Art Architecture History Term Paper

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Gothic Architecture

The ancient cities of Rome and Florence are layered ones. If one has the chance to walk the streets of these cities it is clearly that the they have had far more than the nine lives of the feline: Layer upon layer of human life and human ingenuity is displayed in the many different styles that line the streets. While we may tend to think of Rome and Florence as the classical city that they once were (and of which they still bears many elements) they are also in many ways Gothic cities, for some of the cities' finest examples of architecture date from the Gothic period. This paper examines two particular Gothic churches - Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and the church of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence is no exception. Each church is examined for the combination of specific historical forces and styles, the building materials and techniques available to those who constructed them and emblems that were used as meaningful symbols of the ways in which Gothic churches connect people to the divine within the Catholic Church in a way that helped people to transcend their daily lives.

While churches today are still spaces apart from everyday life, they were far more distant from people's everyday experiences during the time of the building of the great Gothic churches. While religion was a more important social and cultural force during these centuries than it is today (for there is no longer any single one religion in the West at least with the hegemonic power and force that the Catholic Church held during this historical period), churches themselves were by virtue of their architecture and decoration far more distant. In a world in which the great majority of people's homes were simple and undecorated, the Gothic church with its timeless massiveness, with its intricate decoration, with its swirl of glass-filtered color, transported people beyond their ordinary lives.

Gothic Jewel: Santa Maria Maggiore

We begin our examination of two Gothic churches that help to demonstrate how architecture could transform people's lives with a description of Santa Maria Maggiore and its most important architectural feature, its triumphal arch. That arch was controversial when the artists who covered it with mosaic designs chose to emphasize the humanity of Christ, his embodiment in human form at a moment in church history when iconoclastic feeling was on the rise. There were those in the church who felt that there should be no imagery at all - much less imagery of such important an image as Christ himself. The following provides a basic overall description of the church:

The first church here was founded c. 350 by Pope Liberius, and financed by a Roman patrician and his wife. They were childless, and had decided to leave their fortune to the Blessed Virgin. She appeared to them in a dream and told them to build a church in her honour. It lies on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, which was mainly laid out as gardens in ancient times. Legend claims that the plan of the church was outlined by a miraculous snowfall in August (possibly in 358). The legend is commemorated every year on August 5th, when white rose petals are dropped from the dome during the festal Mass.

The basilica is also known as Basilica Liberiana after the founder, and Santa Maria della Neve, Our Lady of the Snow, after the miracle; and as Santa Maria ad Praesepem after the relic of the crib (presepio).

Pope Sixtus III had it restored, or more likely rebuilt, to commemorate the declaration of St. Mary's Divine Motherhood by the Council of Ephesus in 432.

The church was damaged in the earthquake of 1348, and restored some years later (

Before we look specifically at the triumphal arch of this church we should "place" this arch within the context of the living church. Every church is a combination of the practical and the impractical, the earthly and the divine - a conjunction between the restraints of stone and gravity and mortar and human inspirations to achieve the divine, as Davis (pp. 4-6) suggests.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is no exception, for it is combination of specific historical forces and styles, the building materials and techniques available to those who constructed it and emblems that have been used as meaningful symbols of the ways in which churches
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connect people to the divine within the Catholic Church, as Kulterman (p. 12) argues.

It contains a blending of the classical and the Christian in terms of architectural elements is not displeasing, but it does create a massive upper section of the church - think of how different this is when compared to the needle-like towers of a Gothic church. The lower section of the church helps to anchor the visual (and one assumes literal) weight of its upper story. The church is also marked by external decorative elements that are also once again a blending of classical and medieval/Christian traditions.

The church as a whole is an excellent example of Gothic architecture, which was defined, in its early period, by that elegance of form that for both the contemporary and the modern viewer conveys the sense of transcendence:

the whole scheme of the building is determined by, and its whole strength is made to reside in a finely organized and frankly confessed framework rather than in walls. This framework, made up of piers, arches and buttresses, is freed from every unnecessary incumbrance of wall and is rendered as light in all its parts as is compatible with strength -- the stability of the building depending not upon inert massiveness, except in the outermost abutment of active parts whose opposing forces neutralize each other and produce a perfect equilibrium. It is thus a system of balanced thrusts in contradistinction to the ancient system of inert stability. Gothic architecture is such a system carried out in a finely artistic spirit (

Much of the beauty of the church lies in its mosaics, which include 36 fifth-century mosaics of the lives of Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and mosaics on the Annunciation and the Infancy of Crhist on the triumphal arch. There is also:

in the 13th-century apse are Jacopo Torriti's mosaics, including the Coronation of the Virgin (1295), the pinnacle of Rome's medieval mosaic tradition; and those in the entrance loggia are by Filippo Rusuti. Other highlights include the Cappella Sistina (tomb of Sixtus V, by Domenico Fontana, 1588) and Cappella Paolina, built by rival popes, and Giovanni di Cosima's tomb of Cardinal Rodriguez (1299). The high altar reputedly contains relics of Christ's crib, the object of devotion of countless pilgrims (

These mosaics could well be seen as blasphemous by many, and indeed today they remain striking in their mixing of the Christian and the "pagan." Church officials were wary of idolatry in general but were specifically fearful of the ways in which art had been used in Rome to elevate individuals to divine status. Even when, as was the case in these mosaic depictions of Christ the subject actually was divine, the power of art to confuse the mundane and divine was still troubling to many in the church, as Brown (1973) argues.

The height of iconoclasm - which is simply any movement against the religious use of images - probably came for Christians in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. In 726 and 730 Emperor Leo III promulgated a decree forbidding the veneration of images. This decision was condemned by the pope, but the iconoclastic doctrine was rigorously enforced at Constantinople by Leo and even more by his son and successor Constantine V, who had the worship of images condemned as idolatry at a church council in 754 (Ross 117). The accession of Empress Irene brought with it a change in policy, and the iconoclasts were condemned in their turn at the second Council of Nicaea, in 787.

Maria del Fiore

This struggle between the use and non-use of imagery in the church was less central to the history of Florence's Gothic cathedral, the church of Maria del Fiore, in no small part because in this church (as is arguably more typical of Gothic churches) the splendor of the architecture overwhelmed the glorious surface decorations as well as because of the architectural nature of the design.

Every church is a combination of the practical and the impractical, the earthly and the divine - a conjunction between the restraints of stone and gravity and mortar and human inspirations to achieve the divine. The church of Santa Maria del Fiore is no exception, for it is combination of specific historical forces and styles. It is a church that was designed to inspire those who came to it to feel themselves drawn to the divine, to feel themselves actually partaking of the divine not only through the process of communion but also through their physical immersion into the space of the church.

By entering into…

Sources Used in Documents:


Brown, Peter. "A Dark Age Crisis." English Historical Review 88 (1973), 1-34.

Cameron, Averil. "The Virgin's Robe: An Episode in the History of Seventh-Century Constantinople." Byzantion 49 (1979), 42-56.

Croddy, S. "Gothic Architecture and Scholastic Philosophy." The British Journal of Aesthetics 39 (3), 263-272.

Davis, Michael, Science, Technology, and Gothic Architecture. Avista 8 (2) (1994/95), 3-6.

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