The Real Gothic


Will the real Gothic please stand up?

When you want to get to the bottom of what Gothic is, the world wide web is no earthly help. A dictionary definition here or there is swamped by Goth as it has become known: lots of black eyeliner, black clothes, a demeanour like Death, and so on.

Let’s get this straight. The Goths were the ones who were instrumental in the fall of the Roman Empire. Roman historian Jordanes wrote in the sixth century how the Goths had come down from Scandanavia and sacked their way though some of the greatest cities in Europe: Sparta, Athens, Byzantium. At their high point in the fourth century they controlled everything from the Danube to the Volga, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas.

Their art was great: influenced by the Greek and Roman craftsmen, they produced plenty of jewellery and many beautiful things. But by no means could they be termed ‘Gothic’ as we know it.

Jump forward 800 years, to France in the 12th century, and what we understand as the Gothic style emerges. They didn’t call their pointy arches and clustered columns at the time, though. They called it -accurately – ‘French-work.”

It was pretty, though. It wasn’t until the Rennaissance era that they started calling the style’Gothic’. It meant, not classical.

Florid, intricate, towering and elaborate, the allure of the Gothic churches and cathedrals of the 12th – 14th centuries endured.

Lambeth Palace was fitted out after the Civil War with a Gothic Hammerbeam roof; by the 17th century they were back in fashion, and in the 1800s a full Gothic revival was in swing, with Hugh Walpole and his ‘Committee of Taste’ creating a gorgeous Gothic folly at Strawberry Hill. Then’Victorian Gothic’ sawSir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin fitting out the Houses of Parliament in similar style.

Perhaps Gothic really means ‘timeless’.

In England, I am accustomed to discounting Gothic church towers as Victorian follies. They would take perfectly functioning little churches and give them crenolations, or grotesques, or all manner of affectations designed to ape the French-work cathedrals of long ago.

So for years I have been walking past a compete and utter gem, dismissing it as a folly.

St Torney’s Church, which nestles in the village of North Hill, on the edge of Bodmin Moor, has a tall, gothic tower. But the guide books tell me this is no foppish imitation, though it is not 4th century Gothic either.

It is French-work: 13th century, real, mediaeval architecture; and it looks pristine.

But how? Even the great cathedrals cannot keep their divine stonework, performed by some of the world’s greatest ever stonemasons, from crumbling and succumbing to the elements. Yet St-Torney-in-the-emerald-valley, sitting calmly on the hillside overlooking the River Lynher with its holy well, seems unscathed by the seven centuries which have passed since masons carved its tower.

And I think I have the reason why.

For Exeter Cathedral was built of a fine, high grade local stone, but St Torney is built of the local granite.

You can see it in the stone blocks: swarthy and hardy, the pepper-pale rock is cheap because it came out of local quarries. This stone was born even before the moor itself.

Which made it almost impossibly durable. The carvings made seven hundred years ago are worn but still discernible, though one can’t carve fine angels and gargoyles out of rough granite, so the decorations are modest.

St Torney is honest-to-God, bona fide Gothic. None of your revival here.

That’s for Up-Country.




14 thoughts on “The Real Gothic

  1. Pointed arches weren’t the entirety of Gothic. Banister Fletcher explains graphically how gothic arches evolved from romanesque because of cross-vaulting, Ruskin (Nature of Gothic) saw the individuality of carved ornament as the essential element.

  2. Fascinating, Kate. I haven’t heard the term “French-work” before and deconstructing the word Gothic for me really causes me to think about how I use the term, and perhaps without accuracy. Many of our churches are designed to resemble the church you’ve shared here. I’m struck by the similarities, and they are so beautiful standing out in a much more contemporary landscape. Perhaps oddly out of place now, but lovely!

  3. Of all the building styles throughout the centuries I love the Gothic architecture the most. Holland (country of origin) has quite a few Gothic churches.

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