The Writing on the Wall: The End of Text as Architectural Decoration
Oregon College of Art and Craft, Portland, OR, USA
Late Gothic architecture in Northern Europe has been defined, in both negative and positive terms, by its effusive and complex ornamentation. In the decades around 1500, decorative investigations were particularly intense, embracing solutions that played knowingly on Gothic structure as well as the Classicizing forms of the Renaissance. While bold decoration is evident in both secular and religious architecture of this period, this paper confines itself to an examination of religious architecture, specifically the parish church of Notre-Dame in Caudebec-en-Caux. This church displays an extravagant use of text as architectural sculpture, a subset of the decorative experimentation around 1500. The text, a Latin hymn to the Virgin, occupies the uppermost balustrades and west fašade of the church. While I have considered the metaphoric meanings of the text in relationship to the church's architecture elsewhere, this paper considers why this decorative innovation was tepidly received. Only one other parish church, La FertÚ-Bernard, opted for a similar formula. Three possible explanations will be explored. First, the urban context of these churches rarely allowed for sightlines that would render the text legible. For cost-conscious patrons, embellishment had to be visible. Second, the use of text as ornament was a privileged form of communication, commissioned by only the most elite of patrons. Other instances occur in places like the choir at Brou, for example. Caudebec's major patron at this time, Robert Nagerel, was a member of the powerful Amboise family. Third, the notion of text as both structure and ornament belonged to the visual mentality of the Late Gothic, rendering it unfashionable as Renaissance tastes prevailed after the 1520s. Comparisons to contemporary painting and metalwork demonstrate a shift from a playful interdisciplinarity to a preference for clear distinctions between media, structure and ornament.