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Gothic Architecture In Europe - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )


Cathedrals in Mediaeval times occupied the place of first importance in national life, and men were engaged on their construction from one generation to another. They were the history books of the period when few people could read, and thus were a medium of popular education ; they took the place in the social state of such modern institutions as free schools, libraries, museums, picture galleries, and concert halls. Sculpture and painted glass reflected incidents of Bible history from the Creation to the Redemption of mankind, and this pictorial presentment was peculiarly adapted for people to whom the written word was a sealed book. The virtues and vices, surrounded by all the imagery of Mediaeval symbolism, were depicted in sculptured figure and coloured glass before the gaze of the passing people, and the moral was pointed for the encouragement or warning of all by representations, often crude and realistic, of the rewards or punishments that might be expected to result from the practice of the particular virtue or vice. Saints with devout mien and angels of joyful aspect carried the thoughts of men to a future and higher life ; while all the manifold energies of mankind, as expressed in the various handicrafts of peace and war, were represented in cathedral wall and window to stimulate energy and action in daily life. Thus do we see how true it is that Mediaeval architecture is a grand chronicler also of secular history in which kings, nobles, knights, and people were represented as playing their part in their day and generation. Continental cathedrals (p. 304) form an interesting comparison, in their design and proportion, with English cathedrals (pp. 329, 330, 331)

Church plans in England (pp. 332, 333, 334, 335), France (p. 46o), Belgium (p. 471 F), Germany (p. 486 H), and Italy (p. 501 c) are generally in the form of a Latin cross of which the short arms form the north and south transepts. The derivation of this cruciform plan is conjectural, and has been the subject of various theories of origin. It may have been formed from the plan of the Early Christian basilican churches, such as old S. Peter, Rome (p. 206 c), and S. Paolo fuori le Mura (p. 206 E), by the extension of the " bema " into well-marked transepts ; or it may have been suggested by the cruciform tombs of the period of Constantine (p. 216 G). Whatever its origin, there is no doubt that its complicated development during the Mediaeval period was due to the practical requirements of an increasingly ornate and ceremonial ritual. The main body of the church generally stretches westward and the choir and sanctuary eastward from the " crossing " of nave and transepts, which is often marked externally, especially in England, by a tower, sometimes tapering into a spire. These main divisions east and west, and the transepts north and south, are often further divided into central nave with side aisles, separated by columns or piers. The principal entrance is generally either at the west, as in France, where it is flanked by towers (p. 445 G), or on the south or north side, as in England, where it is protected by a porch (p. 334). The columns or piers which separate nave and aisles support the nave arcades and the walls which rise above the aisle roofs (p. 301 C, F). Above is the triforium or blind storey," which is the space beneath the sloping roof over the aisle vault and enclosed on the nave side by a series of arches. Above the triforium is a range of windows to light the nave, called the " clear-story," probably from the French word " clair." By means of cross vaults these clear-story windows generally rise to the level of the ridge of the nave vault, which is covered by a high-pitched wooden roof.

The eastern arm or the choir, reached by steps from the nave level, is generally the most ornate part of the church.

The interior of a Gothic cathedral has been thus described :

" The tall shafts that mount in massy pride,
Their mingling branches shoot from side to side ;
Where elfin sculptors with fantastic clue
O'er the long roof their wild embroidery drew ;
When superstition, with capricious hand,
In many a maze, the wreathed window planned,
With hues romantic tinged the gorgeous pane,
To fill with holy light the wondrous fane."

In England, although the general preference was for a square end to the sanctuary, many cathedrals when rebuilt in Norman times were given a circular end, which was sometimes partially developed into a chevet (p. 863). This may still be distinguished in the plans of Peterborough, Norwich, Canterbury, Gloucester, Lichfield, Ely, Winchester, Durham, S. Albans, and Chester (pp. 332, 333, 334, 335). Many cathedrals were enlarged in later years and were then given a square termination, thus reverting to the Anglo-Saxon usage. Westminster Abbey, built under French influence, is unique in England in having a chevet with complete ring of chapels (pp. 353 D, 358 A), and French cathedrals are generally finished with a distinctive circular chevet (pp. 437, 449, 460). The Lady chapel was added at the extreme east end, as at Norwich (p. 333), Exeter (p. 334), York (p. 332), Salisbury (p. 332), and Gloucester (p. 333), or on one side as at Ely (p. 332).

The cloisters attached to many English cathedrals formed a part of the original monastic buildings and are generally in the most sheltered position, south of the nave and west of the transept, and served as a means of communication between different parts of the abbey and as a general meeting-place for members of the monastic community (pp. 332, 333, 334, 335). This is the general distribution of the various parts of a conventual cathedral church, from which there are many deviations such as the number of transepts and aisles, the position of entrances, chapels, choir and presbytery, cloisters and chapter house. Milton has well expressed the devotional spirit and the sense of awe and solemnity enshrined in many an English cathedral in his beautiful verses :

" Let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister's pale,
And love the high embowed roof,
With antique pillars massy proof ;
And storied windows, richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voic'd choir below,
In service high and anthem clear
As may, with sweetness to mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before mine eyes."

English cathedrals are conspicuous for great length in comparison to their width, and for central towers over the crossing, as at Gloucester, Canterbury, and elsewhere. Some English cathedrals, as Canterbury, York, and Ripon, also have western towers, which are usual in France, Paas at ris, Rheims, and Amiens. The long, low, and clearly marked outlines of English cathedrals, accentuated by the central tower, are in strong contrast with the short, lofty, and less strongly defined outlines of Continental cathedrals, with their intricacy of flying buttresses and pro-fusion of encircling chapels (p. 438 c). English cathedrals owe much of their imposing appearance externally to their comparative detachment from surrounding buildings, as they often stand in an open space or Close, as at Canterbury, Lincoln (p. 347 A), and Salisbury (p. 345 B), or are picturesquely situated on a river, as at Worcester and Durham (p. 336 A), described by Scott as " Grand and vast that stands above the Wear " ; or as at Winchester, Chichester, and Lichfield, which, as Milton so descriptively writes, are " bosom'd high 'mid tufted trees."

French cathedrals, on the other hand, are often surrounded by houses and shops, which, if not actually built against the church itself, are crowded so close to it as to detract from the dignity of the building, as at Chartres, S. Lo, and S. Omer. French cathedrals were popular rather than monastic in origin, and this accounts for the general absence of cloisters. Thus we see that there are some essential differences between English and French cathedrals (p. 457).


A general description of monastic establishments has already been given under Romanesque Architecture in Europe.


The parish churches both in town and country, erected throughout this period, were of a much less ambitious character than the cathedrals and monastic churches, but the origin and development of these smaller churches in England are of equal significance (p. 355), and the single western tower of the parish church is often the most striking landmark of the country-side.


Castles and mansions of the nobles, manor houses of the gentry, dwellings of the people, hospitals, and other civil and domestic buildings are referred to under each country.

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