Notes on Ruskin: The Geography of Gothic

I don’t know what caused Penguin to introduce a Great Ideas series, or by what criteria they determine what ideas are great. I do know that I read Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, and I enjoyed the packaging as much as the philosophy (Stoicism is a useful ethos, but hard to expand upon. It’s pretty much “life sucks, enjoy the ride” with a lot of contra-cultural argumentation). Of course, I couldn’t stop there, so when I was trying to decide between Montaigne’s On Solitude and Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise, I settled upon John Ruskin’s Art and Life. Because, duh.

I’ve not heard of him before I purchased it, so this was entirely a Blind Buy. But such things can be the most instructive, because you go in with no pre-concieved notions. I was expecting a Victorian-era aesthete exploring Victorian-era understanding What Art Is and how it intersects with Life. And it is that a bit, but it’s many things more.

It’s divided into two sections: a portion from his manuscript The Nature of Gothic, and a lecture given in 1858 entitled The Work of Iron, in Nature, in Art, and Policy. I’ve taken notes as I’ve read, and I’m going to share them with you in pieces, as they are precisely what this blog is about.

Being English, Ruskin can be expected in the first piece to speak up in defense of Gothic architecture (which was rather enjoying a stylistic rebirth in the early 19th century, if perhaps only a nostalgic one). He does not disappoint. On pages 7-9, he treats us to an impressive narratio on the geologic, and therfore biologic, distinctions between Northern & Southern Europe, so as to center the Gothic as a Northern style (as against the Romanesque or NeoClassical styles):

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life; the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple or scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse and the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 9

Form doesn’t merely follow Function, it seems, but follows Place, and Observation of the Diversity therein. The Gothic style rises as a Northern response to Southern cultural imports, especially as an adaptation of the Christianity that was the means by which the Germanic tribes were brought into the Graeco-Roman civilization. I had always observed Gothic as a High Medieval style, a flowering of the Germanic Kingdoms in their purest expression of themselves. I had not observed them as a Northern style against a Mediterranean one, a Savage against a Refined one. But with that frame before my eyes, it becomes very clear what Ruskin was talking of. One perceives a geometric simplicity even as it elegantly reaches to Heaven.

Amiens Cathedral, 13th Century.