Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part I

29 Feb

Anyone who has ever been to Europe has probably been inside a Gothic cathedral.  These large and imposing structures are some of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the world.  But here’s a question for you — why do we go see them?  Is it really just because your Paris guidebook says that you should go see Notre Dame?  Hopefully you put a bit more individual thought into your vacation plans, but you’ll probably still visit the cathedral.  Why?

I’ve realized the trick to explaining the importance of Gothic cathedrals requires two parts roughly corresponding to the two halves of our brains, the scientific left side and the emotional right.  You can focus on either or both depending on your personal taste, but you’ll never appreciate just how incredible these structures are until you learn to think about at least one aspect of them.

First of all, the scientific.  Gothic cathedrals were technological marvels for their time.  No one had seen buildings that reached such heights and had such thin walls, features which allowed the extensive use of stained glass that the cathedrals are still known for.  The people of the time believed what they were seeing was a glimpse of heaven itself.  Nothing else on earth could compare with it.

With the benefit of our modern knowledge, however, we know that the wonders of the Gothic cathedral are the result of some cunning mathematical ideas.  The most obvious of these is the pointed arch.  For centuries these arches, which were borrowed from Islamic architecture, have been some of the most recognizable images of European culture.  They were used throughout cathedrals, but they were most important to the ceilings.

Look up as you walk through a cathedral.  The ceilings are divided into sections called bays.  Each bay has rib vaults spanning it and forming pointed arches.  It’s an ingenious system that allowed the sides of each bay to be the same height while directing more of the weight of the ceiling straight down instead of out, which meant the walls needed less support.  The arches created a nifty optical trick, as well, making the ceilings seem higher than they actually were.

Flying Buttresses on the side of Strasbourg Cathedral

The pointed arches were important but the great hero of the Gothic cathedral (and the inspiration for this blog’s name) was the flying buttress.  Buttressing is quite simply the system of supporting the weight of a building’s ceiling and walls so that the thrust doesn’t push out and cause the building to collapse.  People had figured out that large buildings needed such supports centuries earlier, but to accomplish it they simply made thicker walls.  An anonymous architect working at Notre Dame realized that these could be placed outside of the building in such a way that they provided even more support and also let in more light.  The combination of pointed arches and the external supports of the flying buttresses allowed for walls to become thinner than previously possible.  The look of the Gothic cathedral was thus established, both interior and exterior.

You may by now be wondering what’s so great about having thin walls.  The answer is that since the walls didn’t have to support as much of the building’s weight there could be more room for windows, and those windows were filled with stained glass.  These were the final touch that created the beautiful and mysterious interiors of Gothic cathedrals.    While not the first time Biblical passages were illustrated in churches—frescoes and mosaics had been used for centuries—this was the first time that they let light pass through and seemed to glow.  Even today the effect is still breathtaking.

And all of this was done with technology which to us seems positively prehistoric.  To build even a one-story house today you need several trained professionals with master’s degrees in architectures who let a computer do all the work anyway, and then of course everything needs to pass the local building codes before you can even dig up some dirt.  Gothic cathedrals were built by men with a basic grasp of mathematical ideas and a few years spent as apprentices.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Gothic cathedrals are so amazing.  At least part of the reason.  There’s more to come.


One Response to “Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part I”

  1. Arghhhhh March 20, 2012 at 12:28 am #

    Look I really like this article – but – read page two of this recognised authority (para. beginning “master of the work”):


    and then compare with this:

    “Gothic cathedrals were built by men with a basic grasp of mathematical ideas and a few years spent as apprentices”

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