Architecture of Light: Gothic Cathedrals

Once there was a world which lived through and with its cathedral, where houses huddled below the cathedral, where streets converged at the cathedral, where people turned from their fields or villages to gaze at the cathedral. The peasant might inhabit a lowly hut and the knight, a castle, but both shared in the life of the cathedral to the same extent and with the same feelings. Everyone without exception shared the common life of the cathedral. No man was imprisoned in his own poverty without being aware that outside, whether near or far, he too possessed riches.”

With these observations from his Open Diary 1929-1959, the Italian writer Elio Vittorini, presents to us a vivid image of a medieval world steeped in the tradition of the Gothic cathedral. Many artists and writers down the centuries, including Victor Hugo, Francois Rene Chateaubriand, Friedrich Schlegel, and John Ruskin were also deeply moved by the sight of a Gothic cathedral, by the feeling of intense spirituality that suffuses its vast, soaring space.

Gothic art originated around 1140 in France, and was originally confined to abbeys and cathedrals. For the first time, the architecture united elements of Burgundian design (the pointed arch) and Norman design (ribbed vaults) to create a new church architecture – an “architecture of light” that was to raise the observer from the material to the spiritual. As the 20th century scholar of Gothic, Hans Jantzen puts it, in this cathedral, “something solid is being removed from its natural surrounding …divested of weight and made to soar upwards.”  The theme is always the transcendent.

The nave of Alcobaca Church and Monastery in central Portugal.
This Roman Catholic complex was built in 1153 by the first Portuguese king, Afonso Henriques, and is the first Gothic building in Portugal.
Ambulatory vault, Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona, Spain. Built between 1329 and 1383 at the height of Aragon kingdom’s maritime and mercantile preeminence, it is an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic, with a purity and unity of style that is very unusual in large medieval buildings.
The Sola del Tinell is one of three edifices that forms the Grand Royal Palace in Barcelona, Spain. Built in the 14th century, it is recognized as a Catalan architectural masterpiece, mainly for its arched roof structure which almost reaches the ground, and spans a distance of 33.5 meters.
Our Lady of Reims, also called the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, northeast of Paris, is a Roman Catholic cathedral built in the High Gothic style. The cathedral replaced an older church, destroyed by fire in 1211.
The gorgeous stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims.
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest structures in England. Founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077, with the east end greatly enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century, and largely rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late 14th century, when they were demolished to make way for the present structures.
View of the nave of Cologne Cathedral, Germany. The magnificent cathedral is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe and a World Heritage Site. Construction of the Roman Catholic church began in 1248 but was halted in 1473, unfinished. Work did not restart until the 1840s, and the edifice was completed to its original Medieval plan in 1880.
The cloister of Santes Cres, a Cistercian abbey in Catalonia, Spain. The abbey was constructed between1303 and 1341.
The ever-popular Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was built between 1163 and 1245, and is one of the oldest gothic cathedrals in the world. The name of the cathedral in English means ‘Our Lady’, and it is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Over the past eight centuries, the cathedral was renovated and restored several times, including the recent reconstruction after it caught fire. The most significant renovation took place in 1845 and took twenty-five years to complete. Historic events have taken place in Notre Dame, including the coronation of Napoleón Bonaparte, the beatification of Joan of Arc and the coronation of Henry VI of England.
The magnificent nave vault, Notre Dame des Paris.
The choir at Notre Dame des Paris.
Gloucester Cathedral, England, built between1337 and 1360.
Evreux Cathedral, Choir clrestory, ca. 1340. Evreux Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church located in Evreux, Normandy, France. Part of the lower portion of the nave dates from the 11th century. The west façade with its two ungainly towers is mostly from the late Renaissance. Various styles of the intervening period are represented in the rest of the church. The choir, with its early Gothic style, is the finest part of the interior.

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