By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The underlying thesis of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology) is that, by recapturing their shared medieval past, the German peoples could find the primeval strength needed to (re)unify themselves. The earliest experiences and passions of a whole people could best be found in the vestiges of collective memory still living in the tales of simple folk untouched by modern technology or tainted by Enlightenment rationality.
This was a premise shared by the great German Romantic composer and theatrical impresario, Richard Wagner, who returned again and again to this same mythology again in his operas.
And when the German Empire was successfully established in 1871, that premise appeared to have been validated: The Holy Roman Empire, founded by Karl der Grosse, had finally been reconstituted, complete with the formerly French territories of Alsace-Lorraine. For the Germans, the Great War constituted an existential battle for national survival. That is why the Nazis’ German Reich was also known as the Third Reich, on the grounds that it was the proud ‘thousand-year’ successor to the first medieval empire—and why Wagner’s operas were perennial Nazi favorites.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Romantic appeal of the medieval past in Britain was most vividly realized in the visual arts associated with the members and supporters of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were also galvanized by the eloquent writings of the monumentally influential John Ruskin.
Ruskin’s theory of art and its relationship to the health of the artist and his society is most fully articulated in a key chapter, the ‘Nature of Gothic’, published in 1852, in volume two of The Stones of Venice. By ‘nature’, Ruskin meant both the essence of medieval artistry and its capacity to capture the forms of nature and thus the visible proofs of God’s creation.
He interpreted the exuberant ornamentation and soaring asymmetry of Gothic arts, especially architecture, as expressions of the medieval artist’s unfettered creativity and joyful communion with the natural world.
Artistry’s Slow Degradation
By contrast, as Ruskin contended, the very history of Venice was one of artistry’s slow degradation. With the Classicizing turn characteristic of the Renaissance, artists had rejected the divine and elevated their own technical mastery, leading to what Ruskin viewed as the modern division of mechanized labor and the impoverishment of both art and society.
E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (published in 1908) plays up the absurdities—and indeed dangers—of medievalism as a mania that stifles imagination, creativity, and self-knowledge. Its pompous English lecturer, in Santa Croce, is clearly parroting Ruskin when he says that the church “was built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism, before any taint of the Renaissance had appeared. Observe how Giotto in these frescoes—now, unhappily, ruined by restoration—is untroubled by the snares of anatomy and perspective.”
Ruskin’s thesis, whose reach would extend to everything from national politics to domestic furnishings, thus repudiated and reversed the whole philosophy of Renaissance art and its claims to superiority—on the alleged grounds that the Gothic was by definition barbaric and ugly and that medieval craftsmen were unskilled hacks. It also argued for a return to the piety of a medieval, natural theology, something else that (in Ruskin’s view) had been abandoned in favor of Renaissance paganism.
This explains why Ruskin found himself being recruited as an apologist by the Pre-Raphaelites, whose name signaled their commitment to rejecting the Classical poses and subjects of Mannerist (later Renaissance) artists like Raffaello Sanzio.
Natural emotions, realistic detail, and, above all, the natural spirituality of the artist in harmony with his subject were their key tenets. With the medieval past already established as the cradle of innocence and piety, this meant representing, not only medieval stories, but also medieval techniques and forms of interpretation.
Acceptance of Ruskin’s Thesis
These commitments all came together in an early and controversial work by a founder of the Brotherhood, John Everett Millais’s ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, painted in 1849–50. It’s hard to imagine today, but this work was reviled as shockingly offensive and even disgusting, because it depicted the Holy Family at home, in natural poses and laborers’ clothing, rather than representing these characters as classical figures in a grand or fanciful setting—and quite correctly invoking the medieval technique of collapsing the sacred and the everyday. Indeed, it was famously condemned by Charles Dickens precisely on the grounds that it was medieval.
Ruskin’s advocacy, and the growing acceptance of his thesis, would eventually secure the success of this new movement and its advocates, who not only wanted to transform art, but also the art of living. A taste for elaborately engineered natural landscapes had already given rise to the new calling of the landscape architect, epitomized by Capability Brown, whose designs had a permanent effect on English gardening and ideas of beauty, and who often enhanced the features of a grand estate’s existing Gothic ruins—or created medieval follies, such as hermitages and towers, where no ruins existed.
Common Questions about the Romantic Appeal of the Medieval Past
The ‘Nature of Gothic’ was published in 1852, in volume two of The Stones of Venice. By ‘nature’, John Ruskin meant both the essence of medieval artistry and its capacity to capture the forms of nature and thus the visible proofs of God’s creation.
John Ruskin’s thesis repudiated and reversed the whole philosophy of Renaissance art and its claims to superiority—on the alleged grounds that the Gothic was by definition barbaric and ugly and that medieval craftsmen were unskilled hacks. It also argued for a return to the piety of a medieval, natural theology.
John Everett Millais’s ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, painted in 1849–50, was reviled as shockingly offensive and even disgusting, because it depicted the Holy Family at home, in natural poses and laborers’ clothing, rather than representing these characters as classical figures in a grand or fanciful setting.