Cathedrals Of The Twelve Centure Essay Research

Cathedrals Of The Twelve Centure Essay, Research Paper

Cathedrals of the 12th CenturyFor nearly four hundred years Gothic style dominated the architecture of Western Europe.It originated in northern France in the twelfth century, and spread rapidly across England and theContinent, invading the old Viking empire of Scandinavia. It confronted the Byzantine provincesof Central Europe and even made appearances in the near East and the Americas. Gothicarchitects designed town halls, royal palaces, courthouses, and hospitals. They fortified cities andcastles to defend lands against invasion. But it was in the service of the church, the most prolificbuilder of the Middle Ages, that the Gothic style got its most meaningful expression, providing thewidest scope for the development of architectural ideas.1Although by 1400 Gothic had become the universal style of building in the Western world,its creative heartland was in northern France in an area stretching from the royal domain aroundParis, including Saint-Denis and Chartres, to the region of the Champagne in the east andsouthward to Bourges. Within this restricted area, in the series of cathedrals built in the course ofthe 12th and 13th centuries, the major innovations of Gothic architecture took place.2The supernatural character of medieval religious architecture was given a special form inthe Gothic church. “Medieval man considered himself but an imperfect refraction of Divine Lightof God, Whose Temple stood on earth, according to the text of the dedication ritual, stood for theHeavenly City of Jerusalem.”3 The Gothic interpretation of this point of view was a cathedral sogrand that seems to belittle the man who enters it, for space, light, structure and the plastic effectsof the stonework are made to produce a visionary scale. The result of the Gothic style isdistortion as there is no fixed set of proportions in the parts. Such architecture did not onlyexpress the physical and spiritual needs of the Church, but also the general attitude of the peopleof that time. Gothic was not dark, massive, and contained like the older Romanesque style, butlight, open, and aerial, and its appearance in all parts of Europe had an enduring effect on theoutlook of succeeding generations.4Gothic architecture evolved at a time of profound social and economic change in WesternEurope. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries trade and industry were revived, particularly innorthern Italy and Flanders, and a lively commerce brought about better communications, not onlybetween neighboring towns but also between far-distant regions. Politically, the twelfth centurywas also the time of the expansion and consolidation of the State. Along with political andeconomic developments, a powerful new intellectual movement arose that was stimulated by thetranslation of ancient authors from Greek and Arabic into Latin, and a new literature came intobeing. Gothic architecture both contributed to these changes and was affected by them.5The Gothic style was essentially urban. The cathedrals of course were all situated intowns, and most monasteries, had by the twelfth century become centers of communities whichpossessed many of the functions of civic life. The cathedral or abbey church was the building inwhich the people congregated on major feast days. It saw the start and the end of splendid andcolorful ceremonies, and it held the earliest dramatic performances. The abbey traditionallycomprised at least a cloister, a dormitory and a refectory for the monks. But the cathedral alsowas around a complex of buildings, the bishop’s palace, a cloister and the house of canons, aschool, a prison, and a hospital. However the cathedral dominated them all, rising high above the

town like a marker to be seen from afar.6The architectural needs of the Church were expressed in both physical and iconographicalterms. Like its Romanesque predecessor, the Gothic cathedral was eminently adaptable. It couldbe planned larger or smaller, longer or shorter, with or without transepts and ambulatory,according to the traditions and desires of each community. It had no predetermined proportions ornumber of parts, like the Roman temple or the centrally planned church of the Renaissance. Itssocial and liturgical obligations demanded a main altar at the end of a choir where the chapter andthe various dignitaries would be seated, a number of minor altars, and an area for processionswithin the building.7 There were rarely more than about two hundred persons participating in theservice, even though the smallest Gothic cathedral could easily contain that number. The rest ofthe building simply supplemented this core and provided space for the laity, who were notpermitted to enter the choir or sanctuary. Still, after the middle of the twelfth century, the choirwas usually isolated by a monumental screen that effectively prevented laymen from even seeingthe service, and special devotional books came into use to supply the congregation with suitablesubjects of meditation during mass.8The program of the Gothic church fulfilled iconographical as well as social requirements.The intellectual centers of the Middle Ages had long been associated with the Church, and thetradition of learning that had been preserved in monastic and cathedral schools gave rise touniversities such as Paris and Oxford in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Such anassociation obviously had an effect on the arts, which were still primarily religious in nature.Scholarly clerics, for instance, were appointed to arrange the intricate, theological programs forthe sculpture and the stained glass that decorated the church. The relationship is thought by somehistorians to have been even closer, for scholastic thinking first took shape in Paris early in thetwelfth century, at the very time that Gothic architecture came into being there. It is possible thatarchitects, who were “abstract” thinkers in their own right, may occasionally have absorbed someof the habits of thought of the philosophers. In the absence of written documents, however, itcannot be proved whether these habits were consistently embodied in the design of the buildings.9The Gothic age, as has often been observed, was an age of vision. The supernaturalmanifested itself to the senses. In the religious life of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, thedesire to behold sacred reality with bodily eyes appeared as the dominant theme. Architecturewas designed and experienced as a representation of an ultimate reality.10 The Gothic cathedralwas originated in the religious experience and in the political and even physical realities, oftwelfth-century France. It was described as an illusionistic image of the Celestial City as evokedin the Book of Revelation. The essence of Gothic style was most fully developed in its conquestof space and its creation of a prodigious, visionary scale in the cathedrals of the twelfth century.11 BibliographyBranner, Robert. The Great Ages of World Architecture: Gothic Architecture. New York:George Braziller, 1967. Gimpel, Jean. The Cathedral Builders. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Mitchell, Ann. Great Buildings of the World: Cathedrals of Europe. Feltham: The HamlynPublishing Group, 1968. Panofsky, E. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe: Faber and Faber Limited, 1951. Simson, Otto von. The Gothic Cathedral. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1956. Worringer, Wilhelm. Form In Gothic. New York: Alec Tiranti Limited, 1957.


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