The Gothic Cathedral: Heaven on Earth?

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

There are too many superlatives that surround the art world. It has come to the point that when someone uses high flown language like, “amazing,” “mind-bending” and “epic,” in association with works of art, that these words commonly lose all meaning and impact. With Gothic cathedrals, however, those terms are entirely fitting. They actually are awe inspiring. They can be so awesome that we generally experience them quite intimately, as the past of another age is illuminated through the radiant azures and crimsons of the stained glass windows. But we tend to choke on that vitality that is too unorthodox. So it was with the detractors of this style known as the “Gothic,” a term originally fashioned out of disparagement, as is the case with several other art movements (Impressionism, Rococo, etc.). It transpired, with what now appears as queer disdain, that Vasari, the first art historian, wrote of the “Gothic” as “barbaric.” The truth is, Vasari had his chronology wrong. He was referring to the Goths who sacked Rome. When they delivered Rome such a fatal blow, they, quite naturally, wrecked the buildings and executed the classically trained architects. Even though the Goths were “barbaric,” they too had their own architectural leanings. They tended to like pointed arches – an element that Gothic architecture is known for too. It was with this spurious knowledge in mind, that Vasari labelled those structures that had materialized in the rest of Europe as “Gothic,” even if, at the time, the Goths had been eradicated for some six hundred years. And yet, the name stuck. Those that would later become intoxicated by the Renaissance mind, would deride the Gothic, as seen in this passage by the French playwright Moliere:

The besotted taste of Gothic monuments,
These odious monsters of ignorant centuries,
Which the torrents of barbary spewed forth.

When it comes down to it, artists render a moment in time and people – and societies – react. It’s inevitable. The trouble is, not all judge equally. Unfortunately, Vasari and Moliere were hopelessly wrong about the Gothic. Those “ignorant centuries” that “spewed forth” the Gothic, possessed a mind that is too much overshadowed by the Renaissance thinker. With this in mind, we must look to the origins of the Gothic in what has proved to be, throughout history, a furnace of artistic industry: France.

France, that harbinger of reexamination in the arts, the origin of Impressionism, the French New Wave, and obviously, among other movements, the Gothic. The latter first began in Paris and its general vicinity in 1150, and through ebb and flow across Europe, lasted roughly until 1550. Of course, chronology is a messy business, as Vasari’s blunder has proven. It is indeed unwise to take an exact approach to history and the Gothic is no less an exception. Yet there is a turning point in which to mark this transformation in architecture. This juncture was the renovation of the Basilica of St. Denis, the resting place of French monarchs, from 1137-1144. The man primarily responsible for the rebuilding was Abbot Suger. His influence on the designing of the church is debated. He was either the genius behind the nature of the Gothic, or the abbot of the church who just so happened to be a patron of the arts. Suger left behind a wealth of writings on the rebuilding of St Denis, but failed to mention the architect. It is likely he did not design, in total, the whole of St Denis. The work was probably done by an architect who, in his effort to appease the glory of God, remains anonymous. Nonetheless, what remains in that church is a formidable reminder of the power of the Medieval mind. Medieval man during the Gothic, as Kenneth Clark once proclaimed in his landmark BBC series, “could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit.” To put this in less poetic and more discernible language, Nikolaus Pevsner, an influential writer on architectural history, has said that at St Denis, “the effect inside the church is one of lightness, of air circulating freely, of supple curves and energetic concentration.”  Thus, there are spiritual and technical reasons for why the Gothic is so alluring. By examining the elements that comprise the Gothic, we can possibly begin to understand the fascination that this “weightless” spirit holds.

Interior of St Denis.

Interior of St Denis.

It would be confusing to spend more time than is necessary on the technicalities of the Gothic. At the same time, I do not wish to shroud the Gothic in flowery language. Romanticism is all well and good, but with art, it can leave a sour taste if such impulse is taken, and at worst, perplex. Erecting Gothic cathedrals was not solely an act of catharsis, nor is this style entirely original. It is grounded in previous architectural styles, for the three primary features of the Gothic: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, were not new. What was new was all three as a whole. Combined, the practical purposes of these components were quite revolutionary for their time. Firstly, the pointed arch was able to be stretched to reach any height regardless of the width of its base. The stress is being channeled more downwards than outwards. This feature thus allowed for engineers to build higher. In the case of the ribbed vault, it is the result of an intersection of two or three tunnel vaults, or, a continuous semicircular barrel. The ribs then provide additional support to a vault at critical points, for without the ribs shifting the weight of the ceiling downwards, there would be significant structural damage. Furthermore, the rib vault enables windows to be placed higher among a cathedral’s walls, thus making the stained glass windows in the Gothic style particularly impressive. A rib vault also has aesthetic appeal, for it quite simply allows for reassuring lightness. We then come to the spidery flying buttress. Like its other constituents, it was born out of necessity. It is made up of two parts: the buttress, a large stonework, and the “flyer,” an arch that bridges the buttress and the outside wall. By channeling the pressure across the flyer, and down the buttress and into the ground, force from vaulted ceilings and the wind that presses against the exterior are alleviated.

All three of these elements (the pointed arch, ribbed vault and flying buttress) create the stone skeleton of the Gothic cathedral. Without this skeleton, there would obviously be no cathedral. There would be no pulsating light so characteristic of these structures. Placing the windows as high as they did would have been impossible. Since these three elements are recognized as the most critical ones, I will not dare bore the reader with more technical jargon. However, there is one curious element that I think the reader may appreciate, and it would be that primeval source of beauty, the gargoyle. I inserted a photo above of a gargoyle overlooking Paris from Notre Dame Cathedral. As you can see, they are terribly strange. “Primeval” is certainly not a misnomer for these stone figures better known as “grotesques.” They terrify as if they were possessed by the devil. Unlike other architectural elements, their purpose is much simpler. They act as a spout to carry rainwater clear of the walls so that the mortar that bonds the stones does not decay. Decorative? Yes. But what frightening, or shall I say, “Gothic” decoration.

When entering any cathedral, it is always customary to look up. I remember going to that Gothic structure that is Westminster Abbey and, for lack of a better way to put it, was astonished. Imagining the perspective from far above made me realize how selfless the construction of this church must have been. Indeed, it made me feel selfless. I could clearly sense that what was at hand gave the illusion of the divine. Cliche ridden? Maybe. But consider this: most cathedrals are built in the shape of a cross. The Gothic though went a step beyond by using sacred numbers from the bible as a blueprint for their places of worship. The divine object of desire was 144 cubits, the height of “God’s house on earth,” the Temple of Solomon. The architects even adhered to measurements that can be found in 1 Kings 6-7 in the Old Testament:

It was thirty cubits high, up to the first floor, upon which a second dwelling was built up to the second floor, also of thirty cubits.

These exact same dimensions can be found in Notre Dame Cathedral. And these numbers are not just purely coincidental. Just southwest of Paris lies possibly the best example of the Gothic cathedral, Chartres. On the exterior there are sculptures of Aristotle, Euclid and Pythagoras. This may seem peculiar if you’re inclined to think of the Renaissance as the rebirth of classical thought. However, it just so happened that Chartres had some of the most preeminent scholars of their time. These priests were very knowledgeable about classical ideas. They were absorbed by the encompassing concept that beauty is based on perfect proportions and ideal numbers. This was not unique just to the Renaissance. The Medieval mind saw things very clearly. As evidenced by the ground plan for cathedrals, this mind was heavily attracted to symbols. It was inclined towards finding truth, but the truth it was largely interested in was that of what comprised God’s creation. The beauty of the world existed because of God and not in spite of him. It was the laws that exemplified that divine reason had constructed the universe, as seen with the stupefying light flooding through the windows that became, as H.W. Janson, author of a standard text on the history of art would write, “the Light Divine, a mystic revelation of the spirit of God.” Medieval man was searching for harmony; a harmony that predated the Renaissance. This is quite the achievement for people that had “no conception of time,” as William Manchester wrote in his pathetic axe grinding volume on the Medieval mind and the Renaissance.

Interior of Cologne Cathedral

Interior of Cologne Cathedral

It evidently does concern me that it is thought only the Renaissance could drag antiquity into the forefront. It’s as if, once the 14th century began, immediately the seeds of the rebirth for the classical were sowed in Florence. There is so much wrong with this misconception. What especially concerns me is that there is this idea that Medieval man was being led to the altar like cattle, thereby meaning, as we see it today, leading a non-progressive path. That, to the Renaissance mind, man should be at the center of perceiving beauty. That he should be, when it comes down to it, obedient and practical to his own vision. Unfortunately, such an egocentric perspective is what ails us today. From the imposing greatness of Da Vinci, we have fallen to the narcissistic hell-hole of Koons. The one factor that has stayed the same is the artist in control of his vision; the illusion that the individual can be greater than the sum of the collective.  It is this rationality that accounts for an essentially elitist attitude that disregards myth; the consensus born from emotion for faith, however incomprehensible it may seem . The Gothic showed that, above all, man does not have to be selfish. We don’t have to know who created what cathedral, all we have know is that they are testaments to a much greater being – possibly God, but maybe just as well the people and their undefinable, simply non-rational existence, whether influenced from God or not, for I’m idealistic enough to think that pursuing the transcendent is still possible. The legacy of the Gothic is about being immersed in making the myth fact, instead of solely striving for the facts. It is not so much criticizing for a result, but criticizing for a meaning. The nature of the Gothic is therefore transcendental. It accounts for the power of the collective. No, it does not account for the individual, for a vision becomes fragmented when there is no guiding beacon. The Gothic relates a world where rationality is not what will save us from wars, famine and further degradation. Quite simply, the Gothic does not condone arrogance.

Jambs at Amiens Cathedral

Jambs at Amiens Cathedral

It is disappointing to see the amount of hostility that the Gothic has received over the years. Although the Renaissance is largely credited with the rebirth of classicism, I rather wonder now if the Gothic did more to expand on those ideals. Any Renaissance architect would acknowledge the importance of proportion, the apparently exact science of creation. But so did Medieval builders. Like any art, there is of course something to be said for emotion. Although it might be right that emotion is subjective and thence secondary in a critical discussion (certainly it should not be the center of discourse), there is nothing else left after rationality. The Gothic is so less mannered, that it concentrates solely in the purpose of overwhelming the senses, thereby pervading a wonder that is unselfish. The theology that is illuminated through the stained glass windows, the intimate jambs that depict saints and philosophers; the spires that represent a heavenward urge, all contribute to a response that is visceral and even universal. With great clarity we are able to see the emotional side of an age quite unlike ancient civilizations, the Renaissance and contemporary times. For as long as man exists, there will always be monuments dedicated to that fleeting thing that is his spirit. Far from being barbaric, the Gothic cathedrals erected during Medieval times were sensitive to the needs of the consensus, thus creating, quite possibly, a stupendous representation of heaven on earth.


“An Outline of European Architecture,” Nikolaus Pevsner.

“Civilization,” Kenneth Clark.

“History of Art,” H.W. Janson.

Gothic Architecture,” the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Gothic buildings: pillars of faith,” The Guardian.

Building the Great Cathedrals,” NOVA – PBS.


One thought on “The Gothic Cathedral: Heaven on Earth?

  1. Pingback: Cologne Cathedral | Paradoxoff Planet

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