Photography by GIORGIA DAPHNE
When you vacation among the cathedrals and ruins of Europe or even spend the night in a stateside Victorian B&B, it is natural to feel a certain anxiety: How will you preserve this time in a photo? Grinning with your bestie, making rabbit ears behind her head? Not you. You want to enter the spirit of the architecture the way you’d pass through a door—as you pass through a door—and celebrate, with your posing, the glories of the Gothic.
You might want to limber up a bit.
IN THE CRADLE OF THE ROMANESQUE
Chances are that if you’re standing under a Romanesque arch, your spirits are depressed. The rounded rock is a shackle pinning you to this earthly life, which is perforce nasty, brutish, and short. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: It took medieval humans time to get out from under the thick walls, the forest of load-bearing pillars, the general weightiness of the abbey or church.
The great architectural innovation of, yes, the Romans has been around for a while: Since various Caesars ruled Europe, the rounded-top barrel vault has been the industry standard. Even in the sixth century that rounded arch was all the rage and easily incorporated into massive churches and other public buildings with thick walls and few windows. But it is certainly lighter and breezier than the flattop lintels and ceilings of humble dwellings. It’s just … not as exciting to you, a modern poser.
Recommended: Lie down but take up as much space as you can. Try stretching out between two pillars. Walk your legs up on one side and let your spine sink into a curve on the other. Let the space cradle you—just like the ceiling, whose French name, voûte en berceau, means cradle vault. Now turn your head languidly to the left. Remind yourself that the Goths are (literally) about to turn up, and you have vats of oil to boil. Smile wanly.
EARLY GOTHIC: ALL ABOUT THE ARCH
But O! The poor Goths, those chaotic barbarians from the north and east who charged across the Danube and invaded the stately Roman Empire. They arrived during the fourth century, long before the Middle Ages started monkeying with the opposing styles later to be called Romanesque or Gothic. The term Gothic architecture was devised to insult buildings that had nothing to do with the Goths. Never mind that the Goths were refugees, forced eastward as the Huns invaded their territory …
Really, forget history for a moment. One thought must be foremost in your mind as you step toward a Gothic cathedral, college, or mausoleum: Look at that arch.
The arch is broken (if you’re speaking French) or at least pointed (in English). Compromise and call it an ogive. Its pointiness is a complete rethinking of what an archway, a door, a building—and a human figure such as yourself—can do with space. It draws the eye toward the skies; it guides us toward Heaven itself.
Perhaps you know that the ogival arch was inspired by Islamic architecture and that it traveled through Byzantium (think Istanbul) and up to France to become the signature feature of a style that was then called, naturellement, Frenchwork, or just “the new style.” Your goal now is to visit the basilica of Saint-Denis, completed near Paris in 1145; it has been the touchstone for all things Gothic that followed, and you must
(pardon me) touch its stones.
The ogival arch made everything taller and longer, from doors to windows to hats to sleeves that dragged on the ground, with hands that began to press together, fingers upward, during prayer.
You don’t have to pray to pose in a Gothic arch. Just stand tall at first. Think pointy. You are an elongated statue carved on the tympanum over the door; you are the ribbed ridges on the vaulted ceiling. You are the mysteries of the universe and creation. You might try a bit of yoga here, with your palms meeting over your head, your fierce lion breath grinding through your nasal cavity like an invasion and a release.
Breathe deep. Stand on tiptoes and reach for the future. Then bend gently sideways at the waist. Try lifting a leg and twisting it. Surprise yourself. Let each pose show that you will try new things. Remember that twisting at the waist can improve your digestion. And that spreading your arms like wings is another means of completing the shape, as well as displaying your medieval sleeves.
The arch may have broken, but it opened a new world. And here is a new you. Arching.
HIGH AND FLAMBOYANT, THE BUTTRESSES FLY
The new style had forever shattered the simplicity of the cradling arch in a way that Renaissance painter and art historian Andrea Vasari—he who named it Gothic—found brutal and uncivilized (like Goths). Vasari liked things plain; medieval people did not.
Gothic architecture spun itself into wild twists and surprising plot points. Think of the cathedrals bristling with spires and statues at Chartres (built 1210 to 1246) and Reims (begun in 1211, completed eighty years later—but is a work of art ever truly finished?).
As you move around the back of a High Gothic setting, you’ll find new complications. You know how Notre-Dame de Paris looks a bit like a crouching spider as you ride your bâteau-mouche down the Seine? That gorgeous jumble of yellow stone is not just for show; it’s the system of flying buttresses that prop up the sides of the increasingly tall buildings made in the new style. A tower, for example, meets a cluster of buttresses that curve out and downward, distributing the weight of all that stone into the ground many feet away. The tower grows taller.
You might continue your yoga practice here. Warm up with a little downward dog and warrior two-three-four; it’s all about balancing weight to build strength and to let the light of the universe into yourself.
Flying buttresses allowed windows to get taller too and to let in more light. Medieval churchgoers seized the opportunity to fit stained glass into ogival or rose-shaped windows. As the light passed through, it was transformed, and so was anyone who witnessed the marvel.
Now that you have a little color in your cheeks, think seriously about scenarios. How does all that stonework stay up? Why isn’t it crashing down on your head right this moment?
Get in touch with your fear. Make it primal. Dash about among the forest of buttresses, pausing to cling to one here or there like a tree trunk. Peer cautiously around it—something is coming. Something is definitely coming. Ghost, vampire, lover, madman? Keep your head pointed left but your eyes turning right. Don’t be afraid to let your bosom heave.
You might feel faint. Go with that, see where it takes you. Perhaps you open a door and step inside, where the stained glass bathes you in bright-jeweled light.
Swoon gracefully, remembering that curves are your strength.
After the Gothic faded from favor (alas, alas!) in the late 1400s, public buildings became simpler. Flat-fronted, square-windowed, neoclassical, blah. It was a long snooze till the late 1700s, when the Romantic movement reawakened interest in the magic of the Middle Ages. Spires were inspiring again; textures invited the eye to focus rather than flit by. The Western world fell in love with the crumbling ruins of medievalism. (It is very Goth to love a ruin.) They built fresh medieval piles in the great Gothic Revival.
How great does a manor house look with a tower? With gargoyles? Why not throw on all the trimmings and get very Downton about it? Stained glass sets a wonderful mood in a parlor, particularly if you’ve been trapped by a fiend who keeps you in peignoirs and laudanum … The proper pose here: dreamy. And a little bit nauseous.
In America, seek your ogives and turrets in the wood structures of Carpenter Gothic. Everyone recognizes the farm couple in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic—but have you noticed the shape of the window at the roof peak? It’s high time to grab a pitchfork, find a farm, and assume your most serious expression.
You might even find a farmhouse bedecked with the lace of gingerbread or wrought iron—even better, English ivy or Spanish moss, with a root cellar that runs all the way underground to a vampire’s lair. Your pose here is demure … but curious. Trepidatious … but ready to invite the beautiful stranger over your threshold. Or to be the beautiful stranger at the threshold, your bat wings poised to swoop inside.
Or find yourself a school—a posh one with a good library and a sense of tradition. Even when it was unfashionable elsewhere, educators clung to the Gothic, often done up in brick, for its sense of tradition. So take a stroll around Oxford and count the ogives. Spread your arms wide. Let your hair down. Run.
Run toward all the stories in the campus library. You are running for every heroine who ever suffered, who asked questions whose answers nobody liked, who saw a ghost, who kept a secret.
For this, you might find the scholar’s robe to be liberating. Yes, it limits what people can see, but that’s the magic of it—you can do anything you like underneath. Perhaps your signature pose will be the one you never show anybody.
Whatever you choose (or choose not) to display, your pose will always conceal as much as it reveals. You are the secret in the picture, the mystery emerging from the archway, peering out of the window, gazing at what lies beyond the now.