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The Gothic Revival
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Gravely Gorgeous: Gargoyles, Grotesques and the Victorian Imagination

Click to enlarge: Wells Cathedral Captial (detail)

The Gothic Revival in England
During the Gothic Revival in Britain and France, the grotesque represented a world turned upside down, where, for instance, monsters guarded the church. The term, Gothic, was first used during the Renaissance by Humanists as a derisive reference to “barbaric” architecture produced after the decline of Classical civilization and before their own efforts to resurrect Classicism. But the late eighteenth century brought a revival of interest in Gothic architectural and literary themes. What was initially a sentimental curiosity for crumbling ruins led to an archaeological interest in medieval architecture. A generation of architects, headed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, created new structures based on the precepts of Gothic architecture. The American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Pugin’s designs for the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, “gravely gorgeous,” a fitting oxymoron for a movement so concerned with contrasts. Pugin’s design for the heavily gilded interiors is generally recognized as one of the greatest monuments to the English Gothic Revival.

British Romantics developed a new literary genre: the Gothic horror novel. Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, two of the most famous examples, emphasized remote medieval settings—particularly castles and preferably in ruins—as ideal settings for their Romantic tales of horror. The medieval structures, they felt, seemed splendid, yet sinister. In their fast-changing, modern world, Gothic architecture suggested irrationality, a contrast of soaring beauty and worldly grotesque.

Next:Notre Dame Cathedral and the Gothic Revival in France