The Gothic Cathedral: Height, Light, and also Color


The Gothic cathedral was one of the most aweinspiring achievements of medieval technology. Architects and engineers constructed churches native skeletal rock ribs created of spicy arches, ribbed vaults, and also flying buttresses to produce soaring upright interiors, colorful windows, and also an atmosphere celebrating the secret and spiritual nature the light. Based upon empirical technology, the medieval cathedral noted the Middle periods with an impressive residence of worship, a ar center, a symbol of religious and public pride, and a continuous reminder of the power and also presence that God and also the church.

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The growing influence and power of the Christian church in western Europe ~ the loss of Rome in 400 affected church architecture. In Mediterranean Europe whereby sunny skies and also hot summer days mandated structures with small window space and thick walls, the Romanesque style conquered church architecture. However, in thenorthern and also western areas of the continent, cloudy days and less intense summer warmth were common so designers occurred a layout that attempted to maximize inner light and uninterrupted inner heights. Architects seek a style that would provide larger home windows to illuminate the buildings" interiors. Due to the fact that a cathedral nave flooded through light would have actually a dramatic effect on the faithful, vast window space became a vital characteristic of the Gothic style and responded to one of the goals of a growing and dominant religious beliefs in the middle ages era.

The campaigns also affected the advance of the Gothic style. Crusaders returning from the divine Land brought with them many relics, and church fathers wanted to display screen these divine objects prominently. Devout Christians often undertook several pilgrimages in a lifetime; since hordes that pilgrims paid homage to these relics the numbers of worshipers start those churches boosted intensifying the require for a greater amount of inner light and space.

The usage of light together a variable in worship and in understanding the mystical paralleled another chief goal of the medieval cathedral builder: the quest of greater and also greater interior heights. At a time once religion conquered everyday life and when the faithful invested an mean of 3 days a week at a worship service, church leaders sought an architectural layout which produced a sense of awe, a sense of the majesty and also power that God because that anyone who gone into the church. Waging a continuous battle against gravity, master masons, that both designed and built this cathedrals, want to create as much uninterrupted vertical space as possible in their rock structures. This soaring heights noted a dramatic internal which served to reinforce the power of the church.

Medieval master masons provided three architectural gadgets to create the Gothic style: the spicy arch, the ribbed vault, and also the flying buttress. The pointed arch, a format that diffused come the West indigenous the Arabic world, allowed the use of slender columns and also high, large open archways. These rock arches were essential in the resultant stone bays that noted the basic support mechanism for a Gothic cathedral freeing the area between arches from sustaining the building. For the church"s interior, these "curtain walls" included to the delicacy, openness, light and also verticality that the space. The curtain wall surfaces on the building"s exterior to be filled v glass, regularly stained or fancy glass, conveying part Biblical or various other sacred tales.

The usage of ribbed vaults because that cathedral ceilings additional the sharp arch together an architectural element. By transporting the theme of slender rock members indigenous the floor through the ceiling, ribbed vaults reinforced the feeling of height and lightness in the building. In a visual and structural sense, this vaults linked several stone columns transparent the building, emphasizing the interconnected stone elements which developed a skeletal structure that to be both visually dramatic and also structurally elegant.

The flying buttress perfect the trio of distinctive Gothic design elements. In essence, this type of buttress, generally used top top the exterior the a church, supplemented the structural stamin of the building by transporting the weight of the roof away from the walls onto these exterior aspects surrounding the edifice. Often included as a way of addressing a trouble of cracking wall surfaces in an present building, this buttresses were incorporated so artfully right into the exterior style of the cathedral the they ended up being a hallmark that the Gothic style. By releasing the walls from supporting lot of the weight of the cathedral roof, the paris buttress permitted medieval architects to pursue their score of reaching ever before greater inner heights.

The mix of these new architectural elements, which defined the Gothic style, along with the Church"s attention in boosted interior light, space, and also height, led to a new technology heavily influenced by religion. Religion"s goals listed the catalyst for a daring empirical technology; in ~ the very same time, technical methods permitted the church to achieve creative awe-inspiring space within a brand-new architectural style.


The abduction Suger of St.-Denis close to Paris first promoted the Gothic layout in medieval France. Together the top French cleric of his time, Suger top the mom church the St.-Denis with its solid ties come the French crown. Once he sought come transform that church into an impressive facility for pilgrimages and also royal worship, that turned come the emerging Gothic style. Gothic aspects would allow him to develop a building with soaring heights, with curtain wall surfaces to fill with stories and also lessons in glass, and with a display of light used to represent secret and divinity. Because that Suger, the Gothic style developed a transcendental aura, a theology the light and also he compliment it as "ecclesiastical design for the medieval world." Suger"s architectural choices spreadthroughout France so properly that the country became home to the many impressive and also successful Gothic cathedrals. His concept that architecture could serve as theology appealed to the Church v its great influence over a mass of illiterate believers. The Gothic cathedral came to be a vast edifice of stories, signs, and also symbols filled with church teachings and also lessons for any type of who happen by or gone into these churches. For many people of the center Ages, the cathedral became the poor man"s Bible.

The cathedral itself to be a citadel the symbols. The orientation the the structure usually positioned the altar facing eastern toward the holy Land through the floor plan in the form of a cross. Exteriors consisted of sculptural facets representing both sacred and secular themes. A relenten of the critical Judgment frequently adorned the west portal so all who gone into were reminded of their ultimate fate. Usually, the west portal additionally consisted of three entry-ways to winter the doctrine of the Trinity. Interiors included rose and other stained glass windows through the same mix the the sacred and the secular scenes present on the exterior. Climbed windows themselves offered as depictions of infinity, unity, perfection, and also the central role that Christ and also the Virgin mary in the life that the Church. The interplay of geometry and also light in increased windows and the special characteristics of an altering color tones and also glowing home window glass in every one of the stained glass windows created a visual endure with mystical and also magical features that transported a viewer into a civilization far various from his or her mundane medieval surroundings. Sculptures within, together with paintings, tapestries, and also geometric patterns in columns and also walls, added to the to teach environment; inside a cathedral one can not escape gift exposed come lessons or stories. Add to this the awe one feel by the good interior heights and also the cathedral"s affect was overwhelming, reinforcing the church"s power and influence in the medieval world.

In enhancement to its role as a facility of church lessons, the cathedral offered as a resource of community pride. Frequently the largest structure in a city or town, the church served as community center, theater, concert hall, circus ring, and also meeting place. The cathedral at Amiens in northern France, for example, can house the entire populace of the city. Regularly sited ~ above the highest point in a city or in the city center, the cathedral dominated the cityscape. V its soaring towers and spires it might be viewed for mile around and also became a price of a city much as high-rises or tall monuments define cities in modern-day society. Because the cathedral to be a resource of civic too as religious pride, urban vied through each various other to build the largest or the tallest churches. Together a multi-purpose structure, the cathedral served as much much more than a home of worship.

Anyone who visits an extant Gothic cathedral today quickly understands the impact it had on medieval life, religion, and also technology. Just as religion overcame the era, the sanctuaries themselves dominated, and continue to dominate, lot of the landscape of west Europe leave no question concerning the significant force in people"s lives.

For example, Gothic basilicas commanded the physics landscape v interior and also exterior heights no matched until the so late nineteenth century. External main cathedral towers increasing as high together 450 feet (137 m) and also uninterrupted interior an are of 130-160 feet (40-49 m) native floor come ceiling overwhelm modern-day visitors lot as lock did medieval worshipers centuries ago.

Because Christianity reigned end every element of middle ages society, the sacred and the secular ended up being intertwined so the a cathedral played, and continues come play, both ecclesiastical and also civic roles. With so much inner space, it stays the facility for plenty of special occasions as well as regular church activities.

Likewise, the cathedral together a marvel of one empirical technology, using relatively simple tools and skilled craftsmen aided by a huge labor force, remains an impressive example of the interaction of an innovation and religion. That link has had an influence so strong in the Western world that the Gothic layout has end up being synonymous through church architecture. The neo-Gothic style appears in plenty of churches, and also even skyscrapers, developed in the nineteenth and also twentieth centuries.

Standing this day as reminders the a historic era, the Gothic cathedrals administer insights into the power of religion, the accomplishments of technology, and also the role of civic pride and responsibility. Their affect has sustained over the centuries and continues to accumulate awe in both the sacred and also the secular civilizations just together they did as soon as these magnificent stone structures were first built in the Western civilization several century ago.


Further Reading

Courtenay, Lynn T. The engineering of Gothic Cathedrals. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1997.

Favier, Jean. The world of Chartres. NY: take care of N. Abrams Incorporated, 1990.

Gimpel, Jean. The Cathedral Builders. NY: Grove Press, 1983.

Johnson, Paul. British Cathedrals. NY: william Morrow & Company, 1980.

Morris, Richard. Cathedrals and Abbeys that England and Wales: The building Church, 600-1540. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

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von Simson, Otto. The Gothic Cathedral: origins of Gothic Architecture and also the Medieval ide of Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press, 1974.