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Discuss the reasons for the development of the Gothic cathedral and explain how constructional problems were overcome
The Gothic cathedral originates from twelfth century France where experimentation with radical new ideas about geometry witnessed a revolution in ecclesiastical architecture. The development of the Gothic style of architecture was not a sudden transformation – it evolved over a long period, developing aspects of the Romanesque era which preceded it. Romanesque is characterised by a use of round or slightly pointed arches, barrel vaults, cruciform piers, supporting vaults, and groin vaults. In the Gothic cathedral a greater emphasis was placed on verticality, featuring structures with great expanses of glass, sharply pointed spires, cluster columns, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, pointed arches and imaginative sculptural detail.
The Abbey Church of St. Denis, where St. Denis’s famous and influential Abbot Suger directed a west front in 1137, is thought to be the birthplace of the Gothic cathedral. St. Denis was not a cathedral but the work there appears to have inspired refurbishment to the new Gothic style of a large number of Romanesque cathedrals in the surrounding Greater Paris Basin – such as Sens (1140s), Notre Dame of Paris (1160), Chartres (1194), and Beauvais (1226). The rediscovery of Eastern architectural styles and construction techniques by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land contributed to these developments in France. For example, the flying buttress was a late Roman invention which was copied by the Arabs, and subsequently incorporated into what we now know as ‘Gothic.’
Ecclesiastical architecture was one of the most important statements of power, wealth and respect, and during the twelfth century when royal power was struggling to reassert itself, cathedral building was seen as a way of regaining the trust and admiration of the public. As Victor Hugo said of Notre-Dame:
Each face, each stone of this venerable monument is not only a page of the history of the country, but also of the history of knowledge and art…. Time is the architect, the people are the builder.
The complex architectural design of Notre-Dame reflects the influences of the rulers of the time and illustrates how important the construction of the early Gothic cathedral was to the leading powers of the country. During the reign of Louis VI and Louis VII the monarchy began to establish itself as a predominant power and unlike other regions of France where powerful counts supported the construction of monasteries and cathedrals, the Greater Paris basin had experienced minimal development of its ecclesiastical architecture. As Scott says: ‘The absence of a recent regional style, combined with the fact that most abbeys and cathedrals in the Greater Paris Basin were old and in disrepair, created an opportunity for wholesale renewal of churches that could not have arisen elsewhere.’
Cathedral building was to transcend its humble beginnings of the ideas of Abbot Suger, gradually transforming the earlier Romanesque style into something entirely new. The new style evolved across northern France and in1174 marked its arrival in England during the rebuilding of the twelfth century choir at Canterbury. The relationship between England and France was close compared to other countries: many high-ranking clergymen of twelfth-century England were French, and others who were English by birth had been educated at the great cathedral schools of France, such as Chartres and Notre Dame. Furthermore, in England, where the trend of post-Norman invasion architecture was coming to an end, there was a niche for a new style. As centre of the head of the Church of England, Canterbury Cathedral inspired the Gothic church building movement in England. The choir, which had been gutted by fire, was rebuilt as a shrine of the murdered archbishop, St. Thomas Becket. Cathedrals which followed the Gothic design included Chichester (c. 1187), Winchester (c. 1190), Lincoln (c. 1192), and Llandaff, Wales (c. 1193).
The sheer size and volume of the masonry involved presented problems during the construction of Gothic cathedrals. In order to reach the great heights of the cathedrals elaborate scaffolds were needed, which were made of wood, together with winch systems. These materials would have suffered in bad weather, and during the winter coverings would have been put up so that some progress could be made.
The features of the evolving Gothic style such as the large stained-glass windows, the flying buttresses, and ribbed vaults perhaps caused the most problems during construction. Larger windows were desired to allow more light than traditional styles. This meant that the buildings had to be taller – using flying buttresses to support higher ceilings with rib vaults to support. Although funded by the clergy, large scale projects still relied on limited resources. Costs of quarrying and transporting stone were high so in compensation vaults were made thinner. Unfortunately this meant that vaults collapsed, and it was only through a process of experimentation and learning that these problems were overcome. The roof supports had to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. In France it was practice to thin the supports, and arrange them as ‘integral parts of an articulated system, of which the ribbed vaults were the crowning feature, (which) imparted a new vitality and dynamic quality.’ In addition to this, the shafts supporting the cross-arches were often brought out and given greater distinction. The introduction of rib vaults also meant that secondary shafts were needed to support them.
The demand for light and stained glass meant a deviation from traditional circular designs in window surrounds. At Laon, the circular design of the window surround was incongruous with the flat surface of the glass. At the same time a similar aesthetic conflict had sprung up between the rib-vault in the apse and its semicylindrical form. The development of the polygonal apse meant that these problems could be resolved. As Frankl explains it:
‘Even seen at an angle, a semicylindrical apse will always appear frontal, whereas in a polygonal apse, though one may stand frontally to one side, one will always see slanting sides at the same time. Several images are seen simultaneously, and all are included in the optical impression of the whole.
This solution to the problem is a fine example of how Gothic architecture experimented with appearance and form: designs became ambitious and it was the duty of the architect and builders to try and fulfil them. In conclusion, the evolution of the Gothic cathedral was an expensive and dynamic phenomenon which was driven by the ruling powers of the lands. As the buildings represented so much to both the prelates and the public the problems encountered during construction appear to have been a serious challenge, albeit one accepted by the society of the time.
Frankl, P., 1962, Gothic Architecture. Baltimore, MD: Penguin
Davidson, C, 2002, Abbeys and Cathedrals. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/churchlj/cathedral_04.shtml)
Davis, M. T., 1998, Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris, 1290-1350. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80
Harvey, J, 1950, The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd
Scott, R.A, 2003, The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral. California: University of California Press
The Social Background of Gothic Cathedrals. 2004, Architectural Science Review. Volume: 47. Issue: 2. University of Sydney, Faculty of Architecture: Gale Group
Online encyclopaedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanesque)
Online encyclopaedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Cathedral#Characteristics)
 Online encyclopaedia: ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanesque)
 Online encyclopaedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Cathedral#Characteristics)
 Davidson, C, 2002, Abbeys and Cathedrals. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/churchlj/cathedral_04.shtml)
 Davidson, C, 2002, Abbeys and cathedrals. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/churchlj/cathedral_04.shtml)
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