The Gothic Cathedral

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As a result, the French Gothic cathedral was a vast treasury of Christian art , involving stained glass, statues, reliefs, wood carvings, mural paintings, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and precious goldsmithery. Architectural Terminology For a guide, see: Architecture Glossary.

Around the middle of the 12th century, a new artistic sensibility with new architectural principles began spreading from the cathedrals of northern France. The Romanesque church gave way to an organism that replaced the construction system based on thick load-bearing walls in favour of a structure - called a skeletal system - that freed itself of all superfluous parts by identifying the forces acting on the interior - the thrusts of the vaults and the weight of the roof and walls - so as to direct them along predetermined routes.

This transformation took place over the course of little less than a century and began in the Ile-de-France Parisian region , where the desire to build very high naves resulted in close attention to the technical and formal aspects of construction. This preference for high naves, inherited from certain architectural currents of Romanesque art - from Cluny to the great Ottoman cathedrals - became the central compositional element of churches, leading to a new way of perceiving space and articulating it following a geometric division marked off by the vertical forms of pillars running to full height and pointed arches.

As part of the 'skeletal system', the ribs of the vaults form an arched framework that concentrates the thrust from above and transfers it to points that are externally reinforced by rampant arches, which are in turn counterbalanced by flying buttresses that transfer the thrust of the weight to the ground.

9 of the Best Gothic Cathedrals

From the formal point of view, the upward soaring of the interior structure, the bay used as a module to create the internal space, the articulation of the walls, and the great expanses of windows result in the dissolution of the walls, replaced by a 'diaphanous system'. The autonomy of the parts is reduced in favour of greater spatial fusion, and the multiplicity of visual lines results in evocative effects of expansion.

This agile and elastic structure frees the walls from their load-bearing function, making possible the broad expanses of windows with polychrome glass that bring rays of coloured light into the church interior, filling that space with its mutable shadings. This light, so different from the half-light of Romanesque churches, became the fundamental element in the figurative theory of Gothic architecture, which uses light physically and metaphorically to reveal the logical and constructive procedures - arranged in accordance with the scholastic thinking of the period - that support the construction of the cathedral.

In the view of medieval theology, the Gothic cathedral was an expression of cosmic order and a symbolic image of the immaterial substance of God reflected in the harmony of the building's proportions and its luminosity. The spires, pinnacles, and towers of the facade accentuate the prevalence of the vertical, symbolic of the tension toward the divine; the door of the sky is illuminated, and it illuminates the interior thanks to the insertion of a great rose window, a true mystical membrane between the light of God and the heart of the faithful.

The Gothic cathedral is also an expression of the new urban civilization that created it. These upwardly soaring, enormous, breathtaking churches were seen as reflections of the ideal image the period had of itself. Such was the fundamental incentive behind these buildings, and it led to ever more ambitious constructions. The imprint that Gothic left on the later figurative and architectural culture of Europe was the cause of heated critical debate, and beginning with Italian humanism in the 15th century many thinkers took a negative view of the apparently anticlassical aspects of the Gothic.

The maniera dei Goti 'style of the Goths' was looked down upon during the era of Renaissance architecture as arbitrary and barbaric, but by the arrival of Baroque architecture , a number of great Baroque architects - principally Francesco Borromini and Camillo-Guarino Guarini - were starting to grasp the technical qualities and the formal originality of Gothic structures, while the romantics of the 19th century embraced the Gothic wholeheartedly, looking at it with renewed fondness and re-evaluating its broad expressive horizon, thanks to figures like John Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc Origins of Gothic Cathedral Design.

The architecture of France's Royal Domain was the source of the building methods of the mature Gothic, for the builders there sought to increasingly accentuate the articulation or jointedness of their structures while at the same time seeking to reduce the solidity of forms, causing greater transparency and illuminated space.

Fifty years of experimentation produced results that were anything but homogeneous, from the cathedrals of the Paris region, which either had no transept or had transepts that projected only slightly, to the Picardy cathedrals of Noyon and Soissons, with complex layouts and large transverse bodies.

The common denominator of these structures is the urge to achieve the greatest possible height, which in the more important examples translates into an elevation with four levels, justifying the presence of a triforium with the need to counterbalance the thrust of sexpartite vaults; the continuity between the nave, transept, and choir resulted in interiors of great elegance and astonishing effects of harmonization.

The fusion of the double-wall system borrowed from Anglo-Norman architecture with the linear grid led to stratified structures of incredible lightness and transparency. The builders at Laon and Paris experimented with other technical and formal novelties; at Notre-Dame the vaults of the nave are supported by flying buttresses visible above the roofs, while Laon reinterpreted the Anglo-Norman technique of the mur epais by progressively stripping away the exterior wall, creating a 'telescopic' effect.

These experiments were the precursors of the ponderous plasticism of the buttresses and rampant arches of the cathedral of Chartres. The Great French Cathedrals. The architectural evolution of the cathedral from early to late Gothic was accompanied by an increased exaltation of light and the related opening of the walls through the use of stained glass. Builders were immediately drawn to the flying buttresses that made this opening possible, and their awareness of the powerful structural implications of these buttresses is indicated by the rapid spread of their use in increasingly elaborate and complex variations.


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In the largest constructions they are used in overlapping groups arranged in series; they are supported by increasingly powerful buttresses topped by pinnacles and spires that radically transform the exterior appearance of the structure, breaking up the volumes in a sort of perspective kaleidoscope or a replication of the rhythmic modulation of the interior bays.

The column statue became a feature of the exterior, as did narrative relief sculpture around the doors and portals. There were equally important interior changes, for the use of flying buttresses made it possible to increase the height of the nave to the maximum technically possible without having to use tribunes above the aisles; the partition of the nave now reached its mature form, articulated on elevations with three levels of great size thanks to the elimination of the gallery. It was in the two great worksites of Bourges and Chartres, where work began around the same time in the middle of the s, that the potentials for improvement made possible by the removal of the tribune - uncomfortable and hardly functional - were exploited to achieve a new monumental appearance full of balance and harmony among the parts and the whole.

The cathedrals of Chartres, Bourges, Reims, and Amiens also experimented in the use of the so-called pilier cantonne , which permitted the central column to rise without interruption to the vault, augmenting the vertical sense and accelerating the compositional rhythm. The monumental concept of the great cathedrals is an expression of the ascent to the French throne of the Capetian Philip II , while the spread of the Gothic across Europe is related to the growing influence of French politics and culture over the course of the 13th century.

Gothic Cathedral Art. As mentioned in the introduction, the typical Gothic cathedral was packed with various types of art designed to glorify God and inspire the congregation. Gothic sculpture was employed throughout the cathedral, notably in the form of narrative reliefs around the doorways, illustrating stories from the Bible.

In addition, column-statues became an important decorative addition to the exterior. Inside the cathedral, the pulpit and choir were often decorated with intricate wood carving in a variety of figurative and abstract styles.


  • 10 Defining Characteristics of Gothic Architecture - History Lists.
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  • Stained glass was another very important type of Catholic art inside a church, with entire walls seemingly devoted to it. Biblical illuminations were another important ecclesiastical artform. Gothic illuminated manuscripts were unmatched by any other type of medieval painting and every cathedral would own a large number of exquisite gospels texts illuminated by master craftsmen. Goldsmithing was also very much inevidence, either in the form of reliquaries for holy relics, or liturgical chalices, crosses, crucifixes and the like.

    Artists would also be employed to produce a variety of altarpiece art , as well as tapestries, mural paintings and more.

    Summary of Gothic Art and Architecture

    In short, the typical French Gothic cathedral is not just an architectural masterpiece, it is also a treasure house full of medieval Christian art. Even though Notre-Dame Cathedral Strasbourg is part Romanesque most of the Romanesque structure burned down in , it is generally considered to be one of the finest examples of Late Gothic architecture. The German architect Erwin von Steinbach was a major contributor to the new Gothic design during the period It has only one spire, although at metres in height it made the cathedral the tallest building in the world from to It is also famous for its pink colour, which comes from the particular type of Vosges sandstone used in its construction.

    However, the cathedral is best known for the colourful hue of its interior, caused by sunlight pouring through its huge stained glass windows. Basilica of Saint-Denis begun Cathedral Originally a large medieval abbey church, now a cathedral, Saint-Denis is considered to be the first Gothic church. Located on the site of the earlier Church of Saint-Denys de la Chapelle - built about by Saint Genevieve and said to contain the relics of Saint Denis, a patron saint of France - the basilica became the burial place of almost every French king from the 10th to the 18th century, and attracted pilgrims from all over the country.

    The new Basilica was begun in under Abbot Suger , who rebuilt portions of the old Romanesque-style church using a number of revolutionary new structural features. Indeed, it represented the first design to concentrate the weight of the structure on relatively thin columnar supports.

    Known at first as the "French Style", it was later christened "Gothic". Saint-Denis is now acknowledged as the earliest example of a major structure to be designed and built in the Gothic style.

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    10 Defining Characteristics of Gothic Architecture - History Lists

    Furthermore its 13th-century nave, built by Abbot Odo Clement, is also a prototype example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture, and an architectural model for cathedrals and abbeys across the Continent. Together with Bourges Cathedral and Notre-Dame de Paris, Laon Cathedral is one of the most outstanding examples of Early Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries.

    Dark Choirs and Cathedrals Music Mix

    The present structure began with an early choir section and was finished as far as the east side of the transept by A second building campaign lasted from to The nave was erected with four tiers of clerestories, triforium and tribune under sexpartite vaulting, and then the initial choir was replaced by the greatly enlarged present choir. The cathedral's floor-plan is cruciform, and the choir ends in a straight wall rather than an apse. Its west facade - with its three portals, each adorned with Biblical sculpture , and its rose window dating to - ranks alongside that of Notre Dame Paris in the consistency of its Gothic style.

    Its spacial arrangement, for instance, is accentuated by the colossal dimensions of the openings and the enormous central rose window. The chiaroscural articulation of the facade is enriched with detail including the extraordinary inventiveness of the towers. Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris One of the world's most famous Gothic cathedrals, Notre-Dame was among the earliest buildings in the world to use the arched exterior support, known as the flying buttress.

    Its treasury is noted for numerous sacred relics, including Christ's Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross. Sadly, during the French Revolution, a good deal of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed, although this didn't prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from being crowned Emperor in the cathedral on December 2, Gargoyles were sculpted on the ground and placed as the building neared completion. Romanus is often associated with the gargoyle; legend speaks of him saving Rouen from a snarling dragon that struck terror even in the heart of spirits.

    Known as La Gargouille, the beast was vanquished and its head mounted on a newly built church, as an example and warning. While the gargoyle has been around since Egyptian times, prolific use of the element in Europe is attributed to the Gothic era. Profusely grouped upon several cathedrals, it heightens a sense of allegory and the fantastic. Unlike the flying buttress, the pinnacle started out as a structural element meant to deflect the pressures of the vaulted roof downward.

    As their aesthetic possibilities began to be known, pinnacles were lightened and the flying buttress was structurally developed to handle the vaulted roof. Pinnacles are profusely used to break the abrupt change in slenderness, as the church building gives way to the mounted spire, lending the building a distinctively Gothic, tapering appearance. Recorded for the first time in Christian architecture during the Gothic era, the pointed arch was used to direct the weight of the vaulted roof downward along its ribs.

    Unlike the earlier Romanesque churches which depended solely on the walls to carry the immense weight of the roof, the pointed arches helped restrict and selectively transfer the load onto columns and other load-bearing supports, thereby freeing up the walls.

    Our quest to experience the great cathedrals and churches of Europe

    It no longer mattered what the walls were made of, since between the flying buttress and the pointed arch they were no longer carrying any loads - thus the walls of Gothic cathedrals began to be replaced by large stained-glass windows and tracery. Tracery refers to a series of thin stone frames, inlaid in window openings to support the glass. Bar tracery found expression in the Gothic period, with its lancet-and-oculus pattern that aimed at conveying a slenderness of design, and increasing the amount of glass paneling.

    Unlike in plate tracery, thin stone mullions were used to divide the window opening into two or more lancets. Y tracery was a specific variety of bar tracery that separated the window head using thin bars of stone, splitting in the shape of a Y. These delicate web-like tracings helped increase the glass-to-stone ratio and grew into florid detail as Gothic architecture developed further.

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