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Through the middle ages, architecture dynamically evolved. However, the French Gothic architecture movement introduced elaborate and ornate structures that were never seen before. These cathedrals were usually made by the majority of their townspeople and took hundreds of years to finish in most cases. The skilled craftsmen of this time pushed the limits of the structures’ capabilities by building tall walls with as little stone as possible, creating more room in the interior of the walls. Our modern society today, looks to these old structures and wonder what “magic” they delved into in order to construct massive, elaborate stone tall stone ceilings on top of enormous glass windows without our advanced tools and technology today. These were limits Romanesque architecture did not try to push. With thick, sturdy walls that were fortress-like in stature, Romanesque architecture was outshone by Gothic style and design. Romanesque architecture evolved into a form closer to perfect in which gravity was more apt to keep it supported. Besides elements of structure, French Gothic architecture stands out from other styles because of the dramatic amount of ornaments and other new elements that were never attempted before in this day in age. The first to introduce and be acknowledged for renown gothic elements in a cathedral was Abbot Suger.
Abbot Suger was the abbot of the French Abbey Church of Saint Denis from 1122-1151.
The basilica of Saint Denis was first built in 636 under the order of King Dagobert I in order to construct a place to hold St. Denis’ and later the French King’s remains in a sacred place. In the twelfth century, Abbot Suger commissioned the reconstruction of portions of the church using decorative features and an innovative strategy for its structure. Multiple texts, speak about Suger’s influence on Gothic architecture. In the text, Gothic Art 1140c-1450:Sources and Documents by Teresa Grace Frisch, stated, “The man who commissioned and personally directed the building of the first gothic structure was Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, churchman, diplomat, and trusted advisor of the two Kings of France. His passionate interest in every phase of the reconstruction of the old abbey church, his rare intelligence and his intuitive ability to evaluate the artistic experiments of his time made him a great patron of the arts,” (Frisch 4).
Lindy Grant, author of Abbot Suger of St-Denis, supports this same idea that Suger is a prominent figure that introduced the beginning works of the Gothic architecture movements. Her text states, “As the builder of much of the new abbey church at Saint-Denis, he has been identified as the creator single-handedly of the gothic style of architecture,” (Grant XI) With the Basilica of St. Denis, Suger introduced; pointed, tall arches, thin, tall walls, abundant and colorful windows, ribbed vault ceilings, tympanums, and thinner columns with more detail, layers, and foundation that sits on a pedestal, opposed to the ground. Later, there are ornate and exaggerated details applied to elaborate, web-like flying buttresses and scary, menacing gargoyles. Another special creation that Suger built within our first gothic abbey church was the ambulatory, the aisle behind the altar. The ambulatory would allow pilgrims to stop at the small chapels, little rooms that have significant and religious artifacts. Usually these rooms were isolated with walls and barriers around them until Suger. Suger decided he wanted to try to make the walls disappear by hiding them behind colorful windows and opening the space up and letting the light in. Lindy Grant supports this idea again by writing,
“What was novel about the west front, as I have said, was the arrangements of its architectural elements. The same is true of the luminous and elegant ambulatory…It initiates a long and fruitful series of variations on its architectural themes: the twin-towered west front, the triple portal, the column figure, the rose window; the rung of radiating chapels, the double ambulatory, the columnar pier and the large window,” (Grant 28).
Suger introduced and started an artistic and architectural movement that motivated and changed the style and structure of buildings that were seen at that time and forever. During a time in which buildings did not have that much light, color, and decoration, this change of architectural design that was began in the Basilica of Saint-Denis was jaw dropping. Suger, similar to honoring King Dagobert I wishes years later, decided it is best to give Saint Denis’ remains a respectable and honorary place to stay that gives off the feeling of being a passageway to god, the almighty, and heaven. To an extent he accomplished this through light, color, space, style, and elegance.
Around a period of time like this Saint Denis, a legendary Christian saint and bishop who was decapitated because of his love and devotion to his faith, played a significant role in the evolution of Paris (Lutetia). The legend of his death is as follows; after decapitation, Saint Denis picked up his head that spoke in sermons and walked several miles to the chapel where his body was buried. During this time, Paris was beginning as a regional settlement and the capital for the Parisii, a Gallic tribe. At this time Julius Caesar referred to it as Lutetia. Now, researchers and historians are not able to find a definite answer as to why he called the Gallo-Roman city, Lutetia. However, there are theories on what the term might mean based on Celtic root words. For example, the root, luto- or luteuo- means “marsh, swamp” and maybe even “dirty”. Other Celtic roots cause individuals to speculate the name having to do with “mice.” Lutetia was founded around the time period of 400 BCE through 300 BCE. This settlement was broken into two parts; a portion of the north and south; but was mainly constructed on the south bank of the Seine river, termed the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Around 51 to 53 BCE, Julius Caesar invaded and obtained the said fishing village territory, Gaul and Lutetia. After a loss control over their settlement, Lutetia was one of few northern European establishments that had converted to Christianity approximately around the third century AD. Then, in 360 AD, the name “Lutetia” was changed to “Paris,” following the Gallic tribe of the Parisii. The beautiful Basilica of St. Denis, like many other things, is located in the Ile de France, which is defined as, “ Island of France” although, this is not to be confused with the actual island that lays across the Seine River, called Ile de la Cite. Ile de France includes eight different regions, Essonne, Paris, Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-et-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-d’Oise, Val-de-Marne, and Yvelines. This collection of regions, including Paris hold around eighteen percent of France’s entire population. The actual island, Ile de la Cite, also shows French Gothic architecture through the construction of the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris.
Notre Dame de Paris stands for “Our lady of Paris” and was constructed on the fourth arrondissements of Paris, France around 1163. Maurice de Sully ordered the original cathedral to be demolished in 1160 and from there, generations built it until 1345. The original structure and its glory remained until the French Revolution, when it was demolished and destroyed. However, in 1845, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, began an extensive restoration project. Now, it is our prime example of French Gothic Architecture and holds precious relics like the Crown of Thorns. The structure of this cathedral as well as many others, are geometrically as perfect as they could get it as well as, creating a structure with less stone but, just as much support.
In Otto von Simson’s book, The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, he states, “With few exceptions, the Gothic builders have been tight-lipped about the symbolic significance to their projects, but they are unanimous in paying tribute to geometry as the basis of the art. This is revealed even by a glance at Gothic architectural drawings…” (Simson 13). The craftsmen at this time were unbelievably skilled. Before all the tools and technology we have to make everything easier, these cathedrals were created with such a perfection. It is stated that they used a hidden mathematical code that was taken from the pages of the bible and used it as a blueprint which they justified it as “using the proportions by which god made the universe.” Starting with flying buttresses since Notre Dame is known for being one of the first to have them, these flying buttresses have an exact shape and placement in order for them to be effective, considering them also geometric. If the stress points of the buttresses are too high, the buttresses will have no use. However, when placed properly, the extra wings on the buttress will prevent the stones of the arch from pushing outward. Next, Gothic architecture introduced a new style and strategy when constructing arches. Opposed to round arches, pointed arches are more sturdy. Due to the stress lines, the round arch puts too much downward pressure on the form of the arch and it will want to flatten, similar to a piece of paper. However, a pointed Gothic arches stress lines are aimed towards the ground, following the natural force of gravity. So, these are arches tend to be more stable. Another new idea that allowed the builders to push the constraints of Notre Dame was the new concept of a rib vault ceiling. In the text, Universe of Stone, by Philip Ball stated, “In the first half of the eleventh century, churches tended to have timber ceilings, and roofs. But the Cluniancs began to give their buildings stone vaults constructed on a skeleton of arches… The introduction of the vault created the concept of a bay…” (Ball 27). During the Gothic era, it became difficult and dangerous to build a dome or ceiling without a safer, guaranteed plan. So they used this method called “centering” and built a wooden framework in which they later put the masonry blocks on top of the frame, waited for the mortar to dry, and then moved the framework to the next bay. This strategy became more efficient and structurally sound when they understood the right technique. In Robert A Scott’s book, The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, explains lime mortar, “The courses of stone that form the walls and pillars of Salisbury Cathedral are bound together withlime mortar. This mortar was produced by adding water to a mixture of sand and quicklime, which was a by-product of ?ring ordinary chalk,” (Scott 23).
Another material primarily used is, Lutetian Limestone, or Paris Limestone. This paris limestone is immaculately beautiful with its color and gave gothic structures more life. This stone is said to illuminate “the city of light” as well as being economically efficient and versatile as a building substance. Using this unique Paris stone, many Gothic structures can be associated with a fairytale like quality as this limestone is almost iridescent and shimmers, as stone and concrete are plain, and do not show such majesty.
With the emergence of gothic architecture came the revolution of light, specifically colored light. Light took on such an importance, that architects and builders played with the idea that a window will not pierce the wall, instead, it shall cause the wall to disappear as its spans across it entirely. This was an architectural movement in which great emphasis was placed on the windows and all of its details like tracery. These details created a mystical, enchanting atmosphere in its cathedrals that individuals could have only associated with castles at the time.
This majesty, with its beauty and power, was an evolving force that individuals like Saint Denis and Abbot Suger believed should be encompassed in to this religious atmosphere as visitors of the cathedral look to reach for and connect with god.
Supporting this idea, Abbot Suger had an inscription on the bronze doors of the St. Denis Cathedral stating, “Marvel not at the gold and the expense but the craftsmanship of the work… Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light where Christ is the true door…The dull mind rises to the truth through that which is material, and in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” Constructing an open space in which considerate amounts of colorful light floods into and building windows that tell the stories of the life of Christ, is believed to help connect and transport to a state of divinity. The light is also believed to insight thinking and help people “move from contemplation to the light of god.” Churches and cathedrals are associated with being heaven on earth, so the idea is to transport the guests to a sacred, spiritual, and heavenly place. Overall, the colorful light that reflects into the church gives off a magnificent aura that elicits a heightened spiritual experience.
Structurally, colored light is said to unify the interior of the building, and deemphasize the structure, hiding otherwise obvious elements of the cathedral. One supporting example would include the stained glass windows that depict scenes from God’s life. Typical scenes to see would be images of revelation, the birth of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Mystic Mill. However, a predominant feature that seems to stand out is the beauty and commonality of the use of Virgin Mary’s life. For example, there is a stunning stained glass window that was assembled of Mary in Notre Dame de Chartres called “Notre Dame de la Belle Vernere.” This is translated to “Our lady of the beautiful window.” Since, this is the only one, and gothic stained glass windows are not replicated, individuals become more appreciative of its uniqueness. As this scene is pretty straightforward, other stained glass windows have more complicated stories or scenes. However, all of them are significant, now due to their craftsmanship and back then, because they helped teach illiterate guests who came to be entranced by the home of god. Structurally, these windows practically created the wall as only thin sections of wall were built in between the windows. Not to forget, gothic structures are known for being built vertically and being massively tall. This height gives predominance to these stained glass windows.
A central feature in a gothic cathedral is a rose window. A rose window is a wheel of stained glass that encompasses patterned tracery in a petal like formation and sometimes portrays images God and his saints and reflects immense amounts of light, similar to the other gothic windows. The rose window is considered a symbol of gothic perfection. When creating the elements of the rose window, everything measures equally, perfectly parallel, and symmetrical. They built and ensured the window was symmetrically perfect by using the equilateral triangle, square, and circle. Examples of this are shown when breaking down the process of creating these several famously known shapes seen in the rose window. Five of these shapes are termed trefoil, quatrefoil, cinquefoil, six foil, and fish bladder which all are symmetrically perfect. This was an idea no architect had really seen before the Gothic middle ages. Not only did Gothic architecture put a new spin on the wheel window but, it introduced an entire new idea and perception of what a cathedral should enclose.
Allowing a little bit more creative freedom, however still very measurably accurate, gothic tracery tended to be in a flamboyant style. Tracery is the stonework elements that support the glass in a gothic window. Flamboyant refers to wavy, flamelike tracery and ornate decoration. Evolving from Romanesque to Gothic, the tracery became significantly more elaborate and decorative. Opposed to tracery that resembled the spokes of a wheel, the tracery gained elegance and become more eye catching as it became a lot more detailed.
Beginning with the decorative gargoyles and grotesques, gargoyles were created to actually serve a very practical purpose. As these buildings grew to become more and more ornate, it wasn’t an option to have a regular roof draining system. They decided they wanted a waterspout that followed the decorative pattern of the rest of the structure. Besides their practicality, gargoyles and their buddies, grotesque were spiritually important. To the illiterate individuals walking past the cathedral, who live in a world of superstition and belief, they might have thought that he or she needs to attend this church because if not, they would catch themselves being chased by these flying creatures that fly free at night.
Another aspect of decoration in Gothic architecture are the stories and sculptures carved into the front facade and doors of a cathedral. The front facade is practically a library with all of the knowledge and advice depicted in pictures so that even people that couldn’t read could admire the facade. For example, Notre Dame de Paris has a very eccentric west facade. Going from left to right, Notre Dame has three main doors, which are referred to as portals, the left being “Portal of the Virgin, the middle being “Portal of the last judgment,” and the right is the “Portal of St. Anne.” Starting with the most important, the center portal, depicting “The Last Judgment,” its construction was the last to be finished. The bottom lintel of this portal shows the dead rising out of their graves, then on them upper lintel, shows Archangel Michael weighing out their souls. Depending on the life they lived, they would either be sent to heaven or damned to hell which is what is depicted in this scene above and around the middle door. The portal on the left, depicts the story of the Virgin. On the middle part of the lintel, shows Mary on her deathbed surrounded by Jesus and the twelve apostles, with angels about to bring her to heaven. The upper part of the lintel shows Mary in heaven being crowned as the queen as she shares a throne with Jesus. Lastly the third door, the Portal of St. Anne. This portal depicts many scenes of the birth of jesus, like the annunciation, nativity, and epiphany.
In regards to the construction of these sculptures, some were beginning to create more realistic figures, that started to become more proportionally accurate. In other cases, the figures still remain god like and unrealistic due to the elongated bodies and unrealistic form, leaving them looking like they are floating. The art movement of Gothic Architecture was truly an important thing and was practically portrayed in every part of their structure.
French Gothic Architecture has forever changed and evolved the perspective of a structure’s capability and charm, regardless of the time period it originates from and the tools they had to build it. From the beginning many people have always associated “Gothic” Architecture with scary, and vulgar, and dark feelings as the Gallic tribe is associated with the term. However, Gothic Architecture truly isn’t supposed to be associated with ill feelings, it was a time were they played with light, color, and things we only see in fairytales. Now, many of the aspects, plans, and styles we use today are influenced by the ideas that lie at the core of Gothic Architecture.
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