Digital Medievalist 10 (2015-2016). ISSN: 1715-0736.
© Katherine Werwie, 2017. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence

Stephen Murray and Andrew Tallon, 2012-. Mapping Gothic France. http://mappinggothic.org/

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Commissioned Review

Commissioning Editor: Gene Lyman, Independent scholar.
Received: June 21, 2016
Accepted: August 19, 2016
Published: February 7, 2017

Keywords: Architecture; Art history; Digital editing; 3D models; Publishing; Use studies.


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Introduction

§ 1    The Mapping Gothic website (http://mappinggothic.org/) was originally conceived by Stephen Murray, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University, and Andrew Tallon, Assistant Professor of Art at Vassar College, as a space to represent Gothic architecture digitally. Aware of the insufficiencies of a two-dimensional screen for rendering these structures, the site compiles panoramic, gigapan images; exact architectural elevations; timelines; and historical narratives to show these buildings in both time and space. The site derives its guiding Hrinciple from Henri Lefèbvre in seeking connections between what it describes as "the architectural space of individual buildings, geo-political space, and the social space resulting from the interaction (collaboration and conflict) between multiple agents – builders and users." Murray and Tallon hope that in addition to providing digital access to these churches, cathedrals, and abbeys, the manipulable platform will allow users to draw their own connections between these Gothic buildings.

§ 2    The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to trace the development of the Gothic style in France, was subsequently extended to include monuments in England. However, both projects remain incomplete and funding for Mapping Gothic has ended. As a result, though the website’s structure and goals are clear, some of its content remains unfinished.

The homepage

The Mapping Gothic homepage.
Figure 1: The Mapping Gothic homepage.

§ 3    The homepage of Mapping Gothic, which features a compelling slideshow of high-resolution images, provides two points of entry. A pane to the left and a corresponding bar across the top of the page invite visitors to select from three methods of investigation: space, time, and narrative. The first two of these are organized around maps while the last leads to a database of textual narratives. The presence of two portals for navigation is at first disorienting, especially since the options on the side bar are not given the same names as those across the top of the page even though both panes link to the same three interfaces.

Navigating by "space"

The Mapping Gothic "space" pane.
Figure 2: The Mapping Gothic "space" pane.

§ 4    New readers will very likely find that navigation within the "Space" portal most straightforward owing to the familiarity of its format. Its interactive map of Europe, France and England is covered with an array of purple markers indicating the locations of works of Romanesque and Gothic architecture dating from around 1000 to as late as 1500. Light purple marks indicate single buildings while darker purple markers indicate groups of buildings in close proximity to one another. As the user "zooms in" on the map, these darker markings are resolved into multiple individual locations.

§ 5    Clicking once on a marker reveals the name and image of the church in a sidebar to the left of the map. By pressing shift, the user can group multiple structures to view at once, toggling through images of the frontispiece, nave, and the exterior of the chevet as well digital reconstructions of floor plans and parametric sections—a precisely-measured cross section of the building’s nave and aisles.

Comparison tools

Full screen mode, comparing Amiens and Laon cathedrals.
Figure 3: Full screen mode, comparing Amiens and Laon cathedrals.

§ 6    A full screen mode allows users to compare the churches' main identifying images. These images are sometimes an offset frontal shot of the building's western façade. Owing to discrepancies in the scale and angle of these photos, however, comparison of these images is unwieldy.

Comparing nave heights of multiple cathedrals using the "comparisons" function.
Figure 4: Comparing nave heights of multiple cathedrals using the "comparisons" function.

§ 7    A "comparisons" option (also accessible directly from the top bar of the homepage) allows the user to compare features such as floorplans, parametric sections, and nave images of all of the buildings in the Mapping Gothic database and to sort them by filters such as date and nave height.

§ 8    In general the ability to compare parallel features of a large number of churches is particularly valuable for the exploration of change over time, divergence within a group, and so forth. However, there are limitations to the comparisons feature. For example, while one can sort interior images of naves by numerical variables such as nave height, it would be helpful to be able to compare some variables—like nave height and approximate construction start—to one another. The result of this limitation is that one must primarily compare structures visually rather than statistically. Nonetheless, this is an extremely valuable resource for analyzing not only the differences between constructions, but also the degree of this difference. Coupled with an understanding of medieval history and geography, this feature certainly facilitates investigations of changes in Gothic in response to a host of factors. Though maps and timelines are available on other parts of this website, it would be exceedingly valuable to chart this statistical data in relation to time and space. Perhaps if data could be compiled in this manner, it might be possible to digitally analyze the differences and change between these monuments.

§ 9    In addition, this "space" screen provides a link to what should be a simulation of the physics of Gothic architecture. In theory, this feature allows the user to adjust the height and thickness of a vault to explore the greatest height and least mass that the walls and vaults of these great cathedrals could sustainably achieve. As such, it would explain the rise and literal fall of some of the most ambitious edifices as illustrated by the accompanying map and statistical data. Unfortunately, this external software does not seem to be fully functional.

Information on individual cathedrals

Monograph page describing Amiens cathedral.
Figure 5: Monograph page describing Amiens cathedral.

§ 10    Finally, double clicking on the purple markers leads to a monograph page for each site. According to the original website design, this page was to be supplied with a plan, elevation, history, chronology of construction, description of the sculptural program, summary of the significance of the building, and a bibliography. Unfortunately, in many cases, this information remains incomplete.

§ 11    In nearly every case, however, a parametric section and a plan of the church are included. This plan is marked with arrows and circles linking to photos of the corresponding views. Static, high-quality photographs replicate various perspectives throughout the buildings and in a number of cases 360-degree panoramic shots (Figure 6) allow the viewer to navigate the building, adjusting their perspective to see in all directions from multiple fixed points.

Panoramic shot of Amiens cathedral.
Figure 6: Panoramic shot of Amiens cathedral.

§ 12    These photos are of such high resolution that one can often make out individual panes of stained glass and sculpted capitals. In addition to these high-quality photos, there is occasional provision of stereoscopic images that replicate three-dimensional views of the structures when seen through 3-d glasses. The website indicates the intent to include gigapixel and laserscan images; however, to my knowledge, none of the former and only a few of the latter have been uploaded.

§ 13    The sections of the website presenting individual monuments offer significant collections of photographs that are particularly useful because the locations from which they were taken as well as the direction of each view are clearly marked. Short of visiting these monuments, one would be hard pressed to find a better visualization of the space of these buildings. Moreover, this feature is particularly useful for investigating the location of works of stained glass, architectural sculpture, and other art within Gothic structures. Paired with an understanding of the historic placement and display of these objects, images such as these allow the researcher and casual user alike to reconstruct the situated experience of the medieval viewer in ways that would not otherwise be possible without undertaking a great deal of additional "mapping" work.

Historical and political context

Navigation page linking the contruction of individual cathedrals to political and historical events.
Figure 7: Navigation page linking the contruction of individual cathedrals to political and historical events.

§ 14    Returning to the home page, the "time" portal leads to the same map of Europe checkered with purple marks. In this case, however, the construction of monuments is visually related to political history and geopolitical divisions. Though it takes a bit of practice to learn to use, the user can view the buildings constructed within a set timeframe by adjusting a timeline at the bottom of the page. In addition, a list of maps including, for example, plots of the royal domain of the early Capetians and Philip Augustus’s conquest of Normandy, allows the user to superimpose images from notable atlases onto Mapping Gothic’s map of Gothic structures. Again, by adjusting the timeline below, one can track the construction of Gothic churches, cathedrals, and abbeys in relation to major political developments.

§ 15    Toggling the map’s built-in-features describes the spread of Gothic as a factor of Louis VII’s growing kingdom. Ecclesiastics from the King’s far-flung dioceses were summoned to his Parisian court and returned home with a desire to build in the new style they had encountered at Saint Denis. In addition, an animated map found within the "space" page allows the user to frame the map’s progression with the broader narrative of the expansion of Capetian France. This interactive highlights the triumph of the nascent state in the face of what might have been a Plantaganet "Atlantic Empire.” These features are very useful in illustrating two interlinked historical trends; and users with some outside knowledge of medieval history will be able to extrapolate from the vast quantity of raw data to draw their own conclusions.

§ 16    Finally, the "narrative" tab provides a collection of stories on Gothic, France, and Modern Goths. The "Gothic" and "France" sections provide space for the telling of multiple narratives such as "Gothic and the "Birth" of France” and "Gothic/ Metrology” and are considered active works in progress. These stories are perhaps most productively used as alternate frameworks to make sense of the site’s two interactive maps. "Modern Goths," which summarizes the work of major scholars of medieval architecture both historical and contemporary, rounds out the historiographical value of this resource. Sadly, however, both "stories" and "biographies" remain largely incomplete.

Conclusions

§ 17    The website would benefit from more narrative content to aid with the interpretation of its data and to provide the comprehensive background to the study of gothic architecture that its structure implies. All the same, Mapping Gothic is ultimately successful as a tool to enable users to draw their own connections between Gothic structures and the context of their production. Its visually stunning images make the site compelling to non-Medievalists and Medievalists alike. And the website’s database of information is an invaluable resource for specialized research. Mapping Gothic’s digital platform is essential to the site’s mission of allowing users to create connections. Despite issues noted earlier, the website provides an effective interface to arrange and sort data to explore various narratives in a way that would be difficult to achieve in another medium such as text or film. It is this flexibility and the volume of data available that make Mapping Gothic a unique and hopefully enduring contribution to the study of the spread and development of Gothic architecture.


Competing interests

During the course of her undergraduate studies at Columbia University, the reviewer consulted with Professor Stephen Murray for academic advice. She has had, however, no part in either the design or production of the website under review.