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Gothic Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

NORTHERN ITALY cradled the Romanesque style, whence sprang the Gothic. In that region of high alps and dense forests there arose during the period of strife and turmoil following the break-up of the Roman Empire a style of architecture which, retaining certain features of classic examples, developed along lines strongly influenced by local surroundings. This Romanesque style gradually travelled north-westwardly across Europe, reaching our shores with Willam I., so becoming known to us as Norman.

It is essentially the child of a dour, fighting age, characterised by heavily built stone walls (though brick, concrete and tiles were also admitted), round-headed windows, doorways and arches, barrel vaults, and, in non-vaulted chambers, by stout timber work overhead. Much of the ornamentation retained something of the classic designs the chevron, beakhead, egg and tongue, a little foliage and occasional grotesques—but all reduced to quite a subordinate position. Although in some of the vaulted chambers the groining was excellent as regards sweeping outlines and the severity of ornamentation, the decoration of ceilings at this period calls for little remark.

What is important for us to remember is that the Romanesque was merely a step away from the formalism of the Latin type of architecture towards a freer expression of art aspiration, engendered by very different social and spiritual ideals. It was a preparation for the Gothic, and in the various stages of transition we trace a steady development towards an aspiring style, an elaboration in detail separated in character and feeling from classic models. Latin decorative art at its most exuberant period, and in its decline, speaks to us of the superculture of luxurious town dwellers. It betrays the influence of the Roman engineers' geometry, of the involved tricks dear to the hearts of Latin garden makers.

As we turn to Gothic work, however, we recognise the effort of men face to face with nature, whose caste of mind was moulded by the forest and the countryside in its undressed aspects. It is emphatically the pointed style. Both inside and out the lines end upwards more or less in sweeping curves, diversified with pendants from inner roof and ever more and more elaborated finials outside. The windows in the early English period were lancet shaped, tall and narrow, placed singly or grouped, like openings in a wood. And when the windows grew larger some of them took floral forms—trefoils, quarter-foils and rose-petalled—which brings about reinforcement with stone mullions, arranged mostly in geometrical tracery, foliage and branch forms. Indeed, we sometimes see, as in Dorchester Church, Oxfordshire, the mullions elaborated into a regular tree form, the tree of Jesse, springing from the bowels of the recumbent patriarch, its spreading branches blossoming forth with little statuettes representing his posterity.

So it is with the pillars. In the early stages we have slender columns grouped round a more massive central column. The capitals are often subordinated so that the impression is that the column itself branches out in all directions to form the far-reaching groins of the roof. In London we have good examples of this in the round Temple Church (1185), the Guildhall crypt (fifteenth century), with very little decoration ; in the Beauchamp Chapel, Warwick (fifteenth century), where the slender columns merge directly into the ribs forming the intricate groining of the roof, the ribs braced by ribs running at right angles and forming pentagons, slightly voluted, but showing considerable reserve in the matter of foliation, In spite of this, however, this rather flat stone roof gives the impression of a network of twining branches, the surface being far more covered than in the other two cases cited. In the Chapel of Henry VII., Westminster Abbey, the ribbing of the stone roof is most elaborate, each rib springing from capitals decorated with foliage. The roof itself is a mass of tracery, very complex in design, in which circles, squares, octagons and other figures appear, with bosses and great pendants at the intersections

The bosses are well-carved branches of holly, while the pendants are purely architectural in form, only retaining a suggestion of their vegetal ancestry in the way they spring from the ribs adorned with strawberry leaves, and their circling wreaths of holly. Enormously as Gothic pendants differ from each other, and while far less close to the representation of a bunch of flowers or fruit than the same type of ornament met with in the built-up style of the Mauresque, yet they have obviously grown out of the bosses. Frequently, however, we find them developing into miniature tabernacles, with niches protecting small figures, as in the remarkable example, one of many, from Rosslyn Chapel. As regards the Henry VII. Chapel, the tracery, the eastern end over the founder's tomb is divided into numerous compartments, in which astonishing variations are produced, the tracery here also forming circles, square and other figures. The central point of the scheme is a big pendant, with six others as secondary centres, where the ribs converge. Further modifications are introduced over the nave and oratories. In St George's Chapel, Windsor, the pillars expand into many branches and form over the organ-loft a ribbed ceiling of remarkable intricacy. The tracery consists of a circle enclosing panels within radiated mouldings, while in the middle are the arms of Henry VIII. and the date 1528, with other arms and badges painted in their proper heraldic colours, and placed within circular and diamond-shaped mouldings. Here, as at Westminster, the scheme of tracery varies from point to point of the lofty elliptical stone ceiling, but right down the middle of the nave there are a series of moderately proportioned pendants, mere protruberances of the converging tracery, like drooping bosses, quite distinct from the elaborate constructional forms we have already described.

Frequently the ribs and groins are deeply moulded. In some cases, as in St Peter's Church, Oxford, we find ribs under the vaulted roof composed of little billets and oblongs, producing a chain-like ornamentation, the links at intersections of groins being small square cartouches decorated with crosses. More commonly, when ribs are decorated, the ornamentation is foliated, either conventionally, as was the rule in the early English period, or distinctly moulded after nature, as in the decorated style (fourteenth to sixteenth century). The ribs themselves often expand into redaff ornaments, like loops, perforated and adorned with leaves and flowers.

As we have seen, the boss sometimes grew into heavy pendants; but frequently the bunch of flowers or leaves assumed a purely geometric contour, of a rosette, or expanded into, a wreath. During the fourteenth century they became very large, and in the course of the two following centuries the flat rosettes were pierced and bordered with ornaments. At other times we find the expansion considerable, a single blossom, a wreath, or a foliated scroll, showing by way of central bloom a figure or small group sculptured in high relief. The corbels supporting the springings of an arch, or the ribs of groined or timbered ceilings where pillars were not used, under-went similar modifications. They were sometimes merely sculptural, at other times decorated with flowers and wreaths, but often amidst these little bouquets, or even on the plain supports, we find faces and figures carved, And here elfish ideas from sylvan retreats seem to have taken possession of the sculptors, for, as with the gargoyles, and the wood carvings of choir stalls, grotesques are more often found than beautiful forms. It is curious to observe, however, that these grotesques belong to quite a different order of thought than those imagined by the Romans and their imitators of the Renaissance. We do occasionally see vegetables giving birth to a human form, as in that amusing folly from the lavabo of Saint Wandrille, or a human being absorbed into the vegetal world, as in that painful mask with pairs of trefoils growing from forehead, lower lip and both ears, which formed a boss in the cathedral of Rouen and is now to be seen in the Museum, a type common enough both in France and England, but as a rule there is a spirit of satire in these sculptures, in which the wielder of the chisel took singular liberties with his superiors, both lay and clerical, and displaying a license startling in a church or its precincts, but far more human in its freakishness than the older type. Hybrids are also there, but these are mostly symbolical, drawn from those quaint aids to piety, the medieval bestiaries.

Tracing the gradual development of decoration we find in early Gothic an underlying feeling that the forest provides the best building material. This is conveyed more by the general outline than anything else, for the foliage is of the fantastic order. But in the thirteenth century decorators were going direct to nature, and finding their models close at hand. The foliage introduced includes ivy, vine, oak, strawberry, apple, chesnut, fig, parsley, marshmallow, liverwort, holly, plum, chicory, and even the homely celery and cabbage. Then came the black hellebore and sage, followed by the geranium, ,fern, hawthorn and thistle, with occasional use of aquatic plant leaves. Of course there was considerable variation as to models used at different localities. In York Minster we have a beautiful example of a column gracefully twined about with trailing dog-rose in full bloom. In Rosslyn Chapel we find a splendidly effective use of thistles as a redaff ornament on the bold ribs. Rosslyn Chapel, built towards the middle of the fifteenth century, is, indeed, unique, for it " combines the solidity of the Norman with the minute decoration of the latest period of the Tudor age." Its walls, built of great stone blocks, appearing nakedly enough, bore a mass of ribs, arches (no less than thirteen varieties), pillars (fourteen dissimilar patterns and decorations), all most lavishly carved, the bold thistle-ornamented ribs blossoming out into heavy pendants, each with their ring of little figures. Peeping down on these from amidst heavy carved bands adorning walls and groined vaults are rows of daring grotesque faces and half lengths, while strings of foliage wind upwards in spirals round columns, or fill the deep vertical flutings on others, and even the pierced foils on cerain arches carry out the same idea of woody thickets.

When thinking of these groined vaults, ribbed stone, and heavily timbered ceilings, it must not be imagined that there was any lack of warmth. Allied with that splendid appreciation of flowing lines was an intense love of homely colour. Just as the Roman itched to cover a vacant space with ornamentation, so the men of medieval days and their successors applied colour as they would drapery-a comfortable thing, adding completeness and emphasising beauties.

Broadly speaking, in medieval Europe open timbered roofs were succeeded by groined stone, then by arched ribbed roofs followed by flat wooden ceilings. In every case colour was applied with an unfaltering hand. The huge beams and lesser timbers, whether carved or merely roughly shaped with rebated edges and perhaps flutings, were painted and gilded, while the spaces between were filled either with plain boards or pierced panels, occasionally both carved and pierced. Here again colour was used. Primary, secondary and even tertiary colours are employed, but they are bright of their kind. The greys, browns and half tones belong to the period of decadence, the perpendicular, when Gothic had lost its curvilinear spring, and had hardened into a matter of horizontal and vertical lines, decorated with ornaments that appear to be stuck on, not to grow out of it. In the earlier days colour was applied in masses, white or blue, picked out with bright tints, enriched with gold ; or more elaborate colour schemes were adopted, in which sprigs of flowers appear on the plain background. At other times bold contrasts were sought and with a success in effect that fully justified the daring. Thus we see a curious combination of black, white and red ; or elsewhere bright red rafters standing out from the bright blue on the filling boards, powdered with golden stars. These stars may, as at St Mary's and Bury St Edmunds, even have small mirrors let in their centres, to give the twinkling effect in sun or artificial light. Barber poling, the placing of narrow bands of colour, usually black and white, white and green, or red and white, side by side is a favourite method of decoration either on the lean-to roofs of the aisles or winding spirally round timbers, such as rafters, braces and so on. A forcing of the colour note by contrasts of vivid colours and lavish enrichment with gold was the rule over the chancel and altar. Gold, or its substitute yellow, was employed as a harmonising medium, linking up colours and parts, though also to give greater prominence to niceties of decoration.

Almost the same procedure was pursued when dealing with groined stone vaults and ribbed roofs. Not only were the bosses, pendants and carvings painted, the background was coloured and high relief work gilded. On that curious boss from Rouerie Cathedral are traces of green and red paint with touches of gold. Even the ribs and: soffits of arches, however, were painted in no stinted manner, for it is here that we see contrasts even more startling than in the blue roof with red rafter mentioned above. There was a cunning jugglery to effect contrast without allowing one colour to predominate over another, and so mouldings of green, red, blue and white jostle one another without hurt, intervening yellow fillets smoothing the whole scheme.

In the boarded ceilings, often found in combination with open timber work—painting became more elaborate. Floral designs were carried out with much detail. Here and there figures were introduced, generally angels or cherubs.

Some of these colour schemes are so daring that they must be recorded here. In the Clopton Chantry in Long Melford Church, the space between the rafters was painted blue, decorated with gilt lead wavy stars. The rafters are painted red, with scrolls bearing the prayer : " Jhu mercy and granmercy." The cornice is a most elaborate form of barber poling in red and gold, the red beading having a leafy spiral in gold. Between the feet of the rafters shields bearing the Clopton arms impaled with their alliances were shown. The upper cornice as Bishop Beckington's shrine in Wells Cathedral is extremely lavish. The top rounded moulding is barber poled white and black; a red fillet in red, incavo black ; a broad flat band top half white and bottom gold ; a round fillet red, barber poling in gold and black ; a round fillet, a white fillet, a broad flat band in blue carved with vine leaves and grapes, gilded; flat band barber poled white and gold; flat band red, cavetto painted green with carved gold leaves ; a broad rounded moulding with undulating pattern the top white and the lower red ; blue round fillet and finally a gold rounded fillet. Another striking combination was that at Palgrave Church Suffolk, where the background of the roof was red, the rafters white with crosses and fern leaves in blue. The purlins were V shaped, the sides being striped black and white, while a thin line of red ran along the apex and bases.

Diapering was a favourite device in Gothic architecture, consisting of small repeat patterns either carved (in stone or wood) or merely painted. The word is supposed to come from Ypres, to represent those square and running patterns seen on damask cloth. Of course, the method is very much older than the word or the special weaving carried on at Ypres. In the main the colour scheme was to place gold and silver (or yellow and white) on colour, and colour on gold or silver. These medieval colourists, however, were good heraldists, and recognised that diapering should be subordinated to the main decoration, and when this was so, and the diaper consisted of small figures, they often placed gold on white, brown or pink on red, light blue or black on blue. A curious treatment of white or silver was to make the diapering stand out pure by etching the background with minute broken (lines and dots. A good example of this can be seen on the diapered shields decorating the tomb of William of Valence, Earl of Pembroke (1296) in St Edmund's Chapel, Westminster Abbey. Another heraldic practice of the decorative painters was counter-changing, that is, having one panel black with white designs, and the next white with black designs. Both red and blue, and red and green, were often counter-changed in this way, generally with a little gold to emphasise details.

Coming now to domestic architecture, we find a far greater and more persistent clinging to timber construction. Apart from the big castles, groined and ribbed ceilings were rare, except in crypts. Open timber work characterised most of the large chambers, boards filling in spaces between the massive beams. Later, boarded ceilings became the rule in important houses, the beams being mostly concealed.

A good example of this open timber and boarded work is seen in a thirteenth century grange at Swanborough, belonging to Lewes Priory. Its roof is composed of arched timbers, while the horizontal supports of the rafters are moulded, the spaces between the arched ribs being filled with carved boards. The rafter wall plates are battlemented.

Italian Gothic Ceilings - Examples
Gothic Architecture - Ceilings
Medieval Architecture: Gothic Architecture


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