About the Artist
Jared Bendis M.F.A. – Jared is an artist, photographer, teacher, playwright and filmmaker. He is a specialist in photography, virtual reality, and computer graphics and serves as the Creative New Media Officer for Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library. Jared also holds adjunct appointments in the CWRU Art Studio, Music, and SAGES departments where he teaches courses on multimedia, instructional technology, and New Media Literacy.
As a photographer he prefers to view the world though a wide-angle lens and specializes in spherical panoramic and stereoscopic photography. On his first trip overseas, in March 2000, Jared visited the Chateau de Pierrefonds in France and became driven (if not obsessed) with capturing and sharing cultural and architectural experiences and has photographed over 400 architectural, archeological and cultural sites (primarily castles) in 14 countries.
On the Importance of Castles
Like so many, my initial interest in things medieval stemmed from the all too pervasive romanticism that surrounds the middle ages. In my case this interest extended to participation in the local chapter of the SCA – The Society for Creative Anachronism. But it was my professional involvement with a course of French civilization and culture, for which I helped design an educational virtual reality castle, that I started looking at these topics in a more academic manner. In fact, it was on my first trip to Europe to present this VR castle at a language conference in Compiegne, France that I first experienced the echoes of the true medieval culture during my visit to the Chateau Pierrefonds. It was there that I became “hooked on castles”, the pinnacle of secular medieval architecture.
In this I am not alone. That is to say, there is indeed a great wealth of resources on castles their history, use, and construction. Generally however, these resources too often fall to the fringe, taking a back-burner – forming their own subculture. Literature about castles is almost exclusively about castles – and nothing else. In the case of art history, castles appear not to fit into the program of discussion virtually ignored in a landscape almost exclusively devoted to Christian art and architecture.
In one book on medieval armor, the entry for castle simple reads “castle, see fortress”. The term castle is derived from the Latin word for fortress “castellum” which evokes a wide range of buildings from an even wider range of periods. A more refined definition is that of “a building that is fortified for a lord.” A fortress has a communal purpose while a castle is the dwelling of an individual. The French, who use a more specific language in their medieval architectural terms, created a further distinction and use the term “Chateau-Forte” for fortified castles and the simpler term “Chateau” for any great house (including renaissance palaces). The era of the Chateau-Forte is roughly from the 10th to 16th century.
In a review of a book of Hungarian castles one reviewer claims that the authors succeeds “in making a dull subject extraordinary”. This backhanded compliment challenges the validity of the subject for discussion in the first place. Clearly a chateau like Pierrefonds is as monumental as Amiens Cathedral in both its design and implementation. Is the difference then in their program? Is it this differentiation between secular and religious purpose that causes castles to be so overlooked?
In Medieval Architecture and Meaning: The Limits of Iconography, Crossley observes that “if the true task of iconography was to situate the work of art in its cultural milieu, then the public and didactic nature of medieval buildings seemed to open up particularly rich perspectives” and then almost immediately defines architectural iconography as “a study of symbolism of churches and their fittings”. Is this to say that castles do not have a cultural milieu? Or is the text of religious architectural iconography so accessible that castles become too much of a bother?
The September leaf of the 1410 Book of Hours of the Duc De Berry shows grapes being harvested in front of the Chateau Chinon in France. In its day, the castle clearly had its own representational iconography. Perhaps it is the evolved nature of that iconography that makes castles so hard to discuss. 600 years later, grapes are still grown and harvested in front of the Chateau Chinon but while the meaning and significance of the Chateau has changed, not too far away, the function of Amiens Cathedral remains largely the same.
Perhaps the bias is based on modern cultural ideologies. The idea of preserving ‘in place’ a fragment of a ruined wall from an age long past would seem alien to most Americans, not just because of our lack of ancient structures but because it stands in the way of modernism and progress. You can almost hear someone proposing the transplanting of a ruin or its complete removal like the monumental Hulett ore unloaders in downtown Cleveland.
Even more is the deeply European mindset that stems from the generational legacy of castles that transformed the “ruin” into something else entirely: the 18th century idea of the “picturesque”. Did the concept of the “ruin” so change the meaning of the castle that it has become a “ruin of thought”? Is castle iconography now stuck in the 18th and 19th century making it difficult to view from its time of origin?
Could it be the priority of the program in castles that places them secondary to cathedrals? Cathedrals, by program, are meant to uplift and to bring the masses closer to God while a castle is meant for one or few (though admittedly stimulating a wider local economy) and whose defensive nature dictates form based on function (practical not spiritual) and therefore less important from an iconographic standpoint. Castles are buildings that were designed to prevent their own destruction. Because of this, when looking at a castle, you cannot help but to think about it from a military perspective, to lay siege to it, to attack it or to defend it and not necessarily just to live there. And as the architectural contest between the cathedral and the castle was clearly won by the cathedral – cathedrals after all are still being built – you would think that the castle would then be even more important. Castles have a definitive era – its birth and death dates practically bookend the “middle ages”.
Today, castles exist in one of three states: ruin, restoration, or memory (memory being simultaneously both the best and the worst case scenario). Restoration is a difficult concept and is usually viewed as a derogatory term. Buildings evolve. If they don’t they become ruins. In fact, it is by this evolution (or lack of it) that we can learn about a culture. One of the best-restored castles in France is the Chateau Pierrefonds, which was restored (starting in 1857) by the 19th century French architect Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. “To Restore and edifice”, according to Viollet-le-Duc, means “neither to maintain it, repair it, nor to rebuild it; it means to reestablish it in a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed in any given time.” The Duke of Valois built Pierrefonds between 1390 and 1420. It is a monumental structure composed of many linked buildings with huge halls, multiple living rooms, and a separate living quarter for the Duke inside the main keep (or donjon). The Emperor Napoleon III idealized this period of French history and his vast restoration efforts were intended to reclaim some of this glory. Viollet-le-Duc was also responsible for the restoration of the Chateau Comtal the castle inside of the fortified city of Carcassonne. Carcassonne is more than just a 19th century restoration of a medieval city but part of a continuum that goes back to the 4th century Gallo-Roman foundations when the city was first fortified.
While generally secular in nature, some castles do have strong religious affiliations. In 1208 Pope Innocent III launch the Albigensian Crusade against the sect of heretics known as the Cathars. The Cathars fled Carcassonne for the Pyrenees where they built castles to fight off this inquisition. The Chateau Peyrepertuse lies on a mountain-top at 730 meters. Originally fortified during Roman times, the castle was built between 1245 and 1280.
During the medieval period castles were everywhere. Their decline is often attributed to gunpowder and the canon but that claim is generally erroneous and had more to do with the expense of their upkeep and their function in a society that was becoming more united and required fewer strongholds; the aftermath of which was the more settled time of the renaissance that saw these fortified castles transformed into more glamorous palaces.
Castles are unique but they also are ubiquitous. Every town had a castle. And that town only exists because of that castle. It is the shadow of the past and the foundation of the present. In terms of cultural identity it is as important as the church – it is that thing that is always there. For some it is a touchstone – a point of pride and personal history – the thing that puts them on the map. Or maybe it is just the park where they played when they were a child.
You can learn much about a culture from castles. Not just their history but their present as well. How they are maintained – how they are presented – who lives there – who visits there – what message are they sending. To me castles are more than an architectural subculture but a medium by which a culture in its entirety can be examined, explored, and experienced.