Sacred Sunday: Building The Greatest Cathedrals

York Minster

Gothic Cathedrals are intricately designed architectural features with Biblical influence, which date back to 1144 and possibly even earlier.

The architecture used to make these magnificent buildings took a very long time and it involved many different forms of talent, and skill as well as hard to find materials. They are a beautiful representation of our history.

The origin of Gothic cathedrals and architecture was started by the abby church of Saint Denis, which was a vision of Abbot Suger, who also invented the form of architecture called the façade, and the rose window. Suger wanted to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, a building with a high degree of linearity that was filled with beautiful light and color.

The first construction that was truly Gothic was the choir of the church, made in 1144. This intense building was made of thin columns, colorful stained-glass windows and a sense of verticality with an eerie look added to it from all of the angular and intricate designs. The choir of the church established the elements that would later be elaborated on during the Gothic period. Gothic architecture at this time was adopted by Northern France, and it later spread out through France, the English, the Low Countries, parts of Germany, and Spain all of which were interested in its curious features.

The characteristics of Gothic architecture are stone structures, large expanses of glass, clustered columns, sharply pointed spires, intricate sculptures, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. One of their main characteristics is the ogival, or pointed arch. At this time the pointed arch was one of the newest technologies, and because of it many other features were developed basing off it. The pointed arch was used in every location in Gothic cathedrals where a domed shape was called for, both structural and decorative. Gothic openings such as doorways, windows, covered passages and galleries have pointed arches. A major external feature of the Gothic cathedrals that involved the pointed arch is slots that also contain statuary. Pointed arches lent themselves to elaborate intersecting shapes which developed within window spaces into complex Gothic tracery forming the structural support of the large windows that are characteristic of the style. Most of the architecture in Gothic cathedrals has a sense of verticality suggesting a goal to the Heavens.

The detailed sculptures were highly decorated with ethereal statues on the outside and beautiful rich painting on the inside. Both usually told Biblical stories, emphasizing visual typological allegories between Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament consisting of designs such as snarling stone gargoyles frozen in a sneer of ferocity.

Ribbed vaults, unlike the semi-circular vault of Roman and Romanesque buildings, can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped devices such as trapezoids; vaulting above spaces both large and small is usually supported by richly molded ribs.

Flying buttresses or arc-boutant, is usually on a religious building, used to spread the thrust of a vault across an intervening space, like an aisle, chapel or cloister, to a buttress outside the building.

Because of the flying buttress’s presence the walls containing all the heavy decoration can contain cut-outs, such as for large windows, which would otherwise seriously weaken the vault walls and cause them to collapse.

Gothic cathedrals use mainly limestone as a material, and they demand such a large amount of it that usually people had to build quarries to be able to make them. Some Gothic cathedrals, mainly in northern and eastern Germany, and southern France, used brick instead of limestone. The hard sticky material used to help keep the bricks and other materials together is called mortar, which is kind of like an older form of cement. Another material used in Gothic cathedrals often is wood, which holds up the roofs, flying buttresses, and the doors. They use many different kinds of wood because they only used the types of wood that were easily available.

Gothic architecture came and then went over the years, and later began to reappear in our world, showing up more and more in little ways. In England, some discrete Gothic details appeared on new construction at Oxford and Cambridge in the late seventeenth century. At the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence Lambeth Palace, a Gothic hammerbeam roof was built in 1663 to replace a building that had been sacked during the English Civil War. In England in the mid-eighteenth century, the Gothic style was more widely revived, first as a decorative, whimsical alternative to Rococo that is still conventionally termed ‘Gothick’, of which Horace Walpole’s Twickenham villa “Strawberry Hill” is the familiar example. Then, especially after the 1830s, Gothic was treated more seriously in a series of Gothic revivals, sometimes called Victorian Gothic or Neo-Gothic. The Houses of Parliament in London are an example of this Gothic revival style, designed by Sir Charles Barry and a major exponent of the early Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin.

Another example is the main building of the University of Glasgow designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. In France, the towering figure of the Gothic Revival was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who outdid historical Gothic constructions to create a Gothic as it ought to have been, notably at the fortified city of Carcassonne in the south of France and in some richly fortified keeps for industrial magnates.

Viollet-le-Duc compiled and coordinated an Encyclopédie médiévale that was a rich repertory his contemporaries mined for architectural details but also include armor, costume, tools, furniture, weapons and the like. He effected vigorous restoration of crumbling detail of French cathedrals, famously at Notre Dame so that the building could be presrved for a longer period of time, many of whose most “Gothic” gargoyles are Viollet-le-Duc’s. But he also taught a generation of reform-Gothic designers and showed how to apply Gothic style to thoroughly modern structural materials, especially cast iron. It is not easy to decide whether these instances were Gothic survival or early appearances of Gothic revival, because many of the previously made cathedrals have either rotted or were torn down for another reason, although there are still some left.

Cathedral is a Christian church which contains the seat of a bishop, thus serving as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate. Although the word “cathedral” is sometimes loosely applied, churches with the function of “cathedral” occur specifically and only in those denominations with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches. In the Greek Orthodox Church, the terms kathedrikos naos (literally: “cathedral shrine”) is sometimes used for the church at which an archbishop or “metropolitan” presides.

The term “metropolis” (literally “mother city”) is used more commonly than “diocese” to signify an area of governance within the church. The word cathedral is derived from the Latin word cathedra (“seat” or “chair”), and refers to the presence of the bishop’s or archbishop’s chair or throne. In the ancient world, the chair was the symbol of a teacher and thus of the bishop’s role as teacher, and also of an official presiding as a magistrate and thus of the bishop’s role in governing a diocese.

In the video below, take a dazzling architectural journey inside those majestic marvels of Gothic architecture, the great cathedrals of Chartres, Beauvais and other European cities. Carved from 100 million pounds of stone, some cathedrals now teeter on the brink of catastrophic collapse. To save them, a team of engineers, architects, art historians, and computer scientists searches the naves, bays, and bell-towers for clues.

This NOVA episode (originally aired October 5, 2011 on PBS) investigates the architectural secrets that the cathedral builders used to erect their towering, glass-filled walls and reveals the hidden formulas drawn from the Bible that drove medieval builders ever upward.

Gothic cathedrals were well made buildings from long ago. They were made so perfectly that some still stand today because of their unique features, some of which are now used for reparing other buildings similar to them. With all of their history and beauty they truly are a magnificent addition to our past.