Geometry is at the heart of Gothic architecture. Believing that God is a God of order and logic, the master masons reflected that attribute heavily in their designs. “Only by observing geometrical principles did architecture become a science in Augustine’s sense; by submitting to its laws, the human architect imitated his divine master and in doing so his calling acquired metaphysical significance” (von Simson). The most obvious factor here is the symmetry in construction. While the Romanesque style was symmetrical, the ornate facades and window decorations give the Gothic style many, many more layers of symmetry. In other words, it’s not just the architecture, but also the complex patterns that mirror themselves, providing a beautiful visual experience.
The basic symmetry (left) of a Romanesque window on the Saint Sulpicius Marignac Charente church, contrasted with the multifaceted symmetry of a Gothic window on the Church of St. Mary in Norfolk.
However, geometry and symmetry were not just for show. As with the rib vault and flying buttress, the artistic value of this design has immense practical value as well. “The square- along with the other polygons, such as the famous π/4 triangle, which the medieval architect derived from the square- and the proportion ‘according to true measure’ have determined Gothic design to a remarkable extent… they were practical rather than artistic devices of which the observer usually remains unconscious” (von Simson). Master masons only had access to their special compasses and tools on the tracing floor, not in practice in the building. They had no real measurement tools. To make their buildings as exact as possible, perfect geometry required that they build symmetrically. With each side equal, it is much easier to match a completed side- whatever size- to its opposite without messing anything up.
One of the most iconic images connected with Gothic architecture is its expansive stained glass and rose windows. These windows depict beautiful scenes from the Bible, with Jesus Christ as the centerpiece in the largest of the windows. While stained glass has existed since Roman times, it was only in the Middle Ages that its use as an art form intensified and perfected. We do, in fact, have an accurate extant source describing the process of glass window making: entitled On Diverse Arts, the author, a monk by the name of Theophilus details the processes of glassmakers and glaziers as they worked, in order to complete this ‘manual’ for windows of ‘inestimable beauty,’ as he puts it.
Rose window in the Reims Cathedral. The ‘rose’ description refers to the round, almost petaled shape of the panels, not the color of the glass.
Undecorated outside portion of a rose window on the Lusanne Cathedral in Switzerland. Rose windows are distinct from wheel windows, due to their intricacy. Wheel windows are characterized by spokes, whereas these two examples have highly complex flowery designs.
Western stained glass windows in the Chartres Cathedral. To assemble a stained glass window, glassmakers had to take great care. The making of the colored glass was simple enough for a skilled craftsman, the difficult part came in setting each individual piece of glass in its lead frame (visible below) called a came, and securing it all by waterproof putty and soldering. Given the height of the windows, setting the group of panels in an iron frame and lifting it up into the window-well must have been a very precarious job.
More stained glass in the Chartres Cathedral. This detailed portion shows scenes from the Passion window, detailing some of Jesus Christ’s actions such as washing His disciples’ feet and eating with them at the Last Supper.
All these factors- the geometry, the symmetry, the stained glass, the statuary, the engineering, and more- they all came together to form a cohesive whole, inspiring awe in parishioners of the time and other visitors today. As the light creeps in, covering the walls and floor in a rainbow of color, as footsteps echo in the vast ceiling expanse sweeping higher and higher upward, the mindset of the designers and the workers is clear. Gothic cathedral architecture is one of the most incredible works of art and science ever produced, and a gift of light and life from the Dark Ages.
Works Cited (Cumulative)
Gies, Frances and Joseph. (1994). Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel. Harper- Collins, New York.
Chapuis, Julien. “Gothic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mgot/hd_mgot.htm (October 2002). Accessed December 1, 2016.
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Stained Glass in Medieval Europe.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/glas/hd_glas.htm (October 2001). Accessed December 1, 2016.
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Scholler, Wolfgang. “Funding the Construction of Gothic Cathedrals: Financial and Legal Realities of the Middle Ages.” Athena Review 4.2. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. < http://www.athenapub.com/14scholler.htm>.
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Clark, Laura. “Europe’s Great Gothic Cathedrals Weren’t Built Just of Concrete.” SmartNews. The Smithsonian, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/medieval-architects-used-iron-build-cathedralsnot-just-concrete-180953849/>.
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