Gothic Middle Ages, that the Gothic style

GothicFor nearly four hundred years Gothic style dominated the architecture ofWestern Europe.

It originated in northern France in the twelfth century, andspread rapidly across England and the Continent, invading the old Viking empireof Scandinavia. It confronted the Byzantine provinces of Central Europe andeven made appearances in the near East and the Americas. Gothic architectsdesigned town halls, royal palaces, courthouses, and hospitals. They fortifiedcities and castles to defend lands against invasion. But it was in the serviceof the church, the most prolific builder of the Middle Ages, that the Gothicstyle got its most meaningful expression, providing the widest scope for thedevelopment of architectural ideas.1Although by 1400 Gothic had become the universal style of building inthe Western world, its creative heartland was in northern France in an areastretching from the royal domain around Paris, including Saint-Denis andChartres, to the region of the Champagne in the east and southward to Bourges.

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Within this restricted area, in the series of cathedrals built in the course ofthe 12th and 13th centuries, the major innovations of Gothic architecture tookplace.2The supernatural character of medieval religious architecture was givena special form in the Gothic church. “Medieval man considered himself but animperfect refraction of Divine Light of God, Whose Temple stood on earth,according to the text of the dedication ritual, stood for the Heavenly City ofJerusalem.”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, structureand the plastic effects of the stonework are made to produce a visionary scale.The result of the Gothic style is distortion as there is no fixed set ofproportions in the parts. Such architecture did not only express the physicaland spiritual needs of the Church, but also the general attitude of the peopleof that time.

Gothic was not dark, massive, and contained like the olderRomanesque style, but light, open, and aerial, and its appearance in all partsof Europe had an enduring effect on the outlook of succeeding generations.4Gothic architecture evolved at a time of profound social and economicchange in Western Europe. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries trade andindustry were revived, particularly in northern Italy and Flanders, and a livelycommerce brought about better communications, not only between neighboring townsbut also between far-distant regions.

Politically, the twelfth century wasalso the time of the expansion and consolidation of the State. Along withpolitical and economic developments, a powerful new intellectual movement arosethat was stimulated by the translation of ancient authors from Greek and Arabicinto Latin, and a new literature came into being. Gothic architecture bothcontributed to these changes and was affected by them.5The Gothic style was essentially urban. The cathedrals of course wereall situated in towns, and most monasteries, had by the twelfth century becomecenters of communities which possessed many of the functions of civic life.

The cathedral or abbey church was the building in which the people congregatedon major feast days. It saw the start and the end of splendid and colorfulceremonies, and it held the earliest dramatic performances.The abbeytraditionally comprised at least a cloister, a dormitory and a refectory for themonks.

But the cathedral also was around a complex of buildings, the bishop’spalace, a cloister and the house of canons, a school, a prison, and a hospital.However the cathedral dominated them all, rising high above the town like amarker to be seen from afar.6The architectural needs of the Church were expressed in both physicaland iconographical terms. Like its Romanesque predecessor, the Gothic cathedralwas eminently adaptable. It could be planned larger or smaller, longer orshorter, with or without transepts and ambulatory, according to the traditionsand desires of each community.

It had no predetermined proportions or number ofparts, like the Roman temple or the centrally planned church of the Renaissance.Its social and liturgical obligations demanded a main altar at the end of achoir where the chapter and the various dignitaries would be seated, a numberof minor altars, and an area for processions within the building.7 There wererarely more than about two hundred persons participating in the service, eventhough the smallest Gothic cathedral could easily contain that number. The restof the building simply supplemented this core and provided space for the laity,who were not permitted to enter the choir or sanctuary. Still, after the middleof the twelfth century, the choir was usually isolated by a monumental screenthat effectively prevented laymen from even seeing the service, and specialdevotional books came into use to supply the congregation with suitable subjectsof meditation during mass.

8The program of the Gothic church fulfilled iconographical as well associal requirements. The intellectual centers of the Middle Ages had long beenassociated with the Church, and the tradition of learning that had beenpreserved in monastic and cathedral schools gave rise to universities such asParis and Oxford in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Such anassociation obviously had an effect on the arts, which were still primarilyreligious in nature. Scholarly clerics, for instance, were appointed to arrangethe intricate, theological programs for the sculpture and the stained glass thatdecorated the church. The relationship is thought by some historians to havebeen 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 that architects, who were “abstract” thinkers in their own right,may occasionally have absorbed some of the habits of thought of the philosophers.In the absence of written documents, however, it cannot be proved whether thesehabits were consistently embodied in the design of the buildings.9The Gothic age, as has often been observed, was an age of vision.

Thesupernatural manifested itself to the senses. In the religious life of thetwelfth and thirteenth centuries, the desire to behold sacred reality withbodily eyes appeared as the dominant theme. Architecture was designed andexperienced as a representation of an ultimate reality.10 The Gothic cathedralwas originated in the religious experience and in the political and evenphysical realities, of twelfth-century France.

It was described as anillusionistic image of the Celestial City as evoked in the Book of Revelation.The essence of Gothic style was most fully developed in its conquest of spaceand its creation of a prodigious, visionary scale in the cathedrals of thetwelfth century.11BibliographyBranner, 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 Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968.Panofsky, E. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe: Faber and FaberLimited, 1951.

Simson, Otto von. The Gothic Cathedral. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1956.

Worringer, Wilhelm. Form In Gothic. New York: Alec Tiranti Limited, 1957.Religion


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