Framing questions

Barbara Abou-El-Haj envisioned her book to be comparative study of the cathedrals of Reims and Amiens, considering the monuments in relation to the local conditions in which they were planned and built. Focusing on the cathedrals in tandem with their regional political, social, and economic histories, Abou-El-Haj sought to dispel what she understood to be myths in the prevailing discourses on Gothic cathedrals – primarily that these structures were built with the consensus of their local towns and that they function as symbols of harmony, materializing an urgent and eager piety shared by burghers and cathedral authorities. 

Abou-El-Haj positions her inquiry in opposition to trends in the study of cathedral building ultimately based in the work of Hans Sedlmayr and still evident in introductory art history texts and specialized study.


Abou-El-Haj, Barbara, "Building and Decorating at Reims and Amiens," in Studien zur Geschichte der Europäischen Skulptur im 12./13. Jahrhundert, eds. H. Beck and K. Hengevoss (Frankfurt am Main: Dürkop, 1994), 763-76. Click to download

Bandmann, Günter, Early Medieval Architecture as Bearer of Meaning, trans. Kendall Wallis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). 

Sedlmayr, Hans, Der Entstehung der Kathedrale (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1950).

Schlink, Wilhelm, “The Gothic Cathedral as Heavenly Jerusalem: A Fiction in German Art History,” in The real and ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art: Studies in Honor of Bezalel Narkiss on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Bianca Kühnel, special issue Jewish Art 23/4 (1998): 275-85.

von Simson, Otto The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (New York: Pantheon, 1956).


  1. What does a scholar of medieval cathedrals gain and lose by focusing on economic, political, and social history rather than theology and Christian morality?
  2. Where does the liturgy fit in? Could one pursue a study of liturgical practice in Reims Cathedral that was in tune with Abou-El-Haj’s principles and goals?
  3. How can one address the mechanics of architectural and artistic production in relation to Barbara Abou-El-Haj’s intellectual priorities? Can one tell an economic and political history of a Gothic cathedral focused on the challenges faced by architectural designers or the aesthetic goals of sculptors and glaziers?