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Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part II

29 Mar

There is a slight problem with discussing the emotional side of Gothic cathedrals. Emotion, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a very personal thing. What I find amazing about Gothic cathedrals might not do anything for you. I’m not trying to make you have any one particular feeling about the structures,though. I’m just hoping that the next time you visit one you’ll take a moment to soak up the atmosphere instead of just ticking it off your list like any other tourist attraction.

Of couse a certain amount of the emotional impact of a Gothic cathedral depends on a person having at least some appreciation for religion, even if one is not religious themselves. Critics will focus on the negatives, but it’s helpful to stop and think that for many people a cathedral, and by extention religion, is a source of comfort and charity, to say nothing of the incredible impact the church has had in the world of the arts over the centuries. We can’t forget that religion is responsible for just as many beautiful things as it is for the faults for which many people condemn it. If you close your mind to this fact you’ll never be able to enjoy your surroundings. I’m not asking you to suddenly find God, I’m just saying it helps to appreciate that, “Someone was feeling something when they built this,” as a friend of mine once said.

When I enter a cathedral I’m normally struck first simply by how beautiful the space is. I first notice the pools of colored light on the ground from the stained glass windows before my eye is drawn up past the sculptures on the column capitals to the soaring roof. The whole scene is breathtaking, if you take the time to just get a feel for the space. And once you’ve enjoyed the overall atmosphere a bit, there are thousands of details to notice. If visiting during the summer, feel the cool when you step into the building. Look at how worn the floor is at certain points from the thousands of feet that have passed over it. Smell the lingering scent of incense left from the latest service. Take notice of the names on the memorials located throughout the nave.

Part of what makes it amazing is the fact that very few other buildings from that time are still used for their original purpose. Think about that for a minute. A roughly similar ritual has been happening on a regular basis for between 800 and 600 years. Through disasters such as war and plague and celebrations like weddings and coronations, cathedrals have continued with their original missions. If you pay attention you’ll often notice a priest or other church official caring for the building and its treasures or preparing for the next service, just as they have for centuries.

It’s also nice to stop and think about how people would have seen such a structure when it was first built. Well, once it was finished being built, that is. The construction of a Gothic cathedral often took centuries. At the short end of the scale, Chartres Cathedral took approximately 57 years to build; Cologne took 632. There was a very good chance that if a cathedral was begun during your lifetime you wouldn’t live to see it finished. Even so the parts you could visit were often wonders to behold, and the completion of a cathedral was cause for a major celebration.  These weren’t only the tallest structures for miles, but the grandest.

Overall there’s so much to see while visiting a Gothic cathedral it’s a shame they’re often so crowded. Even so, they still provide the perfect opportunity to sit and contemplate not just religion but the very nature of history. You can still find time to really look at the intricacies of a stained glass window. Look up, look down, and take it all in. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you’ll be amazed.

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.