You must login to vote
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