Thursday, October 17, 2013

Meaningful Arches

 Princeton Graduate College: the Dining Hall

 Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.  The same ought to be true of the Quadath, as I shall hereafter denominate the fourth day of the week.  I missed publishing a Wednesday blog because I spent so much of yesterday either getting to Heathrow Airport or getting from Heathrow home.   Hence, an exceptional Thursday blog.  The launching of John Newman’s Kent: North East and East (see “Off to Canterbury”) took place in fine fashion on Tuesday.  Its perfectly appropriate setting was the medieval undercroft of the East Bridge Hospital in Canterbury.  In the fourteenth century a “hospital” was essentially a youth hostel, and this one was for Canterbury pilgrims.  The Wife of Bath may well have slept there—though of course they would not advertise that fact. 

            But we were forced to leave next morning, because a little later on this particular Quadath I have to give a little talk at the opening session of a major conference being held on the Princeton campus marking the hundredth anniversary of the building of our Graduate College.  This gives me, personally, the opportunity to celebrate the granting of my own doctoral degree through that institution, exactly fifty years ago.  I know that I am as old as a tree, but to be half as old as a graduate college is pretty threatening.

            I want to attempt something new here, by trying to think out a little of what to say in my talk this afternoon in this blog essay.  What I shall want to try to explain is how the Princeton trustees of the first decade of the twentieth century, Presbyterian pinch-pennies to a man, could authorize and pay for an ambitious and very costly building program of “collegiate Gothic” designed to leave their Protestant campus looking something like an oversized Cluny.  The subject therefore must be “the iconography of architectural forms”—a fancy and probably intimidating phrase I borrow from an eminent art historian of the last generation, Richard Krautheimer.*  What it means is not actually all that highfalutin.  Certain architectural forms imply an intellectual or spiritual content quite independent of their actual function.

            Consider for a moment one defining difference between the Romanesque and the Gothic.  The former is characterized by massive piles of stone pierced when necessary for portals and lights by semi-circular arches.  The great innovation of the Gothic, the pointed arch and ogive curve allowed for the transfer of weight in such a fashion as to allow relatively lighter wall masses which could be pierced by very large window spaces.  The “invention” of the Gothic was a purely technical development in building technique.  The Gothic arch had no meaning, though very soon we find it assigned one in late medieval, early Renaissance paintings.  Very often in such paintings the biblical city of Jerusalem is presented as a Romanesque creation.  The heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse, on the other hand, is likely to be Gothic.  It seems obvious that the concepts of old and new (as found in such common Pauline dyads as the “old man” and the “new man,” the “old law” and the “new law”—or simply the “old” and “new” testaments—were transferred to these architectural forms.

            The origins of American collegiate Gothic, of which the Princeton Graduate College is an outstanding example, involved a similar intellectual transfer.  It is a simple fact that the oldest American universities had their explicit origins in well defined Christian traditions.  It can be said without serious exaggeration that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all founded with the primary goal of educating young men for Christian ministry.  Nor is there any exaggeration in saying that the secularization of these institutions is now essentially complete.  That was a process already underway by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  But though the lineaments of explicit religious doctrines and sectarian affiliations might first fade and then vanish altogether, the aspirations to Arnoldian plain living and high thinking has everywhere remained in the American academy.  Today’s colleges and universities—sometimes assailed by conservative critics as hotbeds of moral anarchy and hedonistic excess--are in fact the heirs of medieval ascetic institutions.

            That is why the nomenclature of academic institutions is so peculiar.  There is no Provost of the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, nor a Dean of Sales at General Motors—though they’d be well advised to get one quick.  This is why college professors—whose normal political profile falls somewhere between that of Emma Goldman and Karl Kautsky—so love the high Tory haberdashery of their Canterbury caps and taffeta robes at Commencement time.  That’s why there are gargoyles on Princeton’s crenellated (!) Dillon Gymnasium, and why the exterior of the dining hall of Princeton’s newest residential college, Whitman, looks for all the world like a church.  It's the iconography of architectural form.

* “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture’,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v (1942): 1-31.

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