same illiberal anti-democratic Church, which is really just a business, selling redemption through the carrot and the stick, tapping into the existential anxiety that comes of eyeballing mortality.
    Yes the same Church which gave us systemic sexual abuse (much of it due to adopting celibacy, for institutional reasons) and a lesson in how not to deal with it.
    So yes I’m with him on Abrahamic religions.
    But like it or not these age-old monuments change with the changing, invested across the centuries with the manifold exhalations of those who pass, so many cuckoos.

  • 17 April 2019 at 5:56am
    Cheez Slab says:
    Yes! , and the stylistic shift of Romanesque to Gothic architecture was coeval with the "Commercial Revolution" of the 12th century ! : greater agricultural yields, erosion of feudal/manorial economies, growing long distance trade in Mediterranean, flourishing of the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, growth of towns, growth of international money-markets, long-term investments carried out by nobles and monarchs, and all sorts of other developments! ; traditional hierarchies were being disrupted and subverted by cash and all of the ways that it changes one's outlook blablabla

  • 17 April 2019 at 6:53pm
    William Wilson says:
    The Notre Dame tragedy may have prompted other Brits, apart from me, to re-evaluate our sense of having a European identity. Would we have been more upset if it had been Westminster Abbey? Perhaps more shocked initially, but after two hours of watching the drama unfold, I realised how much I cared about Paris as part of my world – not that I have been there more than a dozen times over seventy-five years. My life has been enriched by having inherited a sense of belonging to a Western European culture and I need both Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey to live on into the future. They each tell the story of how church architecture evolved to express the Christian faith that for over two thousand years played a central role in Europe’s history. The enlightenment which led to our present more secular society and liberal democracy makes more profound sense when seen against what went before. We are moved by seeing Notre Dame in flames because, on some level, we know that it’s a part of our own history. This – much more than for any of the political or economic reasons – is why I am a Remainer.

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