Lecture 5. The Peripatetic Peregrinations of the Pointed Arch

It is well known that the pointed arch appears in buildings around the Mediterranean and Central Asia prior to even its adaption by Islam, much less its appearance at St. Denis, Paris in the 12th century. However, despite this, the origins of the pointed arch and the pointed ribbed vault and the paths they traveled across Eurasia before becoming an ‘Islamic’ or ‘Gothic’ architectural characteristic par excellence remain largely a mystery. The intent of this lecture is to open up this ‘problem of the pointed arch’ while simultaneously telling a global history through its appearance by accessing an incredibly diverse range of sites where early examples of the arch can be found. The purpose of this lecture is by no means to prove or disprove any particular origin for the ‘pointed arch’. This 18th-19th cen. project remains incomplete and many of the theories that remain were derived with various agendas and often via the fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. Ideas about the origins of the pointed arch and the so-called “Gothic-Saracenic theory of architecture” for example have been written about in Europe since at least the middle of the 17th century and this rich historiography is not the subject of this lecture. Instead, this lecture will demonstrate how studying an architectural phenomenon such as the pointed arch, allows the student to access a global medieval history of architecture. The number and diversity of sites and cultures that one is able to discover through such as study is remarkable and we hope …. As Peter Draper has recently written: “the origin of the pointed arch was the focus (misguided or otherwise) of so much of the literature on Gothic architecture from the seventeenth up to the middle of the nineteenth century (before it was largely subsumed within a greater interest in the origins of rib vaulting techniques) and this past literature cannot be ignored because it has in so many ways shaped current views on medieval architecture.”* Still today the “origins” of the pointed arch are unknown. Specifically, there has been no consensus on which ancient pointed arch is ‘the first’. Indeed, such a question is practically irrelevant today since so many problematic questions arise regarding technical and terminological definitions. For example: does a corbelled opening that is formed to look like a pointed arch count? How can we technically define the pointed arch? Do arches such as parabolic/catenary curve arches count at all? What about the appearance and function of different types of ribs and groin vaults – where does one draw the line? If one cannot determine answers to these it is quite difficult to move on to even more problematic questions such as: where did the pointed arch come from, who ‘invented’ it and how did it spread around the world? References: Bertuleit, Sigrid. Gotisch-Orientalische Stilgenese: Englische Theorien zum Ursprung der Gotik und ihr Einfluß in Deutschland um 1800. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1989. Draper, Peter. 'Cell vaults in the architecture of Islam and the West', Z.Opacic & A.Timmerman eds, Architecture, Liturgy and Identity. Liber amicorum Paul Crossley, Studies in Gothic Art I (Brepols, 2011), pp. 315-322. Draper, Peter. Islam and the West: the Early Use of the Pointed Arch Revisited., Architectural History (2005) 48: 1-20. Hall, James. Essay on the Origin, History, and Principles of Gothic Architecture (London, 1797/1813. Seroux d'Agincourt, Jean Baptiste. Histoire de l'art par les monumens, depuis sa décadence au IVe siècle… (Volume 4) 1823.

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