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Medieval Gothic

Medieval Gothic Principles

The principles of a Medieval Gothic construction are relatively easy to understand, as they are never hidden from view. Generally, the alphabet of architecture consists of three letters: walls, roofs, openings. In the Gothic "dialect" we read that the walls are not called upon to do much work in the way of supporting the roof. Their chief duty is to enclose space.

Flying Butresses-Notre Dame Cathedral In Paris
Flying Buttresses
Notre Dame Cathedral In Paris

The skeleton of the roof is composed of ribs which combine to form pointed arches, the spaces between which are filled in, so that we get a number of cross-vaults varying in shape according to the disposition of the ribs. The weight of these vaults is sustained by piers and pillars, or, to be more accurate, by clusters of pillars, each doing its share of an all-important work. But although the actual weight of the vaults is supported so far as downward pressure is concerned, one precaution was necessary to ensure the security of any Medieval Gothic building: each side of a pointed arch has a very strong tendency to push the other over, and a perfect balance had to be ensured.

If you walk outside of any of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals, you can see how this balance is maintained. Once outside, we notice that this lateral thrust is counteracted by props which are joined obliquely to other props descending vertically into the ground. The oblique prop is called flying buttress, and the vertical support is called just buttress. The buttresses are weighted at the top by pinnacles, which serve the purpose of bearing them down more firmly into the ground, thus rendering them more secure.

The doors and windows are able to withstand pressure, by using a simpler application of the principles by which the roof is supported. Many local circumstances and local demands combined to give variety of form and purpose to the buildings created during the impulsive period of Gothic inspiration. This led to what we call "local Gothic". But the underlying construction principles are the same.

Medieval Gothic in France

As Northern France may be called the cradle of Gothic Architecture, we will first turn our attention to this country, and take a rapid survey of the principal Medieval Gothic buildings there which bear the testimony to the Gothic energy. This energy coincided with the power of the clergy and the zealous religious indignation which found expression in the Crusades. If men could go to Jerusalem to lay down their lives, what could those who stayed at home do to show their sympathy with the oppressed pilgrims, admiration for their champions, and appreciation of the blessings and privileges of the faith?

Working under the inspiration of the religious fervor, men had already shown a desire to erect fine cathedrals and beautiful abbeys. But the Crusades made them especially eager to build temples worthy of their God, and fit to be the last resting place of the bones of Saints and martyrs who died in the Holy Land. As witnesses to the vigor of religious enthusiasm in France stand the great cathedrals of Notre Dame in Paris, Bourges, Chartres, Rouen, Amiens, Coutances, Beauvais, and Bayeux.

Medieval Gothic in England

When the Medieval Gothic architecture was first asserting itself in France, the Norman dynasty was flourishing in England. The enormous influence of Norman activity on building in this country is apparent in the style which is named after the conqueror’s dukedom. From this style, the adaptation of which is known under the name of English Romanesque, early English Gothic was developed.

English Medieval Gothic-Salisbury Cathedral
English Gothic-Salisbury Cathedral
England was a stronghold of monasticism, and the monks not only stirred up religious enthusiasm, but provided from their coffers the necessary funds for the erection of the magnificent cathedrals and churches, and, furthermore, these monks were the leading masters who taught and practiced architecture. Hence, the actual Medieval Gothic building consecrated to Divine worship had various parts attached to it, and these parts were closely related to the monks life.

Attached to the chapel are the beautiful cloisters in which the monks went to wander; the refectories where the monks took their meals; dormitories; rooms set apart for the use of guests, who were always sure of food, shelter, and a hearty welcome; library; workshops; scriptorium, where manuscripts were copied and illuminated; ecclesiastical courts of law, the limits of whose jurisdiction was the subject of so much controversy; and numerous other buildings necessary to the condition of life in a monastic colony.

All such gigantic edifices would naturally take many years to complete, and, as the building works were frequently subject to interruptions, generation succeeded generation and style succeeded style. Thus, in many of the finest cathedrals there is a mixture of Norman work with Gothic in different stages of development.

Periods of English Medieval Gothic

The Medieval Gothic architecture in England is generally divided into three periods:

  1. Early English
  2. Decorated
  3. Perpendicular
Early English Gothic is a development of Romanesque in its most English aspect, which is Norman. Amongst the finest specimens of Early Gothic, Salisbury Cathedral stands supreme. It was finished within thirty-eight years, which accounts for the uniformity of style that characterizes it.

In the Decorated style, more attention is given to ornamentation, the decorative possibilities of stained glass becoming enthusiastically recognized. Parts of Lincoln, York, are typical of this style, as are some of the cloisters in Westminster Abbey.

Perpendicular is the distinguished adjective given to that style in which great stress is laid on height by well-marked vertical construction and ornamentation. The essentially English form of roof construction known as fan vaulting is used in this period, and The Chapel of Henri VII at Westminster Abbey is one of the best examples of Perpendicular style.

Medieval Gothic in Germany

In Germany, where the Romanesque style of building obtained a very strong foothold, the Medieval Gothic did not really find favor. Here, as was the case in Italy, the use of bricks resulted in work which has a peculiar fascination, and German Gothic owes very much of its beauty to the fact that such material enters largely into its construction. There are, however, comparatively few evidences of the transitional movement amongst the important German buildings, which are either Romanesque or a French importation of perfect Gothic. Cologne Cathedral proudly boast of its close relationship to the Cathedrals of Beauvais and of Amiens.

Medieval Gothic in Italy

Italian Medieval Gothic-The Dome In Sienna
Italian Gothic-The Dome In Siena
The Italian Medieval Gothic is markedly Italian in inspiration, although Gothic in achievement. Italian inspiration is classic, and we find in Italy some of the most enchanting and exquisite Gothic in Europe, of a material nature checked by a strong spiritual power. Generally speaking, in Italy we miss the flying buttresses and the steep gabled roof. There is no reason to use that type of roof in the Italian climate, as it was designed to withstand to more exacting climate conditions in the North. Almost every building erected in the Medieval Gothic period in Italy is actually adapting the Gothic style in an individual fashion. The cathedrals in Milan, Florence and Siena are the best examples.

Medieval Gothic Sculpture

Looking at the columns, arches, flying buttresses, we realize that the Gothic sculptor drew inspiration from every living thing. Man, bird, beast, reptile, tree, and the flower of the field, all furnished him with ideas, and enabled him to put spirit into his work. The Gothic sculptor inventive genius also materialized in the grotesque, which is so perfectly exhibited by the gargoyles, those weirdly fascinating projections which act as water-spouts, and prevent the weather from running down the sides of the building by throwing it some distance away from the face of the walls. The Gothic builders obtained highly decorative effects from the lights and shades made by the mere disposition of moldings. The characteristic dog-tooth decoration of the Early English moldings was surpassed by the exquisite ball-flower ornament of the Decorated style, which may be rivaled, but can hardly be said to be outrivaled, by the endless variety of designs in which leaves and flowers and fruits, together with grotesque, figure so conspicuously. The brick and terra-cotta moldings and ornaments in Italy have a distinct charm of their own.

The development of traceried windows, which form such a characteristically ornamental feature of Medieval Gothic buildings, is a specially interesting study by itself. The aperture bounded above by a single arch became in early Gothic divided vertically into two parts, each part being contained under a pointed arch within the outer arch boundary.

Domestic Medieval Gothic Architecture-Jacques Coeur Palace In Bourges
Domestic Medieval Gothic Architecture-Jacques Coeur Palace In Bourges
The mass of solid stone between the soffit of the upper arch and the heads of the lower ones was pierced at first with very simple openings, but gradually these openings were multiplied in number and connected in design. Either they formed a circular light or rose window in the middle of the stonework, or the stone was penetrated all over, so that the tracery lines made a network of the whole surface, which had previously been of solid stone.

Towers and spires are maybe the most impressive ornamental features of the Medieval Gothic Cathedrals and are all transmitting the message of hope. Whether we look at a Medieval Gothic building from within or from outside, we cannot but feel that the decorative artist fully realize the emotional properties of light and shade, of color and form, and that his work is a robust testimony to liberty of thought and freedom of action.

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