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A recess for the reception of a statue, so designed as to give it emphasis, frame it effectively, and afford some measure of protection. It hardly existed prior to the twelfth century, and is one of the chief decorative characteristics of Gothic architecture. The constant and often lavish use of sculptured images of the saints was an essential part of the great style that was so perfectly to express the Catholic Faith, and that had its beginnings in Normandy as a result of the great Cluniac reformation; and from the moment the roughly chiselled bas-relief swelled into the round and detached figure, the unerring artistic instinct of the medieval builders taught them — as it had taught the Greeks — that figure sculpture becomes architectural only when it is incorporated with the building of which it is a part, by means of surrounding architectural forms that harmonize it with the fabric itself. In Romanesque work this frame is little more than flanking shafts supporting an arch, the statue being treated as an accessory, and given place wherever a space of flat wall appeared between the columns and arches of the structural decoration. The convenience, propriety and beauty of the arrangement were immediately apparent, however, and thenceforward the development of the niche as an independent architectural form was constant and rapid. Not only did the canopied niche assimilate the statue in the architectural entity and afford it that protection from the weather so necessary in the north; it also, in conjunction with the statue itself, produced one of the richest compositions of line, light, and shade known to art. The medieval architects realized this and seized upon it with avidity, using it almost as their chief means for obtaining those spots and spaces of rich decoration that gave the final touch of perfection to their marvellous fabrics. In the thirteenth century the wall became recessed to receive the statue, the flanking shafts became independent supports for an arched and gabled canopy, while a pedestal was introduced, still further to tie the sculpture into the architecture. Later the section of the embrasure became hexagonal or octagonal, the arched canopy was cusped, the gable enriched with crockets and pinnacles, and finally in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the entire feature became almost an independent composition, the canopy being developed into a thing of marvellous complexity and richness, while it was lavished on almost every part of the building, from the doors to the spires, and within as well as without. Protestant and revolutionary iconoclasm have left outside of France few examples of niches properly filled by their original statues, but in such masterpieces of art as the cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Amiens, and Reims, one may see in their highest perfection these unique manifestations of the subtlety and refinement of the perfect art of Catholic civilization.
Ralph Adams Cram.
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