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God’s Own Language: Architectural Drawing in the Twelfth Century

God’s Own Language: Architectural Drawing in the Twelfth Century

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Publication Date: June 13th, 2023
The MIT Press
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How modern architectural language was invented to communicate with the divine—challenging a common narrative of European architectural history.

The architectural drawing might seem to be a quintessentially modern form, and indeed many histories of the genre begin in the early modern period with Italian Renaissance architects such as Alberti. Yet the Middle Ages also had a remarkably sophisticated way of drawing and writing about architecture. God’s Own Language takes us to twelfth-century Paris, where a Scottish monk named Richard of Saint Victor, along with his mentor Hugh, developed an innovative visual and textual architectural language. In the process, he devised techniques and terms that we still use today, from sectional elevations to the word “plan.”

Surprisingly, however, Richard’s detailed drawings appeared not in an architectural treatise but in a widely circulated set of biblical commentaries. Seeing architecture as a way of communicating with the divine, Richard drew plans and elevations for such biblical constructions as Noah’s ark and the temple envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel. Interpreting Richard and Hugh’s drawings and writings within the context of the thriving theological and intellectual cultures of medieval Paris, Karl Kinsella argues that the popularity of these works suggests that, centuries before the Renaissance, there was a large circle of readers with a highly developed understanding of geometry and the visual language of architecture.

About the Author

Karl Kinsella is a lecturer in art history at the University of Aberdeen, having previously held positions at the universities of York and Oxford. A specialist in medieval architectural history and manuscripts, he received the Hawksmoor Essay Medal in 2013 for his work on architectural drawing.