Gothic Churches: All The Celestial Light We Can See

A fire nearly destroyed the iconic Cathédrale Notre Dame in Paris—arguably the most famous cathedral in the world. Current efforts to restore it have been hampered, like most of life nowadays, by a deadly virus. Now that we all have to stop and take many deep—hopefully cleansing—breaths, we have the luxury to wonder about its interesting history.

Notre Dame de Paris is a Gothic cathedral which took two hundred years to build, starting in mid-1100’s. The Gothic style is of French origin, believed to have been spawned by a church abbot, Abbot Suger.

Would it surprise you to learn that the art behind the Gothic style has something in common with Impressionism, an art movement you’ve heard of? How about art that’s all about light?

Gothic architecture was based on the need to bring light inside church interiors that used to be dark. It preceded Impressionism, which asserted painting was about light, fomenting an artistic revolution that cemented the move away from Classicism.

This earlier artistic revolution was centered in Paris and its vicinity (the Ile de France), giving birth to Gothic churches. Breaking traditions more than six hundred years before Impressionism, it was no less shocking.

Vasari thought it a rough style with no sense of proportion and the term applied to it—from Goths, barbarous people of the North—was meant to denigrate it. “Impressionism” was also a term of mockery for a painting in its embryonic state.

Abbot Suger is credited with the design of the first monumental masterpiece of Gothic art, the Basilica of St Denis just outside Paris. It cradles the bones of the Kings and Queens of France.

But why was this earlier revolution about architecture? Why not sculpture or painting?

Unlike today, religion meant much to people of the Middle Ages. Most could neither read nor write, and they depended on learned men of the cloth for knowledge and wisdom. The influence of religion was everywhere—in the subject of art and in the construction of places of worship.

For the religious populace of the Middle Ages, God is light, (see God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5 RSV) King James Bible). To medieval worshipers, it was essential that light should bathe the interiors of cathedrals.

But how was that to be achieved?

If you said punch holes in the building, and install glass windows, you would be right. So master builders of the Middle Ages placed glass windows all around a cathedral. But those windows couldn’t just be plain. They had to evoke the celestial. To do so, builders fashioned stained glass windows depicting religious images. The round rose window is an essential element of Gothic churches.

Rose window, Notre Dame, Paris

Piercing walls which support the great weight of a cathedral roof would lead to catastrophic problems. It will collapse a building. Before Gothic architecture, churches were constructed a la Romanesque, which relied on massive walls to absorb the great weight of the roof and other interior structures.

Master builders of the Gothic period needed new construction techniques. They came up with solutions which introduced elements that define Gothic architecture: vaulted ceilings of intersecting ribs and flying buttresses. The ribs which cross in an X pattern help absorb geographic surges while the outside lateral pull of the structure is taken up by the flying buttress. These techniques not only eliminated the need for massive walls, they also made it possible to build a very tall building.

Flying buttresses Notre Dame de Paris

Flying buttresses Notre Dame de Paris

If you’ve been to Paris, you’ve most likely seen the Notre Dame de Paris, a top tourist attraction. But to art historians, the quintessential Gothic structure is the Notre Dame de Chartres. Construction of the present cathedral in Chartres ended in 1194 after a fire burned the old one in the same place. The glory of Chartres? Its stained glass windows. They glorify God and the Virgin in colors that’s made Chartres unique.

You might have heard of Chartres blue, maybe the color of heaven for many people. A blue popularly thought of as impossible to replicate today. But apparently that belief has no basis, according to Maria Rzepinka, a Polish art historian cited in this article.

Stained glass windows, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. Wikimedia commons

Two other gothic cathedrals are universally admired, primarily for a later development in Gothic architecture art historians have called Rayonnant. “Rayonnant” derives from using radiating spokes in the tracery of the rose window. It also changed:

the series of supports that compose the interior view; the vertical tension is brought to extremes, everything becomes more linear, without depth in the treatment of surfaces and visually without weight.

Notre Dame d’Amiens, one of the earlier incarnations of Rayonnant is also seen by many as the most beautiful for the harmony of its proportions. It also has the distinction of being the largest Gothic cathedral—twice as big as Notre Dame in Paris—as well as the second highest.

notre dame d'amiens interior

Notre Dame d’Amiens interior

Notre Dame de Reims is also in the Rayonnant style. Its fame rests in its history as the ancient sanctuary of the French kingdom, and the place of consecration for its kings.

2 thoughts on “Gothic Churches: All The Celestial Light We Can See

  1. Pingback: Strasbourg, French-German Fusion Alsatian City | Artsy Rambler

  2. Pingback: Notes From A Paris Diary: 3. Art in a Park and a Cistercian Monastery | Artsy Rambler

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