BOOK REVIEW: Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass, and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache (Nolan and Sandon, Eds.)-Review by Meg Bernstein

Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass, and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache. AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, 9. Edited by Kathleen Nolan and Dany Sandon. Farnham Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. xxxiv+247 pp.


Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache is a group of thirteen papers given at the International Congress of Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo) in 2010. This Congress came a year after the death of the French medieval art historian Anne Prache, who was known for her generosity, scholarly rigor, and innovative methodology, particularly her use of dendrochronological dating in the sequencing of buildings. Though primarily an architectural historian, Prache approached buildings in an integrated way, and as such it is fitting that the editors of the volume divide it into sections on architecture, stained glass, and sculpture, many of which touch on monuments that Prache herself worked on.

From the outset, it is clear that this volume contains an impressive mix of essays by French and American scholars, emblematizing Prache’s role as a link between scholars of both countries. A number of the French participants are not otherwise published in English, so this volume also functions to introduce an Anglophone audience to a small cross-section of contemporary research in France.

The scholarly interests and oeuvre of the honoree form the book’s connective tissue; aside from the connection to Prache and medieval French subject matter, there is no explicit thread that links all of the papers. Though the title suggests a strong emphasis on cathedrals, many of the essays focus on other topics, such as abbey and collegiate churches. Despite this minor inaccuracy in nomenclature, the works included do complement one another, connected throughout by minor themes. For example, Cothren and Little both identify and attribute orphaned medieval objects found in the art market to major churches; Berry, Balcon-Berry, and Clark all contribute to an enhanced understanding of the chronology of Reims Cathedral; Davis and Wu apply diverse textual sources from the later Middle Ages to expand knowledge of the interpretation and creation of known monuments or objects.

The volume begins with a preface by Dany Sandron, based on his remarks during the original conference sessions. Here, he considers Prache’s approach to architectural history and examines some of the major contributions of her career; this offers the reader a useful historiography of an important figure, and grounds the volume in her work. Next, Kathleen Nolan’s introduction notes Prache’s role as a “bridge-builder, constructing links between the academic community in France and the United States” (1) which helps to establish the book’s international approach. Nolan also briefly introduces the book’s structure: Part I has four essays on architecture, Part II is comprised of four essays on stained glass, and Part III includes five contributions on sculpture.

In Part I: Architecture, Walter Berry continues Prache’s work of dating Reims Cathedral by looking at documentation from excavations in the 1990s as well as information from previous excavations that only recently became available. He asserts that Reims offers a “rare opportunity for extensive study of the foundations of a major Gothic monument,” identifying five main building phases of the east end, and a more complicated order of operations for the nave (23). This chapter, while somewhat dense, contributes admirably to the work to which Anne Prache devoted much of her career.

Next, Michael T. Davis’s contribution provides a close reading of Guillebert de Mets’s 1434 encomium, “Description of the City of Paris and the Excellent Kingdom of France.” Though Guillebert virtually guides the reader through the city and mentions many places, Davis asks why the author lingers on three particular monuments: the cathedral of Paris, the royal palace, and Jacques Duchie’s mansion. He asserts that these three places are “urban icons” that illustrate Paris’ status as “the locus of a society of faith, justice, and prosperity at a moment of political violence and foreign occupation” (28). Davis argues that Guillebert universalizes and de-politicizes the cathedral, separating it from the French monarchy; the palace is emphasized not as royal residence but as a government center that welcomes its citizens; the hôtel of Jacques Duchie reflects the owner’s character as the ideal citizen and government official, virtuous and just. Guillebert’s Paris, Davis suggests, idealizes the once and future Paris freed from the political and economic turmoil wrought by English occupation and by clashes between the Burgundians and Armagnacs. Davis’ novel use of primary written sources is a welcome reprieve in a volume that is much more archaeological and iconographical in content.

Ellen Shortell examines the Rayonnant fabric of the early Gothic lower chevet of Saint-Quentin (Aisne, Picardy), which has gone largely unconsidered, focusing on the visual complexity of the architecture and plays of light and shadow. Nancy Wu’s essay completes the architecture section. She considers two early sixteenth-century century French portals now installed at the Cloisters Museum in New York in the context of two German treatises on the design of architectural elements penned by Mathes Roriczer and Hanns Schuttermayer. Though these pamphlets were each a few decades earlier than the portals and originated in Germany rather than France, Wu works out the mathematics of the portals in order to show that similar design principles, like modular organization and reliance on squares, could be considered almost universal for late medieval European architectural design.

Part II: Stained Glass begins with Sylvie Balcon-Berry, who picks up on Anne Prache’s research interest on the chronology of the cathedral of Reims. Balcon-Berry argues that two resources enable more complete analysis of the glass, and thus of its cathedral’s chronology. The first is a collection of Autochromes taken in 1914, commissioned by an officer of Monuments Historiques. Secondly, Balcon-Berry draws from recently digitized drawings by the Simon-Marq workshop that was responsible for the building’s glass restoration. These drawings were made between 1840 and 1914, and contain images, often in color, of both extant glass and pieces destroyed in the bombing of 1917. Though she gestures to the fact that further inquiry into the chronology of Reims would benefit from detailed archaeological study and a three-dimensional laser scan, Balcon-Berry concludes that consideration of the resources described enable an enhanced comprehension of the henceforth poorly understood lower windows that dates the building around 1210. This date fits nicely with some of the conclusions of Prache’s dendrochronological studies of beams there. Balcon-Berry highlights the role of a multidisciplinary approach to discovering the chronology of a building like Reims, and cites Anne Prache and Peter Kurmann as scholars who have been effective in answering this call.

Michael Cothren examines the glass program from Abbot Suger’s Saint-Denis choir, which, he asserts, has not survived as completely as the stone, and thus has been more difficult to study. However, the glass is surprisingly well documented by both Abbot Suger and by Lenoir who dismantled the windows, exhibited some and sold others after the French Revolution. Additionally, the scholar Louis Grodecki discovered a sketchbook by Charles Percier that pre-dated Lenoir’s dismantling of the windows. Using this, Grodecki began the work of reconstructing the program from surviving panels discovered mainly in England, and Cothren in a 1986 Art Bulletin article, proposed revisions to his work. Here, Cothren revises his own work in light of a newly discovered panel that came to light in the London art market in 2007. A partial version of the Dream of Joseph scene was already known because it was installed at the abbey church in a pastiche of twelfth and nineteenth-century glass. In this article Cothren analyses the relationship between the Thomson version (from the London art market, now in the Museum of Ontario) and the Saint-Denis version. He asserts that the recently found panel is a most likely a nineteenth-century copy of the original window which enables a more complete understanding of the original context of the genuine twelfth-century pieces that are currently framed by later additions at Saint-Denis.

Claudine Lautier dedicates her attention to the newly cleaned west façade rose window of Chartres Cathedral, which depicts the Last Judgment. This rose has previously received almost no scholarly attention, possibly because it was illegible due to filth and distance from the ground. Amazingly, though, it retains 95% of its original glass. Last Judgement iconography appears elsewhere in the cathedral, in the central portal of the south transept porch. Though proximate in time, Lautier notes a disparate approach to iconography in the two places. The rose glass is more traditional iconographically, and the south portal sculpture alternately is a more didactic interpretation that comes out of contemporary Parisian scholastic theology and speaks directly to the town on the south. Recent restoration of the interior wall of the west façade also revealed paintings of kings playing musical instruments, which Lautier identifies as some of the elders of the Apocalypse, connected to the theme of the window, which she believes may have been completed by lost glass in the lancets. This is an interesting reference to the sort of artistic integration of media, including glass, painting, and sculpture that occurs in Gothic buildings.

Finally, Philip Lorentz focuses on Jacques Coeur’s Annunciation Window at Bourges and the way it was received by the cathedral chapter. He argues that the window was a significant departure from its predecessors; these treated each lancet as a separate image, whereas Coeur’s donation treated the four lancets as a unified picture plane, a style likely precipitated by contemporary panel painting in the Burgundian Netherlands. Lorentz argues that the fact that subsequent commissions returned to traditional compositions is a sign of the chapter’s hostility to change and commissions by important patrons, and “an example of the control the clergy had over the decoration of major church buildings at the end of the Middle Ages” (147).

William W. Clark’s contribution begins Part III: Sculpture. Here, Clark returns to a subject familiar to him and readers of his work: the procession of angels with Christ on the exterior of Reims Cathedral’s chevet. He is careful to note that the new ideas posed are not intended to replace previous interpretations, but contribute to an understanding of a complicated program’s multiplicity of meanings. Given Christ’s position within, rather than at the head, of a group of eleven angels, Clark suggests that this refers to a liturgical procession, many of which are recorded as being performed annually at Reims. Further, the number of angels (eleven), he argues, refers to the number of suffragen bishops in the archdiocese of Reims, with Christ representing the archbishop. Their position high on the building and looking out upon the city and the diocese speaks to ecclesiastical power and spiritual control. Coupled with the other angels on the buttress caps of Reims that Clark has meditated on elsewhere, the sculpture on the cathedral evokes the Heavenly Jerusalem and hierarchies of power within Reims and its processions.

Fabienne Joubert analyzes the role of drawings in stone carvers’ workshops, using the angels of the central portal of the west facade of Bourges as her case study. Because the angels are differently rendered, Joubert concludes that they are sculpted by different hands; rather than simply attempting to identify all the work by a single hand, she attempts to understand whether one or more sculptors was copying from another’s work, or whether each were privy to the same source, perhaps a two-dimensional drawing, that they interpreted differently. She asserts that the commission for the sculptures probably specified some key elements like garb or wings, but that the specifications were likely developed by one mason and his prototype was either referenced by his colleagues, or most likely that a now-lost drawing may have communicated the main ideas to the other sculptors. Joubert surmises that in the case of the central portal at Bourges that a general contractor specified the general program, rather than the specific details, that each sculpture should have. Whether this figure was the so-called “Michael Master” or another of the sculptors involved in the carving, cannot be known with the evidence Joubert has located, but her examination of this problem helps the reader to attain a better understanding of how workshops produced portal sculpture in the gothic period.

Charles Little, with compelling evidence as well as responsible skepticism, assigns a recently discovered male head with a soft-peaked hat as a Joseph from the disassembled jubé from Chartres Cathedral. Additionally, Little considers changes in Joseph iconography in the thirteenth century to explain the more active iconography of this piece. Nolan and Ward contribute an essay drawing upon Prache’s early work, her graduate thesis on Notre-Dame-en-Vaux, a collegiate church. They consider the single female jamb sculpture on the south portal and the female column figures from the now-lost cloister, showing the multivalent ways of interpreting these figures and considering issues of audience. Finally, Nicolas Reveyeon treats the iconography of the façade of the cathedral of Lyons and its relationship to current events in the city, enabling him to date the sculpture earlier than the election of Pierre de Savoie as archbishop, shedding light on an understudied and somewhat enigmatic monument.

The volume concludes with a heartfelt Afterword by Gérard P. Prache, the honoree’s widower, who shares memories of the transatlantic connections that Anne Prache forged between French and American scholars. This serves as a reminder of the honorific quality of the book: while it represents contemporary research in France and America, it also prioritizes the contributions of Anne Prache and her sphere of influence. That said, the majority of readers will probably find Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals more useful for its individual contributions than as a unified book. Approaches range from heavily archeological to iconographic and social, and will likely appeal to different readers; one must consider this diversity, however, a strength of the volume, and the whole collection together forms an interesting snapshot of studies in French Gothic art and architectural history around the moment of its publication.


Meg Bernstein is a PhD candidate in the department of Art History at UCLA. Presently, she is a Kress Institutional Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art (2015-17). Her dissertation considers the architecture of the English parish church in the thirteenth century.