Hardly a decade goes by without the publication of a host of new studies on Véézelay. The abbey's nave, the figurative capitals, and its famous portals continue to fascinate the scholarly world. It is perhaps not surprising that, until now, the Gothic choir has been left out. While the nave and the sculptures are recognized as outstanding examples of Romanesque art, the choir is difficult to categorize and escapes easy assessment. Francis Salet, for example, was torn between criticizing the awkwardness of the design and acknowledging its uncommon beauty. Robert Branner highlighted its role in the region "as a turning point toward a fully Gothic style." Louis Grodecki hailed it as a masterpiece of regional Gothic and Bruno Klein praised its subtlety. But, at the same time, the choir could not shake off its reputation as a late and provincial version of the early Gothic chevet, lacking even the redeeming quality of initiating a distinctive regional style. Jean Bony, in his 1983 survey of French Gothic architecture, mentioned Véézelay only in his footnotes. However, only two years later, in 1985, Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale offered a radically revised view of the choir's position. By proposing a starting date of 1165 for the construction, twenty years earlier than Salet's dating, the choir could now be considered "the first Gothic building outside the crown lands" and evidence of the spread of royal influence to the regions. It has taken almost twenty years for scholars to take up the challenge.1
The present book, based on Arnaud Timbert's doctoral thesis, shows that the starting point for any discussion is the building itself. With its emphasis on material and formal aspects, the study follows in the grand tradition of medieval architectural history in France. Timbert has further broadened this approach by introducing building archaeology to the subject. Thus, in addition to an analysis of the sculpture, the decorative detailing, and the molding profiles, he also discusses building materials, tooling and masons' marks, and the results of dendrochronological and mortar studies. The book has three parts: the first part (11––64) introduces the reader to the abbey's political, economic, and architectural history; part two (67––225) presents his on-site observations; and part three (229––51) synthesizes the results of part two and discusses the patron, the architect, and the influence of the new design. The core of the study is part two, dedicated to the Gothic choir itself. Here Timbert revises our knowledge of the construction campaigns, the dating, and the architectural models. Throughout, his arguments are illustrated by images and numerous measured drawings of wall sections and piers to indicate masonry coursing, restored stones, putlog holes, the use of different tools, and different stone types.
In studying the design of the east end Timbert, as Salet before him, was faced with a perplexing number of irregular and unorthodox features. The most noticeable among them are the bay divisions of the main vaults over the central vessel (a six-part vault over the single western bay and a four-part vault over half of the eastern bay) and, at arcade level, an intermediate pair of columns added to the eastern choir bay. Salet argued that these inconsistencies resulted from the incompetence of a second, local architect who misunderstood the design of the original Ile-de-France master. Timbert shows that the architectural evidence is far more complex.
In fact, it is impossible to distinguish an initial regular design from a botched-up second campaign. Already the layout of the chapels and the position of the columns of the main arcade reveal irregularities for which the topography offers no clear explanation. For the upper parts, Timbert can show that a project to construct flying buttresses was abandoned in favor of a vaulted tribune and that the flyers (as far as they have not been replaced in the nineteenth century) were added at a later date. But Timbert also emphasizes the sophistication of the design, for example, in the distinctive treatment of space that characterizes the ambulatory and the inner apse. He believes that the irregular design of the high vaults might well be an ingenious solution to the problems posed by the layout. Like Salet, Timbert argues that the chevet was completed by a second architect. However, except for the rejection of the flyers, the new master remained faithful to the original architect's design. Timbert pays tribute to the finesse and subtlety of this first architect who, judging from certain features of the design, came from Burgundy.
Timbert also provides new evidence for a starting date in 1165, demonstrating that the masonry of the first chapel on the south side courses in with the adjacent chapter house. (Unfortunately, this is not illustrated.) Thus, the east end of Véézelay can be shown to belong to the generation immediately following Saint-Denis, and is therefore contemporary with the churches of Saint-Germain-des-Prèès and Noyon. For Timbert, the key to understanding the use of an Ile-de-France design at Véézelay is the patron, Abbot William of Mello (1161––71), who had previously rebuilt the east end of Saint-Martin at Pontoise on a similar plan. Timbert speculates that in the mid-twelfth century the Saint-Denis––type ambulatory choir with radiating chapels had come to be associated with royal power. He sees Abbot William as an ambassador of the king whose patronage at Véézelay was a political act.
While Timbert's detailed and careful architectural analysis is both impressive and convincing, his short section on the motivations for the construction raises certain questions. The idea that the early Gothic chevet is a political statement is indebted to Kimpel and Suckale who argued that the spread of Gothic architecture was identical to the extension of Capetian power and, more generally, that "style," like rhetoric, can have an historical or political dimension, being subject to patrons' choices. However, raising a building type to the position of an emblem of royal power, as Timbert does, runs the risk of effectively de-historicizing the object, especially when the argument reductively forecloses all other possible meanings, functions and contexts. In the case of Véézelay, where the new chevet was above all a sanctuary built for Mary Magdalene, whose relics were kept in the crypt below, the political motive for construction was one of many, and it remains to be demonstrated that it was the most important one.
By stressing Véézelay's direct dependence on the post––Saint-Denis generation of Ile-de-France ambulatory choirs, Timbert intends to rescue the building from its designation as "provincial." Nonetheless, the design's unusual, irregular features mark the choir as an outsider among that group and require explanation. Like Salet, Timbert interprets the design as the result of a confrontation between an Ile-de-France innovator, here the patron, and a local executor. And although Timbert rejects Salet's conclusion that the local master was incompetent, and even implies that some of the irregularities might be intentional, he offers no alternative explanation for the idiosyncratic treatment of the elevation. Thus, despite the earlier dating, the choir's position remains that of an interesting but inferior example of the Gothic diffusion from the Ile-de-France. Is it not time to shift our focus away from the choir's dialectic with the Ile-de-France and to try to understand the building on its own terms? The unconventional way in which the architect handles Ile-de-France structural principles suggests that imitation of Ile-de-France models was not the main motivation of the patrons and builders. Their expectations were, undoubtedly, related to the new east end's multiple functions and to the varied ways they hoped the building would represent their institution. Finally, one could ask whether, despite its limited influence as an architectural model, the new east end might not have set the tone for the interested but independent attitude to the Ile-de France that is so typical of Gothic in Burgundy.
Whatever questions are posed in the future about this intriguing and unique building, all will be based on Timbert's thorough architectural investigations. The book's strength and its lasting value lie in the solid body of evidence it assembles concerning all aspects of the making of Véézelay's east end. It would not have been possible without an intimate knowledge of the building and its architectural context. One can only join the author in hoping that this work will bring Véézelay to the forefront of discussion in the field of early Gothic architecture.
Francis Salet, La Madeleine de Véézelay: Etude iconographique par Jean Adhéémar (Melun: Librairie d'Argences, 1948), 69––76; Robert Branner, Burgundian Gothic Architecture (London: A. Zwemmer, 1960), 30––34; Louis Grodecki, Gothic Architecture (1976, London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 41; Jean Bony, French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983), 484, 488; Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, Die gotische Architektur in Frankreich 1130––1270 (Munich: Hirmer, 1985), 145, 546; Bruno Klein, "Beginn und Ausformung der gotischen Architektur in Frankreich und seinen Nachbarläändern," in Die Kunst der Gotik: Architektur, Skulptur, Malerei, ed. Rolf Toman and Achim Bednorz (Cologne: Köönemann, 1998), 69––70.