Gothic Cathedrals and Light From the End Essay

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Gothic Cathedrals and Light

From the end of the 12th century for at least two centuries architecture underwent a revolution known as Gothic. Much like classical architecture, changes in building paralleled changes in culture. Gothic works tended to be tall, inspiring, and meant to withstand the ravages of time. Structural improvements were massive, and even though this era only lasted 200 years, it would have a profound effect on any building style from then on. The epitome of the style was, of course, the cathedral, which was meant to convey humanity's communication with God. The technological improvements that allowed arches, high ceilings, and massive glass works were specific to the larger than life view of the Church, and to inspire the peasantry when attending special services (Frankl, 2001).

Gothic art and architecture is a Medieval movement that evolved out of Romanesque art, in the mid-12th century, in Europe. It spread throughout Europe but centered in northern and Eastern Europe more than in the southern areas. However, it was more than an artistic movement -- and as a natural progression from the Romanesque, it became a standard for the High Middle Ages, and a transitory period into the official "Renaissance." While the traditional Gothic movement spread out of what is now northern France, over the next few centuries it swept most of Europe, especially Germany, and even lasted into the 16th century (Charles, 2008).

The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is not completely clear or defined, but more of a gradual progression. For instance, Gothic figures become more animated and precise in relation to backgrounds or scenery. As with Romanesque, the subject matter was primarily religious, as was the expression in sculpture, painting, and glasswork. Gothic art tended to tell a story, usually from the Old Testament, and was used as a means for education prior to the publication of books (manuscripts were still quite rare and expensive). In architecture, Gothic style was the result of the challenge to build ever larger and more expansive Churches and Cathedrals, thus requiring different ways to maintain building stability. From 1100 onward, architects experimented with innovations that would allow this, including a number of quite complex arches (Gothic Art, 2010). The Gothic style heralded tremendous social and cultural changes throughout Europe. Certainly, a great deal of it remained focused on the religious subject matter, monumental sculpture on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys; Bible stories, images of the Virgin Mary, etc. However, with increased urbanization, the foundation and proliferation of the university system, an increase in trade both within Europe and externally, the establishment of a capital-based economy, increased literacy, and the establishment of a middle-class (bourgeoisie) who could afford to purchase and patronize art, Gothic art moved into the mainstream. Additionally, as cities grew, so did the establishment of trade guilds of which artists were often part -- with better literacy, more accurate record keeping, and a system of patronage, more artists became known (Cahill, 2008).

In fact, there were two fundamental innovations that made the entire idea of the Gothic cathedral possible -- a combination of ribbed vaults and pointed arches allowed builders to make the churches higher and created an impression of upward movement. The flying buttress, the heavy arched piece build outside of walls, allowed for weight to be distributed more so that massive stained glass windows could be used to let in light, tell stories from the Bible, and make the congregation feel as if they were closer to God. This play of light during different times of the day and different seasons allowed for a more interesting appeal and made the service seem far more magical than the older, Romanesque churches in which the only light was from candlelight. In fact, the entire idea of lighting the Gothic churches helped to perfect the art of stained glass. This craft took small pieces of glass and placed them purposefully in pleasing designs that had meaning, or to tell biblical stories. The success of light within the Church had a great deal to do with the resurgence of the faithful, and since building a Gothic Cathedral took decades and a great deal of money, helped unify the community even more. In a way, the process was cyclic -- the desire to enlarge the windows came from the wish to improve light and ambience, then the larger the stained glass art the more technical innovation necessary to improve the structure of the church (Frankl and Crossley, 1962).

The mania for more and more lighting in local churches came from the Crusader's return from the Middle East, whether they saw such things as the Hagia Sophia and other massive buildings that were lit whenever there was a bit of sunlight. Structure and style contributed to the desire of more and more communion with the Divine, and since day (light) was considered good, the task for architects was to bring as much light as possible into the new design (Strickland, 2001).

The historical style itself originated at the abbey church of St. Denis in Saint-Denis, near Paris, where it exemplified the vision of Abbot Suger. The first truly Gothic construction was the choir of the church, known as the Abbey of St. Denis, consecrated in 1144. The architectural structure of the Abbey of St. Denis differed from previous churches in many ways. Most churches had wooden rafters, which were replaced with stone vaults, but Abbott Suger decided to replace the stone vaults with pointed arches and complex ribbed vaults. The pointed arches allowed for the stretching of the walls to an extreme height which later became a fundamental element to the ribbed groin vault. One scholar described the Abbey in this way, "...the entire plan is held together by a new kind of geometric order: it consists of seven identical wedge-shaped units fanning out from the center of the apse. This double ambulatory is a continuous space, whose space is outlined by a network of slender arches, ribs, and columns that sustains the vaults" (Janson, 67; Erlande-Brandenburg, 1990). In addition, the idea of light, largely because of the stained glass and pointed arch, broke the tradition of masonary and solid walls. Light gives the Gothic cathedral its style, some even calling it the central notion because "light appears to triumph over substance" and the needs of the space were more important now (Fletcher, 2001). Viewers would see a weightless and open construction compared to the solid rigidity of the Romanesque churches. Large and complex stained glass decorated the church, let in more light, and served as education for the illiterate.

From France, this moved to England, the throughout the rest of Europe, with each project trying to outdo its predecessor with more light, more height and more innovation. Medieval style emphasized two main characteristics: verticality and light. The Gothic architects used height and light to obtain a feeling of aspiration toward God and heaven. They did this through the use of an technologically improved structural system that was mainly composed of arched vaults, flying buttresses and pointed arches. In order to achieve the extreme heights, the weight of the building was placed on outside supports called buttresses. Since the walls were freed from bearing the weight of the ceiling, they could be designed with large openings. Artists filled these openings with stained glass -- tiny pieces of colored glass fit together to form images that told the Biblical stories. (Fitchen, 1997). The Salisbury Amiens Cathedral is one of the best examples of Early English architecture, dating from 1220 to 1258. It has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom, contains the oldest working clock, and historically has the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta. It was completed rather quickly (less than 40 years) but exemplifies the structure and components discussed above…

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