Each of the architectural designs has its own outstanding and unique features that make them stand as original. In history, we can take note of the Romanesque architecture of the Medieval Europe between sixth and tenth century. Two centuries later, it evolved into Gothic architecture, commonly applied in building medieval cathedrals, which lasted for four centuries to the sixteenth century. Apart from these being history, there are specific architectural elements that in the eyes of the medieval builder are the result of not only technical but also spiritual quest.
The technical aspect of the gothic cathedral
The gothic architecture was preceded by a period of transition: the Romano-Gothic period. One of the characteristic features of that period was the timid association of the ogive curve with the semi-circular arch. According to Rouaix, the gothic style of architecture replaced Romanesque architecture in the thirteenth century. The gothic style brought about different style in the medieval buildings. For instance, it brought about a new development as far as the use of the pointed arch or rather the ogive arch is concerned. This is the arch that is “formed by two curves united at their upper extremity so as to produce a clear height beneath them, greater than the half of the distance separating their bases.” This was a modification of the Romanesque ogive curve, which was semi-circular, and its height hardly ever exceeded the one-half of the distance between two curves’ bases.
Gothic architecture brought about a new style of decorating the walls of the cathedrals. In the Romanesque style, the walls had an outward appearance that did not project much beauty. The decorations were characterized by some bare surfaces with little recess. According to Rouaix, this portrayed some severity of expression especially through the stiffness of the erect statues, which formed part of the arcades in the intercolumniations. As part of the decoration, gothic architecture introduced the use of whorls of curling leaves with short stems. The use of natural aspects specifically flora coupled with cable moldings, cordons as well as chevrons became an integral part of the decorative aspect of the cathedral. Among the commonly featured forms of decorations included the shapes of oak leaves, strawberry and wild grape among others. A modification of the decorative Romanesque bull’s eye was also introduced. It was made more open by cutting it out into not only trefoils but also quarter-foils among other designs. Below is an illustration of the Romanesque bull’s eye.
Another characteristic feature that was introduced to medieval buildings was the increase in columns. Rouaix notes that:
The columns were grouped into columnar piers, maintaining their bases at the same level. The capitals supported a square abacus; the shafts were circular in section, and stood upon circular bases, broad and depressed. The low and timid bays of the Romanesque style were now boldly opened out, extended, lifted up, within their framework of clustered shafts.
The first figure shows the design of the gothic column. The second one gives the design of the Romanesque column. The gothic column also had some engraved copper plates. Throughout the gothic period, the height of the columns as well as their base kept on changing-there was no specific height or shape of the column. This portrays the quest of not only the architects but also the medieval builders of finding out the features of the column that would best portray their skills. In some instances, the buildings could have several columns that were intended to form a given desirable pattern.
The advent of gothic architecture brought about great perfection of the cathedral. One of the main features of the Romanesque cathedral was the numerous decorations that are believed to have been a method of concealing the structural faults or rather imperfections of the building. This was not the case with the gothic cathedral architectural design. It had an outstanding precision with which every block used in the building was shaped in the vault. Consequently, all the joints were intact and did not require some decorative murals. Additionally, the design as well as the composition of the windows of the gothic cathedral was embedded in an outstanding pattern of stone and metal armature. The windows created a new luminosity (compared to the Romanesque windows).
In buildings, light generally require height and to get it, designers had to find ways to siphon off the weight of the roof and high vaults, other than other interior walls, which had been opened up and ‘thinned out’ by the extensive use of the pointed arches. The transfer of stress was achieved by the third component associated with the gothic design-the flying buttress. Romanesque churches used quadrant arches (quarter-circles) to buttress the pressure, or thrust, generated by the high barrel vaults. To achieve the gothic aim of a light-filled interior, buildings had to become taller-too tall to be supported by traditional quadrant arches. The supporting arches had to be raised above the aisle roofs to abut the high vaults, as if they were flying over them thus the expression ‘flying buttresses’. Flying buttresses shifted the weight of the roof and vaults away from the supporting walls to the side structures that in turn carried it down to the ground. It is believed that the pointed arches of the gothic cathedral were introduced into Western Europe from Islamic architecture by crusaders and prisoners.
The flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and pointed arches-the characteristic elements of the Gothic style-all worked together to permit larger windows and to open up the interior spaces, allowing the increased light to penetrate the building more completely. The Gothic ribbed vaults over the earlier barrel or tunnel vaults (Romanesque architecture). A barrel vault, which is the simplest kind of vault, is just a longitudinally extended arch. It must be supported along its entire length by thick walls. This kind of a vault would not help in interior illumination since it encloses space rather than opening it. Additionally, it cannot be penetrated to permit light to enter from above without risking collapse. The builders wanted a vault that could overcome the limitations thus the Gothic ribbed vault served the purpose.
Ribbed vaults are stronger than the barrel vaults and they require less material to build. Additionally, ribbed vaults are actually easier to build since the ribs and webs can be built separately while a barrel vault must be built and supported as a single unit. Ribbed vaults are more flexible and adaptable to different architectural styles that groin vaults are. They permit more variations including spanning greater distances without the danger of collapse as illustrated below.
Gothic architecture introduced wall arches, built over the tops of walls to create a system of ribs anchored on the lateral surfaces of the walls. Wall arches were necessary because ribs alone could not reduce the amount of weight exerted on the walls. They enabled the builders to concentrate the forces of thrust down toward the area from the springing point to appoint about one-third up the vaults, which was counterbalanced by the flying buttresses. The result is a skeletal system that is anchored at the points of upright buttresses thereby allowing the wall surface between the buttresses to be replaced by large expanses of colorful stained glass. Another characteristic aspect of the gothic cathedral walls are buttresses. A flat square profile is one of the major characteristics of the buttresses among other aspects that are specific to the design of the wall(s) Some of the elements that builders employed in the construction of buttresses include barrel vaults, which can be either full or half depending on the design of the buttresses in question. This mostly applied in the construction of aisles-the vaulted ones.
Gothic architecture can be termed as revolutionary since despite the change of the style of buildings, the same materials were used. Just like the Romanesque churches, the Gothic churches were made of the same stone, wood and glass. The gothic parts of some cathedrals were built by recycling materials that had been used in the Romanesque cathedrals. The difference was brought about by the way the gothic style combined the elements of design to create an entirely new, organically unified whole. The gothic design amounted to a new vision of the way to combine the distinctive advantages of ribbed vaulting and pointed arches with a new system of buttressing high vaults and roofs to create an interior space that was expansive, soaring and bright.
The gothic cathedral features experienced continual modification throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The architects introduced advanced to what was referred as the ‘radiating gothic’ in the fourteenth century. The medieval builders had to include a new form of windows i.e. the rose windows in the buildings as dictated by the new gothic features or rather building styles. The characteristics of the rose windows include a relatively large diameter; they spread out from the center i.e. had a diverging characteristic and had small columns. According to Rouaix, the windows were increased in width and the pointed arcades, which spring over them, had their bases farther apart an aspect that diminished their relative height.
Spiritual aspect of the gothic cathedral
The most important part of a gothic cathedral is its interior space. The geometry and light fuse to create an image of God’s house. The outside appearance of the cathedral mattered but the primary goal in building the gothic cathedral was the illumination of the interior spaces.
The gothic cathedral was intended as a space where people could get a taste of heaven. St. Augustine’s view about the architecture and the sacred nature of God or rather spirituality acts as a guide to understanding the connection between gothic architecture and spirituality. He believed the mind could be guided past the world of appearance to achieve contemplation of divine order.
The idea behind the importance of light in the gothic cathedral is that the most noble of natural phenomenon, the least material, the closest approximation to pure form, light can mediate between what is bodiless and what is corporeal. It became essential in the gothic architecture because it was capable of revealing the divine reality that gothic churches were meant to disclose. To serve their intended purpose, sanctuaries demanded that light penetrate every corner of the interior space. The quest to achieve greater openings to admit more light necessitated piercing the walls, which led to concerns with point of support. This led builders to perfect the coordinated interplay between ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses that distinguished the gothic style. In essence, new structures and forms needed to be invented to solve problems created by theological purposes. Additionally, the new expanses of glass could be used for another purpose specifically to adorn the interior of the newly created heavenly Jerusalem.
Standing in the gothic cathedral, looking at the vaulted ceilings, one could feel the reassuring sense of order that these ecclesiastical buildings were designed to convey. The commanding vision of cosmological order in which God ruled, nature provided and we obeyed is inherent in the scale and symbolism of the buildings. A sense of awe, wonder and obedience to the divine order was the only appropriate response when viewing the enormous stone vaults and decorated domes of the churches, which are illuminated by “God’s light” pouring through the stained windows. The feelings of aspiration, transcendence and infinity the building evoke have an ongoing relevance beyond the religious setting thus helps people understand who and what they are.
The pointed arch of the gothic cathedral also has several architectural advantages. One of the problems with the rounded arch is that its height is dictated by its width, which is not the case with the pointed arch. The pointed arch can span varying distances while the crowns of all arches in a building remain more or less even. Pointer arches are sturdier than rounded arches. Additionally, the thrust generated by a pointed arch is directed more effectively toward supporting piers and walls than it is the case for a rounded arch. A good example of the gothic cathedral is the Strasbourg cathedral, which is still in existence. Its spire is the tallest in the world, which is 468 feet above the pavement. Some people refer to it as the ‘divine finger rising toward heaven’, which has a spiritual connotation in that God sits high in the heavens.
In the medieval world, a sacred space demanded art, not just any art, but the most beautiful, exquisite and refined expressions of human artistic endeavor available. The very existence of art made it imperative to use it in decorating sacred spaces. Anyone, including the builders, would have feared that the failure to use the best of human creativity might be interpreted by the divine as a slight, an indication of something less of full devotion. Therefore, medieval people felt compelled to draw on all of their artistic, engineering and craft-based creative impulses to create the finest space of which they were capable.
Each architectural concept in the gothic cathedral, including the loftiness and huge dimensions of the structure, were designed to convey a theological message about the glory and greatness of God. The overall structure of the gothic building reflects the universe. The aspects that contribute in such a reflection are not only the geometrical but also the mathematical features that are characteristic of gothic architectural designs. Architects, thus builders, employ such features as stained glasses, statutes as well as sculptural decorations. In the traditional Germanic churches as well in some church buildings in the contemporary society, such aspects depict the sacred aspect of Christian faith.
Apart from these being history, there are specific architectural elements that in the eyes of the medieval builder are the result of not only technical but also spiritual quest. The adoption of gothic architecture introduced new vault forms: simple arched stone tunnels (barrel vaults), complex lierne vaults with their added decorative ribs, and vast fan vaults constructed of the intersected conical shapes often covered with tracery motifs. The relentless upward view of the gothic cathedral, characteristic height, as well as the sweep of the columns drawing the eye to the roofline has an intensely liberating sensation. The design of the gothic cathedral reflects a desire to achieve a series of precise, geometrically related components, each part deriving its definition from the building as a whole, each subpart deriving its measurements from the element to which it belongs. Gothic cathedrals are prime examples of sacred spaces and the relics, statuary, altars and other materials they contain are examples of sacred objects. Everything about the medieval cathedral ranging from its physical design, its special use of light, its decorations to daily rituals of prayer, texts used as well as the music, vestments, processions and incense reflected the effort to use art to make the space worthy of and welcoming to the divine. Soaring heights, delicate arches, magnificent stained glass, fine stone and woodcarvings also served the same purpose.
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