The Gothic Flowering



WHY did Western Europe build so many churches in the three centuries after 1000? What need was there, in a Europe with hardly a fifth of its present population, for temples so vast that they are now rarely filled even on the holiest days? How could an agricultural civilization afford to build such costly edifices, which a wealthy industrialism can barely maintain?

The population was small, but it believed; it was poor, but it gave. On holydays, or in pilgrimage churches, the worshipers were so numerous, said Suger of St. Denis, that “women were forced to run toward the altar on the heads of men as a pavement”;1 the great abbot was raising funds to build his masterpiece, and could be forgiven a little exaggeration. In towns like Florence, Pisa, Chartres, York it was desirable on occasion to gather the entire population into one edifice. In populous monasteries the abbey church had to accommodate monks and nuns and laity. Relics had to be guarded in special shrines, with room for intimate devotion, and a spacious sanctuary was needed for major rituals. Side altars were required in abbeys and cathedrals whose many priests were expected to say Mass every day; a separate altar or chapel for each favored saint might incline his ear to petitioners; and Mary had to have a “Lady Chapel” if the whole cathedral was not hers.

The construction was financed largely by the accumulated funds of the episcopal see. In addition the bishop solicited gifts from kings, nobles, communes, guilds, parishes, and individuals. The communes were stirred to a wholesome rivalry, in which the cathedral became the symbol and challenge of their wealth and power. Indulgences were offered to those who contributed; relics were carried about the diocese to stimulate giving; and generosity might be prodded by an occasional miracle.2 Competition for building funds was keen; bishops objected to collections made in their dioceses for undertakings in another; in some cases, however, bishops from many parts, even from foreign lands, sent aid to an enterprise, as at Chartres. Though some of these appeals verged on pressure, they hardly rivaled the intensity of the influences mobilized for the public financing of a modern war. The cathedral chapters exhausted their own funds, and almost bank-rupted the French Church, in the Gothic ecstasy. The people themselves did not feel exploited when they contributed; they hardly missed the mite they individually gave; and for that mite they received, as a collective achievement and pride, a home for their worship, a meeting place for their community, a school of letters for their children, a school of arts and crafts for their guilds, and a Bible in stone whereby they might contemplate, in statue and picture, the story of their faith. The house of the people was the house of God.

Who designed the cathedrals? If architecture is the art of designing and beautifying a building and directing its construction, we must reject, for Gothic, the old view that the priests or monks were the architects. Their function was to formulate their needs, conceive a general plan, secure a location, and raise funds. Before 1050 it was usual for the clergy, especially the Cluniac monks, to design and superintend as well as to plan; but for the great cathedrals—all after 1050—it was found necessary to engage professional architects who, with rare exceptions, were neither monks nor priests. The architect would not receive that title till 1563; his medieval name was “master builder,” sometimes “master mason”; and these terms reveal his origin. He began as an artisan physically engaged in the work that he directed. In the thirteenth century, as wealth permitted greater edifices and specialization, the master builder was one who—no longer sharing in the physical work —submitted designs and competitive estimates, accepted contracts, made ground plans and working drawings, procured materials, hired and paid artists and artisans, and supervised the construction from beginning to end. We know the names of many such architects after 1050—of 137 Gothic architects in medieval Spain alone. Some of them inscribed their names on their buildings, and a few wrote books about their craft. Villard de Honne-court (c. 1250) left an album of architectural notes and sketches made on the travels that he undertook, in the practice of his profession, from Laon and Reims to Lausanne and Hungary.

The artists who did the more delicate work—who carved the figures and reliefs, or painted the windows or the walls, or decorated the altar or the choir—were not distinguished from the artisans by any special name; the artist was a master artisan, and every industry strove to be an art. Much of the work was distributed by contract among the guilds to which artists and artisans alike belonged. The unskilled labor was provided by serfs or hired migratory workers; and when time pressed, the government conscripted men —even skilled artisans—to complete the task.3 Hours of labor were from sunrise to sunset in winter, from a little after sunrise to a little before sundown in summer, with time allowed for a substantial meal at noon. English architects, in 1275, received twelve pence ($12) a day, with traveling expenses and occasional gifts.

The ground plan of the cathedral was still essentially that of the Roman basilica: a longitudinal nave terminating in a sanctuary and an apse, and rising above and between two aisles to a roof supported by walls and colonnades. By a complex but fascinating evolution this simple basilica became first the Romanesque, and, then the Gothic, cathedral. The nave and aisles were cut by a transept—a transverse nave—giving the plan the figure of a Latin cross. The ground area was enlarged by rivalry or devotion until Notre Dame at Paris covered 63,000 square feet, Chartres or Reims 65,000, Amiens 70,000, Cologne 90,000, St. Peter’s 100,000. The Christian church was almost always oriented—built with the head or apse pointing eastward—toward Jerusalem.

Hence the main portal was in the west façade, whose special decoration received the light of the setting sun. In the great cathedrals each portal was an archway with “recessed orders”: i.e., the innermost arch was topped with a larger arch overlapping outward, and this again with a larger arch, until there might be as many as eight such overreaching layers or “orders,” the whole forming an expanding shell. A similar “subordination of orders,” or gradation of parts, enhanced the beauty of nave arches and window jambs. Each order or stone band of the compound arch could receive statuary or other sculptural ornament, so that the portal, above all in the west front, became a profuse chapter in the stone book of Christian lore.

The dignity of the west façade was heightened by flanking it with towers. Towers are as old as the records of history. In Romanesque and Gothic they were used not only to house bells, but to support the lateral pressure of the façade and the longitudinal pressure of the aisles. In Normandy and England a third tower had many windows, or was largely open at the base, and served as a “lantern” to give a natural light to the center of the church. Gothic architects, enamored of verticality, aimed to add a spire to every tower; funds or skill or spirit failed; some spires fell, as at Beauvais; Notre Dame, Amiens, and Reims received no spires, Chartres only two of its intended three, Laon one of five—and that was destroyed in the Revolution. As the spire pointed the landscapes of the North, so the campanile or bell tower dominated the cities of Italy. There they were usually separate from the church, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or Giotto’s campanile at Florence. Possibly they took some hints from Moslem minarets; in turn they spread their style into Palestine and Syria; and they became the civic belfries of the northern towns.

Within the church the central aisle, if its flanking colonnades supported arches curving to meet across the ceiling vault, looked like the inner hull of an inverted ship, whence its name of nave. The full impression of its length was sometimes weakened, particularly in England, by a marble or iron grille, beautifully carved or cast, thrown across the nave to protect the sanctuary from lay intrusion during services. In the sanctuary were choir stalls, always works of art; two pulpits, sometimes called ambos from the Latin word forboth; seats for the officiating priests; and the main altar, often displaying an adorned rear screen or reredos. Around the sanctuary, continuing the aisles into the apse, ran an ambulatory, designed to allow processions to make full circuit of the edifice. Beneath the altar some churches, as if recalling the burial chambers of the Roman catacombs, built a crypt to hold the relics of a patron saint, or the bones of the distinguished dead.

The central problem of Romanesque and Gothic architecture was how to support the roof. Early Romanesque churches had wooden ceilings, usually of well-seasoned oak; such timbers, if properly ventilated and yet guarded from damp, would last indefinitely; so the south transept of Winchester Cathedral still has its eleventh-century ceiling of wood. The disadvantage of such structures lay in the danger of fires, which, once ignited, were hard to reach. By the twelfth century nearly all major churches had ceilings of masonry. The weight of these roofs determined the evolution of medieval European architecture. Much of this weight had to be borne by the columns that flanked the nave. These had therefore to be strengthened or multiplied; and this was done by combining several columns into a cluster, or replacing them by massive piers of masonry. The column, cluster, or pier was crowned with a capital, perhaps also with an impost to provide a larger surface to bear the superincumbent weight. From each pier or column cluster rose a fan of masonry arches: a transverse arch thrown athwart the nave to the opposite pier; another transverse arch crossing over the aisle to a pier in the wall; two longitudinal arches to the next pier forward and the next to the rear; two diagonal arches connecting the pier with diagonally opposite piers across the nave; and perhaps two diagonal arches to diagonally opposite piers across the aisle. Usually each arch had its own individual support on the impost or capital of the pier. Better still, each might be continued in unbroken line to the ground to form a component of a column cluster or compound pier; the vertical effect so produced was among the fairest features of the Romanesque and Gothic styles. Each quadrangle of piers in nave or aisle constituted a “bay,” from which the arches rose in graceful inward curvature to form a section of the vault. Externally this ceiling was covered by a gabled roof of wood, itself hidden and shielded by slate or tiles.

The vault became the crowning achievement of medieval architecture. The principle of the arch allowed a greater space to be spanned than had been practical with timbered ceiling or architrave. The nave could now be widened to harmonize with greater length; the widened nave required for proportion a greater height; this allowed the raising of the level at which the arches sprang inward from piers or walls; and this further prolongation of the direct shaft again enhanced the breath-taking verticality of the cathedral lines. The vault became a clearer harmony when its groins—the lines where the masonry arches met—were edged with “ribs” of brick or stone. These ribs in turn led to a major improvement in structure and style: the masons learned to begin the vault by erecting one rib at a time on an easily movable “centering” or wooden frame; they filled in with light masonry, one at a time, the triangles between each pair of ribs; this thin web of masonry was made concave, thereby shifting most of its weight to the ribs; and the ribs were made strong to channel the downward pressure to specific points—the piers of nave or wall. The groined and ribbed vault became the distinctive feature of medieval architecture at its height.

The problem of supporting the superstructure was further met by building the nave higher than the aisles; the roof of the aisle, with the outer wall, thus served as a buttress for the vault of the nave; and if the aisle itself was vaulted its ribbed arches would channel half their weight inward to counter the outward pressure of the central vault at the weakest points of the nave supports. At the same time, that part of the nave which rose beyond the roofs of the aisles became a clerestory or clearstory, whose unimpeded windows would illuminate the nave. The aisles themselves were usually divided into two or three stories, of which the uppermost constituted a gallery, and the second a triforium so called because the arched spaces by which it faced the nave were normally divided by two columns into “three doors.” In Eastern churches the women were expected to worship there, leaving the nave to the men.

So, stage by stage, through ten or twenty or a hundred years, the cathedral rose, defying gravity to glorify God. When it was ready for use it was dedicated in a ceremonious ritual that brought together high prelates and dignitaries, pilgrims and sightseers, and all the townsfolk except the village atheist. Years more would be spent in finishing exterior and interior, and adding a thousand embellishments. For many centuries the people would read on its portals, windows, capitals, and walls the sculptured or painted history and legends of the faith—the story of the Creation, the Fall of Man and the Last Judgment, the lives of the prophets and patriarchs, the sufferings and miracles of the saints, the moral allegories of the animal world, the dogmas of the theologians, even the abstractions of the philosophers; all would be there, in a vast stone encyclopedia of Christianity. When he died, the good Christian would want to be buried near those walls, where demons would be loath to roam. Generation after generation would come to pray in the cathedral; generation after generation would file out from the church into the tombs. The gray cathedral would look upon their coming and their passing with the silent calm of stone, until, in the greatest death of all, the creed itself would die, and those sacred walls would be surrendered to omnivorous time, or be ravished to raise new temples to new gods.

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