he medieval revival served as a mode of dissent from the modern developments in the Victorian era. According to Stephen Fliegal, the Victorian years posed "problems of social order, industrialization, poverty, and crises of faith," whereas many Victorians believed the middle ages possessed romantic notions of chivalry and honor as well as a feudal order and monastic institutions (Fliegal). The medieval revival affected all aspects of Victorian life, including art and architecture, literature, philosophy, politics and religion. This infusion of medievalism in the decorative arts and the world of design became known as the Gothic Revival (Fliegal). Thus, the birth of the medieval revival can be characterized as a reaction against modern developments during the Victorian era.
The renowned art critic John Ruskin praised the architecture of the middle ages while criticizing the industrialism of the Victorian age. His dissatisfaction with the mass-produced, mechanical decorative arts that arose during the Industrial Revolution led to his desire to revert back to the "freedom with which craftsmen" worked in the middle ages, "creat[ing] great variations in structure and ornamentation" (Fliegal). However, Ruskin did not merely focus on the visual aspects of the artwork and archictecture produced during the middle ages. Rather, he also advocated a social philosophy that invoked the chivalry of the middle ages (Fliegal).
August Welby Pugin also acted as one of the strongest proponents of reverting back to medievalism. He strongly believed that there existed a "moral superiority" in the Gothic taste as opposed to the industrial taste and the secular culture that were developing at the time (Crook). According to Pugin, the middle ages served as the best combination of "art, religion, and society" and only by restoring the moral values that were present in medieval times would the problems of the present be solved (Fliegal). Hence, for Pugin, the medieval revival was not merely visual and artistic but it involved a spiritual revival as well.
Pugin's "Candlesticks" exemplify decorative art that reflects the influence of the medievalism. The set of candlesticks shows off flat roundels that are adorned with Pugin's coat of arms that clearly invoke the middle ages. The engraving on these plates also includes much floral ornamentation as well as Pugin's motto. The decoration extends beyond the roundels to the base of the candlesticks where Pugin engraved "Christi Crux Est Mea Lux." In addition, the drip-pan at the top of the candlesticks are also decorated with fleur-de-lis cresting. Pugin also uses the fleur-de-lis in many other works such as silver dish with parcel-gilt. The fleur-de-lis design borders the plate while the crest and arms of the Benson family adorn the middle of the plate. Thus, both of these pieces by Pugin successfully invoke the middle ages.
Another key advocate of the medieval revival was William Burges. Burges, however, did not view the middle ages with the religious fervor of Pugin. Thus, he did not merely focus on creating art for the ecclesiological development, but he also used the "Gothic style of secular decoration" (Jarvis). Burges' Chair made of mahogany reflects Burges' interest in medievalism. The detailed carvings on the backs and the legs of the chair appear to contrast with the simple nature of other furniture pieces produced at the time (for example, Mackintosh's furniture). Hence, the more complex nature of the chair shows Burges' interest in moving away from the modern industrialized world in which the decorative arts could be mass-produced.
However, the medieval revival did not develop without resistance. During the early years of the Victorian Era, there appears to have been a direct spurning of medieval influence and other forms of revivalism in the art world. The Art-Journal, a major Victorian periodical that "provides an invaluable index to Victorian taste" (Landow) pointedly criticized any art movement that may have drawn influence from archaic sources with the mindset that looking back to past times would prevent artistic progress. Moreover, the journal seems to have opposed medievalism and other modes of artistic revivalism because "of the social and political overtones it associated with such glancing back at the past" (Landow). Thus, the writers and reviewers who contributed to The Art-Journal presented harsh criticisms of any art works that appeared to associate itself with what it considered any archaic style, such as medievalism. For example, R.N. Wornum even wrote that the archaic art of the middle ages seemed juvenile.
However, Landow points out that by attacking such forms of revivalism, especially antiquarian movements such as medievalism, The Art-Journal, perhaps unbeknownst to itself, created an audience well informed about the middle ages. Because The Art-Journal, beginning in the 1850s, often reviewed pieces that it deemed archaeological, it devoted many pages to the art and the life of the ages that it explicitly scorned. Moreover, The Art-Journal began to publish articles and essays written by leading antiquarians themselves. These antiquarians described the daily lives of those who lived in the medieval era while providing images that gave readers the opportunity to gain a visual understanding of medieval life. Moreover, they articulated that medieval works are not merely archaeological but they also contain much artistic value. Therefore, it can be surmised that a leading art journal of the Victorian Era made a significant contribution to the development of the medieval revival in spite of itself.
1. What kind of social and political overtones of the middle ages do you think The Art-Journal was staunchly opposed to? Why do you think it considered the middle ages negative and "barbaric"? On the other hand, Ruskin and Pugin believed that the art of the middle ages was morally and visually superior. What do you make of this huge discrepancy in opinions?
2. What do you think accounts for the prevalence of fleur-de-lis designs in Pugin's works (i.e. his set of candlesticks and the silver dish described above)? What message does Pugin send by including the fleur-de-lis?
3. How does Burges' chair differ from Mackintosh's chairs? What accounted for the difference in these two designs?
4. Do you think The Art-Journal realized that it was cultivating a taste for medieval works in the Victorian art world by publishing critiques of pieces associated with the middle ages? Why do you think the journal devoted many of its pages to express its disapproval of the middle ages and other antiquarian eras? By doing so, do you think it suppressed the desire amongst the public for contemporary art?
5. Why do you think The Art-Journal allowed prominent antiquarians to submit essays regarding medieval art despite its earlier adamant position against revivalism for fear that it would limit artistic progress? Professor Landow suggests that the success of these essays in the journal may have led to their continued use. Do you think that success was more important to the publishers of The Art-Journal rather than maintaining their beliefs?
Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Pugin Created the Dilemma of Style." www.victorianweb.org
Fliegal, Stephen. "Gothic Art for the Industrial Age: The Middle Ages Revisited in the Art of the Pre-Raphaelites." The Aldus Society. http://www.aldussociety.com/fliegal_speech.htm
Jarvis, Simon. "The Gothic Revival: Introduction." www.victorianweb.org
Landow, George P. "The Art Journal: 1850-1880." www.victorianweb.org
Last modified 22 November 2004