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Medieval Gothic Cathedrals

The Medieval Gothic Cathedrals were born in Saint Denis, Île-de-France, A.D. 1136, when the Abbot Suger decided to rebuild the Carolingian Church, starting with the western entrance. Although still faithful to the Romanesque, the new façade introduced a new architectural element, the first Rose Window.  And, the rest is History! The Sanctuary, built from 1140 to 1144, is a veritable manifesto of the new Gothic Art.

Medieval Gothic Cathedrals-The Basilica Of Saint-Denis
The Basilica Of Saint Denis-Western Façade

Over the centuries, the splendor of these sacred structures has inspired believers, poets, painters and writers alike. The Medieval Gothic Cathedrals are the most beautiful religious buildings the Christian World has created.

Their breathtaking material appearance is a symbol of the Christian faith, as they literally try to reach heaven. Their orientation East-West is an expression of man's advancement towards God.

Entering the cathedral from the West, you are surrounded by symbols. First, is the pattern of the labyrinth in the floor stone. What else then a Labyrinth life is? Going towards East, you leave the Labyrinth behind and start feeling the spirituality replacing the material, as you advance through the Nave, guided by the surreal light coming from the stained glass windows. In the end, you reach the eastern end chapels. There, closer to the raising sun (God), is the place of praying and profound meditation.

How such marvels were build? Maybe the power and influence of the church was a factor. It was also the pure devotion and strong faith of the ordinary medieval people. In the 12th Century, in Chartres, women belonging to all social classes were carrying construction materials and food for the Cathedral builders, together with powerful men, proud of their birth and of their wealth, accustomed to a life of ease and pleasure, harnessing themselves to the shafts of a cart and dragging along stones, wood and all the materials necessary for the construction of the sacred edifice. Sometimes, as many as one thousand people, men and women, were harnessed to the same wagon, so heavy was the load. And this was happening in total silence, as not even the faintest murmur was heard. From time to time, the procession stopped and the women were singing religious hymns. 

Originating in France, the Gothic Architecture will first cross the English Channel. Gradually, it will encompass the rest of Western Europe, and then the Central and even Eastern Europe. 

Notably, there was no opposition to the new art, except, to a certain degree, Italy. Due to complex local conditions, there will be delays between different European regions when adopting the new architectural style.

Medieval Gothic Cathedrals-The Chartres Cathedral
Chartres Cathedral
For example, in some regions in Germany, the gothic elements will appear as late as the 14th Century. But there were also differences between regions within the same country. In Provence, France, many Romanesque churches were built at the beginning of the 13th Century, thus being contemporary with the jewel of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals: the Chartres Cathedral.

There are two countries where the religious Gothic Art reached perfection: France and England.

In each of these countries, we can identify different periods in the evolution of the Gothic Style, and each of these periods will be reflected in the architectural elements of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals. In France, we can identify four periods:

  • Early
  • Lancet
  • Rayonnant
  • Flamboyant or Late Gothic
In England, there are three periods:
  • Early English
  • Decorated
  • Perpendicular, truly the equivalent of the Flamboyant in France
Medieval Gothic Cathedrals-Amiens Cathedral
Amiens Cathedral-Western Façade

Everywhere in Europe, the late period is the most sophisticated. Its amazing development saw a multitude of styles, and, during this period we can truly speak about an "Italian Flamboyant", a "German" one, a "Spanish" one, and so on.

The climate played an important role in defining the local characteristics of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals. In France, the western fašade has between 3 to 5 portals leading to the central nave. In England, the western side has only one entrance (Canterbury Cathedral), and the portals are placed on the north and south sides, they lead to the secondary Naves, and are narrower.

In Germany, the French influence was very strong until the end of the 13th Century. The largest among the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals in Northern Europe, the Cologne (K÷ln) Cathedral had as a model the Amiens Cathedral. By the end of the 15th Century, a German style was born, with secondary naves having almost the same height as the main Nave (the so called "Hallenkirchen"), and using mainly brick, not stone. Germany played the main role in propagating the Gothic into the Central and Eastern Europe.

In Italy, heavily influenced by the Romanesque and the Classic Antiquity traditions, there was an intrinsic opposition to the new northern style. The religious architecture will continue to be mainly the result of the Romanesque coexisting with the Gothic. The first gothic elements are displayed by churches belonging to the Cistercian Order, and are defined by their simplicity, as the Cistercian rules were requiring. Still, the Flamboyant style found its Italian way, resulting in the construction of  "Il Duomo" in Milan.

In Spain, the Cistercians and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella had the main role in promoting the Gothic Art. The three majestic Medieval Gothic Cathedrals in Castile: Burgos, Leon, and Toledo are replicas of their French counterparts.

Medieval Gothic Cathedrals-Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral
The dimensions of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals are truly amazing! Just think of the general conditions of the time they were built!  In 1163, Notre-Dame in Paris was the highest at 34 m. In 1194, the Chartres Cathedral will take the first place, by  adding a mere 1.05 m. Then, in 1212 Reims Cathedral reached 37.95 m, and in 1221 Amiens Cathedral boasted 42.30 m. In 1225, the choir vault of the Beauvais Cathedral reached 51 m. It fell in 1284, but it was rebuilt afterwards. The 12th Century Spire of the Chartres Cathedral has 105 m, and the Strasbourg Cathedral Spire is 142 m high, that means approximately a 45 story modern building! The Amiens Cathedral, the largest in France, was able to shelter the entire population of the city, around 10.000 people! 

The splendor and the magnificence of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals attracted scores of people from the very beginning. Little by little, the Cathedrals became a place to socialize. People were meeting to talk business, and even the town's officials used to meet here to discuss community problems. No wonder that in some of the cities with large Cathedrals, there was no City Hall!

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