MA in the History of Art

Gothic Encounters: Architecture and Emulation in the Middle Ages

Main Visual

Course Description

The cityscapes of medieval Europe were dominated by great churches and cathedrals. Sites of intense public and private devotions, and centres of economic and political power, they testify to the extraordinary ambitions of the patrons and masons that dared conceive them. Each church is unique, yet all share elements of their design – from minute details of mouldings to the plans that gave them shape, from the number of columns within them to their ‘sacred topography’. In this new course we scrutinise those relationships, examining different ‘technologies’ of transmission to determine how distant buildings came to resemble one another, and why. How could that sense of wonder on entering a great building be condensed, transported and then recreated far away? This is the ‘Gothic Encounter’.

From the thirteenth century to our own day, architectural drawings have played a critical role in disseminating architectural ideas, and we examine their production and dissemination. But as so few medieval architectural drawings survive, we also consider alternative methods of transmission. We look at the circulation of architects, patrons, tools, materials and portable objects; oral and written descriptions of buildings; geometric and proportional formulae; and the workings of memory.

  • How might these technologies distort information in the process of transmission, either because they were inadequate to the task of describing complex spaces and surfaces, or because of how they were produced and received?
  • How did these technologies enable or restrict new architectural tastes and methods, or enshrine traditions and orthodoxies?
  • Why would patrons or architects seek to emulate another building? Is there a relationship between their motives and the technologies on which they relied?
  • And to what extent were references to other buildings recognised by different kinds of audiences?

We interrogate, in short, the idea of architectural ‘influence’ – a notion deeply embedded in our understanding of medieval architecture, but rarely scrutinised in depth. In doing so, we shed new light on some of the greatest technological and aesthetic achievements of their age.

Trips vary from year to year but in previous years there have been trips to Canterbury, Salisbury, Ely, Paris and Reims, as well as visits to sites in London, such as Temple Church, Westminster Abbey, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In London students benefit from world-class libraries at the Courtauld, Warburg Institute and British Library, together with the Courtauld’s Conway Library – probably the world’s greatest photographic archive of medieval architecture. The course is taught through a combination of thematic seminars, case studies and site visits across two terms, and culminates in a closely-supervised dissertation. We have easy access to buildings that have long-defined gothic architecture, such as Westminster Abbey, but will also have seminars in other important medieval buildings, such as Temple Church, as well as the collections of drawings and objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum. We will also visit (funding permitted) other sites in the UK and abroad. Our scope is pan European, from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, but we will also consider the Mediterranean Sea as an important arena for the transmission of architectural ideas across vast distances. We look at the buildings that have always defined gothic architecture, such as St-Denis or the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, but also at less familiar sites: Prague cathedral, or the Spanish cathedrals of Santiago de Compostela, León and Toledo and their debts to northern and Islamic traditions.

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements, though a second European language will be an advantage.