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Living Architecture: Gothic Novel

Living Architecture: Gothic Novel

If you’ve ever gazed in awe at a lofty medieval church or cathedral interior and wondered how it can possibly remain upright, wonder no more...

Architectural movements have come and gone, although certain styles have succeeded in leaving an altogether more enduring mark on history and on the landscapes of France. Unlike their everyday contemporaries, medieval buildings created as holy places were built to last for an eternity, which explains why so many of them are still with us. More intriguingly, some were also shaped by other lofty ambitions, as we’ll see.


For centuries the greatest threat to whatever man had built was fire. Almost without exception, the first primitive churches would succumb sooner or later, most often after a direct lightning strike ignited vulnerable roof timbers of what would have been by far the tallest features in the landscape. Once the interior became exposed to the elements, wholesale destruction would soon follow. Their replacements eventually began to incorporate a fire-resistant ceiling of stone, and followed the style commonly referred to as Romanesque or Romane (a reference to its Classical origins) which relied on very thick walls and rounded arches to support the weighty stone ceilings. To avoid structural weaknesses, walls were low and window areas generally small, giving interiors their characteristic heavy, slightly mysterious appearance.



Everything changed, however, with the arrival during the late-12th century of ‘Gothic’ architecture, whose key element was a pointed ‘ogival’ arch thought to have been inspired by Moorish architecture encountered during the Crusades. Unlike semi-circular types, the new arches directed most of the weight safely downwards rather than outwards, so walls could grow thinner. What’s more, combining two full-height arches at right-angles created a strong, stable framework well able to support ceilings known as vaults (from the French voûte) resembling giant stone umbrellas.


The arches in question take the form of tall piers supporting slender curved ribs, while the spaces between them are filled with lightweight panels of precisely interlocking brick-sized stones, often of chalk-like craie. So ingeniously are these French vaults conceived that unlike their English counterparts, entire vaults are capable of supporting themselves without mortar, although just to consolidate things and keep them in their rightful place, a layer of beaten earth and lime or similar loading material is generally laid directly above the vaults. In the normally hidden roof spaces of even celebrated cathedrals, things can often look surprisingly primitive.


A further breakthrough came when someone decided to brace the walls against the remaining outward thrusts of these lightweight roof vaults by adding an exterior network of stone props (the famous ‘flying buttresses’) supported on tall piers. It didn’t take medieval architects long to realise that the large wall areas between them, now relieved of much of their supporting function, could feature glass, rather than merely masonry.Thereafter the Gothic revolution literally took off, powering great cathedrals ever higher, as cities like Paris, Bourges and Amiens vied for the prestige of possessing the tallest structures on earth, culminating in the astonishing 153m achieved in 1569 at Beauvais.


The urgent upward impulse found in French Gothic architecture is in striking contrast to the more horizontal aspiration found across the Channel, and it wasn’t primarily about civic one-upmanship, for there were other factors involved, both practical as well as spiritual. For example, the effect of light flooding into interiors is in most cases a modern one resulting from stained glass having been lost during troubled times in the structures’ long history. When they were constructed, though, the windows of cathedrals and churches were completely filled with richly-coloured depictions of the Saints, the Gospels and other key imagery designed to communicate to a population which was generally illiterate. After they had reflected upon this medieval slide-show, congregation members would turn their heads upwards and look in near-disbelief at the vaults suspended far above them. The soaring wonder of it all was from the outset intended to represent the distant Paradise to which only the penitent faithful might aspire. 


A final key factor of these dazzling medieval Gothic creations is the powerful imagery and symbolism which influenced almost every aspect of their design. Virtually nothing is there by mere chance, including the convention of East-West orientation of the buildings, the frequent cross-like (cruciform) plan and the semi-circular form of the Eastern apse or chevet, signifying the head of Christ. Also present are purely decorative features such as intricately sculpted statuary around doorways, vast rose windows, foliated capitals where piers meet vault ribs, humorous carved characters and animals on choir stalls, plus much more besides. Other things are less immediately obvious, including the use of sacred geometry and proportioning when laying out the most basic elements of construction, or the presence of ancient symbolism such as the great labyrinth in the nave of Chartres cathedral. It’s little wonder, then, that after the passage of almost a thousand years the medieval Gothic architecture of France still has the power to move us and fire our imagination, just as its creators intended.


Find Out More...

Fine examples of Gothic architecture in SW France include:

Angers - Cathédrale Saint-Maurice & Musée Jean Lurçat

Bordeaux - Cathédrale Saint-Andre

Fontevraud - Abbaye de Fontevraud

Limoges - Cathédrale Saint-Étienne

Poitiers - Cathédrale Saint-Pierre

Tours - Cathédrale Saint-Gatien

Pre-Renaissance chateaux in the Loire valley - notably Amboise and Blois.


PHOTOS & WORDS: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - All rights reserved. First published in December 2014.