The architecture of the Gothic Cathedrals is one of the glories of European civilisation. It was an attempt to lift everyday life up to the heavens. It was also one of the most remarkable adventures in architecture. However, some mystery still surrounds its origins.

The term ’gothic’ might be considered pejorative because many were unhappy with the change from the established Romanesque architecture. Some saw this new style as quite barbaric, hence the reference to the Visigoths, who were associated at that time with barbarism, much in the same way as we would use the word ‘Cretan’ today.

As for when Gothic began to emerge, we need to go back to 1000 CE to better understand its origins. There was a fear of the year 1000: there were predictions that it would be the end of the world. There was a psychosis about the end of the world, the apocalypse that was mentioned in the bible. A lot of superstition prevailed, a bit like the year 2000 with fear of the Y2K bug, and a lot of unrealistic fears around the turn of the first millennium. But, apart from the superstitions, there was also a real fear of invasions from the Saracens, Norsemen, and Vikings, having already suffered murderous attacks from the Hungarians.

It was a fearful time. Man was searching for stability within himself. There was no stability on the outside. So this fear was favourable for the development of a mystical mentality. Man began to look toward heaven for strength.

For centuries the monastic schools had been the centres of education. They favoured introspective education, but after 1100 CE they began to decline and withdraw into themselves and they stopped diffusing knowledge. Education then took on a different style, it opened up again, moving from monasteries to cathedral schools. This was driven by a rebirth in trade, travel, more wealth, and growth in the population. Education changed from contemplative study to a more verbal, dialectic type, open to knowledge outside of Latin Christianity. Around 1000 CE the mainstream of thought was Platonic, by 1100 CE Aristotelean thought became accepted, with the study of nature, which was considered a perfect reflection of God.

The Cistercian Order played a central role in the development of gothic architecture. They were an offshoot of the Benedictine Order at Cîteaux in France that rose to prominence after the arrival of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1113 CE who became the chief spiritual leader of Christianity for the next 40 years. He reorganised the Cistercian order by doing two things. First, he re-established self-discipline in the life of the monks. Second, he introduced new economic and social conditions. The monks of aristocratic origin were set to spiritual exercises, and the lay monks undertook the material maintenance of the community. By 1145 CE there were 350 Cistercian monasteries, all built by the Cistercians themselves.

St. Bernard was responsible for launching the crusades and also for the formation of the  Knights Templar. The crusades brought contact with the East and a new way of perceiving God. The knights discovered the actual lands where Jesus was born and lived. Christ became human, the universe became more logical. So there was a big shift in the way man began to see the world and God.

Mathematics and geometry were rediscovered. Arabian engineering was very advanced at this time. Western clerics began to conceive of buildings different to Romanesque which had favoured meditation and introspection.

 Gothic appeared after the first crusade, particularly after the return of the original 9 Templar Knights, discovered by the Cistercians. The Benedictines and Cistercians were renowned builders of abbeys and monasteries. 

Some scholars believe gothic was a natural progression from Romanesque, others that it is an entirely different school, that both operated side by side. Romanesque art and architecture were very sombre and bare, a development of the Roman basilica, which flourished from the 9th to the 13th century after Pope Leo 3rd appointed Charlemagne as holy roman emperor. 

Romanesque architecture is typified by a cruciform plan, ambulatories (walkways around the apse), heavy stone vaults carried on huge columns, and extremely thick walls. It is also typified by its massive strength and solidity, fortress-like, with small windows, and most recognisable by its semicircular arches. It was very consistent, with a slow development over centuries. The Romanesque is essentially static, steers forces that are directed downwards, the gothic channels forces that are directed upwards.

Gothic is a system of building that rests on the pointed arch called the ‘ogive’. The discovery of the ogive was capital, the physical and physiological action on man is extraordinary, beneath it man pulls himself together, stands upright. Telluric or other currents can only enter man via a vertebral column that is straight and vertical. The human quality of the ogive was well known to the builders of that time, we see it in the shape and proportion of the ogive at Chartres Cathedral which is based on the traditional symbol of man, the 5-pointed star.

The crossed ogive is built on the principle of the transformation of lateral into vertical thrust, the vault no longer weighs down but springs upwards under the lateral counterthrust of buttresses. The Gothic monument requires perfect adjustment between weight and thrust. The activity in the stone is in a constant state of tension which can be tuned like a musical instrument.

The flying buttress was the device that allowed medieval masons to transfer weight away from cathedral walls. Using flying buttresses, the cathedral builders were able to construct very high and elaborate stone vaults and ever-bigger windows. Gradually the windows began to take over from the walls.

The stained glass window is one of the most important aspects of Gothic. When Abbot Suger decided to rebuild the Church of Saint-Denis around 1137 CE, he designed a choir that would be suffused with light. To achieve this his masons drew on the several new features which had evolved; the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttresses, which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.

Abbot Suger had a Theory of Light, parsing three different Latin words for light; lux, lumen, and illumination. He understood lux, external light, as physical, coming from the sun and nature, especially light shining outside the cathedral. But once it entered through the window it was transformed into lumen, new metaphysical light because the glass; now both wall and sacred boundary functioned much like the ancient temenos threshold of a classical sanctuary or pomerium. On one, external, side it was ordinary and profane light that shone on everyone, even the heretic and the wicked,  but on the other, internal, side the light was now consecrated and holy. In Suger’s vision, light was the primary source of faith and divine inspiration. This light was one agency of a powerful benevolent grace that fed the soul.

The light inside the cathedral was mediated by the gemlike windows and this transformed light took a third route. Once it passed through the physical eye of the believer it was changed once again into illumination, now a spiritual light that elevated the mind and renewed the spirit within, as a metaphor for internal life-changing light.

So, it was the rebuilding of the church of St Denis, by Abbot Suger, that was considered to be the birth of Gothic in Europe.

Gothic reflects the spirit of the 13th century, it was a small renaissance in itself. It was also a revolution, it was all about the verticality of man. Man became responsible for himself. We can say that Gothic equalled Enthusiasm, ‘en theos’ meaning ‘God Within’.

As for the builders who sprang forth for this small renaissance, what were they trying to express? The builders were a part of brotherhoods, they travelled throughout Europe building cathedrals and churches. For them, it was a journey of growth, from man to individual, through action. Unity was the message of the builders, the building of cathedrals was an alchemical feat, the process of transforming lead into gold, within man.

They expressed the laws of nature through their work, all ideas need to be concretised, the mystery of creation shows that the spirit descends into something objective. The Cathedrals, therefore, are the representation of Heaven on Earth.

Sean O’Brien