Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture



















ARCHITECTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14


PAINTING - Part 1, 2



Time and space, we have been taught, are interdependent. Yet we tend to think of history as the unfolding of events in time without sufficient awareness of their unfolding in space. We visualize it as a stack of chronological layers, or periods, each layer having a specific depth that corresponds to its duration. For the more remote past, where our sources of information are scanty, this simple image works reasonably well. It becomes less and less adequate as we draw closer to the present and our knowledge grows more precise. Thus we cannot define the Gothic era in terms of time alone; we must consider the changing surface area of the layer as well as its depth.

At the start, about 1140, this area was small indeed. It embraced only the province known as the Ile-de-France (that is, Paris and vicinity), the royal domain of the French kings. A hundred years later, most of Europe had "gone Gothic," from Sicily to Iceland, with only a few Romanesque pockets left here and there. Through the crusaders, the new style had even been introduced to the Near East. About 1450, the Gothic area began to shrink (it no longer included Italy) and by about 1550 had disappeared almost entirely. The Gothic layer, then, has a rather complicated shape, with its depth varying from close to 400 years in some places to a minimum of 150 in others. This shape, moreover, does not emerge with equal clarity in all the visual arts.

The term "Gothic" was first coined for architecture, and it is in architecture that the characteristics of the style are most easily recognized. Although we speak of Gothic sculpture and painting, there is, as we shall see, some uncertainty about the exact limits of the Gothic style in these fields. This evolution of our concept of Gothic art suggests the way the new style actually grew. It began with architecture, and for a century from about 1150 to 1250, during the Age of the Great Cathedralsarchitecture retained its dominant role. Gothic sculpture, at first severely architectural in spirit, tended to become less and less so after 1200; its greatest achievements are between the years 1220 and 1420. Painting, in turn, reached a climax of creative endeavor between 1300 and 1350 in central Italy. North of the Alps, it became the leading art from about 1400 on. We thus find, in surveying the Gothic era as a whole, a gradual shift of emphasis from architecture to painting or, better perhaps, from architectural to pictorial qualities. Characteristically, Early Gothic sculpture and painting both reflect the discipline of their monumental setting, while Late Gothic architecture and sculpture strive for "picturesque" effects rather than clarity or firmness.

Overlying this broad pattern is another one: international diffusion as against regional independence. Starting as a local development in the Ile-de-France, Gothic art radiates from there to the rest of France and to all Europe, where it comes to be known as opus modemwn or opus francigenum (modem or French work). In the course of the thirteenth century, the new style gradually loses its imported flavor, and regional variety begins to reassert itself. Toward the middle of the fourteenth century, we notice a growing tendency for these regional achievements to influence each other until, about 1400, a surprisingly homogeneous "International Gothic" style prevails almost everywhere. Shortly thereafter, this unity breaks apart. Italy, with Florence in the lead, creates a radically new art, that of the Early Renaissance, while north of the Alps, Flanders assumes an equally commanding position in the development of Late Gothic painting and sculpture. A century later, finally, the Italian Renaissance becomes the basis of another international style. With this skeleton outline to guide us, we can now explore the unfolding of Gothic art in greater detail.


Gothic art

Gothic art, the painting, sculpture, and architecture characteristic of the second of two great international eras that flourished in western and central Europe during the Middle Ages. Gothic art evolved from Romanesque art and lasted from the mid-12th century to as late as the end of the 16th century in some areas. The term Gothic was coined by classicizing Italian writers of the Renaissance, who attributed the invention (and what to them was the nonclassical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century ad. The term retained its derogatory overtones until the 19th century, at which time a positive critical revaluation of Gothic architecture took place. Although modern scholars have long realized that Gothic art has nothing in truth to do with the Goths, the term Gothic remains a standard one in the study of art history.

Architecture was the most important and original art form during the Gothic period. The principal structural characteristics of Gothic architecture arose out of medieval masons’ efforts to solve the problems associated with supporting heavy masonry ceiling vaults over wide spans. The problem was that the heavy stonework of the traditional arched barrel vault and the groin vault exerted a tremendous downward and outward pressure that tended to push the walls upon which the vault rested outward, thus collapsing them. A building’s vertical supporting walls thus had to be made extremely thick and heavy in order to contain the barrel vault’s outward thrust.

Medieval masons solved this difficult problem about 1120 with a number of brilliant innovations. First and foremost they developed a ribbed vault, in which arching and intersecting stone ribs support a vaulted ceiling surface that is composed of mere thin stone panels. This greatly reduced the weight (and thus the outward thrust) of the ceiling vault, and since the vault’s weight was now carried at discrete points (the ribs) rather than along a continuous wall edge, separate widely spaced vertical piers to support the ribs could replace the continuous thick walls. The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by pointed (Gothic) arches which distributed thrust in more directions downward from the topmost point of the arch.

Since the combination of ribs and piers relieved the intervening vertical wall spaces of their supportive function, these walls could be built thinner and could even be opened up with large windows or other glazing. A crucial point was that the outward thrust of the ribbed ceiling vaults was carried across the outside walls of the nave, first to an attached outer buttress and then to a freestanding pier by means of a half arch known as a flying buttress. The flying buttress leaned against the upper exterior of the nave (thus counteracting the vault’s outward thrust), crossed over the low side aisles of the nave, and terminated in the freestanding buttress pier, which ultimately absorbed the ceiling vault’s thrust.

These elements enabled Gothic masons to build much larger and taller buildings than their Romanesque predecessors and to give their structures more complicated ground plans. The skillful use of flying buttresses made it possible to build extremely tall, thin-walled buildings whose interior structural system of columnar piers and ribs reinforced an impression of soaring verticality.

Three successive phases of Gothic architecture can be distinguished, respectively called early, High, and late Gothic.

Early Gothic
This first phase lasted from the Gothic style’s inception in 1120–50 to about 1200. The combination of all the aforementioned structural elements into a coherent style first occurred in the Île-de-France (the region around Paris), where prosperous urban populations had sufficient wealth to build the great cathedrals that epitomize the Gothic style. The earliest surviving Gothic building was the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, begun in about 1140. Structures with similarly precise vaulting and chains of windows along the perimeter were soon begun with Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163) and Laon Cathedral (begun 1165). By this time it had become fashionable to treat the interior columns and ribs as if each was composed of a bunch of more slender parallel members. A series of four discrete horizontal levels or stories in the cathedral’s interior were evolved, beginning with a ground-level arcade, over which ran one or two galleries (tribune, triforium), over which in turn ran an upper, windowed story called a clerestory. The columns and arches used to support these different elevations contributed to the severe and powerfully repetitive geometry of the interior. Window tracery (decorative ribwork subdividing a window opening) was also gradually evolved, along with the use of stained (coloured) glass in the windows. The typical French early Gothic cathedral terminated at its eastern end in a semicircular projection called an apse. The western end was much more impressive, being a wide facade articulated by numerous windows and pointed arches, having monumental doorways, and being topped by two huge towers. The long sides of the cathedral’s exterior presented a baffling and tangled array of piers and flying buttresses. The basic form of Gothic architecture eventually spread throughout Europe to Germany, Italy, England, the Low Countries, Spain, and Portugal.

In England the early Gothic phase had its own particular character (epitomized by Salisbury Cathedral) that is known as the early English Gothic style (c. ad 1200–1300). The first mature example of the style was the nave and choir of Lincoln Cathedral (begun in 1192).

Early English Gothic churches differed in several respects from their French counterparts. They had thicker, heavier walls that were not much changed from Romanesque proportions; accentuated, repeated moldings on the edges of interior arches; a sparing use of tall, slender, pointed lancet windows; and nave piers consisting of a central column of light-coloured stone surrounded by a number of slimmer attached columns made of black purbeck marble.

Early English churches also established other stylistic features that were to distinguish all of English Gothic: great length and little attention to height; a nearly equal emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines in the stringcourses and elevations of the interior; a square termination of the building’s eastern end rather than a semicircular eastern projection; scant use of flying buttresses; and a piecemeal, asymmetrical conception of the ground plan of the church. Other outstanding examples of the early English style are the nave and west front of Wells Cathedral (c. 1180–c. 1245) and the choirs and transept of Rochester Cathedral.

High Gothic
The second phase of Gothic architecture began with a subdivision of the style known as Rayonnant (ad 1200–80) on the Continent and as the Decorated Gothic (ad 1300–75) style in England. This style was characterized by the application of increasingly elaborate geometrical decoration to the structural forms that had been established during the preceding century.

During the period of the Rayonnant style a significant change took place in Gothic architecture. Until about 1250, Gothic architects concentrated on the harmonious distribution of masses of masonry and, particularly in France, on the technical problems of achieving great height; after that date, they became more concerned with the creation of rich visual effects through decoration. This decoration took such forms as pinnacles (upright members, often spired, that capped piers, buttresses, or other exterior elements), moldings, and, especially, window tracery. The most characteristic and finest achievement of the Rayonnant style is the great circular rose window adorning the west facades of large French cathedrals; the typically radial patterns of the tracery inspired the designation Rayonnant for the new style. Another typical feature of Rayonnant architecture is the thinning of vertical supporting members, the enlargement of windows, and the combination of the triforium gallery and the clerestory until walls are largely undifferentiated screens of tracery, mullions (vertical bars of tracery dividing windows into sections), and glass. Stained glass—formerly deeply coloured—became lighter in colour to increase the visibility of tracery silhouettes and to let more light into the interior. The most notable examples of the Rayonnant style are the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, Bourges, Chartres, and Beauvais.

The parallel Decorated Gothic style came into being in England with the general use of elaborate stone window tracery. Supplanting the small, slender, pointed lancet windows of the early English Gothic style were windows of great width and height, divided by mullions into two to eight brightly coloured main subdivisions, each of which was further divided by tracery. At first, this tracery was based on the trefoil and quatrefoil, the arch, and the circle, all of which were combined to form netlike patterns. Later, tracery was based on the ogee, or S-shaped curve, which creates flowing, flamelike forms. Some of the most outstanding monuments of the Decorated Gothic style are sections of the cloister (c. 1245–69) of Westminster Abbey; the east end, or Angel Choir, of Lincoln Cathedral (begun 1256); and the nave and west front of York Minster (c. 1260–1320).

Late Gothic
In France the Rayonnant style evolved about 1280 into an even more decorative phase called the Flamboyant style, which lasted until about 1500. In England a development known as the Perpendicular style lasted from about 1375 to 1500. The most conspicuous feature of the Flamboyant Gothic style is the dominance in stone window tracery of a flamelike S-shaped curve.

In the Flamboyant style wall space was reduced to the minimum of supporting vertical shafts to allow an almost continuous expanse of glass and tracery. Structural logic was obscured by the virtual covering of the exteriors of buildings with tracery, which often decorated masonry as well as windows. A profusion of pinnacles, gables, and other details such as subsidiary ribs in the vaults to form star patterns further complicated the total effect.

By the late Gothic period greater attention was being given to secular buildings. Thus, Flamboyant Gothic features can be seen in many town halls, guild halls, and even residences. There were few churches built completely in the Flamboyant style, attractive exceptions being Notre-Dame d’Épine near Châlons-sur-Marne and Saint-Maclou in Rouen. Other important examples of the style are the Tour de Beurre of Rouen Cathedral and the north spire of Chartres. Flamboyant Gothic, which eventually became overly ornate, refined, and complicated, gave way in France to Renaissance forms in the 16th century.

In England the parallel Perpendicular Gothic style was characterized by a predominance of vertical lines in the stone tracery of windows, an enlargement of windows to great proportions, and the conversion of the interior stories into a single unified vertical expanse. The typical Gothic pointed vaults were replaced by fan vaults (fan-shaped clusters of tracery-like ribs springing from slender columns or from pendant knobs at the centre of the ceiling). Among the finest examples of the Perpendicular Gothic style are Gloucester Cathedral (14th–15th centuries) and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (1446–1515).

Gothic sculpture was closely tied to architecture, since it was used primarily to decorate the exteriors of cathedrals and other religious buildings. The earliest Gothic sculptures were stone figures of saints and the Holy Family used to decorate the doorways, or portals, of cathedrals in France and elsewhere. The sculptures on the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral (c. 1145–55) were little changed from their Romanesque predecessors in their stiff, straight, simple, elongated, and hieratic forms. But during the later 12th and the early 13th centuries sculptures became more relaxed and naturalistic in treatment, a trend that culminated in the sculptural decorations of the Reims Cathedral (c. 1240). These figures, while retaining the dignity and monumentality of their predecessors, have individualized faces and figures, as well as full, flowing draperies and natural poses and gestures, and they display a classical poise that suggests an awareness of antique Roman models on the part of their creators. Early Gothic masons also began to observe such natural forms as plants more closely, as is evident in the realistically carven clusters of leaves that adorn the capitals of columns.

Monumental sculptures assumed an increasingly prominent role during the High and late Gothic periods and were placed in large numbers on the facades of cathedrals, often in their own niches. In the 14th century, Gothic sculpture became more refined and elegant and acquired a mannered daintiness in its elaborate and finicky drapery. The elegant and somewhat artificial prettiness of this style was widely disseminated throughout Europe in sculpture, painting, and manuscript illumination during the 14th century and became known as the International Gothic style. An opposite trend at this time was that of an intensified realism, as displayed in French tomb sculptures and in the vigorous and dramatic works of the foremost late Gothic sculptor, Claus Sluter.

Gothic sculpture evolved into the more technically advanced and classicistic Renaissance style in Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries but persisted until somewhat later in northern Europe.

Gothic painting followed the same stylistic evolution as did sculpture; from stiff, simple, hieratic forms toward more relaxed and natural ones. Its scale grew large only in the early 14th century, when it began to be used in decorating the retable (ornamental panel behind an altar). Such paintings usually featured scenes and figures from the New Testament, particularly of the Passion of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These paintings display an emphasis on flowing, curving lines, minute detail, and refined decoration, and gold was often applied to the panel as background colour. Compositions became more complex as time went on, and painters began to seek means of depicting spatial depth in their pictures, a search that eventually led to the mastery of perspective in the early years of the Italian Renaissance. In late Gothic painting of the 14th and 15th centuries secular subjects such as hunting scenes, chivalric themes, and depictions of historical events also appeared. Both religious and secular subjects were depicted in manuscript illuminations—i.e., the pictorial embellishment of handwritten books. This was a major form of artistic production during the Gothic period and reached its peak in France during the 14th century. The calendar illustrations in the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (c. 1416) by the Limburg brothers, who worked at the court of Jean de France, duc de Berry, are perhaps the most eloquent statements of the International Gothic style as well as the best known of all manuscript illuminations.

Manuscript illumination was superseded by printed illustrations in the second half of the 15th century. Panel and wall painting evolved gradually into the Renaissance style in Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries but retained many more of its Gothic characteristics until the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Germany, Flanders, and elsewhere in Northern Europe.

Encyclopædia Britannica




The Gothic Rib Vault

The ancestors of the Gothic rib vault are the Romanesque vaults found at Caen, Durham, and elsewhere. The rib vault's distinguishing feature is the crossed, or diagonal, arches under its groins, as seen in the Saint-Denis ambulatory and chapels (FIG. 18-3; compare FIG. 18-18). These arches form the armature, or skeletal framework, for constructing the vault. Gothic vaults generally have more thinly vaulted webs between the arches than Romanesque vaults have. But the chief difference between Romanesque and Gothic rib vaults is the pointed arch, an integral part of the Gothic skeletal armature. Pointed arches were first widely used in Sasanian architecture, and Islamic builders later adopted them. French Romanesque architects borrowed the form from Muslim Spain and passed it to their Gothic successors. Pointed arches allowed Gothic builders to make the crowns of all the vault's arches approximately the same level, regardless of the space to be vaulted. The Romanesque architects could not achieve this with their semicircular arches.

Our diagrams illustrate this key difference. In diagram a, the rectangle ABCD is an oblong nave bay to be vaulted. AC and DB are the diagonal ribs; À È and DC, the transverse arches; and AD and ÂÑ, the nave arcade's arches. If the architect uses semicircular arches (AFB, BJC, and DHC), their radii and, therefore, their heights (EF, I], and CH), will be different, because the height of a semicircular arch is determined by its width. The result will be a vault (diagram b) with higher transverse arches (DHC) than the arcade's arches (CJB). The vault's crown (F) will be still higher. If the builder uses pointed arches, the transverse (DLC) and arcade (BKC) arches can have the same heights (GL and IK in diagram a). The result will be a Gothic rib vault (diagram c), where the points of the arches (L and K) are at the same level as the vault's crown (F).

A major advantage of the Gothic vault is its flexibility, which permits the vaulting of compartments of varying shapes, as may be seen at Saint-Denis. Pointed arches also channel the weight of the vaults more directly downward than do semicircular arches. The vaults, therefore, require less buttressing to hold them in place, in turn permitting the opening up of the walls with large windows beneath the arches. Because pointed arches also lead the eye upward, they make the vaults appear taller than they actually are. In our diagrams, the crown (F) of both the Romanesque (diagram b) and Gothic (diagram c) vaults is the same height from the pavement, but the Gothic vault seems taller. Both the physical and visual properties of rib vaults with pointed arches aided Gothic builders in their quest for soaring height in church interiors.




see also:
Architecture in France


We can pinpoint the origin of no previous style as exactly as that of Gothic. It was born between 1137 and 1144 in the rebuilding by Abbot Suger of the royal Abbey Church of St.-Denis just outside the city of Paris. If we are to understand how Gothic architecture happened to come into being at this particular spot, we must first acquaint ourselves with the special relationship between St.-Denis, Suger, and the French monarchy. The kings of France derived their claim to authority from the Carolingian tradition, although they belonged to the Capetian line (founded by Hugh Capet after the death of the last Carolingian in 987). But their power was eclipsed by that of the nobles who, in theory, were their vassals. The only area they ruled directly was the Ile-de-France, and they often found their authority challenged even there. Not until the early twelfth century did the royal power begin to expand, and Suger, as chief adviser to Louis VI, played a key role in this process. It was he who forged the alliance between the monarchy and the Church, which brought the bishops of France (and the cities under their authority) to the king's side, while the king, in turn, supported the papacy in its struggle against the German emperors.

Suger championed the monarchy not only in practical politics but also in "spiritual politics." By investing the royal office with religious significance and glorifying it as the strong right arm of justice, he sought to rally the nation behind the king. His architectural plans for the Abbey of St.-Denis must be understood in this context, for the church, founded in the late eighth century, enjoyed a dual prestige that made it ideally suitable for Suger's purpose. It was the shrine of St.-Denis, the Apostle of France and special protector of the realm, as well as the chief memorial of the Carolingian dynasty. Both Charlemagne and his father, Pepin, had been consecrated kings there, and it was also the burial place of Charles Martel, Pepin, and Charles the Bald. Suger wanted to make the abbey the spiritual center of France, a pilgrimage church to outshine the splendor of all the others, the focal point of religious as well as patriotic emotion. But in order to become the visible embodiment of such a goal, the old edifice had to be enlarged and rebuilt. The great abbot himself has described the entire campaign in such eloquent detail that we know more about what he desired to achieve than we do about the final result, for the west facade and its sculpture are sadly mutilated today, and the choir, which Suger regarded as the most important part of the church, retains its original appearance only in the ambulatory (figs. 443 and 444).

Abbey Church of St.-Denis, Paris.


443. Ambulatory, Abbey Church of St.-Denis,

444. Plan of the choir and ambulatory of St.-Denis (after Sumner Crosby)

The ambulatory and radiating chapels surrounding the arcaded apse are familiar elements from the Romanesque pilgrimage choir (compare fig.
401), yet they have been integrated in strikingly novel fashion. The chapels, instead of remaining separate entities, are merged so as to form, in effect, a second ambulatory, and ribbed groined vaulting based on the pointed arch is employed throughout. (In the Romanesque pilgrimage choir, only the ambulatory had been groin-vaulted.) As a result, the entire plan is held together by a new kind of geometric order. It consists of seven identical wedge-shaped units fanning out from the center of the apse. We experience this double ambulatory not as a series of separate compartments but as a continuous (though articulated) space, whose shape is outlined for us by the network of slender arches, ribs, and columns that sustains the vaults.

What distinguishes this interior immediately from its predecessors is its lightness, in both senses. The architectural forms seem graceful, almost weightless, as against the massive solidity of the Romanesque, and the windows have been enlarged to the point that they are no longer openings cut into a wallthey fill the entire wall area, so that they themselves become translucent walls. If we now examine the plan once more, we realize what makes this abundance of light possible. The outward pressure of the vaults is contained by heavy buttresses jutting out between the chapels. (In the plan, they look like stubby black arrows pointing toward the center of the apse.) The main weight of the masonry construction is concentrated there, visible only from the outside. No wonder, then, that the interior appears so amazingly airy and weightless, since the heaviest members of the structural skeleton are beyond our view. The same impression would be even more striking if we could see all of Suger's choir, for the upper part of the apse, rising above the double ambulatory, had very large, tall windows. The effect, from the nave, must have been similar to that of the somewhat later choir of Notre-Dame in Paris (see fig. 446).

Stained glass representation of Abbot Suger
in the Jesse Window of the Basilique St-Denis.


Suger, (born 1081, near Paris—died Jan. 13, 1151), French abbot and adviser to kings Louis VI and VII whose supervision of the rebuilding of the abbey church of Saint-Denis was instrumental in the development of the Gothic style of architecture.

Suger was born of peasant parents. As a child he showed unusual intelligence, and in 1091 he was brought to the nearby abbey of Saint-Denis (the patron saint of France) to be educated by the monks. His closest friend and schoolmate at the abbey was Louis Capet, a boy his age. This boy became King Louis VI in 1108. Suger became secretary to the abbot Adam of Saint-Denis and a close adviser to the king. As secretary to Abbot Adam, Suger made various diplomatic missions to Henry Beauclerc of Normandy, who was also King Henry I of England and the son of William the Conqueror. Suger was greatly impressed by the strong, orderly administration of the Norman ruler, which contrasted with the chaotic feudalism in France. Saint-Denis, shrine of the saint who had supposedly brought Christianity to Gaul, was an object of great veneration. Suger saw its destiny and that of the French crown as permanently related. He believed that by stressing and enlarging the king’s role as vassal of Saint-Denis he could unite the king and his nobles under an idea they could mutually believe in. Suger also saw that the king could and should be protector of the peasants and the middle class.

In 1122 Suger was elected abbot of Saint-Denis. He had a chance shortly thereafter to test his theory of the cementing power of the symbolic theory of Saint-Denis. In 1124 Holy Roman Emperor Henry V invaded lands ruled by King Louis VI. Louis rode into battle carrying the Oriflamme, the banner of Saint-Denis, which normally rested in the church along with the relics of the saint. As a result of his (and Suger’s) appeal to the nobility’s veneration for the saint, he was followed by a larger army of nobles than had ever previously pledged their allegiance to him or to his father. The army of Louis and the Oriflamme were so formidable that Henry V retreated without battle. Although Suger was not an ascetic but a reasonable and humane man in a time of violent extremes, he guided the monks of Saint-Denis back into a life of greater piety and religious observation than they had known under Abbot Adam. In Adam’s administration the monks had gained notoriety for behaving in an excessively secular fashion. Suger corrected this situation at the urging of Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux. Suger cooperated in this and many other matters with Bernard, who was a close adviser to the pope and the greatest spiritual leader in Europe at the time. He could be a powerful enemy or ally, and Suger chose to be his ally.

After King Louis’s death in 1137, his successor, Louis VII, rejected Suger’s role as principal adviser, and Suger concentrated all of his efforts for the next five years on completing the rebuilding of the church of Saint-Denis, which had fallen into decay. It is believed that he was the inspiration behind many of the architectural innovations employed in the project, which, as one of the earliest Gothic buildings, included an original use of the pointed (rather than round) arch and the ribbed vault and extensive use of stained glass, including a rose window in the facade. His writings on this work demonstrate his belief in the spiritual quality of light in the writings of John the Scott and of “Dionysius,” later known as the pseudo-Areopagite. In 1142 Louis seized lands belonging to his most powerful vassal, Thibaut, count of Champagne. Civil war resulted. The support of the powerful Thibaut had always been vital to the French monarchy, and the young king was making war ferociously and irrationally. Suger stepped in as an active adviser to Louis VII, as he had always done with his father, and negotiated a peace treaty between Thibaut and Louis. The treaty was signed at the dedication ceremony of the church of Saint-Denis, an architectural marvel.

As penance for the many lives that he had taken during the war with Thibaut, Louis VII was urged by Bernard of Clairvaux to lead a crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. Suger was strongly opposed to this and tried unsuccessfully to change the king’s mind. For the first time Suger stood in opposition to the wishes of the weak, young king as well as those of Bernard and the pope. On June 11, 1147, Louis and Queen Eleanor departed on the Second Crusade. Louis left his crown with Abbot Suger, who was appointed regent in his absence. The Crusade was a disastrous loss, but at home Suger governed well, despite the great financial drain on the funds at his disposal. He devised new and fairer means of taxation, passed laws preventing deforestation, and suppressed a revolt by a group of nobles who planned to make Robert, count of Dreux and brother of Louis VII, king in his absence. When in 1149 Louis returned from the Crusade, many believed that Suger would not return the crown, but they were proved wrong.

In 1150 Suger himself, with Bernard, made plans for another crusade. But in 1150, before it was begun, Suger fell ill with malaria. He died in January 1151.

Anne F. Rockwell

Encyclopædia Britannica



In describing Suger's choir, we have also described the essentials of Gothic architecture. Yet none of the individual elements that entered into its design is really new. The pilgrimage choir plan, the pointed arch, and the ribbed groined vault can be found in various regional schools of the French and Anglo-Norman Romanesque, even though we never encounter them all combined in the same building until St.-Denis. The Ile-de-France had failed to develop a Romanesque tradition of its own, so that Suger (as he himself tells us) had to bring together artisans from many different regions for his project. We must not conclude from this, however, that Gothic architecture originated as no more than a synthesis of Romanesque traits. If it were only that, we would be hard pressed to explain the new spirit that strikes us so forcibly at St.-Denis: the emphasis on strict geometric planning and the quest for luminosity. Suger's account of the rebuilding of his church stresses both of these as the highest values achieved in the new structure. "Harmony" (that is, the perfect relationship among parts in terms of mathematical proportions or ratios) is the source of all beauty, since it exemplifies the laws according to which divine reason has constructed the universe. The "miraculous" light that floods the choir through the "most sacred" windows becomes the Light Divine, a mystic revelation of the spirit of God.

This symbolic interpretation of light and of numerical harmony had been established over the centuries in Christian thought. It derived from the writings of a fifth-century Greek theologian who, in the Middle Ages, was believed to have been Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian disciple of St. Paul. Through this identification, the works of another fifth-century writer, known as the Pseudo-Dionysius, came to be vested with great authority. In Carolingian France, however, Dionysius the disciple of St. Paul was identified both with the author of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings and with St. Denis.

The revival of monarchic power during the early twelfth century gave new importance to the theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius, attributed to St. Denis and therefore regarded as France's very own. For Suger, the light-and-number symbolism of Dionysian thought must have had a particularly strong appeal. We can well understand why his own mind was steeped in it, and why he wanted to give it visible expression when he rebuilt the church of the royal patron saint. That he succeeded is proved not only by the inherent qualities of his choir design but also by its extraordinary impact. Every visitor to St.-Denis, it seems, was overwhelmed by Suger's achievement, and within a few decades the new style had spread far beyond the confines of the Ile-de-France.


The how and why of Suger's success are a good deal more difficult to explain. Here we encounter a controversy we have met several times beforethat of form versus function. To the advocates of the functionalist approach, Gothic architecture has seemed the result of advances in architectural engineering, which made it possible to build more efficient vaults, to concentrate their thrust at a few critical points, and thus eliminate the solid walls of the Romanesque. Suger, they would argue, was fortunate in securing the services of an architect who evidently understood the principles of ribbed groined vaulting better than anybody else at that time. If the abbot chose to interpret the resulting structure as symbolic of Dionysian theology, he was simply expressing his enthusiasm over it in the abstract language of the churchman, so that his account does not help us to understand the origin of the new style.

It is perfectly true, of course, that the choir of St.-Denis is more rationally planned and constructed than any Romanesque church. The pointed arch (which can be "stretched" to reach any desired height regardless of the width of its base) has now become an integral part of the ribbed groined vault. As a result, these vaults are no longer restricted to square or near-square compartments. They have gained a flexibility that permits them to cover areas of almost any shape (such as the trapezoids and pentagons of the ambulatory). The buttressing of the vaults, too, is more fully understood than before. How could the theological ideas of Suger have led to these technical advances, unless we are willing to assume that he was a professionally trained architect? If we grant that he was not, can he claim any credit at all for the style of what he so proudly calls "his" new church? Oddly enough, there is no contradiction here. As we have seen, the term architect was understood in a very different way from the modern sense, which derives from Greece and Rome by way of the Italian Renaissance. To the medieval mind, he was the overall leader of the project, not the master builder responsible for its construction. Professional training as we know it did not exist at the time.

Perhaps the question poses a false alternative, somewhat like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg. The function ot a church, after all, is not merely to enclose a maximum of space with a minimum of material. For the master who built the choir of St.-Denis under Suger's supervision, the technical problems of vaulting must have been inextricably bound up with considerations of form (that is, of beauty, harmony, fitness, and so forth). As a matter of fact, the design includes various elements that express function without actually performing it, such as the slender shafts (called responds) that seem to carry the weight of the vaults to the church floor. (This expressive role is sometimes known as architectonics.)

But in order to know what constituted beauty, harmony, and fitness, the medieval architect needed the guidance of ecclesiastical authority. Such guidance might be a simple directive to follow some established model or, in the case of a patron as actively concerned with architectural aesthetics as Suger, it might amount to full participation in the designing process. Thus Suger's desire to "build Dionysian theology" is likely to have been a decisive factor from the very beginning. It shaped his mental image of the kind of structure he wanted, we may assume, and determined his choice of a master of Norman background as the chief architect. This great artist must have been singularly responsive to the abbot's ideas and instructions. Together, they created the Gothic style.


The Gothic Cathedral

The great cathedrals erected throughout Europe in the later 12th and 13th centuries are the enduring symbols of the Gothic age. These towering structures are eloquent testimonies to the extraordinary skill of the architects, engineers, carpenters, masons, sculptors, glassworkers, and metalsmiths who constructed and decorated the buildings.

Most of the architectural components of Gothic cathedrals appeared in earlier structures, but the way Gothic architects combined the elements made the buildings unique expressions of medieval faith. The key ingredients of the Gothic "recipe" were rib vaults with pointed arches, flying buttresses, and huge colored-glass windows. Our "exploded" view of a typical Gothic cathedral illustrates how these and other important Gothic architectural devices worked together.

The Vocabulary of Gothic Architecture

1. Pinnacle: A sharply pointed ornament capping the piers or flying buttresses; also used on cathedral facades.

2. Flying buttresses: Masonry struts that transfer the thrust of the nave vaults across the roofs of the side aisles and ambulatory to a tall pier rising above the church's exterior wall. Compare the cross-section of Beauvais Cathedral.

3. Vaulting web: The masonry blocks that fill the area between the ribs of a groin vault.

4. Diagonal rib: In plan, one of the ribs that form the X of a groin vault.

5. Transverse rib: A rib that crosses the nave or aisle at a 90-degree angle.

6. Springing: The lowest stone of an arch; in Gothic vaulting, the lowest stone of a diagonal or transverse rib.

7. Clerestory: The windows below the vaults that form the nave elevation's uppermost level. By using flying buttresses and rib vaults on pointed arches, Gothic architects could build huge clerestory windows and fill them with stained glass held in place by ornamental stonework called tracery.

8. Oculus: A small round window.

9. Lancet: A tall, narrow window crowned by a pointed arch.

10. Triforium: The story in the nave elevation consisting of arcades, usually blind , but occasionally filled with stained glass).

11. Nave arcade: The series of arches supported by piers separating the nave from the side aisles.

12. Compound pier with shafts (responds): Also called the cluster pier, a pier with a group, or cluster, of attached shafts, or responds, extending to the springing of the vaults.




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