Gothic Cathedrals Term Paper

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gothic cathedrals, with a few examples and comparisons of the cathedrals. Gothic cathedrals are some of the most beautiful and enduring buildings in Europe. They have survived for centuries as testaments to the workmen who created them and the architects who designed them. The ornate buildings are as impressive today as when they first grew on the skyline, and they represent a high point in the culture and society of the Middle Ages.

Gothic Cathedrals

Gothic architecture, perhaps one of the most famous and ornate forms of architecture of any period, began in northern Europe as early as the twelfth century, and spread throughout Europe. It gradually replaced the Romanesque Style of architecture, which had grown in popularity throughout Europe beginning at about the millennium year of 1000. Romanesque buildings offered many of the same intricate details as the Gothic cathedrals, because building practices had evolved, and better tools, such as the stone saw (Calikins 100). Romanesque buildings incorporated intricate arches and vaulting, along with repetitive bay systems, flat and round ribs, but they did have their limitations. One architect historian wrote, "Reliant on the sheer power of mass to abut and restrain the tremendous outward thrust of thick nave barrel vaults, Romanesque architecture could not open up to the light" (Roth 288). Thus, the interior of the Romanesque building was often dark because the walls and supports required were so massive. Romanesque continued to influence architecture, but because of these limitations, Romanesque architecture gradually fell out of favor and was replaced by the more versatile Gothic architecture.

The Gothic period included many innovations first developed during the Romanesque period, but it refined and further developed them, created even more massive cathedrals, but with a more open and airy interior. While many people credit Gothic architecture with the grand vaults and arches used throughout Gothic cathedrals, really, the only innovation totally credited to Gothic architecture is the flying buttress arch, used so effectively in the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. However, there was another important and dramatic innovation in Gothic architecture, and that was the opening up of the walls so stained glass could be installed. Historian Roth continues, "Thus, in stone and colored glass, the entire building became a bible for the illiterate, and what was especially important, the visual imagery was known and accessible to all -- lord, merchant, servant, and serf alike" (Roth 294). This not only created a "Bible" on the walls of the church, it made the interior much more light and airy, and the building seemed even more like the worshippers were entering heaven when they walked into one of these breathtaking buildings.

Gothic cathedrals played an important part in society, and this is why they were so richly designed and covered so much space. Gothic cathedrals served one purpose - a spiritual one. Therefore, the city with the largest and most impressive cathedral was the most spiritual and devout, (and their citizens had the most money to contribute to the building fund), and so, their building took on massive proportions. Other Medieval buildings of the time began to show some of the forms of Gothic architecture, but they never rivaled the cathedrals in form or design, because the churches were the apex of the building movement, and the apex of society and culture. One historian wrote, "Their form was largely dictated by the developing liturgical requirements of Christianity, such as processional spaces, centralized martyria, and radiating chapels, while their size and structural solutions were encouraged by the wealthy patronage of the church, royalty, or Holy Roman Empire" (Calkins 290). Thus, Gothic cathedrals were a testament to the success of the town or city where they were built.

Gothic cathedrals dominated the landscape, but they also dominated the economy, because they required so much labor to build, and because they took so long to build. The first building and trade unions grew up out of the cathedral labor pool, and often entire families were employed at different tasks at the building site. Historian Calkins continues, "By the end of the Middle Ages, the master mason belonged to a mason's guild or lodge, a term derived from the stone cutter's shed next to the building site, and adhered to strict regulations or ordinances concerning his training and activities. The earliest mention of a mason's lodge occurs in 1258" (Calkins 307). Thus, the construction played a major part in the town's economy, because the tradesmen were well paid, and they spent their wages in the town where they worked and lived. In addition, since so many workmen lived and worked together in the town, they formed their own large social group in the town. As historian Roth noted, "Gothic architecture was also the physical expression of a new, assertive positive outlook on life here and now, as contrasted to the emphatic focus of the Romanesque period on a life in the hereafter that was certain to be better than life now" (Roth 291). Great growth from towns into cities also occurred during this time, and as more people moved to the cities, the cities began to become the focus of culture and life in Europe. Feudal culture was gradually replaced by an urban, more refined culture, made up not of farmers but of builders and intellectuals. The Gothic period was incredibly important in European society and culture, and the Gothic cathedral is a lasting reminder of this transformation.

Notre-Dame de Paris may be the most illustrious Gothic cathedral ever built. Its' dramatic shape is well-known around the world, and it has been immortalized in song, fiction, and Broadway play. Begun in 1163, the building was finished in 1250, and it included the first use of the elegant flying buttress arch. The flying buttress came into use because builders wanted to increase the size of the gallery windows, and this meant they needed additional support. Architect and historian Roth states,

Previously, oblique tilted arches, resisting the outward thrust of the nave vaults, had been hidden under the side aisle roofs, but now they would need to be placed above the aisle roof, outside and exposed, sloping from the upper nave wall to vertical extensions of the buttresses of the side aisle walls. Thus flying buttresses were created (Roth 296).

Many other cathedrals incorporated these innovative designs into their buildings after they were first used in Paris, including Chartres, Rouen, and Reims (Roth 296). The buttresses themselves stretched like arms along the outside of the building. One writer notes, "They were great stone arms stretched above the roofs of the aisles on a level with the springers of the diagonal ribs and the transverse arches of the central nave" (Kaye 29). By the time Reims was built, gothic architecture had evolved into High Gothic, which utilized all of the most famous aspects of the gothic period, including pointed arches, broken rib vaulting, a skeletonized structure, and the innovative flying buttress (Roth 296). The cathedral in Paris opens into a low nave arcade, but the smaller first level allows the spacious galleries above it to seem even larger and more impressive. Inside is a traditional double-aisled choir with ambulatory. The main transepts have no aisles, but the long nave again has double aisles, which are supported by two towers flanking the western end. Vaults are sexpartite, and the elevation shows four deliberate stages. The main arches spring consistently from columns, while the tribune galleries carry the wall-buttresses that abut the thrust of the high vaults. High above, there is a triforium pierced by rose windows to light the roofs of the tribune galleries. Architects used an alternation of pier and column, except in the central nave, and carried it over to the arcades dividing the double nave aisles, where simple columns alternate with columns surrounded by vaulting shafts built up in courses. The shafts correspond to the springing of the transverse arches and principal diagonal ribs of the sexpartite vault of the central nave (Kaye 46). Thus, the arches, ribs, and vaults of the Romanesque period have been transformed into a larger, airier church, lit with beautiful stained glass, and opened up to the heavens. It is interesting to note there are many cathedrals bearing the title "Notre-Dame," for it was a common custom to dedicate new cathedrals to "Our Lady," or "Notre-Dame," the Virgin Mary.

Many experts believe Laon Cathedral, built between 1150 and 1205, was the inspiration for Notre-Dame de Paris. The central nave is 295 feet long and 35 feet 6 inches wide, with sexpartite diagonal-ribbed vaults 78 feet 9 inches high. Main arches in the nave are supported on columns. Like Notre-Dame, the elevation is in four stages, with main arches, tribune galleries, triforium, and clerestory. Architect Kaye continues the description,

At the ends of the transepts, the tribune galleries are replaced by a simple gallery supported by two tiers of arcading to make room for the windows and the large rose on the north front, and the great richly traceried window on the…[continue]

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