Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture

In December, 1948, at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, Erwin Panofsky delivered the second annual Wimmer Lecture.  Founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the college was run by Benedictine monks, and the lecture series honored the memory of the founder abbot of Saint Vincent, Boniface Wimmer.

As he addressed students and monks and others, Panofsky’s topic, combining the architectural and philosophical fields, was “Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.”  As Norman F. Cantor put it in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Panofsky had the Midas touch that turned straw into gold.  Cantor cited as an example what was to him “an obscure American Catholic college” asking Panofsky to lecture on Gothic architecture, and the resulting book going through ten printings in a decade.

Erwin Panofsky was born in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, and died in 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the same age as J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), but while Tolkien was mired in the trenches of the First World War, Panofsky had earned his doctorate from Freiburg.  In 1915 Panofsky published his first book; the following year, he was married.  While Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing The Hobbit, Panofsky, an assimilated Jew, had to disrupt his own academic career and flee National Socialist Germany for the United States.

That evening in December of 1948 the more perceptive members of his audience knew that Panofsky’s Wimmer Lecture on Gothic architecture and Scholasticism filled a niche in the field of medieval studies.  Like many great ideas, it is a wonder no one thought of it before.  And yet, what Panofsky revealed in that lecture was how a cathedral such as Notre Dame or Chartres was like a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Panofsky simply said by way of preface that it was but “another diffident attempt at correlating Gothic architecture and Scholasticism,” and one that “is bound to be looked upon with suspicion by both historians of art and historians of philosophy.”  The hard to please Norman Cantor said that this “fragile jewel . . . is a beautiful piece of speculative interpretation.”

Characteristically, Panofsky drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art and philosophy and saw parallels.  He saw that the medieval Schoolmen knew that reason could not prove religious doctrine, but reason could make it manifest by shedding clear light upon it.  Panofsky understood that the Scholastic mind “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form,” and equally it “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language.”

Function and thought, form and language:  Panofsky summed up what he called a Scholastic mental habit given to manifestatio, clarification.  “A man imbued with the Scholastic habit [of mind],” he said, “would look upon the mode of architectural presentation, just as he looked upon the mode of literary presentation, from the point of view of manifestatio.”  All the elements of a Gothic cathedral or a Scholastic argument were carefully articulated and clearly went together to form a reasoned whole.

As did Catholic theologians, Catholic architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries sought clarity of function through form.  Just as the intellect functioned to study and contemplate God, so a church functioned to worship God through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The Catholic faith teaches that Christ, while being fully divine, was also “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” to use the words of the Athanasian Creed.

What follows from the Christian creed is the importance in Catholic culture not only of the intellect, but also of tangible material, whether bread and wine or stone and glass.  Panofsky’s insight was that through proportion and distinction of parts, a Gothic cathedral was as solid and precise in its service of Catholic doctrine as was the treatise of a Scholastic theologian.

Like his Catholic contemporary, Tolkien, Panofsky was captivated by the Christian civilization that emerged from the Roman Empire.  In his Histories, Tacitus had written that in Judaea under Tiberius, all was quiet (sub Tiberio quies), and yet any astute observer today can see that there developed, like a minor theme in music that recurs until it reaches crescendo, the literature and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

For Tolkien and Panofsky, medieval culture was vivid and complex.  Craftsmen created formulae for stained glass never again equaled, and scholars in then new universities debated questions of universal reality.  It was a world appreciating intricate patterns and rich colors, whether in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, or jewelry.  Alongside those achievements of art and intellect roared the violence of war and the cruelty of nasty people.  In short, it was an era like our own, because human nature never changes.

While Tolkien used his love of the Early Middle Ages to create his own Middle Earth, Panofsky studied the art and architecture of the High Middle Ages and related it to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante Alighieri.  Their various writings show that these twentieth-century students of medieval culture, one from Germany, the other from England by way of South Africa, felt an affinity for what has survived within Western civilization because they came of age when so much of that civilization was cracking apart under hammers and sickles.

As the tide of the twentieth century recedes, the books left on what William Shakespeare called in Sonnet 60 “the pebbled shore” are worth our while.  Within that span of a hundred years more books were published than ever before, yet few will survive time’s erosion of public memory.  Works once declared instant classics are forgotten.  Nevertheless, as Joseph Pearce noted twenty years ago, much to the chagrin of the intelligentsia there stands Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, still around after almost seventy years.  Also among the books surviving from the last century is Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

People long to enter into a realm that takes them beyond this world.  For that reason they will continue to follow Bilbo and Frodo deep into Middle Earth, a journey like that of pacing contemplatively through a labyrinth in the floor of a medieval cathedral, or following the logic of a Scholastic argument.  As their guides through these mazes of prose and stone, they will return again and again to Tolkien and Panofsky.


(A much longer version of this essay appeared in the August, 2015, issue of American Theological Inquiry.)

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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