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We see buildings all of the time. They are everywhere, a part of our lives, to the point that after a while, we don’t really notice them anymore. That is why it can be hard to believe in such a thing as a special building. What can be so special about a building? There is nothing much to them, in our modern times. Let’s go ahead and name a few of our masterpieces: the Sears Tower, the Guggenheim, Waterfall, and the Empire State Building. Do any of these buildings— all by themselves— make you feel mystified, at peace, or inspired to do great things? Don ‘t feel obligated to say “yes,” because they will probably leave you feeling as cold as the stone veneer that skirts them. Admittedly, some of them are tall, but after that, if you’ve seen one skyscraper you’ve seen a hundred.


There was a time, however, when large buildings were much more prominent—maybe because they were actually quite rare. Maybe it’s because the builders had a different sense of time than we do, or because a building had to be a statement as well, but the Gothic period in architecture brought us some of the most ornate edifices that have ever been seen. If you have ever seen pictures of one of the great cathedrals in Europe, or if you were lucky enough to see one up close, you can be forgiven while you gaze at all the gargoyles, saints, and arches; and if you wonder—what were they thinking? It is really okay to wonder that, because if one of the architects who designed such a building were alive to hear you, he would feel that his life work had been to good purpose.
Master masons used the gothic style for just over three hundred years, and then stopped, as suddenly and mysteriously as they began. The records of these builders are very rare. There are few drawings of their work, and in many cases little or nothing is known about the designers of these great cathedrals. In many cases, the stone edifices are all that remain to attest to the skills and knowledge of these master designers. With solid stone as the main material, these men wrought columns, archways, sculptures, and more.


From a builder’s point of view, a “typical” cathedral is the achievement of a lifetime. In fact, some were the achievements of many lifetimes, since the mason who began the work was likely to never live to see the completion of it. How could he? Some cathedrals were a hundred years and more in the making—grand, ornate, and majestic in size and style. In just over 300 years more stone was quarried to build churches and cathedrals in Europe than all of the stone used for the pyramids of Egypt, which took over a thousand years. As the gothic period stretched out, each successive building seemed to reach higher, open to greater expanse, and let in more light than the last.


The chief architect of the building, designated simply as the master mason, was fully involved in the everyday task of building during the gothic period. What task was it that lay before him? The challenge of rising to great heights, exhibiting proportion that was held to be divine and sacred since Egyptian times, and of creating wide spaces filled with light— all with stone. Laying the foundation, erecting the walls and columns, fortifying them with curved buttresses, and placing the solid stone ceiling overhead: all of this was done without the aid of anything but manpower and the crudest of tools to work with—and tradition. There were no optic levels, electric equipment, or engineers. Some of the most delicate engineering work ever accomplished—without stress calculations, weight factors, or lateral and longitudinal stress being accounted for ahead of time. According to Stephen Murray, architect and antiquarian, building a cathedral was a process of trial and error. The chief designer knew what he wanted, but it did not always work. The price of failure was lost time, injury, and even death.


Imagine the drudgery of the work. The constant repetition, as the masons chiseled each stone to its perfect size, dimension, and smoothness. The danger involved in building wooden scaffolds and pulley systems to lift the rock in place, or the wooden forms that had to be built to shape the un-reinforced rock into the concept of the new Jerusalem. Imagine most of this work being performed by illiterate, unskilled labor. The weight of each stone, as it is brought perhaps by the help of several hands working together, to it’s final position in the wall. Maybe it is the keystone, the top stone of the pointed archway that holds the final form through balance, precision of shape, and opposing force.
These were the conditions for building such stupendous places. Most of the compensation came in the form of forgiveness of sins committed, both past and present. The master builders and skilled craftsmen were well paid, but the majority of labor was the free kind. Cathedral building might be likened to the space sciences we have today. At the time, it was high science that involved the greatest craftsmen in several specialized trades, who had spent a number of years in apprenticeship. Many apprentices worked only for their food, clothing, and shelter, enduring hardships of all kinds in order to have an opportunity to learn the trade. There were several different master tradesmen: the carpenter, stonecutter, glassmaker, and so on. Each of these had a number of men in their employ.
What inspired the industry of cathedral building? Maybe it is easiest to say the conditions were right for it. The 1200’s, the period of high-gothic architecture, was a time of relative prosperity in Europe. Innovations in farming, such as improved wagons and plowing, allowed for high crop yields. Other industries were thriving. During this time of plenty, it was time to show appreciation to God for their blessings. Most of the people were illiterate and superstitious. The priests had been preaching the hope of heaven and the fear of hell for hundreds of years by then, and the church had considerable economic and cultural influence.
At the time, the cult of the Virgin Mary was raging through the land, and she was gaining the status of a goddess, one who could protect them or bring them harm. Many of the people became convinced that they should build grand structures to honor her. This aspect of Christianity was especially strong during that time, so there was widespread support for a central cathedral for pilgrims to make their way to.
Such a massive structure had to have a solid foundation. Generally, the foundation walls were about twenty-five feet deep. The crypt was placed there, where the venerated bones of local saints were deposited. The layout and building of a cathedral was a specialized process and a well-kept secret. There is one account of an apprentice giving the secret of keeping a basement dry to the proprietor. When the master mason found out that the proprietor had learned this secret, he killed him.
It is commonly known now that the basis of the entire layout for a cathedral begins with something called the double square. The master builder would walk off fifty Roman feet, or paces, in four directions at right angles to form a square. Next, he would go from the center of it and intersect the right and left opposite corners, scribing an arc. The furthermost point of this arc would be thirty feet wider than the original square, and would form the outside border of the double square. This was also called the golden square, or section, and was the basis for all of the shapes of the footprint of the cathedral, in the shape of a cross. The building was accomplished mainly on the idea of geometry and proportions, and not by measurements. Very little remains today of any sketches, although some architects have theorized that plans were drawn out on tablets with soft plaster using scribes and compasses, and rubbing graphite into the impressions. As jealously as the masons guarded their secrets, it is no surprise that we have few written records. About half of the master masons were illiterate, and few of them used written language very often. In fact, Chartres cathedral in France has no record even of who did the building there.
One of the great challenges for the gothic builders was to give the viewer a sense of open space and light. They tackled this problem by using the flying buttress system of support: this allowed for smaller columns on the inside and more spaciousness. The columns still provided support, mainly to the upper walls installed in the nave, choir, and transepts of the building, not to mention the massive windows. The flying buttresses shared the work to the outside by supporting the tons of stone that rose skyward. It is interesting to note that these buttresses often had a circular shape, like a part of a wheel that radiated to the foundation below. At the top, they strategically opposed the slender columns inside. The buttresses are where the famous gargoyles perch that are so much a part of the definition of gothic. They are actually downspouts for water, fashioned out of solid stone—part of a gutter system that serves to carry most of the rain from the roof away from the building.
The main shape of the cross vaulted to the heavens; sometimes well over a hundred feet in the air. In the center of the crossing, a spire would be installed that stretched upward even further, and was usually made of wood. Of course, to install such a slender spire required a scaffold system and more importantly, men who were willing to work hundreds of feet in the air. Along the main part of the cross, or nave—on either side—the aisles were installed. Here is where most services were held, especially during the span of decades while the cathedral was under construction.
Stained glass was a big part of the cathedral. It was colored by depositing various types and quantities of metal into the sand mixture while the glass was in liquid form. Using long blowing tubes with the molten glass on one end and their mouths on the other, the master glaziers were able to construct a piece of glass up to two square feet in size. They would painstakingly fit it together with other pieces, joining it with lead, to form windows that were up to sixty feet tall.
The decoration within and without a cathedral is extensive also. Often, there are hundreds of statues that line recesses (dados) and entry archways. As with the entire cathedral, the statues and the scenes portrayed in the stained glass are far from random. For instance, at Chartres cathedral, you can literally begin at the story of the Garden of Eden and end with the final Judgment Day, all of it in order in statuary form. The scenes on the stained glass were likewise used for instruction of the illiterate parishioners who would gather from miles around on festival days and holy days throughout the year.
Another distinctive feature is the House of Daedalus, or the labyrinth: a symmetrical set of lines on the floor of the cathedral, usually near the center. Penitent pilgrims would walk the symbolic pathway; achieving the center was especially good luck, they felt. Labyrinth designs were widely used from ancient Greek times to the gothic period.
Every year, millions of people of all faiths pore over the cathedrals: some come to worship, others come simply to look. Hardly anyone leaves feeling untouched by the intricate details and patterns they find within and without one of these structures. Some people have genuinely emotional or spiritual experiences. The cathedrals still have their intended effect, several centuries later: to cause us to consider the nature of the divine, and to serve as an object of focus for that reason. Some years ago, Aldous Huxley wrote a book called The Doors of Perception. It dealt with the idea that certain forms of grandeur and splendor could excite or open one’s doors of perception, leading to an other worldly experience. Within the cathedral, these doors are thrown wide open.
In Notre Dame, Cathedral of Amiens, Stephen Murray mentions the “key faculties in this process of participation are memory, movement, and perception,” and “mediaeval writers tell us that the ability to remember can be facilitated through the disposition of places and images.” (42) Murray comments that the experience of being inside is “perception through movement that energizes the edifice in ways that were probably anticipated by the designers.” (28) At the time, stone masonry was the greatest expression of human knowledge: these builders, who were considering memory, movement, and perception so keenly, were likely to be considering the works of Plato, where the word for education literally meant to “draw out,” or make one remember. Further, geometry in all forms was the ultimate means of mathematical expression, and many in that day related geometry to divine expression as well.
It is virtually impossible to separate the philosophy from the building practices of that day, for the reasons assigned above. The various trades involved were not simply craftsmen, but were philosophers as well. They horded their specialized knowledge, and held a devout belief in all things sacred. The time of the building was short, but the structures are still there to deliver reverence and humility to us all.


------
"We sit here stranded though we're all doing our best to deny it." (Visions of Johanna) Bob Dylan


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Comments

The following comments are for "On Earth as it is in Heaven"
by brickhouse

Really? In the High Medieval Period?
There are some odd notes in your essay which left me scratching my head and wondering what you were talking about.

The notion that gothic architecture represents a sublimity of form from an asthetic viewpoint is a valid one, though the notion that it represents some height of architectural genius seems mildly daffy. The Romans had a true genius for architecture and used the knowledge of certain difficult elements, like the arch, quite widely. Gothic architects, on the other hand, did not have this knowledge and so were forced to build edifices with steeply pitched roofs and heavy buttressing if they were to achieve any height.

The Cathedrals built during the High Medieval Period were used for a great many purposes, including care centers during times of plague. The reason so many of them were so long in the making has a great deal to do with the use for which they were found over time -- many Gothic cathedrals were built over several times, continually being enlarged by more than one architect over vast spans of time.

The power vacuum caused by the fall of Rome left the greater mass of Western Europe open to the perennial scuttling of warlords and powermongers. The Church of that day remained the only uniting force which could quell these endless plays for power among the petty and the desperate. It was not, to put it mildly, a very good time to be a peasant, as it was the thatch-housed, unarmed and horseless poor who took the greater brunt of constant war (which came and came again, so often, that an unknown historian commented on his surprise that between 898 and 900 there had actually been two years of what could be called relative peace). The Church quelled disputes by declaring it a sin to engage in fighting during holy days and then went about recognizing several hundred of them. It does not seem incredibly surprising to me, then, that there would be individuals willing to give of their time and mortal safety to edify, in what ways they could, the building which housed one of their rarely constant defenses in such turbulent times.

The idea that some complicated mathematical concepts could be culled from gothic architecture also seems dubious. The outlay of a cross is not a complex one, this being the reason the Romans favored it as a method of execution -- even the most brutally tortured condemned could be forced to make it, themselves. The steep pitch of gothic roofs was formed from necessity. The greater knowledge of Plato was relatively unknown to all but a handful of Jesuit priests who were the only individuals who could read during this period (even kings were often illiterate). If not for the learned sages of the Middle East we would know nothing of Pythagoras, for the Jesuits considered his ideas heresy and there was no one else to care what became of his notions.

The really amazing thing about this period is that it represents such a nadir -- a great power seized hold of such a portion of land, when it finally released it's hold it threw an entire continent off balance. The High Middle Ages is the desperate period during which some of the most barbaric forms of cruelty were considered mundane and the vast portion of humanity lived in grinding poverty and hopelessness. In many ways, that period marks us, yet, whether in reaction or blind returning.

One of the most interesting points of your essay is the contemplation of the way meditative memory-formation was built into Gothic architecture. It's an intriguing contrast to note that the vast majority of truly Modern (or post-modern or post-po-mo, or what have you) architecture exists in places with either relatively no history or in places where a sizable portion of history has been wiped away. The United States is one example -- what history these states contained before the colonists and pioneers swept in was not formed of anything enduringly material as stone and so, the architectural imprint in this land remains the mark of industry, whose revolution arrived shortly after our one of independance from Britian. Germany and Japan exhibit large tracts of starkly modern architecture due to the bombings of WWII, and the fact that the history which filled them at the time of that desctruction is one which is not entirely pleasant as a subject of reminescing. The Communists favored gaunt and unadorned concrete buildings as a reaction to the overly-adorned facilities of the lords from whom they seized power. All of these buildings affront the world with a brazen and unabashed simplicity, not as a meditative reminder of one's place in a complicated and fragile world order but as a statement of the obvious primality of power -- a statement the warmongers of the High Middle Ages would have been unwise to make so boldly to the many they so tenuously yoked.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: May 15, 2004 )

Heady discussion in progress
I learned a lot from both the article and the initial comments. Since it is a subject I have little more than an elemental knowledge of, I bow to both of you for your in depth knowledge of the formative years of architecture.

One helpful hint for its layout here, though. If we leave an entire space between paragraphs, especially in longer works, it's easier to read.

( Posted by: MaxiiJ [Member] On: May 15, 2004 )

Stepping in it
Glen,
Thank you for the extensive commentary that you made. It is plain that you are very well informed about this topic and the history related to it. While I cannot dispute much of what you wrote, I did base my paper on a reasonable amount of valid research. This paper was done for a class, so I really had to stick to the architectural elements more than the esoteric or aesthetic aspects; something I really wanted to pursue in detail. I hope to add to this topic later. Maybe we could have a round of point: counterpoint? I am convinced that the builders were well trained in geometry and mathematics. I agree that this knowledge was preserved by the Muslims, but I think the masons demonstrated it in the cathedrals themselves. I'll try to demonstrate some of this in further detail in another paper.

Meanwhile, I was blown away at how well-informed you are, and plan to read up on your stuff soon. A friend of mine commented just last night that a person isn't knowledgeable about a subject until s/he has read a yard length of books about it. My having only covered a few inches of this requirement on cathedrals, please forgive any naievete I may have shown. Thanks for the comment.

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: May 15, 2004 )

Not Glen, but apologizing
I hadn't realized the typo in my online journal title until you just now called me Glen. Well, the name's Jen or Hazel or Haze, if you prefer.

I'd like to apologize for the sheer length of my comment as well as its tone if you felt I was calling you naive. You certainly are not and I was quite taken by your essay or I wouldn't have had quite so much to say about it.

I believe we may be disagreeing over a matter of degree, and this is what I was trying to convey with my comment -- a sense of the surrounding factors at play during this period.

Thank you for your patience regarding my impassioned response. I'm looking forward to seeing more from your pen in this vien.

-- Jen, Hazel, Haze, etc.

( Posted by: Hazelfaern [Member] On: May 16, 2004 )

Very well informed
Very good. I rarely get a chance to have in depth explanation of things other than the usual conversational issues, like religion and politics. It feels good to get some tangetal knowledge. Thank you. I rate this one a ten for originality.

( Posted by: undogg [Member] On: June 9, 2004 )

thanks, undogg
Thanks for the comment, undogg. As you may know, I have forayed into contemporary issues some, but why? Who will ever know? An acquaintance of mine said it best just last night;(to paraphrase) there is a lot of crazy stuff going on, and the best you can do is find someone who is like-minded, but even then you aren't going to change anything, so why bother? You are better off trying to create a space around you that reflects how you would like the world to be.

Back to the Gothic; I have an abiding interest in the period from the BC times to the rennaissance, because I believe a specific core of knowledge was transmitted more or less intact, if we are aware of the clues. I'm glad you liked the piece. There may be an extension of it sometime. Take care.

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: June 9, 2004 )





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