Magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Europe throughout the centuries evoked strong feelings often described as awe, inspiration and humility. While communal life in the medieval Europe, being twelfth to sixteenth centuries, met only marginal standards of living and the technology was rudimentary, peoples of Europe managed to mobilize spiritual, human and capital resources to construct sacred buildings, whose beauty continues to astound imagination even in our days. As the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted regarding Chartres cathedral in France:
Chartres is made of stone and glass. But it is not just stone and glass; it is a cathedral, and not only a cathedral, but a particular cathedral built at a particular time by certain members of a particular society. To understand what it means, to perceive it for what it is, you need to know rather more than the generic properties of stone and glass and rather more than what is common to all cathedrals. You need to understand also – and, in my opinion, most critically – the specific concepts of the relations among God, man, and architecture that, since they have governed its creation, it consequently embodies (51).
I believe this assertion applies to any other great medieval cathedral or church. To better understand the phenomena of cathedrals it is better to be approached not from a static perspective of architecture as such, but as an idea and an undertaking that employed hundreds of thousands people for centuries. One of the most significant of such undertakings lasted from twelfth to sixteenth century and employed Gothic architecture in building the cathedrals across the Europe. This movement began in the first half of the twelfth century in the Greater Paris Basin and continued for the next four hundred years throughout Europe. By the mid-fifteenth century Gothic cathedrals could be found from Scandinavia in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from Wales in the west to the far reaches of Central Europe in the east. During this period the hundreds of medieval Gothic cathedrals were built, as well as thousands of abbey churches (with more than five hundred just in France) and tens of thousands of small parish churches. As one of the authorities, Jean Gimpel, stated, “More stone was quarried in France during these three centuries [1050 - 1350] than in ancient Egypt during its whole history” (5). Clearly, this was the greatest, most sustained ecclesiastical building campaign in the history of Christendom.
Timeline of Gothic Cathedral Building in Medieval Europe
The earliest Gothic great church was the Abbey Church of St. Denis, located seven miles north of Paris. Under the direction of St. Denis's famous and influential Abbot Suger, work on erecting a Gothic-style west front began in 1137, quickly followed by the renovation of its choir to the new style in 1141. Though St. Denis was not a cathedral, the work there appears to have stimulated renovation to the new Gothic style of a large number of Romanesque cathedrals in the surrounding Greater Paris Basin, for example, the cathedral churches at Sens (1140s), Senlis (1151), Reims (1150s), Laon (1160), Noyon (1160), Notre Dame of Paris (1160), Chartres (1194), Amiens (1220), Troyes (1220), and Beauvais (1226).
The Greater Paris Basin proved fertile ground for Gothic cathedral building for good reason. Unlike other regions of France, such as Flanders, Burgundy, and Champagne, where powerful counts supported the construction of monasteries and cathedrals, the vicinity of Paris had seen precious little church-building during the previous century because of the general weakness and financial impoverishment of the monarchy. But once the monarchy began to gain strength, the absence of a recent regional style, combined with the fact that most abbeys and cathedrals in the Greater Paris Basin were old and in disrepair, created an opportunity for wholesale renewal of churches that could not have arisen elsewhere. Therefore, the renovation of St. Denis in turn jump-started great-church-building campaigns throughout northern France and elsewhere, although considerable time elapsed before the Gothic style emerged as predominant.
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The work at St. Denis seems to have initiated the Gothic cathedral-building movement that would continue for more than four hundred years. This movement clearly has been a competition of staggering proportions involving bishops, kings, and abbots who vied with one another to erect Gothic cathedrals and abbey churches of grander and grander design. Georges Duby imparts a sense of its character when he writes:
The bishop was a great lord, a prince, and as such, demanded that people take notice of him. For him, a new cathedral was a feat, a victory, a battle won by a military leader. …It was this urge to acquire personal prestige that accounts for the wave of emulation which, in the space of a quarter century, swept over each and every bishop of the royal [French] domain (111).
Bishops thus compared what they had built or planned to build with what other bishops had done or planned to do. It became a sign of one's place in the church and society to claim that the height of the nave of one's cathedral, the magnificence of its tower or spire, the grandeur and beauty of its stained glass, the length of its nave, its overall mass – whatever – was greater, bigger, better, more audacious than any that had preceded it.
Initially, the new style received its warmest reception in northern France and, slightly later, in England, as the cultural, political, economic, and ecclesiastical ties between England and France ran deep. Elements of Gothic design appeared in widely dispersed places throughout England. One was in the great Cistercian abbeys of the north, such as those in Ripon (1160), Byland (1170), and York Minster (1150). Another was in the southeast, where the pivotal development was the rebuilding of the choir at Canterbury following its destruction by fire in 1174. As seat of the head of the Church of England, Canterbury Cathedral galvanized the Gothic church building movement in England. Its immediate progeny included cathedral churches at Rochester (c. 1179) and Wells (1180), the great abbey church at Glastonbury (1184), and cathedrals at Chichester (c. 1187), Winchester (c. 1190), Lincoln (c. 1192), and Llandaff, Wales (c. 1193).
The new style quickly found its way to other parts of Europe. In Sweden, work on Uppsala Cathedral began in the 1230s, and in Germany cathedrals were begun at Strasburg and Cologne in 1240 and 1248 respectively. In Germany, initially, the use of Gothic elements in cathedral design was generally cautious; such elements were insinuated into preexisting Romanesque structures in such a way as to preserve the integrity and harmony of the early style rather than to modify or contrast with it. In this sense, Gothic architecture was being adapted in Germany to the well-established Romanesque style rather than being used as an alternative to it. (By the late Gothic period, however, some of Europe's most interesting and beautiful examples of Gothic architecture appear in the great urban churches of Germany.)
Gothic architecture also came to Italy in the early thirteenth century. If any single building project can be termed responsible for introducing the Gothic style into Italy, it was the great church of St. Francesco at Assisi (1228). This Franciscan church, which was greatly influenced by the evolving Gothic style in France, was the order's mother church and thus became a model for other abbeys of the order. Even so, regional and local influences predominated, and nothing like an official Gothic style was uniformly adopted throughout Italy. Most of the other Italian examples of Gothic architecture were constructed relatively late in the Gothic period.
In Spain, the influence of the Romanesque pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela was overwhelming, creating at first an environment that was not particularly congenial to the Gothic departure from traditional styles. The first evidence of Gothic influence in Spain appeared in the cathedral at ?
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vila late in the twelfth century, which served as the model for such thirteenth-century Spanish cathedrals as those at L?rida (1203), Burgos (1221), Toledo (1222), and Le?n (1255). The more clearly Gothic cathedrals of Spain, such as Barcelona Cathedral, Palma de Mallorca, Gerona, and Santa Mar?a del Mar in Barcelona, and those at Seville, Castile, Granada, Salamanca, and Segovia all were built much later. The earliest of these was Barcelona Cathedral (1298), and the latest was Segovia Cathedral (1525); dates for the others are scattered through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Gothic cathedrals did not appear in the Low Countries until the fourteenth century, with beginning dates of construction concentrated most heavily in the years 1330 to 1440. In Central Europe, examples of Gothic cathedrals appear at about the same time, most notably the Prague Cathedral, whose construction began in 1344. Its design blended elements of English and German Gothic styles. But most of the churchbuilding activity in Central Europe, as in Germany, produced large urban parish churches rather than towering cathedrals and great churches, because by now church-building had become the measure of civic standing and pride in the emerging towns of the region.
Even this brief account shows clearly that the Gothic cathedral building movement was anything but smooth and linear. Taken in its entirety, the movement arose from a series of very complicated building campaigns marked by discontinuities, fits and starts, diversions, and sidetracked initiatives of every kind. What propelled and sustained it was the realization by bishops, abbots, kings, and others that the Gothic cathedral was a powerful theological and political symbol as will be discussed further.
Aesthetics of Gothic Style and its Theological Background
Cathedrals have been part of Christianity from the time of Constantine (306–337). Their design and architectural styles have varied from one historical era to another, but in one important respect they are alike: all cathedrals display a distinctive geometric regularity in their design. This quality reached a high point in the Gothic style, reflecting an effort to achieve a rational, harmonious, and proportional result.
In Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, the total height from ground level to the tip of the spire approximates the overall length from west to east. The inside central crossing (the point of intersection of the principal transept with the east-west axis) measures almost precisely 39 feet by 39 feet. Virtually every other dimension of the building is directly related to this core dimension. For example, the length of each of the ten bays of the nave is 19 feet 6 inches, or precisely one-half that of the central crossing, and each bay's width is also 19 feet 6 inches (give or take a fraction of an inch). The entire nave is composed of twenty identical spaces, each measuring 19 feet 6 inches square, plus ten identical spaces that each measure 19 feet 6 inches by 39 feet. Taking into account 2 feet of interior cladding, the nave is almost precisely as wide as it is high, and the two transepts and the presbytery also display an affinity to the core dimensions of the main crossing.
The cathedral church at Sens provides a second illustration. As Otto von Simson describes it, “The ground plan of Sens being designed ad quadratum, the square bays of the nave are twice as wide as those of the side aisles; owing to the tripartite elevation, it was possible to give the same proportions to the relative height of nave and aisle. ” The elevation of the nave is also subdivided so that “the octave ratio of 1:2 permeates the entire edifice” (144).
In his book about Amiens Cathedral, Stephen Murray provides a third illustration of the way geometry enables us to derive the basic overall design of Gothic great churches. Murray says, “The design begins with the square of the crossing…Peripheral spaces will be, in a sense, unfolded from the central square”. He shows how each dimension of the nave, choir, and double aisles of Amiens can be drawn by rotating diagonal lines from the central crossing. He notes further that “the designer is obviously also concerned with allowing numbers to express proportions – hence, the repetition of 3's and 5's; of 5's and 7's” (40–41).
A similar proportionality has been found repeatedly in other Gothic cathedrals and great monastic churches, including ones built well before the Gothic style appeared. Clearly, regular proportions and modular arrangements of repeated volumes were important to medieval architects.
Not all cathedrals, Gothic or otherwise, of course, are constructed according to the same measurements in feet and inches, yet what these spaces do have in common is a quest for geometric precision regardless of any specific measure of length. It is as if geometry were functioning as the “genetic code” for each building, in the sense that each has its own characteristic proportionality based on variations of a single length from which all, or nearly all, other features of the building's design derive. As Victor Hugo said of the design of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, “To measure the toe is to measure the giant” (124).
The quest for geometric uniformity, when followed consistently, gives Gothic cathedrals their characteristic organic unity. Every part of the building is linked logically, harmoniously, and proportionally to the whole. For example, in Salisbury Cathedral, the easternmost bay of the nave is essentially duplicated nine times. This duplicative quality applies not only to the broad dimensions of a bay space, but down to the finest detail. The art historian Erwin Panofsky calls this facet of design the principle of “progressive divisibility”. According to this principle, he explains, “supports were divided and subdivided into main piers, major shafts, minor shafts, and still more minor shafts; the tracery of windows, triforia, and blind arcades into primary, secondary, and tertiary mullions and profiles; ribs and arches into a series of moldings” (48) The phrase “progressive divisibility” conveys the idea of a “visual logic” in which the subordinate members of a structure are related to one another to form a coherent whole. One hallmark of the Gothic style is the manner in which this principle is expressed visually, often even in the smallest details of individual shafts and moldings. The piers, shafts, and vaulting of Amiens Cathedral exemplify this quality.
The design of a great church, then, reflects a desire to achieve a series of precise, geometrically related components, each part deriving its definition from the building as a whole, each subpart deriving its measurements from the element to which it belongs.
If geometric regularity is a feature of all great churches, what, then, distinguishes Gothic cathedrals from others? The key to answering this question is understanding the central defining element of the Gothic style – light. All of the features we associate with Gothic architecture – pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, pinnacles and turrets – were developed in the service of the desire to flood the interior space with as much light as possible. Light permeates the interior and merges with every aspect of it, as though no segment of inner space should be allowed to remain in darkness, undefined by light.
The medieval builders' ideal is exemplified by the interior of Chartres or Canterbury Cathedral, where the glass is colored in deep primary tones. As a result, even though the interiors are filled with light, the spaces acquire deep and rich color tones. The attempt to combine these two things – increased light and deep color – impelled the builders to reach for greater and greater heights. The aim was to transform the interior spaces into a semblance of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and pointed arches – the characteristic elements of the Gothic style – all worked together to permit larger windows and to open up the interior spaces, allowing the increased light to penetrate the building more completely.
By now it should be clear that the most important part of a Gothic cathedral is its interior space. Here the emphases on geometry and light fuse to create an image of God's house. Of course, the outside appearance of the building mattered, but the primary goal in building these cathedrals was the illumination of interior spaces.
The reasons why geometry and light were so important in designing great churches lay ecclesiastical, theological, and philosophical precepts of those times.
In 1144 a ceremony was held to dedicate the newly completed Gothic choir of the Abbey Church of St. Denis. Otto von Simson writes that, for Abbot Suger, the renovated choir was an embodiment of the “mystical vision of harmony that divine reason has established throughout the cosmos” (xix) . Suger portrayed the choir as a place where heaven touched earth, a space where the living could glimpse heaven. This description expresses the conception that gave rise to the Gothic style of architecture. The Gothic cathedral was intended as a space where people could get a taste of heaven.
In order to construct images of heaven out of ordinary materials, a designer must first picture what heaven is like. The centrality of geometry in the medieval vision of divine order can be traced to the classical tradition and to the writings of the theologian Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354–430), who argued that the defining quality of divine order is precise mathematical relationships. This conception of beauty seems strange in this modern age. We are accustomed to thinking that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For Augustine, something could be beautiful only if it exactly mirrored the geometric regularity of divine order, and, if it did, by definition it had to be beautiful.
Augustine's ideas about geometry were reflected in every aspect of medieval sacred design, probably because they were taught in the twelfth-century cathedral schools whose students became the bishops, abbots, and master builders of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. The twelfth-century theology and cosmology of scholars at Chartres embraced the sacredness of geometry and the aesthetic consequences of exposure to it. They believed that geometry was a means for linking human beings to God, that mathematics was a vehicle for revealing to humankind the innermost secrets of heaven. In their view, the primary bodies composing the world were akin to building materials, and these elements, assembled in accordance with perfect ratios, could result in an exact image of cosmic order.
Another distinctive element of Gothic design was light. In medieval theology God concealed Himself so as to be revealed, and light was the principal and best means by which humans could know Him. As the worshippers' eyes rose toward heaven, God's grace, in the form of sunlight, was imagined to stream down in benediction, encouraging exaltation. Sinners could be led to repent and strive for perfection by envisioning the world of spiritual perfection where God resided – a world suggested by the geometric regularity of cathedrals.
From this perspective a Gothic cathedral may be viewed as a monument of applied theology aimed to reveal the divine reality.
We have seen how, in the minds of those who designed and built them, Gothic cathedrals were intended to mirror heaven as medieval theologians imagined it to be. The cathedral was supposed to be a setting in which humans could glimpse heaven, thereby experiencing a foretaste of the hereafter. It served to draw people toward heaven. Working within the limits imposed by ordinary materials, builders erected a setting encouraging the divine spirit to enter the building and occupy it. In this sense, the Gothic cathedral is akin to a great lens created to gather the diffuse ambient light of the divine spirit and focus it to a particular place, creating architecture forms that continue to amaze humans hundreds of centuries after.