This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
Many classes in art history dealing with the differences between medieval and Renaissance art will point to the jamb statues on the Royal Portal (1145-1155) or on the North Portal (1205-1240) of Chartres Cathedral and compare them to statues by Donatello, such as St. George (1417). The contrast is explained by arguing that the stylized, elongated medieval figures reflect an other-worldly outlook, whereas Donatello’s more realistic figures are a product of the humanism and secularism of the Renaissance.
The number of things wrong with that analysis could fill books. For example, even within Chartres Cathedral itself, the figures become more realistic during the early thirteeth century. This trend toward realism would continue to become the norm in Gothic art. Even as early as 1250, in the Naumburg Cathedral in Germany, an unnamed artist known as the Naumburg Master had produced sculptures every bit as realistic as those of the Renaissance.
Naumburg Cathedral is not well known in the United States, perhaps because it was behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Architecturally, it is a transitional building from the older Romanesque to the newer Gothic style. Its layout is unusual: it consists of a nave and transept with the choir at the east side as was normal for churches, but it had a second choir on the west end, separated from the nave by a screen. This choir was the mortuary chapel for the nobles of Naumburg.
The mortuary chapel included twelve life-sized statues of the people who had paid for the cathedral. Probably the best-known of these figures are Count Eckehard and his wife Uta. Uta has been described as “the most beautiful woman of the middle ages.” She was so beautiful, in fact, that Hitler used her image as the picture of the perfect Aryan woman. (Eckehard wasn’t a particularly attractive specimen, so Hitler used the Bamberg Rider as Uta’s male counterpart.)
The second couple included in the statues is Hermann of Meissen and his wife Reglindis. Reglindis was the daughter of Duke Boleslav Chrobry of Poland. Her statue includes the first smile in German art.
There are eight other individual statues in the chapel, all equally detailed. They are interacting with each other across the choir and show you exactly what they think of each other, and who is feuding with whom.
All of these statues were completed before the earliest artists of the Italian Renaissance were born.
So how are we to explain these sculptures? Was the Naumburg Master an anomaly? Or is there something more involved than is commonly recognized?
To understand the Naumburg Master, we need to know something about the intellectual world of his day. In the twelfth century, a new worldview developed which the great medieval historian R. W. Southern labeled, “Platonic humanism.”
The basic idea of Platonic humanism is that the world came from God, and therefore can lead us back to God. This idea is part of a broader medieval concept of revelation, which argued that God wrote two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Both of them are difficult, both require serious study to understand, but both reveal the mind of God. Studying the world is thus a theological activity and an act of worship.
Unlike Greek thinkers, who believed that reason was sufficient to understand the world, Platonic humanists believed that it was necessary to observe and study the world as it was, not as you thought it should be. While they believed that reason was important, it could not trump observation since human reason is fallible as a result of the effects of sin on our minds.
Platonic humanism had an enormous impact on quite a range of fields. For example, judicial procedures changed. Prior to this, legal cases were decided by various forms of trial by ordeal that relied on divine intervention to determine guilt and innocence; alternately, in some regions, legal decisions were reached through a process known as compurgation: each side collected “oath helpers” to support their claim, and whoever had the best set in terms of number and prestige won the case. In the twelfth century, jurists began looking for more rational legal procedures based on testimony and examination of evidence. In keeping with Platonic humanism, these jurists believed that observation leads to truth.
In theology, rather than adopting the older ideas that explained Christ’s work on the Cross as paying a ransom to Satan, new theories emerged that were similar to today’s penal satisfaction theory (put in terms of medieval law). While theologians were still superstitious by our standards, they became less so. They increasingly saw the world as less demon-haunted and more ruled by divine providence and reason.
Platonic humanism was also an important influence on medieval science, a topic to which we will return in future articles in this series.
All of this points to a major change in culture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is not surprising, then, to find a change in aesthetics during the same period, especially since one function of art is to translate ideas from philosophers and the intellectual elites to the general population.
The transition from the stylized and spiritualized statues of the early Gothic through the later sculptures at Chartres to the highly realistic statues at Naumburg came about because of the emphasis placed on observation by the Platonic humanists. This growing realism would dominate medieval art over the next century.
To put it differently, comparing Donatello to the early Chartres jamb sculptures is a mistake. Instead, comparing early fifteenth century Italian Renaissance art to fourteenth century (rather than early twelfth century) medieval art demonstrates that realism was a characteristic of all late medieval art across Europe, not just in Renaissance Italy with its supposedly secular outlook.
Art is an expression of ideas. Changing worldviews thus lead to changes in art. It would take some time for most other artists to catch up with him, but ultimately the Naumburg Master was one of the leading edge pioneers of a major movement toward realism that would dominate the High Gothic period.
While there is much more that can be said about Gothic cathedrals and art, one final point is worth noting here. Just as studies of nature were seen as an act of honor and worship to God, so the sculptors and craftsmen who built the medieval cathedrals saw what they were doing as worship as well. High up in the cathedrals, where no one can see them from the ground and where few if any people would be expected to go, there are statues and relief carvings that the cathedral builders put there simply because God would see them. They understood that like Bezalel and Oholiab (Ex. 6:1-6), their artistic skills were a gift from God that could and should be used to glorify Him.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.