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The Gothic

( Originally Published 1910 )



THE very basis of Gothic architecture, and its development, is the arch, and we must pause here at the beginning of a study of the arch to say something of the style in its essence. When the builders of the thirteenth century received orders for churches more than twice the size of any that had ever before been built, their chief difficulties were mechanical, as may be imagined and will be shown. They therefore made construction of first importance, and decorative detail subservient to it. The result is a true art expression, for there is not a piece, not a detail, not a single stone or cut that has not a definite constructional value.

Its beauties are not applied, they are inherent; and they are great beauties because they express directly and vividly the temperament of the builders, fearless of risk or of traditions, nervous, exalted by the glory of their task, glorified, almost excited, discoverers of an untried means of expression.

Thus, as we have said, Gothic architecture rests both literally and figuratively on the arch. In the old Roman basilicas there was no arch, for the roofs were of wood, and the beam, or roof-truss, falling vertically on the walls, they required no especial strength. When stone roofs were substituted in the Romanesque churches because of the danger of fires and the certainty of decay, the builders naturally used the round arch, which had already developed among the Romans.

Now arches of stone have a curious characteristic common to them all. The weight of stone in the crown or upper part of the arch does not bear down vertically on its supports, but pushes outward in its tendency to flatten. This any arch would surely do if not prevented by side pressure. This direction of gravital force in the arch is a combination of vertical and horizontal pressure, and the resolution of these two into a single force (a problem familiar in physical science) gives us the "line of thrust." This line is a parabolic curve which sweeps outward from the crown of the arch to the ground on either side.

It is evident, therefore, that in using an arched roof over the nave of the Romanesque churches some provision to counter-balance this thrust, or "kick," must be made that was not afforded in the wooden - roofed churches. So we find the walls greatly thickened. As the width of these arches was not very great (not often more than twenty feet), and the height from the ground was not extreme, this sufficed, though it meant a great waste of building material. Later the wall was thickened at regular intervals in the form of flat pilasters separating the building into bays.

When the Gothic architects began to plan naves of thirty and forty feet in width and of great height they found the problem vastly complicated. Obviously it was impossible to build solid walls of sufficient thickness to take up the thrust. They would have been enormous. So another method was found. The loads of the vaults, or arched roofs, were concentrated at these points which separate the building into bays by a system of cross-vaulting, which not only ribbed the vault of the nave at right angles, but as well by the diagonal, created from the intersection of the cross-vaults. At these points of support sections of wall were built at right angles to the wall itself.

These walls, or buttresses, were constructed in the form of arches, anchored at the outer edge with heavy masonry, growing from raw utilitarianism into the pinnacled glorification of assurance, beflowered and besainted, economical of material, but necessary as the bones of the human organism are necessary—an external rather than an internal skeleton.

You can readily see how, as the nave, with its vaulted and ribbed ceiling, grew in height, expressing, as it did, the aspiration of the creator, losing itself in the semi-obscurity which added to its charm and gave it its own peculiar domination over sentiment and intellect, so the buttress must climb to support its ambition.

As it climbs it opens out into a flying arch carrying safely to the ground the loads laid upon it by the aspiring vaults erected to Idealism.

But even this creation of the buttress and its subsequent development did not satisfy the ambitions of these irrepressible artists. They must go higher, must build bigger still. Also their churches must look higher, must seem to reach upward to the infinite in an overwhelming passion of aspiration. They restlessly sought still finer means of expression.

Now the round arch is the flattest practicable arch for a roof, and it has the most extended line of thrust of any in use. The round-arched roof, therefore, requires the greatest relative width of base, so that, with all possible ingenuity of buttress construction, it was possible to get only a moderate proportionate height. If the relative height of the arch is increased, however, so that it becomes pointed at the crown and more steeply sloping at the sides, it is obvious that the outward kick will be less and the line of thrust will he more nearly vertical. This means that the builder will be able to go higher and shorten his buttresses at the same time, which was exactly what the Gothic builder wanted to do. He therefore used the pointed arch exclusively, so that it became identified with the style, and its use colored every detail, giving the Gothic a large share of its peculiar and admirable individuality.

The Gothic architects did not discover or create the pointed arch, however, and in connection with this there is a point I want especially to make. Antiquarians are over fond of inventing theories or preserving legends concerning the origin of such basic things as the pointed arch. It is a favorite theory, for example, that the pointed arch was suggested by the crossing of interlaced round arches used by Diocletian in Spoleto and by the Normans. It would be as sensible to try to discover the inventor of roofs. Men built arches in comparatively early times, and it is inconceivable that the first stone arch could have been constructed at all without its builder having thought of and actually shaped all imaginable kinds. The pointed arch is seen long before Gothic times, though it was seldom used, and it became a characteristic of the Gothic because it served the double purpose of solving constructional problems, and helping to express the ideas and sentiments of the time and the people.

It is our custom to speak of Gothic as church architecture, and many people believe, I find, that it was used only for churches and created for that purpose. True, it was in the building of the great cathedrals of northern France that the style was evolved and reached its apogee, but this was a Gothic period in the fullest sense. Not only were all the buildings Gothic in style, but dress and utensils were influenced by it, and the thought and temper of the times colored it and were colored by it. We have come to identify the style with the churches because they were without doubt the supremest expression of it, and because they alone have withstood the onslaughts of time and change. The churches stood in the middle of the cities, towering above the surrounding buildings much as a modern great sky-scraper would in a country town. After gunpowder, that destroyer of chivalry, was introduced from the East, not only was the personal combat between chivalrous mail-clad warriors abandoned, but architecture itself was affected.

The splay or deep bevel on the jambs of windows, the crennellated or in-dented parapet, the projecting balconies supported on corbels with opening between the corbels, disappeared as necessities — as the long bow and spear were no longer of service, and the coat of mail offered no defence against this new implement of war.

Towns were taken in war and sacked, the walls and buildings often razed, but the church, represent ing a power which the conqueror recognized as inviolate, was most frequently used as a sanctuary, and was not often destroyed. It had frequently to be defended, however, and these utilitarian motifs or de-tails were of service in giving wider range to bowmen and in protecting them from the slings and bolts of the enemy. They became more or less useless as a means of defence, and remained for us decorative forms but distinctively Gothic.

There is still some domestic Gothic work in the old cities of France remaining to us, but modern progress and the necessities of war destroyed most of the vast amount that once existed.

For the purpose of study we may best examine only the churches. They alone would afford material for volumes if we would know their mysteries intimately and well, but we must take time only to understand a few of the fundamental reasons for their greatness and visit one or perhaps two of the famous examples. Of these there are about six in northern France, all supreme examples: Notre Dame, at Paris (1163 to 1214); Chartres (1194 to 1260); St. Ouen, at Rouen (1313 to 1339); Rheims (1212 to 1241), and Amiens (122o to 1288).

But first let us examine those characteristics which were retained from earlier forms, and had, in fact, become laws in church building. In the original church or basilica, we have primarily a central aisle, which was called a nave because the wooden roof with its cross-beams suggested an inverted ship of that time. The Latin for ship is navis (from which we derive the word naval), and the churchmen called the wooden roof the ship of St. Peter. At the end of the nave is the apse—" absis, a round arch, a vault or a wheel "—as the apse is circular in form. The apse invariably pointed to the east, the celestial paradise having been located in that direction by the ancients. On the westerly end of the nave and serving as a porch was the narthex, or place of the penitents. This was also one of the four sides of a public square called the atrium or parvis, a corruption of the word paradise. The significance is apparently that this was a sort of earthly paradise, or intermediate step to the celestial paradise which might be attained within the church. In Roman times this square was arcaded on all four sides and had a fountain in the centre, where it was the custom for the faithful to wash before entering the church. The survival of this is the basin of holy water that stands within the door of every Roman Catholic church.

The parvis, like the open court of the East, was used as a gathering-place for merchants, beggars, and penitents, and for the reading to the public of kingly or ecclesiastical decrees. It was also used as a place of burial. Most, if not all, of the Gothic cathedrals and smaller churches have an open square at the westerly end without the arcades, but frequently with a fountain.

On either side of the nave were the aisles, separated from it by columns (Fig. 59). The right aisle was re-served for women and the left exclusively for men. Later came galleries, now called collectively the triforium from the three divisions by columns in each bay, built over the aisles and opening into the nave with arches and balustrades. The nave was carried above the roof of the galleries, so as to give a clear, or "clere," story where light and air could be admitted. The vaults of the nave and aisles were divided into squares called bays, and these bays were separated by ribbed and molded arches, serving as binders and ties in the construction of the vault. In the Gothic, with its nervous, pointed arches, the bays were cross-vaulted, with ribs crossing diagonally from the cap of the supporting piers, so as to accentuate the idea of full support by the piers or grouped columns.

All of these main characteristics were retained in the Gothic, and developed. One interesting new change that was made possible by the buttresses, for instance, was the introduction of great windows. The load of the roof being distributed to the buttresses by the arching and groining, the intermediate walls were no longer required for sup-port, and were cut into largely.

The front—to the west—of the Gothic churches is divided vertically into three equal parts. In the centre, with its inevitable "rose" window, is the pediment, or pointed gable, marking the height of the nave, while each of the outside divisions rises into spires and towers, but-tresses, and galleries ad libitum. The three divisions are frequently "married" by galleries crossing the entire facade. The great central entrance was used for processions and the coming and going of nobility, while the lesser side doors were for the men and women of the commons, a door for each.

The frieze, or lintel, of the main doors is usually embellished with apostles carefully sculptured in niches, and with graphic illustrations of Hell and Heaven. It is joyful to contemplate the delight of the satirical Freemason sculptors in immortalizing their enemies and their sweet-hearts in their work. A study of the faces of the church angels leaves little doubt that they were not always quite angels in the flesh, and a certainty that they existed in the flesh.

The sides of the doors are recessed and panelled and statued with patriarchs, row on row. The old floral decoration of the Romanesque gave way almost entirely to the human figure, and the art and independence of the sculptor advanced accordingly.

The north and south ends of the transepts are rose-windowed and gabled, and supplied with porches and arched entrances. The sides of the church are broken up with their intricate multiplicity of flying buttresses, with their many arches and pinnacles, keen, nervous sup-porters of the stone-vaulted roof, each supremely fitted to its work, without a superfluous molding, but with every part petted and caressed into exquisite beauty. There is a quality almost tender in these great, stern stone sup-ports, so completely utilitarian in their reason for being.

The cathedrals of Rheims, Amiens, Chartres, Paris, and Rouen are, as I have said, considered by scholars the five great examples of thirteenth-century Gothic. Of these I would select Rheims and Amiens as supreme. It is difficult to give any adequate idea of the vastness and magnificence of these towering masterpieces. To the oldest and most travelled of students they remain a fresh revelation of amazing grandeur, however often visited. Imagine Rheims or Amiens, looming grandly far above all surrounding buildings, with their length of four hundred and fifty to five hundred feet from entrance to altar, their naves forty feet wide and unguessable height (actually about one hundred and forty feet), lined with massive grouped columns that rise from the ground and lose themselves in the wonderfully considered supporting ribs that carry the eye to the very apex of the vaulting. Between the piers the light enters through the brilliant and virile glasswork which has never been equalled since that period for unfading richness. Around the altar the warm, vibrant shadows rest like a benediction. The floor is filled with the little square-backed chairs of the worshippers, the drone of whose voices, low in prayer, forms an effective diapason accompaniment to the thin, high, almost metallic chant of the priest, a harmony in which the high lights of the swinging censers seem somehow to have a part.

All these great cathedrals were, of course, many years in building, and in consequence show local variations of style that, while harmonious, remove them just so far from perfection. Rheims, for example, was begun in 1212, and not completed for two centuries. In that time there had been marked evolution in Gothic building ideas, and the beautiful buildings show it plainly. There is, however, one completely consistent and practically perfect example of Gothic, the beautiful Ste. Chapelle in Paris, which was begun and completed within five years.

This superb little church was finished in 1247, and though a few changes were made by later kings, notably the little spire, or fleche, added by Charles VII., it remains practically as Pierre de Montereau built it, in honor of Saint Louis (Fig. 6o).

These chapels are not common nor of great size. Ste. Chapelle is about one hundred and ten feet long, as high as long, and not more than thirty feet wide. There are usually two chapels, the lower one being the repository for some saint's bones. In this case the relics—among them the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross, collected by Louis IX.—were placed in the upper chapel, which was on a level with the palace floor for the convenience of the court. The lower chapel was given for the use of the public and for the burial of church officials.

Thus the architecture and decoration of the upper chapel was of special magnificence. The windows are among the most gorgeously beautiful in existence, the church full of rich color and gilding. The entire side walls are a series of large windows the full width of the spaces between the piers, giving an effect of much delicacy.

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