Review: The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame

Architecture, church, notre dame, gargoyle

Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009 xv + 377pp.

Highly respected art historian Michael Camille’s posthumously published work is clearly a labour of love. A staggering five years in the writing, this magisterial and rather beautiful edition will be the definitive work on the Cathedral and its restoration for some time to come. However, the book’s excellence lies beyond its initial value as a piece of historical research on a single site and more in the cogent and fascinating semiotic analysis Camille offers upon ecclesiastical architecture specifically and the role of modernity more generally in constructing our collective modern sense of monstrosity and “the medieval.”

The gargoyles or “chimeras” of Notre-Dame are not simply adornments upon the Gothic façade of the building but part of the most ambitious and wide ranging restoration project of the 1800s, completed by the prolific architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The project was not simply a restoration of the original Gothic building, but was in many ways an exercise in ideological construction (excuse the pun.) The gargoyles of Notre-Dame are not representative of a more Gothic past, but are constructs of an apparently more enlightened and major nineteenth century aesthetic sensibility. The unchanging bulwark of Jerusalem that the Gothic cathedral represented was ruptured by the encroachment of modernity even in the benign form of restoration. Thus the figures on the cathedral walls are emblematic of a compelling theoretical paradox – created through the advances of the modern age, they are the unchanging symbol of an imagined, stable past that has been wholly constructed.

Here the wider implications of Camille’s analysis begin to reveal themselves – the mediaeval cannot be viewed except through the lens of the construction wrought upon it by modernity. To claim that we can speak of a medieval past as something whole and untouched is scholarly naivety of the highest order. The conclusion is inescapable – the symbol of the ecclesiastical past is, in many ways, a construct of modernity. The question becomes then, to what extent is our received theology of the past a modern construction? As someone who focuses on the nineteenth century, the chimeras or gargoyles of Notre-Dame are a source of endless fascination as these embodiments of monstrosity are themselves products of the era of modernity that ostensibly claimed (and still claims) to deal in rationality. On a wider level then, what “constructed-ness” remains in our theology, in our conception of evil and our understanding of what makes a monster?

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