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Gothic Architecture In Europe - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )



The architectural term " Gothic " was employed by Sir Christopher Wren in the seventeenth century as a term of reproach for this style of architecture, which had departed from those Classic lines which he was instrumental in re-establishing in this country. This term is now, by common consent, given to the Mediaeval architecture of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries in Europe. The Gothic of the thirteenth century throughout Europe was slowly evolved from Romanesque architecture and is mainly distiuguished by the introduction and general use of the pointed arch, whose original home was probably Assyria. This feature, in conjunction with buttresses and lofty pinnacles, gives to the style the aspiring tendency which has been regarded as symbolic of the religious aspirations of the period. Romanesque architects (p. 247) had already begun to substitute elasticity and equilibrium for the inert stability practised by the Romans, and Gothic architects still further extended the application of these static laws, by employing small stones laid in shallow courses with thick mortar joints, so as to secure the greatest amount of elasticity compatible with stability. The Gothic masons, throwing the rein on the neck of experiment, utilised stone to its utmost capacity, and in the later periods revelled in miracles of construction and marvels of craftsmanship. They heaped up stone in towers that, rising above the lofty roofs of naves and transepts, tapered upwards in slender spires embroidered with lace-like tracery. They suspended it overhead in ponderous vaults, ornamented so as to seem mere gossamer webs pierced by cunning pendants, which pleased the fancy of the fifteenth century, and which in reality sustain the very vaults from which they appear to hang. Finally, emboldened by success, they even ventured to cut granular stone as thin as fibrous wood. The stability of a Gothic cathedral depends upon the proper adjustment of thrust and counterthrust. The collected pressures of the nave vaulting and outer roof, which are downward owing to their weight and oblique owing to the arched form of the vault, are counteracted by arches carried above the aisle roofs to press against the nave wall, and these arches are supported by an outer line of massive buttresses weighted by pinnacles ; whereas in Roman buildings (p. 301 A) the wall system consists of solid walls enclosing the building and supporting a continuous vault, in a Gothic building (p. 301 B) the wall system consists of pieces of wall, or buttresses, at right angles to the building, to take the collected pressures of the ribbed vault. This structural contrivance of transmitting the accumulated pressures to the ground is known as a " flying buttress." The entire structure consists of a skeleton of piers, buttresses, arches, and ribbed vaulting, all held in equilibrium by the combination of oblique and vertical forces neutralising each other, as is clearly shown by the illustrations which explain the constructive principles (p. 301). The walls were thus merely required to enclose and not to support the structure, and indeed they principally consisted of glazed windows with vertical mullions and traceried heads. It is evident that the development of this complicated system of construction would have been impossible apart from the use of such material as could be laid in the small stones with thick mortar joints, which were necessary to give elasticity to the structure. These principles led to much novelty in the treatment of capitals and piers ; for the vaulting ribs, collected at intervals, were supported on capitals shaped to fit them, and shafts, when continued to the ground, modified the form of the nave piers of which they formed a part. The difficulties in the quarrying and transport of stone, which resulted from the social and industrial conditions of the age, taught the Gothic architects economy in the use of materials, and there was consequently less waste in the working of stone in Mediaeval than in Classic times. Gothic architecture, in common with Greek, relies on the evident truthfulness of its structural features, which in both styles are component parts of the artistic scheme. The self-contained Greek temple, however, is reposeful in the repetition of its columns and the severity of its horizontal entablatures, whereas the Gothic cathedral is a complex, restless structure composed of many vertical features, to which unity was given by a due observance of relative proportions. Thus in Gothic architecture the features were not left to mere artistic caprice, but were in the main determined by stern structural utility, as exemplified in the novel shape of a capital specially designed to support a novel superstructure, and in the ribs of vaults which accurately express their function as sinews to support the vaulting panels. Although most of the forms were founded primarily on structural necessity, others were the expression of artistic invention ; thus the spire fulfilled no structural requirement, but it served as a symbol and formed an outward and visible expression of the religious aspirations of the time and directed the thoughts of men heavenwards. The Roman military organisation was not available in the Gothic period and stone from various quarries had to be transported, often on pack-horses, by labourers who were taken away ever and anon for feudal military service. Gothic architects had not at their disposal either the monumental marble of the Greeks or the massive blocks of stone of the Romans, for the stone had to be split into smaller pieces for easy transport ; thus they were compelled to erect large buildings with small stones, whereas the Greeks had erected small buildings with large blocks of marble, conditions which naturally differentiated their architecture.

The evolution of vaulting from Roman to modern times is an interesting subject which can be clearly explained by diagrams (pp. 301, 302, 303, 324). The Roman system of vaulting, comprising the waggon and the intersecting vault (p. 302 A, s), was continued in the Romanesque period (p. 302 D), but an innovation was introduced by placing a vault over an oblong compartment of a church nave (p. 302 c), when difficulties occurred owing to the differences in height between semicircular arches over spans of varying width. The illustrations (p. 302 G) give the several means of overcoming the difficulty, which was only entirely surmounted when the pointed arch was introduced (p. 302 F, H). A careful study of the illustrations (pp. 302, 303) will clearly demonstrate the various problems encountered in the evolution from the Roman vault to the ribbed Gothic vault over an oblong compartment. The setting-out of one compartment of a Gothic vault is given, with plans at different levels of the springers (p. 303 c), and the method of obtaining the outline of the various ribs is also shown (p. 302 H).

Gothic vaulting, it will be seen, consists of a framework of stone ribs, which support thin stone panels—a system which was an extension of the Romanesque method which had itself been evolved from the Roman. The ribs were constructed as permanent supports and on them the thin stone panels were laid, being supported temporarily on a movable centre sometimes known as a " circe" (p. 303 E). The difficulty of vaulting oblong compartments was overcome by the use of the pointed arch over the shorter spans, while the semicircular arch was for some time retained for the diagonal or longer spans. The licence which Gothic masons allowed themselves in the treatment and disposition of ribs, with which they spun an intricate web of many strands, makes the evolution of Gothic vaulting a most fascinating study. Vault thrusts are considered in the chapter on English Mediaeval architecture (p. 327), and it is sufficient to say here that the vault pressures were both downwards by the weight of the stone, through the action of the law of gravitation, and outwards by the pressure of the arch voussoirs ; both pressures were collected by the meeting of the ribs at the angles of vaulting compartments, and the resultant oblique pressure was then counteracted and transmitted to the ground by buttresses and flying buttresses weighted by pinnacles (pp. 301, 404, 438 C, 441 A, 462 A). The evolution of Gothic vaulting in England is referred to later (p. 327).

As a result of the development of the Gothic system of buttresses, walls became unnecessary as supports ; but they naturally continued to enclose the building and protect it against the elements. Another step in the evolution of the style was made possible by the invention of painted glass, which was forthwith used to form brilliant transparent pictures in the ever-recurring windows which were enclosed under the pointed vaults, which had, as already explained, been originally adopted for constructive reasons. The stonework of traceried windows in churches was merely a frame for pictures of incidents in Bible history. The brilliant translucent windowed walls of a Gothic cathedral rival in beauty the painted hieroglyphics of Egyptian temples, the sculptured slabs of Assyrian palaces, the paintings and sculpture of Greek temples, the frescoes of Roman thermae, and the mosaics of Byzantine and Romanesque churches. In the north of Europe the windows stretched from buttress to buttress, and thus provided full scope for the use of glowing painted glass as the chief internal decoration, and it followed that walls were kept uniformly flat internally so that the coloured windows might be seen by all ; while structural features, such as buttresses and pinnacles, were placed externally.



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