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Gothic Architecture

Starting about 1100, a new wave of construction of Christian Churches began in Europe.  This was due to a number of reasons.  Beginning with Constantine in 326, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Christians were able to convert many of the invading Barbarian tribes which multiplied the number of Christians who needed a place to worship God.    In 476 Roman Empire fell.  The Emperor had moved to Constantinople.  With no emperor in the Western half of Empire, the Pope became stronger than the Emperor.  From the pope’s office grew a hierarchy of clergy with specific responsibilities.  Each major town had a bishop who was the authority over the clergy and the people living there.  The bishop’s church became known as the “cathedral” coming from the word “cathedra” which means the chair or the seat of the bishop of that town or region.  There could only be one cathedral in each town even though other churches were built that could equal the cathedral in size.  

Several problems developed with Romanesque style church.  The major problem was that they easily fell down as builder tried to make them larger.  The rounded arch, while still in use today, could not support the weight caused by the outward thrust of the rounded arches and ceilings pushing on the wall.   The walls were the main support of the ceiling therefore they could only have small opening for windows.  So the Romanesque churches were dark and could be rather dreary on the interior.  Having timber roofs, these churches were subject by fire caused by lightening or sparks from other nearby building that were on fire or during a local uprising.  For further information about Romanesque architecture click on my Romanesque Architecture page.

 THE BEGINNING OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE

In 1122, Suger was elected Abbott of St. Denis in Paris. Having served as a trusted councilor under his predecessor, Abbott Adam, he was able to organize the monastery finances, skillfully manage the abbey’s immense estate and play an important political role in France.  He was minister to Louis VI and Louis VII, whose biographies he wrote, and Regent during the Second Crusade (1147-1149). The stained glass window on the right is in the Washington Cathedral.  It depicts Abbott Suger in front of Notre Dame- Paris hold St. Denis in his right hand.

In 1140, Abbott Suger began a renovation of St. Denis Abbey which was the beginning of what we now call Gothic architecture.   Suger had a high theology of light and wanted the abbey filled with light and color.  He first enlarged the ambulatory, the walkway behind the altar.  He did this by using pointed arches instead of the former rounded arches of the Romanesque style.  To these arches he linked flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings.   These components were all tied together.

So Gothic architecture began with a flurry.   The name Gothic was later assigned to this style by those who thought that the exterior, with all those buttresses was ugly, especially those who lived in Italy and had unpleasant memories of the invaders, the Goths.  “It looks like something those terrible Goths would build.” Thus the name Gothic stuck.

One of the fun illustrations of how Gothic system of pointed arches and flying buttresses worked was used with school children at the Washington Cathedral.   We would have two students of equal size stand facing each other with their hands locked to form a “ceiling” of a church.  The docent or teacher would then push down on the locked hands and arms thus causing the student to learn backward.  Those who wanted to be dramatic would actually fall down!  Then we asked two more students to stand behind the first students with their hands pushing against the shoulders of the students in front of them.  The docent would again push on the upraised hands and arms.  The force of the students being the “buttresses” kept the “ceiling” from falling in.

GOTHIC ELEMENTS

The use of the pointed arch rather than the rounded arch allowed for great flexibility in the interior design.  The pointed arch could extend upward to great heights.  Pointed arches would also allow for a greater distance between the columns or piers beneath them.   Also from the top of these piers were arches that crisscrossed the ceilings and were locked together by a boss stone. These ceiling were called vaulted. Pushing against these piers on the outside were the flying buttress.  It all held together.  The weight was not distributed to the wall.  The walls were no longer load bearing so they could have large openings for windows.   Some churches were built with almost totally glass walls such a St. Chappell in Paris.   It has been said that you could removed all of the walls in a Gothic cathedral, and it would still stand.

These four elements - pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and stained glass windows offered innumerable possibilities.  It is disheartening to me to hear someone say of the great cathedrals, “if you have seen one, you have seen them all”.   NO!! They are all different.  I have not experienced any two cathedrals alike.  Some are taller with a triforium level of various designs, in addition to a variety of clearstory configurations of stained glass.  Some cathedrals are longer than others, some are wider. Even the flying buttresses take on different shapes.  Some cathedrals have small chapels in the ambulatory that extend our of the apse in the back.  Some just have small altars around the ambulatory.  Some have small chapels flanking each side of the nave. As I add pages to Cathedral Quest, the various “quests” that we have taken and the 133 churches that we have visited,  I will be pointing out all of the difference in the Gothic syle. The combination of the Gothic elements are without end. See a Gothic Elevation.

THE GOTHIC STYLE SPREAD RAPIDLY

When the people of France saw the transformation that Gothic architecture brought to St. Denis, everyone wanted their own Gothic Cathedral.  So all over France great building programs were begun, each with the idea that their cathedral would be bigger and better than their neighbors.  The first Gothic cathedral in France was in Noyons (1140), followed by Laon (1145), St. Malo and Dol - de-Bretagne – both in Normandy (1155), Soissons (1158), Rouen (1160), Notre Dames-Paris (1163), and Chartres (1175). In the short space of 35 years, eight new cathedrals were begun in France.   Many Gothic churches took hundreds of years to build, so as the old architect retired or died, the new architect would make changes that suited him.  He was also able to use new technology and materials for the construction.  It is interesting to see where one architect or period ended and other started in the same church. Gothic architecture was not limited to new churches.  Older Romanesque churches had their weaker parts rebuilt in the Gothic style. So we visited churches that were Romanesque and Gothic.  We even experienced some that added some Renaissance and Baroque styles in their remodeling.  Some churches experienced a number of fires and the parts that were destroyed were rebuilt in the current style much as we do today when remodeling a home or building.

There were six periods in the development of Gothic Architecture:

a.     Early Gothic  (1140 – 1190)

b.     Classical Gothic (1190 – 1230)

c.      Rayonnant Gothic (1230 – 1360)

d.     English Decorated Gothic (1250 – 1350)

e.      English Perpendicular Gothic (1350 – early 1500)

f.       Flamboyant Gothic or Late Gothic (1360 – 1500)

 

GOTHIC CATHEDRALS ARE MORE THAN JUST THE STONES

When one contemplates the great cathedrals and churches of Europe, we cannot limit our thoughts solely to basic components of the architecture alone.  Even though I love to read and study the architecture,  I equally enjoy reading medieval history, both factual and historic novels.   I love the medieval mysteries, most of them involving the church and its clergy in some way.  We have enjoyed studying the art of the period both at the Smithsonian Resident Associates programs and by viewing lectures produced by the Teaching Company.  What a wonderful time we had visiting churches where  we saw the art that we had studied such as the Arena Chapel in Padua and the many churches in Florence.

So these cathedrals and churches are much more than just brick and mortar.  They are first of all the result of the skill and inspiration of their architects and builders. Most of these artisans saw the possibility of creating new and different designs  from what another architect had created in the next town yet using the same components of pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, and stained glass.

We can look at these churches ecclesiastically as first of all the seat of the Bishop who held authority over the clergy and members of the community.  The cathedrals also provided positions for other clergy such as deans and canons.

Cathedrals can be viewed from a theological position.  The cathedrals after all were built as places of worship and to the Glory of God.  They were thought of as the New Jerusalem.  They conveyed to the visitor a sense of heaven.  I was always moved, as a docent at the Washington Cathedral, when a group of students would walk in and look up uttering a great big “wow”.  The cathedrals evoked and still evoke a sense of “wow”, a sense of awe, a sense of the holy, a sense of another world.  The taller and bigger the cathedral the more the “wow”.  The altar is the place of sacrifice as the Eucharist is celebrated time and time again.   Most Gothic cathedrals are designed so that there is a straight, unobstructed path from the front door to the altar.  You will find some variations such as in the Spanish cathedrals.   Cathedrals are a place where you feel the presence of God.  In Gothic cathedrals this is also felt in the light streaming through the stained glass windows. There is a theology of light.

The Gothic cathedrals evoke a lot of emotional responses in addition to those just mentioned.  The experience of a great church involves all of our senses.   As many times as I have been in the Washington Cathedral it is always a new experience just to sit and look at what is surrounding me.   I always found something new, something that would transport me to another realm of my emotions.  There are the sounds of the cathedral that capture our ears, maybe the organ playing in the back ground or a choir singing.  I will never forget our experience in St. Remi in Reims.  We were the only people in the church, and the organist was playing very soft beautiful music. It was literally an awesome experience.  

Also cathedrals and other churches can be looked at artistically.  Because there was so much wall space, without windows, in the Romanesque churches, paintings soon occupied these space.  The great artists of the Middle Ages filled churches with the wonders of their religious art work.  I would suggest that you explore what art is in the churches that you plan to visit, and learn about it before you visit.  In addition to the paintings, there are the wonderful sculptures in stone and wood.  I will point these out as we examine various churches.  One of my favorite forms of art in Gothic churches is the stained glass windows.  It is breath taking to see walls and wall of beautiful color with the sun shining through and often reflecting these colors in some unexpected places.  (Picture on the left is at St. Denis). Also we think about music as a form of art that became important to worship.  All of the art and music were important as a means of education in a time before books.  The paintings, the statues, and the stained glass all told stories from the Bible, from the history of the church and of the community.  Visitors could “read” the stained glass, a painting or a statue to enlarge their understanding of the Bible or the church.

Cathedrals also became the center of community life.   That is where people gathered.  Often the cathedrals were used for purposes other than worship.  They were sometimes the place of the market.  Popular  music events and plays were often performed in the church as they are today.  The building of the cathedrals involved the skill and labor of almost everyone in the community in some way from those who quarried the stone, those who designed the building, those who were the masons, the stained glass artists and makers of colored glass, those who wrote the music, those who carved the statues, those who maintained the building, those who sang in the choir or led the worship, and those who helped pay for it.

As I describe the seven years of our quest and the 133 church that we have visited so far, I will point out to you the differences and similarities in architectural designs. I will describe and where possible show the art work. I will share our emotions and the sensations that we have experience. We have had an exciting time on our quests and are anxious to share these.  I hope that no one will say, “once you have read about one, you have read about them all”.

Below is a list of the Gothic churches that we have visited.  As I write about these churches on the various travel pages, I will provide a link from the church listed below to a full description of that particular church.

 

 

GOTHIC 1140-1300

 

Present

Finsh

City

Country

Church Name

Started

Date

 

 

 

1140

1281

Paris

France

St. Denis

1145

 

Dol

France

Cathedrale St. Samson

1145

1235

Noyon

France

Notre Dame

1150

1240

Laon

France

Notre Dame

1150

 

Cologne

Germany

Gross St. Martin

1155

 

St. Malo

France

Cathedrale St. Vincent

1156

 

Maria Laach

Germany

Maria Laach

1158

1479

Soisson

France

Notre Dame

1160

1345

Rouen

France

Notre Dame

1163

1460

Canterbury

England

Canterbury Cathedral

1163

1218

Paris

France

Notre Dame

1174

1322

Wells

England

Wells Cathedral

1175

1506

Chartres

France

Notre Dame

1176

 

Strosbourg

France

Catheral

1180

 

Paris

France

St.Germain des Pres

1194

 

Rouen

France

 Abbaye St. Ouen

1200

 

Barcelona

Spain

Cathedral

1200

 

Reims

France

St. James

1200

 

Freiburg

Germany

Freiburg Cathedral

1200

1452

Florence

Italy

San Marco

1200

1300

Vitoria

Spain

Cathedral de Santa Maria

1211

1400

Reims

France

Notre Dame

1211

1263

Siena

Italy

Siena Cathedral

1220

1280

Salisbury

England

Cathedral Church Blessed Virgin Mary

1220

1280

Amiens

France

Notre Dame

1220

 

Cologne

Germany

St. Andreas

1221

1521

Burgos

Spain

Santa Maria Cathedral

1225

1573

Beauvais

France

St. Pierre

1225

 

Venice

Italy

Giacomo dell Orio

1226

1493

Toledo

Spain

Cathedral

1235

 

Trier

Germany

Liebffraunenkirche

 

1236

Cordoba

Spain

Mosque/Cathedral

1242

1248

Paris

France

Sante Chapelle

1245

1430

 

Venice

Italy

Zanepolo

1252

1282

Valencia

Spain

Cathedral

1055

1272

London

England

Westminster Abbey

1402

1506

Seville

Spain

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Sede

1499

1600

Bath

England

Bath Abbey

1525

1768

Segovia

Spain

Segovia Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

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