French Gothic Cathedrals

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a 12th century cathedral in a fictional English town, is an engaging read.  While its style is sometimes strained (you can practically hear the author thinking about how to insert facts on the Middle Ages into the text), the novel sticks with you.  In my case at least, the book had me examining the architecture of churches and older buildings in our area and got me reminiscing about the history of French Gothic cathedrals I’ve seen.  The word “gothic” itself, as you probably know, was originally a derogatory term used by people of the Renaissance (15th century Italians and 16th century Frenchmen) who considered the architecture of the medieval cathedrals as barbaric as the Goths. 

The main innovator in the revolutionary 12th century shift from the bulky, dark, rounded-arch style called Romanesque to a new design he referred to as “modern” was l’Abbé Suger.  In 1137 the abbot, a counselor to Louis VI and Louis VII, decided to rebuild the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the official church of the French king, located about 6 miles north of the center of modern-day Paris.  Because Suger believed that light symbolized the divine, he wanted the new building to be “a crown of light” which would express the grandeur of God.  To this end, the basilica would have high ceilings, created through the use of diagonal ribbed (or ogival) vaults with two intersecting pointed arches.  Used previously in Islamic architecture in the Near East, these architectural innovations paved the way for high, gravity-defying walls by directing the weight to clustered columns.  Flying buttresses, pillars of stone on the outside of the building, provided extra support to carry the weight of the walls and roof; these structures also allowed for more height and for the development of stained glass windows.  Completed in 1144, Saint-Denis became the prototype for Gothic building in northern France.  It is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for craftsmen of the era to cut through solid limestone, forming up to three-ton blocks of stone, and transporting them to the construction site and up to the height required by using equipment like the treadwheel crane or “squirrel cage.”  Another early example of French Gothic cathedrals is Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163).  This building also used flying buttresses to relieve wall thrust and resolve stress fractures, and its imposing western façade suggests the majesty and might of God.  

The “new” Cathedral of Chartres (constructed from 1194 to 1260) was one of the first examples of the style known as “high Gothic.”  In fact, Chartres is held to be the crown jewel of Gothic architecture.  Its high clerestory windows, which allowed a more spacious, heightened effect, were to become standard in later churches of this style.  Its world-famous stained glass windows, which depict narratives from the Bible, provide a kaleidoscope of colors; the blue of Chartres's stained glass windows has never been duplicated.  As was the case for many French cathedrals, the windows were carefully removed during wartime and were safely stored away in mines or in the countryside.  The cathedral itself was spared shelling by American troops during World War II when a certain Colonel Griffith questioned the strategy of attacking the church on the assumption that German soldiers were hiding inside its tower.

The Gothic Rayonnant period (which began in the early 13th century), with its more elevated interior, more slender columns, and enormous rose windows, has several stunning examples.  Started in 1220, Amiens, in the northern region of Picardie, was built so tall that a special wrought iron bar chain was installed in 1497 (while the iron was red hot) to hold the structure together.  Unfortunately, while being stored during World War I, nearly all of the church’s stained glass windows were destroyed.  Still, it is a very impressive place to visit.  Another cathedral in this style is Beauvais, which I’ve yet to see.  This church was never completed because parts of it collapsed on two separate occasions; some have suggested that the height of the cathedral combined with its proximity to the high winds of the English Channel have caused its instability.  Perhaps the most beautiful of all Rayonnant houses of worship is Sainte-Chapelle.  The small palace chapel on Île-de-la-Cité in Paris, was built by Louis IX and was consecrated in 1248.  On a sunny day its immense stained glass windows illuminate the interior, giving the impression of heaven on earth.

Visits to the great cathedrals of France (and other European countries) are truly awe-inspiring experiences.  There is so much to contemplate: from the wondrous architecture to the beauty and symbolism of its ornamentation--stained glass windows, paintings, and statues.  Even if you can't be there in person it might be interesting to see the Nova series on the building of the Gothic cathedrals. 

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Marvin said...

One of my favorite books of all time - Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth

Mme Boisvert said...

Yes, so many people recommended this book to me and, like I said, it was engaging and inspired me to research the cathedrals.

wingsfancanesland said...

Giving this review a big LIKE !

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