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Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism

Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism

by Karen Ralls PhD

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Cross the threshold into the world of the High Middle Ages and explore the illuminating wisdom, beauty and art of the Gothic cathedrals, stunning wonders of the medieval era for all to see today. From bejewelled stained glass windows to a pilgrimage "on the road" to Compostela, the wonders of Gothic architecture continue to inspire many worldwide.

From the 12th


Cross the threshold into the world of the High Middle Ages and explore the illuminating wisdom, beauty and art of the Gothic cathedrals, stunning wonders of the medieval era for all to see today. From bejewelled stained glass windows to a pilgrimage "on the road" to Compostela, the wonders of Gothic architecture continue to inspire many worldwide.

From the 12th century, the Gothic architectural style continued to spread throughout Europe. Highly-regarded medievalist Dr. Karen Ralls explores the legacy of this exquisite architectural period, whose artistic beauty and expert craftsmanship have served for centuries to inspire feelings of spiritual reverence and aesthetic wonder. She details the relationship between architecture, geometry, and music; explores the concept of the labyrinth; pilgrimage; Black Madonnas; astronomical calculations in the design and location of cathedrals; stone and wood carvings; gargoyles; the teachings of Pythagoras and the later Neo-Platonists, and more. For the general reader and specialist alike, Dr. Ralls guides the reader through the history, places, art, and symbolism of these unique "books in stone", providing a lively portal and solid resource for all.

Lavishly illustrated with color photographs, a recommended reading section, lists of the major European cathedral sites and a full Bibliography, Gothic Cathedrals is a fascinating showcase of the mystic and spiritual symbolism found in these great structures of Europe, information that will help modern readers visit these sites and share in the energy of the sacred they continue to radiate.

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Gothic Cathedrals

A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism

By Karen Ralls


Copyright © 2015 Karen Ralls
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89254-173-7


Gothic Cathedrals: Architectural Gems in Stone

Our journey begins ...

Some years ago, the setting sun revealed the silhouette of the tall, darkening spires looming before me. Slowly, like untold numbers of travelers, I climbed my way up the steep cobbled village street to finally view this legendary Gothic cathedral—Chartres—whose legacy of exquisite architecture, art, ancient crypt, and expert craftsmanship was now a tangible reality. Centuries of history, the inspiration of guilds, artisans, and all those who had walked this path and lived here from ancient times, now intersected at this site. Observation of the meticulous medieval building techniques, too awesome to truly contemplate in our own age, the infusion of brilliant light of its Rose windows, and an encroaching awareness of the vast power of time and place filled me with wonder. With the faint sound of musical chanting wafting on the breeze, I became acutely aware of the rhythm of each footstep and its strong connection to the earth below as I approached the towering edifice before me. A gnarled old man's hand from within unbolted its lock and opened the huge heavy door, beckoning me to enter....

I crossed the threshold.

Into another world. Unexpectedly intrigued upon initially encountering a rather dark interior, like many travelers before and since, I was here to explore and experience this place, to discover a genuine "architectural gem" of its time—Chartres cathedral.

A site of many wonders, it has been dubbed an omphalos, a navel of the world.

Lux Lucet In Tenebris, "Light shines in darkness"

Light is the symbol of truth, hidden wisdom, and a higher understanding beyond all human division, definition, and activity. Allowing in light from out of darkness was a key theme of the new Gothic style that emerged in the twelfth century; the art and beauty of Gothic cathedrals still captivate the hearts and minds of visitors worldwide. Such visitors include those who are spiritually inclined from many traditions, religious believers of all faiths, as well as secularists, atheists, and agnostics.

Saint-Denis: the first Western Gothic building

The first Gothic building in western Europe—Saint-Denis in Paris—was an extraordinarily experimental project, architecturally courageous, and emerging quite suddenly. It was completed in 1144. Ironically, it was not a large cathedral, but an ornate, smaller Gothic choir that was added to the existing abbey church at Saint-Denis. Yet its Gothic basilica was done in a totally new style; its unusual features and beauty stunned nearly everyone present at its unveiling—with its pointed arches, bejewelled stained glass windows, and other unique features never seen before.

The chief architect Abbot Suger, along with the talented stonemasons and other guild members on his team, wrote of his overall vision and intention, describing what he called Lux continua—"continuous light." He insisted that the key meaning of this bold, new design was luminosity: "Bright is the noble work; being nobly bright the work should brighten the minds ..."

Letting in the light was paramount. Many believe that Gothic design creates a unique environment where a visitor or pilgrim may experience the numinous within the material world—a spiritual nexus point, a crossing of two or more dimensions simultaneously.

After the initial work at Saint-Denis, other twelfth century Gothic marvels would soon follow, including Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Canterbury, York, Bayonne, and others.

What, then, is a medieval Gothic cathedral to our 21st century mind's eye? Why, as Umberto Eco wrote in a famous essay, are we in the West still "dreaming the Middle Ages" in our modern world? Why is that era from so long ago still so captivating today?

Let us explore the architecture, design, and wonders of Gothic cathedrals—those often hauntingly dark interiors welcoming the incoming light through their famed Rose windows. With their often equally beautiful outdoor grounds and gardens, the Gothic spirit embodies the ancient and medieval principle: Lux Lucet In Tenebris, "Light shines in darkness."

What is "Gothic" Design?

What, then, is actually meant by the term "Gothic" architecture? From popular images of elusive monks working in darkened cloisters in novels like The Name of the Rose and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to medieval imagery in films, or the glossy guidebooks of Chartres or Canterbury, Gothic cathedrals continue to inspire, enchant and intrigue. People from all over the world and all walks of life visit these sites, and often greatly appreciate their stunning design, aesthetic beauty and cultural importance.

"Gothic" is known to us today as the name for a special medieval architectural style that featured high naves, flying buttresses, pointed arches, rib vaulting on the ceilings, stained glass windows, and intricate stone carvings. Yet a great irony is that the term "Gothic" actually pertains to the Goths, a northern people, who had nothing to do with this kind of architecture. Of course, the word "Gothic" today also means something intriguing, dark, or especially mysterious—perhaps not unlike how one might feel when entering a cave, an ancient site like Newgrange, or the Hypogeum in Malta, or, when crossing the threshold into Chartres. Examples of Gothic architecture range from the majesty of Canterbury, York, or Wells, the glories of Chartres and Amiens, the beauty and unique "philosopher's carvings" of Notre Dame de Paris, and many other sites in Europe.

What is it about these buildings that is especially unique and captivating, and why do they seem to have such powerful effects upon visitors to this day?

The High Gothic style is especially noted for its focus on "upward" orientation, tall naves, and its emphasis on letting in much light—something very different from the previous Romanesque style, which featured round arches. The entire Gothic cathedral design tends to give a visitor or pilgrim an overall impression of soaring upwards, of being "lifted up," from its roots in the very depths of its crypt, as well as an impression of the drawing down of light into the building. Gothic cathedrals were seen by their medieval designers as houses of light dedicated to the Glory of their God, the epitome of a celestial paradise on earth.

Yet, Gothic cathedrals also exhibit rather unusual characteristics and carvings, inexplicable details that would appear to be based on much earlier philosophies from the ancient world. These seem to have been assimilated and/or re-worked by the Western Church and found their way into Gothic designs.

The newly emerging "Gothic" style mushroomed virtually overnight

Appearing nearly overnight, the new Gothic style caught on quickly, beginning in France in the late 1130s and ending in the early Renaissance, when a preference for more classical designs returned. As mentioned, the extraordinary flowering of this new twelfth century style began under Abbot Suger in the Benedictine church of Saint-Denis (1130/1135–1144) in Paris, the burial place of many French monarchs.

After the middle of the twelfth century, the cathedrals of Noyon, Senlis, Laon and Notre Dame de Paris also began to express this new Gothic style. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, Gothic architecture had reached its mature form in the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, Amiens, and Bourges, later (from 1231) reaching a climax with another major project: the conversion of the larger abbey church of Saint-Denis. Other examples of the new Gothic style would follow, such as the stunning royal palace chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the cathedral at Troyes, and the royal castle chapel of Saint-Germainen-Laye.

The Cistercian order in Burgundy, founded in 1098, also contributed to the rapid spread of the Gothic style in France. (In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the powerful Cistercian Abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in assisting the fledging Knights Templar Order with obtaining the necessary papal approval in 1128/9. Bernard wrote that God was "length, width, height and depth.")

While France was the "motherlode" of Gothic design, other countries in Europe gradually began to follow suit. In around 1180, the Gothic style spread first to England (Canterbury, Wells, Salisbury, Lincoln Westminster Abbey, and Lichfield); then to Germany (Marburg, Trier, Cologne, Strasbourg and Regensburg from 1275); and on to Spain (Burgos and Toledo). Styles of Gothic could vary in each country. In England, for instance, there were different stages of Gothic design. One was called the Perpendicular style, a rather ornate one which emerged later. Examples include the especially ornate ceiling at Gloucester cathedral in the east walk of its cloisters, and at Exeter cathedral which portrays the emphasis placed in earlier English Gothic on its thick walls.

The Romanesque Style

The Roman Empire had made extensive use of geometry and the semicircular arch in its building designs. Many churches, right up to the time of the first Gothic cathedrals, featured these round arches and beautiful, ornate carvings and columns. This style was known as "Romanesque." The great Basilica of Vezelay, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, was one of the favorite shrines of medieval pilgrims. It remains one of the most popular French examples of the beauty of the Romanesque style today.

But new innovations followed in the twelfth century. These included the hallmarks of Gothic design innovation such as the introduction of the pointed arch. The flying buttress was another. Located on the sides of cathedrals, they were designed to support the great weight of the tall Gothic buildings. The cathedral could "soar higher" while the flying buttresses helped to support the added weight that the pointed arch aesthetically transferred from above. Architecture is as much a science as an art. We will explore more of the complex mathematics and physics of the design and structure of these extraordinary cathedrals as we proceed.

The new "Gothic" style greatly disparaged by the Renaissance critics

It is not often realized today that the term "Gothic" was initially used in a disparaging way by early Renaissance critics of the newly-emerging style. They abhorred its lack of conformity to the earlier standards of classical Greece and Rome, which they preferred. Ideologies change, regimes come and go, and this includes architectural styles.

A closer look, however, reveals that the medieval architects who built the Gothic cathedrals were firmly rooted in great awareness and careful application of geometry and proportion. Two aspects of Gothic architecture "are without precedent and parallel: the use of light and the unique relationship between structure and appearance." This is seen in the overall cruciform shape and plan of the cathedrals; in the rhythmic, intricate patterns found in stained glass windows; and in the rib vaulting that criss-crosses the ceiling. But many variations in design occurred within the definition of what was called "Gothic," and each European country or region had its own special characteristics.

Unfortunately, contemporary medieval attitudes to Gothic architecture do not emerge clearly from the written sources. There was no continuous tradition of writing about visual arts during the 11th—13th centuries, leaving historians with relatively few records to pore over today. So to really understand these exquisite edifices, it is often more a question of doing a "symbolic reading" of the building itself and its visual carvings and symbolism, rather than merely relying on information from written sources or guidebooks.

The medieval mind was preoccupied with the symbolic nature of the world of appearances, as everywhere "the visible seemed to reflect the invisible." Imagination was paramount; the intuition was highly valued. But first, let us consider the overall cultural milieu that spawned the Gothic experiment. Building a cathedral was not merely a "church-only" enterprise, as many might assume today.

How the cathedrals came to be built: A project for all

So what kind of a society were the cathedrals part of, and what was the planning process that brought them about? We know that the structure of medieval society was a feudal one—often very difficult and repressive, and certainly hierarchal, with the Church envisaged at the center. The entire medieval period lasted for well over four centuries, with the High Middle Ages within it generally thought to be from 1100 to 1300, although historians continue to debate a precise dividing line.

Some people assume today that the Middles Ages were entirely negative times—utterly barbaric, lawless and/or horribly oppressive, and that only ignorance and superstition reigned. But is this singular, stereotypical image of the Middle Ages accurate? No, as no period in history is ever only one-dimensional. In fact, it was a highly complex time, with many threads to its historic tapestry.

Although most people could not read, including a number of monks, philosophy and learning itself were quite advanced in some areas in the late Middle Ages. Medieval Paris, for example, was one key location where the very roots of what became the Western university took shape. For various reasons, during the later Italian Renaissance, what might be termed today as a negative "spin" on the entire preceding Middle Ages period, fostered some misconceptions about medieval times that have survived to the present day.

Looking at a Gothic cathedral, we note that every walk of life is portrayed in the art and decoration of the structure. Although the society itself was very hierarchal, not only were kings and clerics portrayed in carvings or stained glass windows, but so were peasants, merchants, craftsmen, even jesters. A wide range of everyday medieval life activities are portrayed, with individuals from every rank of society included, images that we might not necessarily expect to see today in a medieval building. For example, at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, some of its stone carvings show peasants hauling winter fuel; at Florence, peasants are seen with plough, horse, and cart upon the entry to "Giotto's Tower"; at Bourges, the coopers ply their trade; at Chartres, the stained glass windows portray medieval guild tradesmen busy in their workshops, and among the sculptures at the left door of the Royal Porch, we see a peasant harvesting grain; and kings adorn the west front of Wells Cathedral. Everyone in the medieval community was seen to have made an important contribution to the building, and the patrons and guilds who sponsored certain windows or carvings ensured that their activities were beautifully portrayed.


Excerpted from Gothic Cathedrals by Karen Ralls. Copyright © 2015 Karen Ralls. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Ralls, Ph.D. is the author of Medieval Mysteries: A Guide to History, Lore, Places, and Symbolism from Ibis Press. She is a highly regarded medieval historian who obtained her doctorate fromthe University of Edinburgh and a past deputy Curator of the Rosslyn Chapel Museum Art Exhibition (1996-2001). She has appeared in TV documentaries for The History Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic. Dr. Ralls is an International conference speaker, sacred sites tourguide, and workshop presenter. Visit her at www.ancientquest.com.

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