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(EN) Historical context of the Gothic 1.2: The Age of Enlightenment



This text is a continuation of the "Historical context of Gothic 1.1", If you haven't read it yet, check it out here.

Earlier, we spoke briefly about the history of the term "Gothic" from the Goths to Giorgio Vasari and his definitions of Gothic Art. In this second moment, let's talk about the Enlightenment, as Gothic was a Counter-Enlightenment movement.

"Laocoön and His Sons", marble sculpture, 27 b.c. - 68 a.d., attributed to Agesandro, Atenodoro and Polidoro

Gothic art was produced until the beginning of the 15th century, as a new era would begin. At the end of the 14th century, in Italy, a movement to revalue the ideals of Classical Antiquity emerged. This movement spread across Europe and across several areas of knowledge, coming to be called the Renaissance. It marked the transition from the Medieval to the Modern Age, from feudalism to capitalism, from theocentrism to anthropocentrism. Thus, in the Fine Arts, artists began to paint and sculpt themes more focused on Greco-Roman philosophy and mythology. It is a time of rationalism, of development of science and of looking more at the subject: more at the human than at God. Later, the Baroque and Rococo styles were developed before another resurgence of classical ideals in Neoclassicism in the 18th century in the "Age of Reason" or "of the Enlightenment", which, according to Pinker, had four central themes: reason, science, humanism and progress (PINKER, 2018, p. 20).

The Enlightenment was, according to França (2017, p.22), an “extension of the Renaissance, which rejected the dogmas of the Church”, seeking a scientific and rational understanding of the universe, seeking to understand the material functioning of the world, so much so that it was a time in that Newton described the physical world, shortly after Copernicus's heliocentric description, and God was no longer, for these philosophers, the judge of the world.

No longer appealing to the spirituality of faith and religion, Enlightenment thinkers tried to explain the world through rational thought, freeing the mind from scientific ignorance and superstitions that could not be empirically proven. Trying to understand the "human" and trying to define it, the thinkers - who were at the same time scientists, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, etc., certain terms that would only come to be differentiated later - tried to create a universal human science, which gave rise to the Humanist movement. They opposed religious wars, slavery, despotism and sadistic punishments (PINKER, p.23). At the same time, the idea of progress also began to be built.

It was also at this time that the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote the book Reflections on the imitation of Greek works in the art of painting and sculpture (1755). In this book, the historian creates his thesis based on the ancient sculpture of Laocoon and his Sons, in which they are being attacked by snakes (learn more about the story on Wikipedia). For him, the Laocoon Group was a Greek masterpiece, of “noble simplicity and serene grandeur”. Every man should act like Laocoon who, even at the moment of his death, held back the scream and tried to control his suffering. He suffers, but he is able to bare his misery:

Original german quote below*

“The general excellent characteristic of the Greek masterpieces is finally a noble simplicity and a quiet greatness, both in position and in expression. [...] This soul is portrayed in the face of Laocoon, and not just in the face, with the most violent suffering. [...] this pain, I say, does not express itself with any anger in the face or in the whole composition. He does not raise a terrible shout like Virgil sings about his Laocoon. The opening of the mouth does not allow it; it is rather an anxious and oppressed sigh, as Sadolet describes it. The pain of the body and the greatness of the soul are distributed through the whole structure of the figure with equal and balanced strength. Laocoon suffers, but he suffers like Sophocles Philoctetes: his misery goes to the soul, but we wish, like this great man, to be able to endure the misery. "
Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768): Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in the art of painting and sculpture, 1755

The belief in Reason arising from the Enlightenment and the idea of mastering the emotions - which would be believed to make man achieve happiness and virtue - would be opposed by other movements, called Counter Enlightenment, such as the Romanticism movement, which denied that the reason and the emotion could be separated from each other (PINKLER, 2018, p.43). Gothic was also a reaction against the belief in reason. According to the historian of Gothic, Richard Davenport-Hines, Gothic was an artistic and literary way of transgressing cultural values that prevailed during the Age of Reason. Later, at the end of the 20th century, Gothic expressed itself as a reaction to social control brought about mainly by fundamentalists. This is because the "Goths reject the bourgeois sense of human identity […] of one true cohesive inner self as proof of the health and good citizeny” (HINES, 1998, p. 7).

On the one hand, Enlightenment thinkers wanted to end the religious beliefs that supported tyrannies in power, seeking a universe governed by law, rationalism, order and sanity, through the control of emotions. But these ideals sounded terrible to those who believed that humanity needs passion and fear (idem, p.3). Goths do not believe in the integrity of a coherent self, but rather in “a human identity as an improvised performance discontinuous and incessantly reinvented re-divised by stylised acts” (idem, p.7), which will also be addressed by Post-Humanism later on, that will try to deconstruct the Enlightenment's concept of "HUMAN" since, from this, many other beings were excluded and considered less human than others, such as people of other ethnicities than white, of another sex and gender than male, of a religion other than Christianism, of a sexual orientation other than heteronormative, and so on. If you want to know more about Gothic and Post-Humanism, check out the text I wrote for Gothic Station Magazine here (in Portuguese only).

In the same century, the Irish thinker Edmund Burke wrote an aesthetic treatise that influenced the Gothic: Philosophical investigations on the origin of the ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, from 1757. This will be addressed in the next post. Until then.



„Das allgemeine vorzügliche Kennzeichen der griechischen Meisterstücke ist endlich eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Größe, sowohl in der Stellung als im Ausdruck. [...] Diese Seele schildert sich in dem Gesichte des Laokoon, und nicht in dem Gesichte allein, bei dem heftigsten Leiden. Der Schmerz, [...] dieser Schmerz, sage ich, äußert sich dennoch mit keiner Wut in dem Gesichte und in der ganzen Stellung. Er erhebt kein schreckliches Geschrei, wie Virgil von seinem Laokoon singt. Die Öffnung des Mundes gestattet es nicht; es ist vielmehr ein ängstliches und beklemmtes Seufzen, wie es Sadolet beschreibt. Der Schmerz des Körpers und die Größe der Seele sind durch den ganzen Bau der Figur mit gleicher Stärke ausgeteilt und gleichsam abgewogen. Laokoon leidet, aber er leidet wie des Sophokles Philoktetes: sein Elend geht uns bis an die Seele, aber wir wünschten, wie dieser große Mann das Elend ertragen zu können.“

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768): Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauer-Kunst, 1755


FRANÇA, Júlio (org.). Poéticas do mal - a literatura do medo no Brasil (1840-1920). Rio de Janeiro: Bonecker, 2017.

HINES, Richard Davenport-. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. Londres: Fourth State, 1998.

PINKER, Steven. O Iluminismo Agora Em Defesa da Razão, Ciência, Humanismo e Progresso. Editorial Presença, 2018.

WINCKELMANN, Johann Joachim. Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst (1755). Disponível em <https://books.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/arthistoricum/reader/download/445/445-17-83748-1-10-20190115.pdf> Acessado em 6 de dezembro de 2020.

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