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Gothic Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )



The period of the cathedral-builders was one of the most wonderful periods of history. Between 1000 and 1500 we see these noble buildings rising all over Europe ; in Germany, in France, in Italy, and in England. We notice, too, that in different centuries the same general style prevails throughout the different countries at the same time.

In the twelfth century, when the Italian buildings, such as the churches at Verona, Como, etc., were built with round arches, the German churches at Bonn, Mayence, Freiberg, etc., the French churches at Aix, Caen, Dijon, etc., and the English cathedrals at Canterbury, Bristol, Chichester, in fact all those built at the same time, were not only round-arched but had an almost identical style.

In the thirteenth century, when pointed arches were predominant in the architecture of France, they began to penetrate all other countries.

In the fourteenth century, when Cologne and Strasburg cathedrals were built in Gothic ; those at Westminster, York, and Salisbury arose in England; the Domes of Milan, Assisi, and Florence in Italy; and the churches of Beauvais and Rouen in France. These all came almost simultaneously, although France seems to have been the leader.

How did this happen? How did it come about that, at almost the same time, in counties so far apart, with such varying climates, and with people so very different, the same style of building would prevail at the same time ?

In those days every craft had its guild. Tradesmen and artisans of all kinds were banded into these associations, and it was an honor to be admitted to a craftsman's guild whether of masons or painters or sculptors. It required an apprenticeship, and so strict were the rules that those who worked upon the churches were expected to lead honorable lives, Such guilds meant that every man was skilled, nearly perfect in fact, in whatever he did, and so powerful were the guilds that they controlled the style of building.

The piety and devotion of the craftsmen was very great. What Longfellow wrote of one, we may safely think of nearly all the great army of devoted laborers of these ages.

The architect:

Built his great heart into these sculptured stones, And with him toiled his children, and their lives Were builded with his own into the walls As offerings to God.

(Longfellow, " Golden Legend, As to Strasburg Cathedral.")

" The churches of the Middle Ages," writes Okey, " were no more than an exquisite expression of what men were surrounded with in their daily lives and avocations. The houses and oratories of noble and burgess were rich with carved ivories, with sculptures and paintings, tapestry and enamels : the very utensils of common domestic use were beautiful. Men did not prate of art: they wrought in love and simplicity. If painting was an art, even so was carpentry. A mason was an artist, so was a shoemaker."

" Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries," says Victor Hugo. " Often the fashions in art change while they are being constructed and they are continued according to the new art . . Time is the architect; the nation is the mason."

Drawing a comparison between Classic and Gothic, Ruskin sums up the two opposite principles in two words, " horizontality and verticality." The visitor who views a Gothic cathedral will move his head up and down, he says, but in viewing a classic temple he will move it from side to side. The reason for this has been explained in many different ways. Some have said that climate has caused the difference, because the snow of the North requires a high-pitched roof, while in the hot South a perfectly flat roof with a projecting cornice is used to keep off the sun.

Others have attributed it to religion, saying that the pagan Greek was earthbound, sensuous, and formal, while the Gothic builder was aspiring and spiritual, his spires and steeples pointing like fingers towards Heaven. Others see the cause only in the materials the builders had at hand. There were great beauties in both. In the classic styles are found repose, simplicity, harmony, and perfect proportion. In the Gothic, variety, elegance,, and life.

Wordsworth thus voices his idea of the meaning of some of the forms of architecture :

Diffused in every part Spirit divine through forms of human art;

Faith had her archher arch where winds blew loud, Into the consciousness of safety thrilled;

And love her towers of dread foundation, laid Under the grave of things ; Hope had her spire Star high and pointing still to something higher.

This Gothic architecture followed and was developel from the Romanesque by attempts to solve certain structural problems in the vaulting of the basilican and Romanesque churches.

Some one has said of the buttressed Gothic, that the architects could not make their churches stand up without crutches, but we shall learn that buttresses were there for an artistic and useful purpose as well and helped to make the style possible.

Gothic first received its name as one of contempt. The Goths were a barbarian and vulgar race of the North of Europe, who conquered the Romans, and the Gothic style was at first so called to denote the poor opinion the Italian people had of it. But it was not a vulgar style by any means, for the people of the North had become civilized and their Gothic architecture was as refined and elegant as any the world has produced.

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