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Chracteristics Of Gothic Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )

If we look at a Greek temple, and then at a Gothic church, we see that they are not at all alike. Yet the Romans imitated the Greeks in many things, and Romanesque grew out of Roman; and, later on, the Gothic grew out of the Romanesque. As each style was being transformed into the next there would be a period of time, sometimes a long period of time, when the features of the new style were only beginning to show themselves. During this period there would appear in the buildings a mixture of both styles. This period was usually called a transition period.

There is no style of architecture more distinct than the Gothic, and yet it came into being gradually out of previous styles. Gothic, like Greek, has been called the most intellectual of styles, because every change came about for some reason related to the building of the structures.

One of the chief visible features of Gothic is the pointed arch, and this developed from the rounded arch because the builders found it the only solution of the difficulties into which the rounded arch led them.

One of the chief difficulties with the rounded arch was to make the top of the arch reach any desired height or level with different widths between the supporting pillars. Where pillars were joined together by vaulting, the pointed arch could be made to conform to any level, no matter how narrow the span or distance between the pillars, but the height of the rounded arch was necessarily fixed by the width of the span.

We remember that the heavy stone roof of a building experts a trust or pressure outward on the wall and in Romanesque buildings the walls had to be enormuosly thick in order to withstand this outward pressure, and, finally, that only very small openings could be allowed for windows. But in the Gothic, the whole scheme of the building is made to rest in a frame-work made up of piers, arches, and buttresses, in which the thrust in one part is balanced by the counter thrust in another part, so that the opposing pressures work against each other, all the parts being as light as possible. The strength of these buildings was in this skeleton framework rather than in the walls. In fact, walls were not needed to support the roofs and this gave the opportunity for the windows which are so exerts a thrust or pressure outwards on the walls and that in Romanesque buildings, the walls had to be enormously thickened large, and so important, a part of the beauty of these Gothic cathedrals.


Notre Dame is an edifice in the early French Gothic style; one of the first great exemplars of that style to be erected in France, and the model on which many others were afterwards based. It stands at present somewhat lower than it once did, owing to the gradual rise of the surrounding ground; formerly it was approached by a flight of thirteen steps, the usual number, from the Temple at Jerusalem.

It is a royal church and therefore contains memorials of the people of state. The remains of an altar of Jupiter, discovered in 1711, indicate that a Pagan temple once occupied this site where, in 375, a church, dedicated to S. Stephen, was built under Prudentius, Eighth Bishop of Paris. In 528 a far more beautiful edifice was built' by its side, which was to become the cathedral of Paris, and it was endowed with three estates. It had not. been finished long when it was besieged by the Normans and successfully defended.

The first stone of a new and much larger cathedral was laid by Pope Alexander III, in 1163. The work advanced rapidly. The choir was finished in 1185, and a year later Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Henry II of England, was buried in front of the high altar.

The south porch was begun by Jean de Chelles in 1257; the north portal about the same time; and the cathedral was finished by the beginning of the reign of S. Louis. Year by year saw destructive changes until the Revolution broke out, when the greater part of the statues of the portals and choir chapels were destroyed, and the cathedral became a Temple of Reason, Mlle. Maillard, attended by her priestesses being adored as Goddess of Reason. Serious injuries to the beauty of the old cathedral were perpetrated under the name of restorations at various times, but since 1845 most of the injuries have been repaired during a magnificent restoration of the entire fabric under Viollet-le-Duc. Even the building narrowly escaped destruction during a period of great public excitement in France and in Paris, when all the chairs were piled up in the choir and set on fire, and only the lack of air and the dampness of the walls saved the building.

The design not only shows great size and grandeur, but a general simplicity, that gives increased effect to portions that are boldly, even richly decorated. The stone is uniformly soft, pale buff upon fresh surfaces, and worked with ease, but hard, and grayish after long exposure.

Another feature is prominent on the exterior of the sides and apse. There, flying buttresses, immense half arches, crested by steep ridgy slopes, spring from huge yet elegant supports of masonry, along the outer circuit of the walls, and sweep far upwards to the base of the roof upon the nave. Tall pinnacles give needed weight and greater beauty at each important point along the choir. These giant arms are very picturesque, but are not made for mere effect. They are, as we have seen, vital parts of the construction, and the power and truth of Gothic art have fashioned them with grace and grandeur.

Steeper were required due to the northern storms and masses of snow that would accumulate on a more level roof.

The windows are far larger and more numerous than in the South. Why? All the sunlight was needed in winter, and it could not be oppressive in summer. Thus we see how climate affected the style of architecture that would grow up in a country. In the hot South the cool, dark churches are a relief from the tropical heat, but here more light was needed to offset the many short and cloudy days.

If we look at the picture and examine the front of the church we shall see that it is almost exactly symmetrical. It is one of the very finest facades in the world. Notice the three great portals and the rich carving all around them. Sculpture within and without was one of the characteristic embellishments of Gothic churches. If you look closely you may see small projections; these are the gargoyles of Notre Dame. The use of these is the carrying off of the rain water, but their grotesque carving has made them famous. Over the portals notice the row of statues forming a sort of band across the entire front.

The great wheel-window, or rose-window, over the central door, contains the original glass, and, as one enters the building, its rich coloring is an object to delight the eye. There are two other great wheel-windows in either transept. A great work of Architecture is an Expression. In the arts the worker expresses himself and often, either intentionally or otherwise, a great artist will express in his work a great thought, a high ideal, or even a national one. We may think of Notre Dame and of the Gothic cathedrals of these times as great expressions of the growing freedom of the world, freedom of thought, and freedom from oppression. The Gothic cathedral expressed religious feeling and aspiration, and there is hardly any one so dead of soul as not be thrilled when he enters one of these great churches.

I wish we could just now be traveling in France back in those early ages. We should visit a medieval town, for great churches were often built in small towns. These were times when cities were surrounded by great walls and ditches for protection against invading enemies. If we approached such a town in the early morning, we should probably see many of the skilled workmen, who lived outside, going to their work, and the bulk of the great cathedral would be seen to rise against the sky, higher than all the other buildings. It was the pride and joy of each city to outdo its neighbors in these monuments for the public instruction and benefit. But, besides all this, the building is an expression of itself, and of the necessities of its structure. I hope our examination of the structure of a Gothic church has taught us that, whenever we look at one, we should remember how its countless beautiful forms grew out of real necessities about building or constructing it; grew out of real problems which the builder had to solve. Only after many years of development it came out the complete, logical whole that we may go and see today.

There is no architecture more truly expressive in every sense than the Gothic.

The interior of Notre Dame at once gives a profound impression.

Genius has wiselyformed it for the uses to which it was dedicated. Everywhere are truth, solemnity, and strength, that win one to a devotional or meditative mood, and one must indeed be stirred by the music that resounds in tones of triumph or of praise through these old arches. The high altar looks through the unbroken spaces of the nave. The pulpit is placed where crowded audiences can assemble all around it, and hear what the preacher says. The upper parts, filled with traceries and glass, form magnificent and brilliant walls. All though ninety years were consumed in the building, the design was carried out as though it were the thought and plan of but one man. It, therefore, has unity, as it is called, or a certain oneness of style such a combination of parts as to produce a whole. A thought of what it would mean to produce such a fabric today may give us an idea of the power that could accomplish it then, with a much smaller population and far less wealth.

The Gothic church was thought out by many minds until it developed into an almost perfect type.

I see thy beauty gradually unfold, Daily and hourly more and more. Gazing I seem to see

Thought folded over thought.


It must not be forgotten that, during the Middle Ages, the church was used much more than now. It was a meeting-place for all: business was transacted there, and it was in a true sense the school of the time. The people, not being able to read, were taught by means of the sermons, the stage plays written to teach morality, and by the sculptures and pictures on all sides, telling the lives of the saints and the stories of the gospels. It was also a sort of museum, precious and curious relics being given to the church. In Notre Dame, there is a carved almanac comprising the signs of the Zodiac and designs for each of the months. Of these, April has one, side bare, the other clad in warm raiment and he has two heads, one asleep and one awake.

In his epitaph, in the Abbey Church of S. Victor, Maurice de Sully, the seventy-second bishop (116096) was credited with being the builder of Notre Dame. He was the son of a poor woman named Hamberge, who lived in a humble cottage on the banks of the Loire, and, like many of the churchmen of those times, he seems to have had but one parent. He was obliged to go from place to place to beg for bread and alms for himself and his mother.

The history of Notre Dame is, in a great measure, the history of France. There, the Te Deum was sung, after successful battles. The most magnificent scene ever witnessed in Notre Dame was the coronation of Napoleon I, at an expense of 85,000,000 francs.

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