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Creation of Gothic Architecture: Ark of God

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Review of The Ark of God, in “The Burlingon Magazine”, April 2004, by Paul Crosley.

This epic enterprise, of which the first two volumes are reviewed here, is modestly described by its author as ‘an illustrated thesaurus’. In reality these two massive volumes are opening salvoes in what will be the most comprehensive history ever written of Early and High Gothic churches in the limestone regions of northern France (known to us as the Ile-de-France, and to James as the ‘Paris Basin).

Surveys on French Gothic architecture are legion, and another account of the birth and maturity of French architecture from the middle of the twelfth century to the 1230’s might seem superfluous, but John James’s study is, and will be, no ordinary survey, any more than its author is any ordinary architectural historian.

For over thirty years James has conducted a single-minded, and largely a single-handed campaign to rewrite the history of Early Gothic in France, in a manner quite unlike any other comparable scholar in the field.

James is an intense particularist and an ambitious generalist. His first book, a monumental study of High Gothic Chartres cathedral, The Contractors of Chartres (Wyong 1981), established the most detailed chronology of Chartres based on a minute examination of its fabric – its stonework coursing, capitals, geometrical schema.

His second work, The Template-makers of the Paris Basin (West Grinstead 1989), used the same exacting techniques to trace the migration of forms across the leading buildings of the Ile-de-France, and to set up a wider set of chronologies.

James’s present project is a vast extension of these methods, aimed at nothing less than recreating the story of Gothic architecture detail by detail, almost stone by stone, in every surviving Gothic church in the Ile-de-France from c.1140 to c.1230.

It promises us nine large volumes, discussing the general characteristics, and the smallest details, of about 1,420 churches, and containing, in all, the remarkable sum of 9,800 photographs, which constitute the visual database for the whole study.

The first two volumes, reviewed here, aim to establish an accurate chronological framework for this task, by illustrating thousands of capitals, dating them, largely on the basis of comparative style, to a decade, and them arranging them, and the buildings to which they are attached, in a decade-by-decade chronology.

The sparse documentary evidence for the dating of the churches has been assembled, sourced and translated by Chris Henige.

The seven projected volumes will extend the study to the evolution of rib vaults in Europe and to other ‘inventions’ that created Gothic, ending with a two-volume corpus of Gothic churches.

James’s single-minded analysis of the minute, pursued with forensic intensity, has left him, as he admits, ‘outside the academic pale’. His approach is ‘artisan’ rather than intellectual. Masons and architects are centre stage, though his names for them – ‘contractors’ and ‘template-makers’ – betray his craft theory of creativity.

For James the secrets of Gothic lie not in the habits of mind of the theologian, or the workings of the liturgy, or even the physical demands of structure, but in the quirks and inconsistencies of the mason’s craft, revealed in the minute – some would say myopic – examination of the hidden corners of hundreds of individual buildings. Like all connoisseurship, this Morellian analysis has no respect for the hierarchies of ‘great art’.

Gothic creativity is not, for James, a ‘trickle-down’ process, from the great church to parish churches and chapels. On the contrary, the small church often reveals more that the much-studied cathedral.

In the last resort, James’s marginal position in the academy could be ascribed to his rare kind of intelligence: his is a nominalist fascinated by universals. God, indeed, dwells in the detail, but the detail finds its place in a vast edifice, designed to reconstruct nothing less than the early history of a whole stylistic epoch.

Not everyone has agreed with James in the past, nor will they necessarily subscribe to the conclusions, or even the premises, of this new magnum opus. Isn’t this dating a little too deterministic? Do masons change their capital carving style every decade? In certain buildings (e.g. Reims) is it not true the capitals are left carved in the workshop before, sometimes long before, installation? Is it really possible, often only on the basis of style alone, to date parts of a building within plus or minus ten years?

Doubts of this kind cannot, however, obscure the enormous contribution which James’s method has already made to re-shaping our view of the history of French Gothic, and I doubt if they will seriously damage the value of this new project.

Thanks to him, we have the most accurate relative chronology of High Gothic Chartres; we can redate the choir of Laon to its proper period, almost thirty years earlier than was generally supposed; and – most importantly – we can now locate the beginnings of the High Gothic elevation not in Chartres but in late Twelfth-century Soissons cathedral.

James’s work promises to be the most searching and authoritative exposition of the fabric of French Gothic since Viollet-le-Due.

No one knows the hidden qualities of these churches more intimately – more from the inside – but James, except perhaps the masons who built them.

This projected study is a monumental corpus which deserves to be treated with the greatest seriousness. Its’ thousand of new (and on the whole high quality) photographs of details, never before recorded and published, constitute an invaluable resource for any student of Gothic.

Despite its price, no serious art-historical library should be without it. West Grinstead Publications is to be congratulated for taking on this epic venture. We eagerly await the next seven volumes.

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