Seeing Stars of Light: Plate Three of The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Courtney Skipton Long

After Robert Willis, To Explain the Probable History of Tracery and the System of its Mouldings. Engraving, reproduced in Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy i Fig. 11.4 After Robert Willis, To Explain the Probable History of Tracery and the System of its Mouldings. Engraving, reproduced in Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy (Cambridge: J. & J. J. Deighton, 1835). Plate Ten.

Through careful observation of nature, architecture, and the environment, John Ruskin came to understand Gothic buildings with a distinctively ecological lens, noting organic relationships between man-made forms and a God-created world. Ruskin’s passionate advocacy for studying architecture alongside nature relates closely to the approach of natural philosophers who studied the material world empirically. For Ruskin, it was this empirical process of looking at how humans encountered the divine in nature that shaped his ideas about development in medieval architecture. He presented these ideas in his 1849 text, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and in an associated image, Plate Three, in the second chapter of the book: ‘The Lamp of Truth’ (Fig. 11.1).[1] At a time when a standardised method for representing architectural development was being discussed and codified, Ruskin offered a new way to visualise the formation of Gothic architecture over time. This chapter looks to Plate Three as a possible framework with which to think about Ruskin’s contributions to the philosophy—and visualisation—of change over time.

Traceries from Caen, Bayeux, Rouen, and Beauvais. Engraving
Fig. 11.1 R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Traceries from Caen, Bayeux, Rouen, and Beauvais. Engraving, reproduced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Library Edition, Plate Three, facing 8.88.

In the first edition of Seven Lamps, Ruskin included fourteen soft ground etchings that he made after his own drawings. These illustrations were widely criticised for being crude and unconventional at the time of their publication. The second edition, published in 1855, attempted to refine the illustrations by including a steel-engraved frontispiece by J. C. Armytage and by having the professional engraver R. P. Cuff re-etch Ruskin’s original drawings.[2] Three of Ruskin’s fourteen plates focus on the representation of window traceries, while additional plates feature combinations of ornaments, mouldings, capitals, arches, sections of buildings, and pieces of sculpture. Ruskin uses conglomerate plates throughout Seven Lamps, and Plate Three is a particularly telling instance where he attempts to communicate, both verbally and visually, his thoughts about architectural development. His arrangement of windows points to his engagement with a then relatively new trend within British architectural historiography of using diagrams of Gothic windows to document the processes of successive and continuous stylistic change over time. Ruskin’s Plate Three, however, departs from previous pictorial conventions, made popular by the influential writings of the architect and antiquary Thomas Rickman (1776–1841) in 1817, in notable ways.

Interest in successive change over time became an increasingly popular mode of enquiry in history and religion, architecture and geology, biology and economics, and this manner of thinking was deployed to analyse all kinds of patterns and phenomena. This chapter will consider some of the influences of new ideas about, and images of, successive change over time on Ruskin’s own thinking about architecture. Ruskin’s interest in the concept of development during the 1840s was particularly influenced by two individuals who were champions of this new approach: the Anglican priest and pioneer geologist and palaeontologist, William Buckland (1784–1856); and the acclaimed natural philosopher, engineer, and architectural historian, Robert Willis (1800–75). The following discussion will offer one possible interpretation of Plate Three’s striking organisation of medieval windows and its affinities with (and distinctions from) notions of development then being deployed to map time in discourses of natural theology.


Tracing history through Gothic windows

In Plate Three, Ruskin illustrates six Gothic windows: three with simple paired lancets supporting an additional three that rise in a sequence of arches whose points become increasingly complex, pierced by worked stone in the form of trefoils, quatrefoils, and multifoils. Beginning in the lower right-hand corner of the page, Ruskin numbers his windows in ascending order: three across the bottom, two in the middle third of the page, and the final window, or hemicycle of windows, covering around a third of the plate, dominating the upper right corner. The examples of French Gothic fenestration that Ruskin drew include: (1) a simple trefoil under a round arch at Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen (c.1200); (2) a conglomerate window that is representative of the details found in the triforium of Eu, Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Laurent (c.1226), the choir of Lisieux, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre (c.1201–18), and an example of the quatrefoils, sixfoils, and septfoils found in the transept towers at Rouen, Cathédrale Notre-Dame (c.1290); (3) a trefoil and very small quatrefoil from Coutances, Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Normandy (c.1235–1350); (4) an example from the nave chapels at Rouen, Cathédrale Notre-Dame (1265–75); (5) an example from the nave chapels at Bayeux, Cathédrale Notre-Dame (c.1245–55); and, finally, (6) the clerestory of the apse at Beauvais, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre (c.1272). Of these windows, Ruskin wrote, ‘I have drawn all these traceries as seen from within, in order to show the effect of the light thus treated, at first in far off separate stars, and then gradually enlarging, approaching, until they come and stand over us, as it were, filling the whole space with their effulgence’.[3] One way of viewing the blended arrangement of multiple windows from northern France is to see the increasing amount of light punctuating the darkness created by copious crosshatching as evocative of a sequential, continuous change redolent of organic growth, similar to the stages in a plant’s maturation. Text aside, Ruskin’s pictorial arrangement of windows in an ascending manner is suggestive of successive change over time, and, as Ruskin remarked, the windows help to visualise patterns of development along a historical path to a point of culmination when the ‘light had expanded to its fullest’, almost like a flower in full bloom.[4]

Ruskin’s Plate Three is unique both in relation to the group of drawings used to illustrate Seven Lamps and in the broader context of how diagrams were utilised to visually dissect the complex history of Gothic buildings into fragments for close study in nineteenth-century architectural histories. Thomas Rickman was the first to publish a definitive treatise on Gothic architecture, giving scholars a systematic periodisation of medieval English ecclesiastical buildings. Rickman defined four broad periods of construction that he called Norman (1066–1189); Early English (1189–1307); Decorated (1307–77); and Perpendicular English (1377–1509). He dated these periods according to the English monarchs who reigned from the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the death of Henry VII in 1509. In his An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England (1817), Rickman established a nomenclature and classification of the Gothic based on an empirical method of dating that grouped architectural elements (windows, doors, piers, capitals, and so on) into categories based on their similarity. Rickman’s aim was to educate young architects to distinguish the differences between Gothic buildings and assign them to a historical period according to their visual characteristics. He wrote about how to identify the modifications of ecclesiastical buildings and how to judge their age, stating: ‘The general alteration is that of windows, which is very frequent; very few churches are without some Perpendicular windows. We may therefore safely conclude that a building is as old as its windows’.[5] The window became Rickman’s type specimen through which he suggested that all other aspects of medieval ecclesiastical structures should be classified and arranged (Fig. 11.2). Using the window element, rather than an architectural floorplan, for instance, to organise the development of buildings was unprecedented in architectural historiography and proved to be immediately influential for the study of medieval churches.[6]

An engraving to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England
Fig. 11.2 W. Radclyffe after Thomas Rickman, Plate Five. Engraving, reproduced in Thomas Rickman, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England (London: John Henry Parker, 1817). Facing p. 113.
A Chronological Series of Twenty-Six Windows. Engraving, reproduced in John Britton, Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826). Plates Eighty-Three and Eighty-Four.
Fig. 11.3 After John Britton, A Chronological Series of Twenty-Six Windows. Engraving, reproduced in John Britton, Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826). Plates Eighty-Three and Eighty-Four.

Rickman, visual taxonomies of windows flourished and were included in a series of significant books such as John Britton’s Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England, 1826 (Fig. 11.3); Robert Willis’s Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy, 1835 (Fig. 11.4); Edmund Sharpe’s Treatise on the Rise and Progress of Decorated Window Tracery in England, 1849 (Fig. 11.5); Edward Augustus Freeman’s Essay on the Origin and Development of Window Tracery in England, 1851 (Fig. 11.6); and Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method of the Student, Craftsman, and Amateur, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1905 (Fig. 11.7).[7] Ruskin’s own Plate Three can be understood as a product of this new pictorial movement in British architectural historiography, but this contextualisation, however, does not fully explain the striking strangeness of Ruskin’s illustration. Even at a glance, one can see the dramatic difference in the presentation of windows in Ruskin’s plate compared to those pictorial arrangements associated with the texts published after Rickman.

After Robert Willis, To Explain the Probable History of Tracery and the System of its Mouldings. Engraving, reproduced in Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy
Fig. 11.4 After Robert Willis, To Explain the Probable History of Tracery and the System of its Mouldings. Engraving, reproduced in Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy (Cambridge: J. & J. J. Deighton, 1835). Plate Ten.
Edmund Sharpe, Origin of Tracery
Fig. 11.5 Edmund Sharpe, Origin of Tracery; Illustrated by a Series of Two-Light Windows. Steel engraving, reproduced in Edmund Sharpe, A Treatise on the Rise and Progress of Decorated Window Tracery in England (London: John Van Voorst, 1849). Plate B, facing p. 19. Windows: 1. and 2. St. Giles, Oxford; 3. and 4. Netley; 5. Winchester; 6. St. Cross; 7. Grasby, 8. Dowsby; 9. Etton; 10. Scotton; 11. Charlton-on-Otmoor; 12. Chiselbourne.

In these architectural histories that bookend the publication of Seven Lamps, diagrams of windows communicate two significant things: first, they signal the diversity of lancet forms found within a single type or period; and second, they demonstrate the sequential, top-down development of lancet forms, and what would later be described as ornamental tracery, within those periods. Diagrams like the ones produced for the treatise by Willis, for example, were specifically included to help visualise in grid-like fashion the fact that medieval architecture was not static in each century, as Rickman had suggested before, but that Gothic architecture was the product of a ‘gradual transition from Classicism occurring simultaneously in all the countries in which complete Gothic is found’.[8] Examining Rickman’s Plate Five (Fig. 11.2) alongside Willis’s Plate Ten (Fig. 11.4), one can see that the greatest difference between them is in the way that Rickman’s plate shows static types of fenestration while Willis’s plate captures transitions among and between the design of arched windows, leading to the emergence of tracery. In both instances, windows are used as the apparatus through which to date the whole system of Gothic architecture.

After Edward Augustus Freeman, Geometrical Tracery
Fig. 11.6 After Edward Augustus Freeman, Geometrical Tracery. Engraving, reproduced in Edward Augustus Freeman, An Essay on the Origin and Development of Window Tracery in England (Oxford and London: J. H. Parker, 1851). Plate One, facing p. 8.

Ruskin took extensive notes on Willis’s inductive method and detailed classification while preparing Seven Lamps for publication in the mid-1840s.[9] During this time, Ruskin learned to look at medieval buildings through Willis’s eyes and found that Willis, unlike anyone before him, offered more complete evidence for the changefulness of Gothic architecture through phases of sequential development delineated by increasingly complex ornamental states.[10]Ruskin used this word, ‘changefulness’, in Seven Lamps to describe how Byzantine builders worked, writing: ‘I believe they built altogether from feeling, and that it was because they did so, that there is this marvellous life, changefulness, and subtlety running through their every arrangement; and that we reason upon the lovely building as we should upon some fair growth of the trees of the Earth, that know not their own beauty’.[11] The analogy of architectural changefulness with the ‘fair growth’ of natural forms was not an unfamiliar idea to Willis either. Willis regularly described his groupings of architectural elements as organic ‘specimens’ and frequently made scientific comparisons between his examples.[12] As Willis observed in Plate Ten, the arrangement of windows denotes the development of mullions to divide a single arch into two, three, and four lancets and shows how ‘two essential characteristics of the Gothic style arose; namely, foliation and tracery’.[13] Those windows that did not fall neatly into groups of shared characteristics, Willis termed a ‘transitional monument’ and considered those specimens to signify moments of significant change within the stylistic progression of Gothic architecture over time.

In his narrative about the origins of the Gothic, however, Ruskin took issue with Willis. He dismissed Willis’s observations as an ‘inexcusably absurd theory’ and found Willis’s idea that tracery derived ‘from imitated vegetable form[s]’ too limited in its analysis.[14] Instead, Ruskin argued that it was beyond doubt for the educated individual familiar with ‘any single series of consecutive examples, that tracery arose from the gradual enlargement of the penetrations of the shield of stone which, usually supported by a central pillar, occupied the head of early windows’.[15]The development of tracery was further recognised by Ruskin as being part of the medieval architect’s experience of watching the ‘stars of light’ emerge from ‘awkward forms’ and a ‘rude border’ of stone. Of this experience, Ruskin wrote at length:

Up to that time, up to the very last instant in which the reduction and thinning of the intervening stone was consummated, his eye had been on the openings only, on the stars of light. He did not care about the stone; a rude border of moulding was all he needed, it was the penetrating shape which he was watching. But when that shape had received its last possible expansion, and when the stone-work became an arrangement of graceful and parallel lines, that arrangement, like some form in a picture, unseen and accidentally developed, struck suddenly, inevitably, on the sight. It had literally not been seen before.[16]

Recognising that Ruskin uses images to convey arguments independently of words, one possible way of reading Plate Three is to consider how a window’s gradual enlargement was affected over time. Here, the arrangement of windows from bottom to top and seen from an interior vantage seems to demonstrate that Ruskin’s approach to understanding and picturing development in medieval architecture differed significantly from the method put forward by his predecessors.

In Plate Three, Ruskin rejects the diagrammatic format of presenting Gothic windows from an exterior view and arranged according to their similarity in shape, form, and decoration. Neither does he illustrate their stylistic features in detail, nor does he draw attention to the kinds of stone used to outline the window cavity. His drawing is not focused on the comparison of each oculus or moulding, nor dedicated to the comparison of types. Rather, Ruskin focuses on the fact that ‘all the grace of the window is in the outline of its light’ and that as one examines each window one can see how the ‘great, pure, and perfect form of French Gothic’ emerges and how the ‘rudeness of the intermediate space had been finally conquered’.[17] In order to demonstrate this change, Ruskin outlines the white of the page, the light, with (as his critics had noted in 1849) crudely overlaid lines, evoking chiselled and worked stones. Ruskin not only drew the contrast of backlit windows and interior shadows, but also demonstrated through his use of line and mass how solid stone interiors gradually gave way to an increasing amount of ethereal light through the development of ‘delicate lines of tracery’. Plate Three is a literal manifestation of Ruskin’s description, showing consecutive stages in the rise and fall of Gothic architecture, poised in sublime majesty just before its fall (like the flower in full bloom, expansive yet unsustainable, on the brink of wilting), teetering on the edge of darkness before descending again into shadow. The viewer, led by the white of the page, sees not just the outlines of lancets, but also the suggestion of sunlight and shade cast across the landscape beyond. And while the arrangement of windows illuminates Ruskin’s idea about the broadly chronological, although imperfect progression of Gothic forms over time, the loose rendering of exterior shadows similarly helps to represent Ruskin’s idea that the culmination of human achievement is ‘traceable up to that glorious ridge, in a continuous line, and thence downwards’ into shade.[18]

In its arrangement, Plate Three portrays a series of windows that through their very composition on the page seem to express a tension about continuous development being both upward growth and downward decay. Instead of classifying windows based on their taxonomic groups or showing the variety within a single type, Ruskin demonstrates how six individual windows represent specific periods of construction and, when seen together, visualise the continuous process of transformation over time. ‘The change of which I speak’, Ruskin wrote, ‘is expressible in few words; but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration’.[19] That is, the medieval mason’s ability to see beyond the limitations of the mural wall and conceive instead of tracery, of openings comprised of ‘graceful and parallel lines’.[20] These successive changes are realised in Ruskin’s image in the way he outlines the light and conveys that with each transition in form there is a physical change to the interior architectural environment. Of this change, he noted that ‘the forms of the tracery’ became a ‘novel source of beauty’ whose ‘intervening space’ after reaching its apex of construction ‘was cast aside, as an element of decoration, for ever’.[21] The decline of tracery meant, for Ruskin, that these forms became ‘emaciated’ and lost their ‘essence as a structure of stone’.[22] Ruskin does not illustrate this faltering decline in the windows themselves, but rather alludes to the impending downfall, wafting up like a consuming cloud of darkness, in the example of the hemicycle from Beauvais.

The arrangement of windows in Plate Three collectively shows not just consecutive examples but also the transitional phases of medieval architectural development from a state of infancy (mass) that grows to one of maturity (graceful lines) and then withers as the stone is ‘reduced to the slenderness of threads’. Paradoxically, to evoke this architectural leap away from an emphasis on mass in Gothic buildings, Ruskin’s windows are surrounded not by expanses of white page, but by deep shadow, expressive of architectural substance, composed of heavy layers of vigorous crosshatching. That is, Ruskin visualises his imaginative conception of the medieval builders’ conflict with darkness and the triumph of line over mass in Gothic design by presenting these windows contre-jour, contrasting the dark, cross-hatched lines with the white of the paper, depicting the literal and dynamic play of bright, exterior light against the deep shadow of a once gloomy interior. In this way, Plate Three presents Ruskin’s interconnected analysis of window fragments and fragmented light. Or, to be more precise, the connection between the window cavity serving to frame the light and the light serving to inform the cavity of the window. These elements of Ruskin’s drawing are a testament to his understanding of the relationship between medieval architectural parts and the whole of Gothic building history.

English Gothic Examples. Reproduced in Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method of the Student, Craftsman, and Amateur
Fig. 11.7 Printed by B. T. Batsford after (Sir) Banister Fletcher, English Gothic Examples. Reproduced in Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method of the Student, Craftsman, and Amateur [1890], second edition (London: B. T. Batsford, High Holborn, 1905). Plate Seventeen, facing p. 341.

Ruskin and natural theology

Ruskin’s absorbing passion for observing the natural world from a very young age had a profound impact on his architectural criticism, and Plate Three in ‘The Lamp of Truth’ is a product of this early practice of close looking.[23] In his youth, Ruskin was influenced by the common belief that the Biblical account of the catastrophic Great Flood, or Deluge, in the Book of Genesis explained existing natural and geological phenomena.[24] Published only a few years after Ruskin graduated from Oxford University, Seven Lamps responds to his formative childhood experiences. These early years were the foundation for his later receptivity to scholarly debates regarding ideas of ‘development’ as it was understood and theorised by natural historians, geologists, and theologians, as well as by members of the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture, during his time at university.

Ruskin’s notions of truth to nature and truth in nature were fundamentally connected to his belief that it was his Christian duty to represent the world with strict fidelity as a means to lead the viewer to God.[25] It was the naturalists and philosophers Ruskin encountered as a student at Oxford who helped him to form his opinions about the relationship between nature and architecture. Some of these influential figures included his natural history instructor William Buckland, his lifelong friend and social-welfare advocate Dr Henry Acland (1815–1900), and the philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881).[26] Though Ruskin’s Oxford curriculum is familiar, it is nevertheless worth restating that while he was enrolled in the Classics programme, he quickly turned his attention to advanced study of one of his childhood passions: geology. After only a month at the university, Ruskin joined Buckland’s lectures on mineralogy, and quickly became one of his most avid followers.

In his lectures, Buckland discussed how the study of rock formations and the layering of the Earth’s minerals offered evidence in support of the truthfulness of catastrophic moments, like the Great Flood, as they are narrated in the Bible.[27] Interpreting visible evidence of seismic shifts made it possible to conclude that any changes after God ‘called the drie land, Earth … [and] saw that it was good’ were still part of a divine plan for the Earth’s creation.[28] Buckland’s notions of development in the study of mineralogy allowed him, as Van Akin Burd observed, ‘some latitude in interpreting the chronology of Genesis’ without contradicting scripture.[29] Yet, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the accepted understanding of the earth’s formation according to principles of natural theology were publicly challenged by new evidence suggesting that the Earth had changed over time and was still in a process of being formed. Many of these discussions in Victorian Britain about ‘development’, broadly speaking, were widely influenced by debates and reflections then taking place in France.

Following the work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) and his Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy, 1809), in which he outlined a process of organic change and the inheritance of acquired characteristics in successive species over time, comparative anatomists at the University College, London, the Royal College of Surgeons, and at Oxford University, among other academic institutions and affiliated societies, considered the possibility of a dynamic theory of species transformation as a means to understand development in the natural world.[30] The geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875), author of Principles of Geology (1830), for instance, who had been a student of Buckland while at Oxford and who went on to contest the notion of development outlined by his former mentor, suggested that the age of the Earth could be charted by ‘forces still in action’ (Uniformitarianism) rather than understood as fixed by an ancient disaster (Catastrophism).[31] Debates about the formation and transformation of the Earth and its inhabitants persisted at Oxford, and Ruskin would have had the opportunity to participate in these discussions through Buckland’s academic affiliation and professional connections. The significance of these debates in shaping Ruskin’s own thinking about development in architecture was profound.[32]

In response to these debates about the transformation of the Earth and the mutability of species, Buckland contributed, along with William Whewell (1794–1866) and others, to the Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Creation (1833–6). The eight treatises argued for the existence of God as an explanation for and answer to pressing scientific questions.[33] Buckland authored Treatise Six on the ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’. In this treatise, Buckland commented on the idea of origins and the related concepts of development and advancement of the Earth’s history, stating:

In the consideration of other strata, we find abundant evidence in the presence of organic remains, in proof of the exercise of creative power, and wisdom, and goodness, attending the progress of life, through all its stages of advancement upon the surface of the globe; so, from the absence of organic remains in the primary strata, we may derive an important argument, showing that there was a point of time in the history of our planet, … antecedent to the beginning of either animal or vegetable life.[34]

Buckland’s popular lectures at Oxford drew from his recent writings for the Bridgewater Treatises, and Ruskin would have heard Buckland lecture on geology as it ‘extends its researches into regions more vast and remote, than come within the scope of any other physical science except Astronomy’.[35] ‘Geology’, Buckland continues:

not only comprehends the entire range of the mineral kingdom, but includes also the history of innumerable extinct races of animals and vegetables; in each of which it exhibits evidences of design and contrivance, and of adaptations to the varying condition of the lands and waters on which they were placed; Evidences like these make up a history of a high and ancient order, unfolding records of the operations of the Almighty Author of the Universe, written by the finger of God himself, upon the foundations of the everlasting hills.[36]

Subsequently, Buckland deliberately opposes ‘some speculative philosophers’—and condemns Charles Lyell and his ‘shifting hypothesis’, in particular—for their reference, as Buckland says, to ‘the origin of existing organizations, either to an eternal succession of the same species, or to the formation of more recent from more ancient species, by successive developments, without the interposition of direct and repeated acts of creation’. Here, Buckland seems to use the word ‘development’ in contempt of notions about evolutionary adaptation and the word ‘creation’ in support for the action of the ‘Almighty Author’.[37] Buckland concludes his Bridgewater Treatise on ‘Geology and Mineralogy’ stating that:

We conceive it undeniable, that we see, in the transition from an Earth peopled by one set of animals to the same Earth swarming with entirely new forms of organic life, a distinct manifestation of creative power transcending the operation of known laws of nature: and, it appears to us, that Geology has thus lighted a new lamp along the path of Natural Theology.[38]

It was perhaps a short step from Buckland’s ‘lamp’ along the path of natural theology to Ruskin’s ‘lamps’ of architecture: each sought to illuminate how the work of the Almighty Author manifested His creative hand through the manipulation of earth and hewn rock. Yet, in Ruskin’s personal correspondence and later publication The Stones of Venice (1851–3), one can read, as Clive Wilmer has demonstrated, that Ruskin found creationist ideologies too restrictive to explain the changes that he observed taking place in nature and in architecture. He spent much of the 1840s wrestling with nascent evolutionary and materialist theories in the natural sciences and trying to reconcile his belief that the geological evidence supported scriptural history with Lyell’s idea of Uniformitarianism, the latter mirroring his own ideas about development in nature and architecture.[39] Though architectural historiographers before Ruskin discussed this material in a way that harmonised more closely with the binomial classification system formalised by Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) in his Systema Naturae (1735), Ruskin’s method of visualising the mutability of forms from simple to complex window arches in Plate Three alludes to that other inescapable, though controversial, theory advanced by Lamarck, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), Louis Agassiz (1807–73), and, of course, Charles Darwin (1809–82) about species’ evolution through successive mutations.[40] In this light, The Seven Lamps and Plate Three seem to emerge as early instances where one can see the tensions between Ruskin’s competing ideas about development finding both visual and verbal expression.


Development in ‘The Lamp of Truth’

In Plate Three, the window and its tracery present the means through which to mark the gradual evolution, or ‘process’ as Ruskin notes, of Gothic architecture over time. He identifies a ‘great pause’ in the progress of Gothic architectural innovation, ‘when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered’, and this can be seen in the example from the clerestory of the apse of Beauvais.[41] Lasting a period of less than fifty years, Ruskin notes how the forms of tracery became a ‘novel source of beauty’ and how the rude stone of the intervening space was ignored as a possible element of decoration.[42] To chart this development, Ruskin notes that, like Rickman and others, ‘I have confined myself, in following this change, to the window, as the feature in which it is clearest’.[43] As a whole, then, Plate Three traces the formation of Gothic architecture and denotes moments of demonstrable architectural change, as well as shifts in thought and understanding on the part of the architect, and captures the apex of an epochal moment amid centuries of transition.[44]

Focusing on the idea of change in medieval buildings, Ruskin speaks of how ‘light expanded to its fullest’ through the ‘gradual enlarging’ of lancets, how ‘tracery marks a pause between the laying aside of one ruling principle, and the taking up of another’, and how Plate Three visualises what he describes as a ‘great watershed’ in the development of tracery between the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. Ruskin articulates in poetic fashion the importance of discarding heavy stone mullions in favour of delicate, intertwining stone tracery—a change that belied the material’s strong character—illustrating the mutability of French medieval window specimens across time.

Attributing the refinement of stone and the diminishing of mass in favour of line to the architect’s creativity, Ruskin tells of the birth of tracery as an element that became a universal feature of medieval architecture.[45] Yet, while Ruskin praised the architect’s beautiful tracery that masterfully illumined Gothic interiors, he also showed how truth was ruptured by the loss of honest material forms, stating that:

The architect was pleased with this his new fancy, and set himself to carry it out; and in a little time, the bars of tracery were caused to appear to the eye as if they had been woven together like a net. This was a change which sacrificed great truth; it sacrificed the expression of the qualities of the material; and, however delightful its results in their first development, it was ultimately ruinous.[46]

Freedom of creativity should never take precedence over truth to materials. On falsely apprehending stone as elastic, Ruskin asserts that:

when the tracery is assumed to be as yielding as a silken cord; when the whole fragility, elasticity, and weight of the material are to the eye, if not in terms, denied; when all the art of the architect is applied to disprove the first conditions of his working, and the first attributes of his materials; this is a deliberate treachery, only redeemed from the charge of direct falsehood by the visibility of the stone surface, and degrading all the traceries it affects exactly in the degree of its presence.[47]

In suggesting that the integrity of the window is lost when the materials used for its creation cease to be communicated, Ruskin forces his readers to acknowledge that progress is not inevitable or indeed linear. And much like his depiction of the hemicycle at Beauvais descending into darkness, ‘so fell the great dynasty of medieval architecture’, Ruskin wrote, ‘because it had lost its own strength and disobeyed its own laws’.[48]

The development of tracery, for Ruskin, was like a traveller climbing a mountain—‘all had been ascent’—and then cresting the ridge, realising that ‘after it, all was decline’.[49] The architectural chain of being that Ruskin presents in Plate Three communicates his own sampling of the continuous shifts that he envisioned to be taking place in the medieval period, but of the development of the style and its principles into the nineteenth century, all Ruskin saw of his beloved Gothic was ‘retrograde’.[50] Through the inclusion of Plate Three in Seven Lamps, Ruskin acknowledges that these developments did not take place at once, but were rather parts, or moments, within a broader range of development and slow decay, much like organic growth and natural senescence. Like a journey through the Alps, medieval builders had ascended to new heights and as they ‘descended towards a new horizon’, Ruskin wrote, they plunged downwards ‘with every forward step into a more cold and melancholy shade’.[51] Like the Great Flood that cleansed the Earth of human debasement, Ruskin’s moral statement in his narrative of the development of a divinely inspired Gothic architecture is his prophetic call to nineteenth-century builders to adhere to the truth of materials, otherwise this world too will fall into retribution.


Plate Three: continuity and change

Observing the progress and decline of Gothic architecture was, for Ruskin, like everything else for him in the nineteenth century, a cause for contradictory feelings. As the viewer looks at Plate Three, her gaze ascends Ruskin’s image and comprehends the progressively thinning mass and the slow expansion of delicate lines that surround the great, late-Gothic hemicycle at Beauvais Cathedral, and she is invited to consider what the next iteration of window might look like, beyond the frame and atop this great expanse. For Ruskin, there could only be descent, however, and he says as much of the medieval builder’s experience, who upon ‘reaching the place that was nearest heaven, the builders looked back, for the last time, to the way by which they had come, and the scenes through which their early course had passed. They turned away from them and their morning light, and descended towards a new horizon’.[52]

Indebted to the publications of Rickman, Britton, Willis, and Sharpe, who created a system for classifying and documenting the history of medieval ecclesiastical architecture, and to the debates about the formation of the Earth according to theories of Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism, Ruskin wrestled with contradictory ideas, turned away from some and incorporated others, to invent a new and compelling way to represent the contours of history visually. By rejecting the newly standardised method of examining medieval windows from the exterior and in a top-down grid, Plate Three in Seven Lamps heightens Ruskin’s articulation of a different view of architectural history, one that is more expansive in its consideration of the structure, character, nature, and function of tracery—to allow light to cut through the mass of darkness of an interior space. Conversely, Ruskin’s distinct ecological approach draws on the notion of upward-leading stages of development as suggested by natural historians to understand the change that he found in nature, yet all the while remaining firmly attached to cyclical theories of civilisation. Ruskin seems to wrestle with these ideas in Plate Three and applies them to the divinely inspired, but man-made ecclesiastical architecture of the medieval period, as a means to capture the contours of development, and show the continuousness of change in an almost spiral-like fashion on a single page. And like the builders who came upon those ‘stars of light’ for the first time and saw in them the possibility of future effulgence, Ruskin’s Plate Three offers a view of the past and a representation of history that had ‘literally not been seen before’.[53]



The author is grateful to the editors, Kelly Freeman and Thomas Hughes, for the opportunity to contribute to this volume, to Robert Hewison and Richard Read for very useful discussions about Ruskin’s thinking and visual methodology, and to Christopher Drew Armstrong and Matthew Hargraves for offering invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.



[1] Ruskin, 8.1 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[2] Michael Wheeler and Nigel Whiteley (eds.), The Lamp of Memory: Ruskin, Tradition and Architecture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 152, 155.
[3] Ruskin, 8.89.
[4] Ruskin, 8.89.
[5] Thomas Rickman, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England (London: John Henry Parker, 1817), pp. 234–5.
[6] There is evidence that the antiquarian John Aubrey (1626–97) used windows to document change over time in Gothic buildings, but his text and images remained unknown to the nineteenth-century authors discussed here. For further discussion see: Courtney Skipton Long, ‘Classifying Specimens of Gothic Fenestration: Edmund Sharpe’s New Taxonomy of English Medieval Architecture’, Architectural Theory Review 22:2 (2018): p. 175; Howard Colvin, Essays in English Architectural History (New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 1999), p. 208; and Olivia Horsfall Turner, “‘The Windows of This Church Are of Several Fashions”: Architectural Form and Historical Method in John Aubrey’s “Chronologia Architectonica”’, Architectural History 54 (2011): p. 171.
[7] John Britton, Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826); Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy (Cambridge: J. & J. J. Deighton, 1835); Edmund Sharpe, A Treatise on the Rise and Progress of Decorated Window Tracery in England (London: John Van Voorst, 1849); Edward Augustus Freeman, An Essay on the Origin and Development of Window Tracery in England (Oxford and London: J. H. Parker, 1851); and Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method of the Student, Craftsman, and Amateur [1890], second edition, (London: B. T. Batsford, High Holborn, 1905).
[8] Willis, Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages, p. 94. See also Alexandrina Buchanan’s discussion about how Willis problematised the concept of transition: Robert Willis (1800–1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History (Rochester NY: The Boydell Press and Cambridge University Library, 2013), p. 80. And, for a helpful theoretical approach to thinking about diagrams, see John Bender and Michael Marrinan, The Culture of Diagram (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 19.
[9] Ruskin, 8.xx–xxi; xi.
[10] Ruskin, 8.209 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[11] Ruskin, 8.209.
[12] Buchanan, Robert Willis (1800–1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History, p. 97.
[13] Willis, Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages, p. 40; and Buchanan, Robert Willis (1800–1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History, p. 92.
[14] Ruskin, 8.87 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[15] Ruskin, 8.88.
[16] Ruskin, 8.90–1.
[17] Ruskin, 8.89.
[18] Ruskin, 8.90.
[19] Ruskin, 8.90.
[20] Ruskin, 8.91.
[21] Ruskin, 8.91.
[22] Ruskin, 8.92.
[23] See Tara Contractor, ‘Mountains in Miniature: Ruskin’s Sketching and Empowerment’, in Tara Contractor, Victoria Hepburn, Judith Stapleton, Courtney Skipton Long, and Tim Barringer (eds.), Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 36–7.
[24] Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 27.
[25] See Mark Swenarton, Artisans and Architects: The Ruskinian Tradition in Architectural Thought (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988) where he discusses that ‘Nature’ for Ruskin was a theological as well as physical construct, made by God.
[26] Van Akin Burd, ‘Ruskin and His “Good Master” William Buckland’, Victorian Literature and Culture 36 (2008): pp. 299–315; Henry W. Acland, John Ruskin, and John Phillips, The Oxford Museum: Remarks Addressed to a Meeting of Architectural Societies, second edition (Oxford: J. H. and J. Parker etc., 1860); and Carla Yanni, ‘Development and Display: Progressive Evolution in British Victorian Architecture and Architectural History’, in Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon (eds.), Evolution and Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 236, 256.
[27] Aileen Fyfe, ‘The reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge’, The British Journal for the History of Science 30:3 (1997): p. 329; John Holmes, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 10.
[28] Genesis 1:10, King James Bible, King James Version (KJV), 1611.
[29] Burd, ‘Ruskin and His “Good Master” William Buckland’, p. 306.
[30] Long, ‘Classifying Specimens of Gothic Fenestration’, p. 179; Phillip Sloan, ‘Evolutionary Thought Before Darwin’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), accessed January 2020,
[31] Burd, ‘Ruskin and His “Good Master” William Buckland’, pp. 300, 304; and Robert Hewison, Ruskin and Oxford: The Art of Education (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 3.
[32] Hewison, The Argument of the Eye, p. 23; and Clive Wilmer, ‘“No such thing as a flower … no such thing as a man”: John Ruskin’s response to Darwin’, in Valerie Purton (ed.), Darwin, Tennyson and Their Readers: Explorations in Victorian Literature and Science (London: Anthem Press, 2013), p. 99.
[33] Jonathan Topham, ‘Science and Popular Education in the 1830s: The Role of the “Bridgewater Treatises”’, The British Society for the History of Science 25:4 (1992): pp. 397, 403; and Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard V. Lightman (eds.), Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).
[34] William Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, in The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Creation, Treatise Six (London: W. Pickering, 1836), p. 53.
[35] Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, p. 17.
[36] Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, pp. 7–8.
[37] Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, p. 54.
[38] Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, p. 586.
[39] Wilmer, ‘“No such thing as a flower … no such thing as a man”’, p. 98.
[40] Wilmer, ‘“No such thing as a flower … no such thing as a man”’, p. 102.
[41] Ruskin, 8.91 (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849).
[42] Ruskin, 8.91.
[43] Ruskin, 8.91.
[44] Ruskin, 8.91.
[45] Ruskin, 8.91.
[46] Ruskin, 8.92.
[47] Ruskin, 8.92.
[48] Ruskin, 8.98.
[49] Ruskin, 8.89.
[50] Ruskin, 8.90.
[51] Ruskin, 8.90.
[52] Ruskin, 8.90.
[53] Ruskin, 8.91.

DOI: 10.33999/2021.67