Gothic Cathedrals & Medieval Symbolism

Notre Dame.pngLetter IIn the realm of thought the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of scholasticism, in the realm of politics a time of guilds and the roots of nationalism, in the realm of religion a time of monastic reform, and in the realm of expression it was a time of the Gothic, in painting, sculpture, and primarily in architecture.

Gothic architecture – most apprehensible in the form of the medieval cathedral – is perhaps the most defining and comprehensive representation of these various trends. As it is stated by Henri Daniel-Rops in his book Cathedral and Crusade, “If nothing of medieval Christianity had survived excepting the cathedrals, they alone would tell us all, or nearly all, that matters about the period in question.” 

In the Gothic cathedral the scholarship, politics, arts, and religion of the period can be seen coming together under the umbrella of Christian ideology.

While it was practical and originally expressive – a feat of both engineering and symbolic innovation – the most notable aspect of the Gothic cathedral is in how it embodies the culmination of the Christian energy of the medieval period, an energy exceeding that any other age, both in the clergy and in the laity.

This vigor of the lay people is particularly noteworthy, both as it stands in opposition to what came before it and in its significance and how it ties into the overall significance of the Gothic cathedral. 

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Origins of the Gothic 

The Gothic cathedral originated around 1137 and saw its high point during the thirteenth century. The cathedral came about both to satisfy practical concerns as well as concerns of expression.

Practically there were a number of reasons for the development of the Gothic away from the Romanesque architecture which preceded it. One practical concern regarded the lack of aesthetic appeal and the propensity for the low roofs of the earlier Romanesque churches to catch fire due to the fact that they had to be made out of wood. A greater practical concern was simply for space. One the one hand space needed to be limited due to nature of the city; the surface area of cities needed to be as small as possible due to the need of building walls and moats. On the other hand space needed to be maximized in order to make room for people inside the churches.

Abbot Suger of France is generally attributed with being the hub of the innovation that is Gothic architecture. In his work On Consecration he wrote concerning this matter of space, stating that due to the smallness of the early basilica of St. Denis it was often “completely filled, disgorged through all of its doors the excess of the crowds,” such that “the outward pressure of the foremost ones not only prevented those attempting to enter from entering but also expelled those who had already entered.”Talmot france romanesque.png

While this might be an exaggeration it still makes clear that the thick and heavy walls of the earlier Romanesque style did not allow for ample space in which to move. It was this basilica of St. Denis that Abbot Suger would resolve to reconstruct.

The style instigated by Suger would employ vaulted ceilings and pillars reinforced by flying buttresses which would allow the architects to do away with the need for the thick walls so typical of the earlier Romanesque style. This need for only minimal walls not only allowed for a much more economic use of space but also allowed Suger the use of windows as had never been seen before. The strength of the columns and reinforced vaults furthermore allowed for an almost purely vertical manner of building which brought with it impossibly high ceilings made of stone, which not only served to give the building an airy and open feeling but also removed the previous vulnerability to fire seen in the lower wooden roofs of the Romanesque style.

milan-cathedralThese facts serve to give an ever so slight glimpse into the period surrounding the building of the cathedral, of what sort of issues it faced, and where it was at technologically.

It was not only practical concerns which motivated Abbot Suger to reconstruct the basilica of St. Denis. There were also philosophical concerns in which one can see the first of the primary aspects of the period coming together under the umbrella of Gothic architecture, that of scholarship.


Philosophy of the Gothic 

One of Suger’s greatest sources of inspiration were the Neo-Platonic writings of the Pseudo-Dionysus, a sixth-century Christian mystic from Syria. For instance in Pseudo-Dionysus it may be found that “Light comes from the Good, and light is an image of this archetypal Good… it gives them all a share of sacred light.”

It is from such passages as this that Suger finds not only justification for the great windows of his cathedral but also a symbolic aspect to the light which those windows allowed.  Yet it is not only the symbolism of light which Suger finds in the Pseudo-Dionysus, but also a justification for the aesthetic endeavor as a whole.

dionysiusThe earlier Romanesque churches not only had few windows but were also scarcely decorated; yet from Pseudo-Dionysus came the view that “The Beautiful is therefore the same as the Good, for everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being.” Here is found solid justification for the great beauty which Suger attempted to instill into Gothic architecture.

This is not merely an identification of the beautiful with the good, it is also an attempt at transcendence in the scale of being; in keeping with the Neo-Platonic view it was thought that through this light and beauty one may ascend the scale of being, the physical world being a reflection of the heavenly one. Thus Suger may be seen writing that:

“When – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial… and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

Here the Neo-Platonism of the period can be most clearly seen, this hope of climbing the scale of being, with the Pseudo-Dionysus calling for “the return upwards by those of lower status.” This is one aspect of the intellectual and scholarly pursuits of the period. Another loose glimpse can be seen in the aforementioned architectural ingenuity, which in turn required a great logical ingenuity.

saint-isaacs-cathedralThis logical ingenuity combined with the philosophical principles which laid behind the architecture have prompted some to refer to the Gothic cathedral as “a Summa Theologica in stone and glass.”

The logical ingenuity was not the only thing that factored into the cathedral being deemed such; the goal of the architects in conveying the basics of Christianity also contributed greatly. As Pope Gregory the Great had said quite some time earlier “what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.”

Gregory is addressing images on a smaller scale, though in the cathedral this idea can be seen stretched to its maximum potential, the walls, ceilings and stained-glass windows filled to the brim with biblical scenes, depictions of the saints, moral allegories and images of agriculture and the sciences alike, leading the thirteenth century writer William Durandus to note that the cathedrals – and specifically the windows therein – were “Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and the rain, that is all things hurtful, but transmit the light of the True Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the Faithful.”stainedglass-sainte-chapelle

This points both to the cathedral as an “encyclopedia of human knowledge”
where “the first aim of their art was not to please, but to teach.”

A final implication for the academics of the period seen in the cathedral is the movement of education from being primarily the realm of the monasteries to a larger role of the cathedral school. With the increasing urbanization of the period towns began to be the center of social life and also now played a part in the intellectual sphere. Education became no longer limited to the clergy and the scholarly hub of the monasteries could be seen moving into the laity, who often attended the cathedral schools.


Gothic Architecture & Politics

The Gothic cathedral not only exemplifies the philosophical and scholarly mood of the period (or at least an aspect thereof), but also the political state.

A symbolic reading can give a rough glimpse of the medieval political-religious state.

The earlier Romanesque churches with their thick stone walls and minimal decorations or windows were reminiscent of the castles of the period, pointing to the role of the church militant; as E.H. Gombrich puts it the symbolism here points out that “here on earth it is the task of the Church to fight the powers of darkness till the hour of triumph dawns on doomsday.”

Yet the church was moving from a period of being the church militant to being the church triumphant.

The crusades were less active, the Vikings were becoming either quelled or settled, the Hanseatic League was making the seas safer, guilds were developing and the Muslims were being pushed back so as to only be a menace on the frontiers. Yet not only was it a triumph of the church or the state, the clergy or the laity alone, but of both.ausbreitung_der_hanse_um_das_jahr_1400-droysens_28

While Gregory VII had worked to assert the Church’s authority over the civil rulers, Abbot Suger sought more of an alliance between the two, the monarchy as seen in Louis VI and the bishops of France.

This was not merely a domination of the civic rulers by the church, but a cooperation – just as educational thrust began to move to the cities and thereby blurred the scholarly lines between the clergy and the laity, so did the architecture of the Gothic cathedral symbolize this move. This is most readily witnessed in the ‘triumphal’ arch, a type of arch originally used in Roman times under which victorious emperors marched, and which in the cathedral was moved from the nave of the church (where only the clergy would be admitted under to) to the entrance, where everybody would pass beneath.

There was also another dynamic to the politics of building cathedrals which is particularly noted by the thirteenth century bishop of Auxerre, William Seignelay, who determined to rebuild his church “so that it might not be inferior to these others in form and treatment.”

Thus the fact that the clergy were involved in politics is of great significance where the building of cathedrals can be seen a way of increasing political sway; furthermore, the building of magnificent churches helped increase the status of not only the bishop of the cathedral but of the city as a whole. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this striving for status is that it demonstrates the seeds of nationalism within the medieval period.

Through the building of the cathedrals the laity and the upper classes sought not only to glorify God, but also to show their own civic pride.


Art and the Gothic

The Gothic started out as architecture, and is best seen in the architecture, but it also eventually moved into the mediums of sculpture and of painting, especially given that these two types were often employed in the cathedrals themselves.

dentelle-de-pierre-cathedralThis was not the first time in history that sculpture and painting had been used to adorn buildings, especially religious buildings. The Greeks and Romans quite some time before had done similarly, though there was a key difference between the motives of the Greeks and Romans and that of the medieval Christians.

Whereas the Greeks and Romans sought to build up the human form and bring out the beauty of the body in their art, for the medieval Christians the sculpture and painting was more a means to an end. As has already been mentioned the pursuit of beauty played into the philosophical leanings of the period, and furthermore served as a means of conveying the story of Christ and the saints for the illiterate.

Also in contrast to the earlier Greeks and Romans, the artists of the Christian period came from the laity, which once again emphasizes the new increased significance of the laity in the church. In this facet of the arts can also perhaps be seen the first seeds of the return the golden ages of Romans which became the central theme of the Renaissance.

This focus on the artistic and the beautiful would also serve as part of the downfall of the style as it began to be seen has having “passed from its purity to undue elaboration.”


Religion and the Gothic

The religion of the period is naturally exemplified in the religious buildings of each age, yet more-so than any other church structures the Gothic cathedrals give a clear image of the religion contained therein.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect seen in the cathedrals is the great zeal of religion which was seen in the Christianity of the period.

As has been noted already with the scholarship and with the politics, Gothic architecture was not only a signifier of the clergy, but of the laity as well, and it is no less so here. The twelfth century Abbot Haimon as quoted by Daniel E. Bornstein gives an account of men and women both rich and poor volunteering their efforts in the constructing of the cathedrals, dragging wagons “with their loads of wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams, and other things necessary to sustain life or to build churches.”

Everybody wished to show their devotion to the faith by helping in the construction of the cathedrals – or as is said again by the William Seignelay in the thirteenth century, “the construction of new churches everywhere heightened people’s zeal.”

Dunblane Cathedral interior.pngThe zeal was such to bring the free donations of the sculptors, painters and architects along with the patronage of the wealthy. In short, there was an underlying unity in a common system, that of Christianity. It is this extraordinary thrust of energy from the laity that is perhaps most distinctive glimpse given by the Gothic cathedral.

Yet another way in which the religious mood of the period – as well as its theological leanings – can be seen the Gothic cathedral is once again through the sheer beauty which the builders attempted to instill into it.

For the Christians of the period the chief purpose of the church service was the celebration of the sacrament of communion, or the Eucharist. The doctrine of transubstantiation taught that the literal body of Christ became manifest during the celebration of this ceremony, and thus in combining with the Neo-Platonic justifications for the great beauty of the Gothic cathedral is the justification found in wanting the cathedral to be acceptable for the earthly appearance of Christ.

The cathedral needed to be a fitting setting of the miracle of the transformation of the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ in the Eucharist therefore extra care was given to make it as much as possible a true reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem as taught by the Pseudo-Dionysus.

Finally there was a strong focus on the religion as being public, it was meant to draw in the public and to keep religion public.

This was not simply in contrast to the household god type religion of the pagans, but also served practical purposes within the church. For one it helped to keep the populace away from heresy, as religions which were kept private were likely to draw suspicion of being heretical, all the more-so with the twelfth century being one of the periods of inquisition.

Private worship was seen all the worse because as has been noted, the primary purpose of the service was the celebration of the Eucharist. Only a priest was seen as qualified to perform this act, and only the cathedral seen as a worthy place of its being performed. The cathedral can thereby be seen as upholding not only a distinctly public aspect to the Christianity of the period, but also one in which the priests are the sole bearers of the Eucharist, the chief means of grace.aquinas

It is thus that the cathedral can be seen as exemplifying nearly every major aspect of medieval life. On the mundane plane it shows the level of technical advancement, a level of logical ingenuity comparable to that of the Summa Theologica of the same period.


The Church and the Gothic

Beyond this, the Gothic cathedral is the exemplary example of the union between the clergy and the laity and the overall mindset of the period.

The cathedral allowed for status to be gained both by the bishop as well as the city as a whole. Furthermore the development of the cathedral signals a period when the religious zeal was such that the laity could rise up – even if under the direction of a bishop – and create such great wonders of both architectural and aesthetic triumph.

In the Gothic is seen the first distinctly Christian architecture, an architecture which was closely tied to the civilization of the city.

Apart from simply being a symbol of nearly every aspect of medieval civilization, one must also ask whether the Gothic offers any lasting lesson or applicability to the contemporary scene. On the one hand it might be concluded that this sort of movement could not be instituted from the top down, given that it was the zeal of the laity which was perhaps the driving force behind the endeavors – a zeal not only for the things of Christianity buts also the seeds of a nationalistic zeal for their regions, where through the construction of such wondrous buildings status could be raised and pride could be demonstrated.

europe_12thcentury_1884-300x216Yet all of this was possible mainly due to the monolithic mindset of Christianity which was instilled into the period, a mindset which brought together the civic and the religious and presupposed most of the dogmas of Christianity.

In the world today the same sort of mindset cannot even begin to be said to be present, rather what is seen is a splintered mindset in which no one narrative may rise to the forefront.

Furthermore the religious is not merely separated from the civic and political aspects of life, but any alliance between the two is seen as a distinctly negative thing. In terms of the benefits that the cathedral gave to the medieval period, it seems that most of them ended shortly after the era of the cathedrals. It is thus that the cathedrals were uniquely suited to their time.

The benefits of the cathedral through the role of acting as Scripture to the illiterate would have certainly been beneficial in any time prior, yet that method of communicating these various philosophical notions faded quickly with the advent of the Reformation, where with the return to the sources and the rise in literacy removed much of the need for the images of the cathedral.

The philosophical basis and religious zeal also uniquely suited the cathedral to its time. No longer would many Christians argue that light or beauty helps raise the worshiper closer to God and most would no doubt view the construction of such buildings as a waste of money which could be used elsewhere. Giving glory to God through the arts is a method which is seen as being less legitimate.

In spite of all of this there is still a great lesson to learn from the cathedrals, to include that the faithful can achieve great things when they are sufficiently inspired and perhaps raises the question of what sort of effort Christians should be putting into making their sanctuaries beautiful.

The Gothic brings forth the question of how contemporary Christians might bring their own philosophical notions and religious symbolism into the development of their churches. Gothic cathedrals have served to inspire a certain majesty for many hundreds of years, and their legacy is worth noting.



Ordained PCA | MDiv

May or may not be a Time Lord.


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