Student Response to Ruskin’s Gothic

While reading fiction, we will naturally judge it. This judgment will be based on our own experiences and culture. The way that someone will react to a piece of fiction will be a result of the world around them and what they learn on a daily basis from this world. This is not just acceptable but necessary to be able to continue to study and learn more about the work we are reading as well as the world we live in.

What is important is that we remember that our reactions come from our experiences and our culture. I feel that for too many people this is forgotten. We prefer to project on the past and assume that their culture is exactly like ours, and that they viewed their art the same way we do, rather than research how they saw the works of art they made. I believe that John Ruskin makes the same mistake when writing about gothic architecture.

There are characteristics that Ruskin sees in gothic architecture that he believes prove his point. The first of these is savageness. Ruskin claims that the old architecture maintains a savage quality that the peace and order of the Victorian period lacked. The question is whether or not the people who built the buildings believe that they were savage, and so meant to make their work savage. If not, Ruskin is probably basing his assumption on the Renaissance idea that the medieval period was a dark ages because it succeeded the classical period that Renaissance scholars loved so much..

The next point, changefulness, would also have been unintentional. It was probably a consequence of the long building time in an individual building. New builders would have their own ideas and may have altered the blueprints to match their own ideas it is also difficult to stick to blueprints when the masons have no choice but to do things by hand. Ideas would be slow to spread even by Victorian standards, with no publishing and little infrastructure. Naturally, this would result in every building looking totally different.

After that is naturalism. The people if the medieval period lived very close to nature. As a result, they saw just dirty, violent and scary nature truly is. Throughout history, people have tried to view themselves as above nature. Ruskin, in his rebellion against industrialism attempts to show why the natural method of building is better, but in doing so makes it sound as though the builders were rebelling against industrialism by using these methods, instead of using what was, to them, the most advanced and cutting-edge methods and technology.

The last of Ruskin’s points I wish to discuss is grotesqueness. I dislike this one because I do not find these buildings in any way grotesque and I have difficulty believing that the builders did so as well. That was what medieval builders considered beautiful, and so that was what they built.

One reason that I have difficulties believing that the buildings are meant to be grotesque is the reason they were built. Essentially, they were built to show off. The families who funded these buildings were showing off that they were part of the elite of wealth and power. The building had to be big and beautiful to provide a good face. It said that the family had the money to build such a structure. It showed how pious the family was that they were not building for themselves but for the church. It had also shown benevolence because they were providing jobs for the people who actually had to lay the cut stones down. In buildings not made to show off, you don’t have the same kind of decorations. Castles may have been decorated somewhat but they were built for defence, so the resources went into fortifications. Other houses were easily put together shacks or huts that were only built to keep the cold out.

Even in the Victorian era this was evident. In class we went over the extremely fancy books that were printed. The printer may have had them designed for artistic purposes but that was not why people were buying them. They were bought to show off. This time it was to show that the buyer was a member of the literary and educated elite. The fancy designs only served as shorthand for how high-class the book was. People not of this elite read the penny dreadfuls. There is even evidence of this in our own time period.

John Ruskin may have been trying to describe why gothic architecture was pleasant to him and what is meant for his time, but along the way he forgot that his opinion may not have been the same as the builders. He forgot to look at the culture and see why they did the things they did, and so missed a part of what was important to his modern life.

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