John Ruskin’s On Art and Life

On Art and Life by John Ruskin (Penguin Great Ideas)

On Art and Life by John Ruskin (Penguin Great Ideas)

Whew! Well, it’s been a little while, I know. But I’m baaaaack with a long post as I get back into the groove of weekly posting.

A little while ago I bought one of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” books, partly because it was about Art and partly because I thought the cover looked beautiful. On Art and Life has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and I finally got around to reading half of it (well, there are only two chapters). The first half is an excerpt of Chapter VI, “The nature of Gothic”, from Volume 2 of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851–53).

I loved reading it, though it look a while to sift through all of the ideas Ruskin amasses in these pages. He weaves words discussing everything from architecture and design to various observations and philosophies on society and human nature. Ruskin knots the strands of his thoughts so neatly, giving the Gothic style gravity as a meaningful reflection of humanity, relevant on the day of its construction as well as today.

This one chapter is chock-full of ideas, some stretched into lengthy in description, some hide their deep insight unobtrusively in the width of one line, and almost all are quite poetically expressed. Though I find so very many of Ruskin’s thoughts worth discussing, I am going to filter through his words and pick out the ideas that I think best sit along his theme of the Gothic style. But seriously–more are there, and I urge you to take a look!

Ahem. And so we begin.

Ruskin lays out what he considers to be the characteristic elements of the Gothic style, in order of importance:

  1. Savageness
  2. Changefulness
  3. Naturalism
  4. Grotesqueness
  5. Rigidity
  6. Redundance

Yes, these elements can be found in other architectural styles, and perhaps a piece of architecture may appear Gothic if it has two or three of these elements listed above. But Ruskin insists that a piece of must include all:  “It is not one nor another that produces it; but their union in certain measures.”

Bruxelles, Our Lady of Sablon

Bruxelles, Our Lady of Sablon


Savagery, huh? That seems a bit much. But the adjective is a key word referring to the origin of the “Gothic” name, and Ruskin does not deny the significance of it.

Maximum extent of territories ruled by Theodoric the Great in 523

Maximum extent of territories ruled by Theodoric the Great in 523

He does not go into much detail about the Goths (perhaps because there is little known about them), but I will give you a quick, very general introduction to the term. The Goths were first referenced by Greek historian Pliny the Elder in his Natural History around 77–79 AD. They were a people comprised of many different ethnic groups, believed to be one of the oldest of the Germanic tribes. They migrated southward from southern Scandinavia (modern day Sweden), harassing/ravaging/conquering all in their wake, most notably sacking Roman cities such as Athens in the fifth century. Quite frankly, they were a force to be reckoned with in eastern Europe from the 3rd to the 6th century AD. Due to their prolonged contact with the Romans, the Goths were also one of the first Germanic tribes to convert to Christianity.

The modern-day use of gothic as implying “savage despoiler” evolved in the 1660s in reference to their invasion of Roman cities.1 The term involved around the same time as vandal (meaning “willful destroyer of what is beautiful or venerable”), which referenced the Vandals, another Germanic tribe who invaded Rome in 445 AD.1 In the 1640s, scholars began using Gothic to mean “Germanic, Teutonic”,1 which is, perhaps, the stepping stone to the use of the word in reference to a style of Art.

Ruskin seemed to believe this was the case, that the term alludes to its origin in Northern culture rather than to a barbaric character, though he does not wish to cut out the latter reference entirely.

“…there is no reproach in the word, rightly understood; on the contrary, there is a profound truth, which the instinct of mankind almost unconsciously recognizes. It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.”

Gothic evolved as an adjective in our vocabulary as a reference to northern Germanic cultures as distinct from the southern Roman culture. Ruskin takes us in this direction, describing the environments of southern and northern Europe from the point of view of a bird flying from south to north. His description paints a lovely, poetic journey of beasts and geography, colors and light. A few examples:

– for the most part a great peacefulness of light
– laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue
– glowing softly with terraced gardens
– flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange and plumy palm
– burning of the marble rocks, and of the ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand
– orient colors
– swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea… striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple and scarlet
– delicacy and brilliancy of color, and swiftness of motion

– the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor
– bordering with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood
– splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas
– beaten by storm and chilled by ice-drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness
– wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight
– frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes 

Ruskin rejoices in man’s expression (i.e. Art) of life in the lands from whence he came.

“There is, I repeat, no degradation, no reproach in this, but all dignity and honorableness; and we should err grievously in refusing either to recognise as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp; this magnificence of sturdy power, put forth only the more energetically because the fine finger-touch was chilled away by the frosty wind, and the eye dimmed by the moor-mist, or blinded by the hail; this outspeaking of the strong spirit of men who may not gather redundant fruitage from the earth, nor bask in dreamy benignity of sunshine, but must break the rock for bread, and cleave the forest for fire, and show, even in what they did for their delight, some of the hard habits of the arm and heart that grew on them as they swung the axe or pressed the plough.”

Kloster Blaubeuren, Klosterkirche, Chorraum - Hochaltar Madonna

Kloster Blaubeuren, Klosterkirche, Chorraum – Hochaltar Madonna

Here, Ruskin alludes more heavily to a particular character of savageness: imperfection. This, he claims, is essential to the nature of Gothic architecture, and its role in making the Gothic style noble and respected is largely due to its connection with Christianity.

Christians, Ruskin says, do not “pretend to have reached either perfection or satisfaction…God’s work only may express that.” In fact, the Christian acknowledges their unworthiness, “bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgement of unworthiness,” accepting their limits without shame but not allowing fear to deter their efforts. Contemplating their own unworthiness is a way of understanding, becoming closer to, and glorifying God.

All in all, the pursuit of completeness is admirable in the abstract, but Ruskin insists that perfection is actually quite unnatural.

“…imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain, irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”

It is especially ignoble, Ruskin continues, to demand perfection from others. When urged to create something closer and closer to perfection, a man loses a part of himself. It is thought that causes the laborer to hesitate, to work distracted, thus, he is less able to draw a perfectly straight line, to carve with esteemed precision. Ridding a man’s head of thoughts is how to make a machine of him. But that’s just it: he is a machine and no longer a man. The use of the brain in creative thinking is an essential part of what makes one human; it has propelled the species forward successfully for generations. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” A man forced to lose all thought in his work is no longer striving for more, imagining, and inventing: “For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error.”

Ruskin goes further, diagnosing (at least partially) the turmoil and unrest of his 19th century society as a result of unhappiness in the labor force.

“It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labor to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men.”

And as such, he recommends that readers be responsible leaders and consumers; the public should demand products and labor that respects the human nature of each workers, that it contain some evidence of thought, rather than sacrifice the laborer to ignorance in exchange for nearly perfect products.

“… while in all things that we see, or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honorable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success.”

Unlike architecture from ancient Greek times, Gothic buildings were not built under the “mechanical” hands of slaves; the Christian culture which governed the people cast out slavery and treasured the individuals. It was with the hands of workmen whose liberty was, for the most part, intact and whose thoughts and choices were not extracted from them, that the Gothic buildings were raised. The price for honoring this humanity? Notes of imperfection in the execution. But, to Ruskin, this imperfection became an very noble and essential character of Gothic architecture. After all:

“…no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.


There is great variety of design in Gothic architecture, but why must it be so essential? What is the benefit of prizing such changefulness?

“…in Greek work, all the capitals are alike, and all the mouldings unvaried, then the degradation is complete; …in Egyptian or Ninevite work, though the manner of executing certain figures is always the same, the order of design is perpetually varied, the degradation is less total;…in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution…” 

Ruskin asserts that this unchangefulness, this concern with repetition that humans have, is born from a Love of Order. Yes, order and pattern is an essential element of art: in symmetry of design, in musical rhythm, and in a poet’s use of rhyme, for instance. But so, too, is asymmetry.

Ruskin states that “…great art, whether expressing itself in words, colors, or stones, does not say the same thing over and over again.” The idea of inserting asymmetry in paintings and music is not such a leap for the average audience, but people rarely consider themselves as an audience when looking at a building. But, just like in the fine arts, it is through the form of the artwork that one interprets its meanings, and thus, a variety of physical elements changes the work’s message. Ruskin urges the individual to begin looking at and expecting similar artistic values to be embodied in architecture:

“…that the merit of architectural, as of every other art, consists in its saying new and different things; that to repeat itself is no more a characteristic of genius in marble than it is of genius in print; and that we may, without offending any laws of good taste, require of an architect, as we do of a novelist, that he should be not only correct, but entertaining.”

Ruskin notes that the architectural forms developed during the spread of the Gothic style were themselves “capable of perpetual novelty;” for example, the proportions of the pointed arch, the arrangement of grouped shafts, and the details of window tracery design.

However, there is such a thing as an unhealthy or “diseased” love of change, and Ruskin claims that the Gothic style rose from the healthy love of change and fell due to the diseased. What is, then, the difference between the two? Ruskin insists that understanding this difference relies on understanding the roles of change and monotony in nature, “…both having their use, like darkness and light, and the one incapable of being enjoyed without the other: change being most delightful after some prolongation of monotony, as light appears most brilliant after the eyes have been for some time closed.”

detail from Strasburg, Münster

detail from Strasburg, Münster

Monotony has its place in the world: “The greater part of the sublimity of the sea depends on its monotony; so also that of desolate moor and mountain scenery; and especially the sublimity of motion, as in the quiet, unchanged fall and rise of an engine beam.” However, it is quite possible to experience too much monotony, resulting in an uninteresting experience.

On the flip-side, too much change is not to be desired. In fact, such incessant change “…ceases to be delightful, for then change itself becomes monotonous, and we are driven to seek delight in extreme and fantastic degrees of it.” This, he says, is the diseased love of change, one that saves no space for the proper use of monotony to punctuate and give meaning to the changes.

And now, forgive me, I am going to simply plop down a large chunk of one paragraph, because I love how he describes the changefulness of elements in a Gothic building, and my rewording would not do it justice:

“For in one point of view Gothic is not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services, vulgar or noble. Undefined in its slope of roof, height of shaft, breadth of arch, or disposition of ground plan, it can shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into a spire, with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy; and whenever it finds occasion for change in its form or purpose, it submits to it without the slightest sense of loss either to its unity or majesty,—subtle and flexible like a fiery serpent, but ever attentive to the voice of the charmer. And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry. Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors; and if two towers were raised in nominal correspondence at the sides of a cathedral front, one was nearly sure to be different from the other, and in each the style at the top to be different from the style at the bottom.”

Yet, as stated before, the changefulness must be balanced by monotony. Ruskin observes that not all of the architectural elements will be so varied:

“If the mouldings are constant, the surface sculpture will change; if the capitals are of a fixed design, the traceries will change; if the traceries are monotonous, the capitals will change; and if even, as in some fine schools, the early English for example, there is the slightest approximation to an unvarying type of mouldings, capitals, and floral decoration, the variety is found in the disposition of the masses, and in the figure sculpture.”


The third element of Gothic design is naturalism, which Ruskin describes as “the love of natural objects for their own sake, and the effort to represent them frankly, unconstrained by artistical laws.”

Ruskin considers the Gothic artists and architects as having a rare and enviable ability to unite facts and design, a balanced use of invention and imagination with faithful rendering of elements from nature. He cites the use of foliage in Greek and Roman work, which often looked little like foliage, “knotting itself into strange cup-like buds or clusters, and growing out of lifeless rods instead of stems.” Gothic sculptors, on the other hand

“…received these types, at first, as things that ought to be, just as we have a second time received them; but he could not rest in them. He saw there was no veracity in them, no knowledge, no vitality. Do what he would, he could not help liking the true leaves better; and cautiously, a little at a time, he put more of nature into his work, until at last it was all true, retaining, nevertheless, every valuable character of the original well-disciplined and designed arrangement.”

And so, yes, the Gothic artists loved nature, but their truthful renderings were not limited to the physical world. He claims that they were also capable of realizing abstractions:

“For instance, the purgatorial fire is represented in the mosaic of Torcello (Romanesque) as a red stream, longitudinally striped like a riband, descending out of the throne of Christ, and gradually extending itself to envelope the wicked. When we are once informed what this means, it is enough for its purpose; but the Gothic inventor does not leave the sign in need of interpretation. He makes the fire as like real fire as he can; and in the porch of St. Maclou at Rouen the sculptured flames burst out of the Hades gate, and flicker up, in writhing tongues of stone, through the interstices of the niches, as if the church itself were on fire. This is an extreme instance, but it is all the more illustrative of the entire difference in temper and thought between the two schools of art, and of the intense love of veracity which influenced the Gothic design.”

This love of fact and truth can be taken too far, Ruskin says, when the artist “seizes on a surface truth instead of an inner one,” an error that can be an easy for the Gothic artist to make.

“For in representing the Hades fire, it is not the mere form of the flame which needs most to be told, but its unquenchableness, its Divine ordainment and limitation, and its inner fierceness, not physical and material, but in being the expression of the wrath of God. And these things are not to be told by imitating the fire that flashes out of a bundle of sticks. If we think over his symbol a little, we shall perhaps find that the Romanesque builder told more truth in that likeness of a blood-red stream, flowing between definite shores and out of God’s throne, and expanding, as if fed by a perpetual current, into the lake wherein the wicked are cast, than the Gothic builder in those torch-flickerings about his niches.”

To love and collect facts and truths is not bad at all, but the art can be damaged by their misuse, whether by thoughtlessness or vanity, when the artist “seizes on facts of small value, or gathers them chiefly that it may boast of its grasp and apprehension, its work may well become dull or offensive.”

The Gothic naturalism is particularly poignant in its portraiture, for its workmen prized truth above beauty. Portraits attempted an honest rendering of the human form and a reflection of the subject’s character. Indeed, the Christian humility in Gothic style allows for rudeness and imperfection, and thus “confessed the imperfection of the workman, so this naturalist portraiture is rendered more faithful by the humility which confesses the imperfection of the subject.”

And yet, the Gothic artists conveyed more than the outer physical qualities of the subject:

“…they imbued a sense of religious feeling in their portraits. Yet this frankness being joined, for the most part, with depth of religious feeling in other directions, and especially with charity, there is sometimes a tendency to Purism in the best Gothic sculpture; so that it frequently reaches great dignity of form and tenderness of expression, yet never so as to lose the veracity of portraiture, wherever portraiture is possible: not exalting its kings into demi-gods, nor its saints into archangels, but giving what kingliness and sanctity was in them, to the full, mixed with due record of their faults.”

Sculptures of the life of Saint Firmin (detail), choir of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Amiens, France

Sculptures of the life of Saint Firmin (detail), choir of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Amiens, France

Ruskin also cites the Gothic man’s intense admiration of vegetation. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the time and place from which Gothic architecture grew. Ruskin observes that nations who were entangled in battle, whose culture was wrapped in the hunt and banquets, would not really care for the little shapes of leaves and flowers.

“The affectionate observation of the grace and outward character of vegetation is the sure sign of a more tranquil and gentle existence, sustained by the gifts, and gladdened by the splendor, of the earth. In that careful distinction of species, and richness of delicate and undisturbed organization, which characterize the Gothic design, there is the history of rural and thoughtful life, influenced by habitual tenderness, and devoted to subtle inquiry; and every discriminating and delicate touch of the chisel, as it rounds the petal or guides the branch, is a prophecy of the development of the entire body of the natural sciences, beginning with that of medicine, of the recovery of literature, and the establishment of the most necessary principles of domestic wisdom and national peace.”

That adoration of vegetation leaves its mark on the small and large elements of Gothic architectural design, from the form of an arch reflecting the bending of a bough to a garland of neatly rendered ivy.


The fourth essential element, but Ruskin does not spend long on it. He, apparently, discusses it more in another chapter of the original text. In addition, he hardly feels the need to convince the reader that it is an essential element of the Gothic: “I believe, have no hesitation in admitting that the tendency to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images, is a universal instinct of the Gothic imagination.” Mmmkay.


I was a little skeptical about this one at first, as I generally group “rigidity” to other words like “rigor,” “severity,” and “stubborness.” But Ruskin is careful in his meaning of rigidity:

“…not merely stable, but active rigidity; the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance, which makes the fiercest lightning forked rather than curved, and the stoutest oak-branch angular rather than bending, and is as much seen in the quivering of the lance as in the glittering of the icicle.”

Heiligenkreuz abbey, Lower Austria

Heiligenkreuz abbey, Lower Austria

He writes that Egyptian and Greek buildings “stand, for the most part, by their own weight and mass, one stone passively incumbent on another,” and their ornaments show “no expression of energy,” being either engraved in the surface of a wall or composed of “flowing, lithe, and luxuriant” lines. Gothic buildings, however, are a different story, with vaults and traceries that seem to have “a stiffness analogous to that of the bones of a limb, or fibres of a tree; an elastic tension and communication of force from part to part, and also a studious expression of this throughout every visible line of the building.” In addition, Ruskin describes the Gothic ornament as it stands out from the wall:

“But the Gothic ornament stands out in prickly independence, and frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, and freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but, even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie.”

Perhaps this tendency to“stiff” design is due to the Northern environment. The northman has a “habit of hard and rapid working; the industry of the tribes of the North, quickened by the coldness of the climate, and giving an expression of sharp energy to all they do.” Whereas people from more southern areas simply endure the cold and suffer through it until warmth returns, the people of the North are obliged to find delight in signs of cold. They are less likely to have negative connotations with reference to the “ the cramped and stiffened structure of vegetation checked by cold,” the “crabbed, perverse, and morose animation of plants that have known little kindness from earth or heaven, but, season after season, have had their best efforts palsied by frost, their brightest buds buried under snow, and their goodliest limbs lopped by tempest.”


The last characteristic, redundance, refers to the accumulation of ornament and, thus, the “wealth of labor.” Ruskin claims that amassing ornamental elements does not, paradoxically, decrease the humility of its character.

“No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or the attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight”

South cloister of Gloucester Cathedral

South cloister of Gloucester Cathedral

There is also a spirit of mighty enthusiasm and dedication involved in the production of so much ornament, indicating an unselfishness in the sacrifice of the Gothic laborer, who would rather “cast fruitless labor before the altar than stand idle in the market.” Ruskin also finds the complexity and richness of ornament to be a way of honoring the vast variations found the natural world, of celebrating not only the abundance there but also the beauty, a beauty of form to which the sculptor strives (but rarely succeeds) to recreate:

“…and where he saw throughout the universe a faultless beauty lavished on measureless spaces of broidered field and blooming mountain, to grudge his poor and imperfect labor to the few stones that he had raised one upon another, for habitation or memorial.”

And so I look upon Gothic architecture with new eyes now. John Ruskin tightly ties the forms of this style with so many moral philosophies that I fine noble, I cannot help to raise my own standards for modern architecture, wanting the buildings around me to reflect such awesome values in an aesthetic design. Someone work on that, ok? Thanks.


1. “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. <;

Ruskin, John. On Art and Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

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