“…even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[i]
I have often had a similar feeling as that expressed by Charles Sheeler above. As an American I have always felt that my voice and vision should grow out of my own country and experience. However, I had not counted on participating in a graduate art history seminar at Indiana University on Gothic Architecture and seeing, for the first time, a beautiful little book titled “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt” that had been edited by Theodore Bowie.[ii] Many years later, searching through the ‘librairie’ at the Musee Cluny in Paris, I purchased a more recent and larger edition of the same title.
Villard de Honnecourt may have been an architect, or possibly an itinerant designer or draughtsman. Some historians have described him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the dark-ages. In any event, he did produce a sketchbook full of drawings and devices that changed how we see the world. They were at least a ‘pattern book’ or stylistic guide to the articulation of Gothic facades and interiors.[iii] These drawings by Honnecourt were not the only reason, but they were one of the reasons that allowed this new ‘gothic’ style to spread throughout Europe.
These little drawings are focused, insightful, powerfully structural, filled with character and attention to detail, and I always think of them immediately whenever I hear of the writer Raymond Carver or read about his short story “Cathedral.”
In this story, a young couple is surprised by a visit from a friend of the wife, an old blind man for whom she had worked several years ago. She did his reading for him and other chores. He was in town taking care of some business after the death of his wife and he wanted to ‘see’ them again.
The husband was a bit leery of this old man and his unexpected visit, as it was his wife who had been close to him. They had dinner and a few drinks and afterwards they watched a program on Gothic Cathedrals on TV. The wife had soon gone to sleep, leaving the two men in the living room, when the old blind man came up with this suggestion: would the young man teach him how to draw a cathedral? All that he really new about these things was what he had just heard on the TV program and didn’t know what they really looked like.
This young man, totally disoriented and slightly tipsy, searched the house for papers and pens and drawing materials and spread them all out on the living room floor.
“The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.”
“He ran his fingers over the paper. He went up and down the sides of the paper. The edges, even the edges. He fingered the corners.”
“‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right, let’s do her.’”
“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said. ‘Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,’ the blind man said.”
“The blind man said, ‘We’re drawing a cathedral….Press hard,’ he said to me. That’s right. That’s good,’ he said.”
“‘You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now.’”
“‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
‘Are they closed?’ he said. ‘Don’t fudge.’
‘They’re closed,’ I said.
‘Keep them that way,’ he said. He said, ‘Don’t stop now. Draw.”
“So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
“Then he said, ‘I think that’s it. I think you got it,’ he said. ‘Take a look. What do you think?’”
“But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.”[iv]
[i] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85. (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).
[ii] Bowie, Theodore; The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1959.
[iii] von Simpson, Otto; The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston; 1962; p. 198.
[iv] Carver, Raymond; “Cathedral” Where I’m Calling From; Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 306-307.