1250-1400: The Gothic

Gothic architecture is important for this period and although 1250-1400 is artificial and slightly flexible so we will start with St. Denis.

It is the first church to have all the Gothic indicators of pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses although some of these features were used before St. Denis.

St. Denis was built in two stages — choir and west end 1130-1144 (the date of the consecration of the choir) by Sugar (pronounced “Sujay”). It was a Carolingian structure on the site. The lower arches are not pointed. Note the larger windows and a rose window (the first time it was used so prominently at the west end). Three integrated figured portals. Outside Paris was a “dodgy” suburb. It has a choir, ambulatory and shallow chapels. Above the choir is a 13thC structure. We know that it looked like as other churches (Vazelay, Burgundy) which were copied.

What is unusual is the size of the windows in the Chapels around the choir. Panofsky argued that St. Denis wrote a treatise on the transcendental aspects of light. So the design could (Pseudo-Dionysus) have a theological basis. Other historians dispute this. From St. Denis onwards architecture is never the same again but there are many other churches, e.g. Laon. Laon has a longer choir (to hold the 80 canons). It has five towers. It has a flat east end. A lot of pointed arches but also rounded arches. Stacked spaces, in this case four to create height. A prominent rose window. A lot of receding planes. Creating a relief of a facade. Double shafts inside each side of the chapels. Sense of a telescopic effect on the outside (one level could slide down inside the one below).

Chartres was a blueprint for other buildings. Destroyed by fire in 13thC except for the lower west facade (the fire at Canterbury also left the crypt). Double ambulatory and shallow chapels. Prominent transepts built in 1220, high rose windows. More towers were intended but money ran out (one tower was built in the 16thC). It is a pilgrimage church. (St Denis was a bishop’s church with relics). It had the tunic of the Virgin. Its survival was regarded as a miracle and the cult of the Virgin developed. Its internal three part elevation becomes the norm. Enormous flying buttresses supporting roof at top, high clearstory. Thin triforium and very large clearstory. “Plate tracery” window in clearstory. (Laon absolute structural honesty, every arch has a capital and so on). In Chartres shafts run into half columns.

Entering our period is Amien where the windows are more complex. We have gone from plate tracery to a full width clearstory window with thin mullions. A single shaft descends. Arches are much higher. A shaft descends from the clearstory to the string course of the triforium. Vertical integration is a feature from this time onwards.

Beauvias started to thin out columns, glazed intermediate level and very tall clearstory. This is the start of Rayonnant. Upper structure thins out to glass. Still called a triforium. Soon after it was finished the vaults collapsed. High flying buttresses with thin intermediary buttresses, extraordinarily high so vaults collapsed so they inserted additional columns.

There was a sense that Gothic could go no higher (16th tower was built and collapsed). If Gothic architects could go no higher what could they do? They played with tracery.

Glazed back wall of triforium and complete vertical integration. In St. Denis the upper structure was built in 1220s and added larger columns. So St. Denis introduced two new styles Gothic and Rayonnant. Uses tracery to expand architecture, for example the radiating form of the rose window with a glazed triforium below it. Whole upper wall of end of transept is glass.

St. Chapelle in Paris, strong buttresses to support a mountain of glass. It has a double decker chapel. An enormous clearstory with a dado layer below. Polychromed, precious, reliquary like chapel to house the Crown of Thorns. After the fall of Constantinople in 1261 and later 1453). Windows create an iconographical setting. St Urbain at Troyes. Wall arches and lancets receive a life of their on, protrude, parts of wall peal off. Tracery escapes and crawls everywhere. Tracery becomes the mode of design and microarchitecture (small scale) is used. Shows how far Rayonnant can go.

The other example of Rayonnant is Strasbourg. (1270). In this period early drawings survive. We have Plan A and Plan B surviving. The tracery is divorced from the windows, for example, it stands in front of the windows. Decorative pieces of design, not structural so it is called tracery. In this period we have blind tracery on walls. Gables, finials create a rich layer.

Britain’s Canterbury cathedral plays the same role in England (burnt 1174, rebuilt 1180) as St Denis in France. First builder was French, from Sens. It is heavy looking (Romanesque feel) and also has a French look. It is constrained by the old crypt below. It has a false gallery passage with a clearstory above but with tiny windows and with a passage in front. England likes a thicker structure. (Purbeck marble polychromed as in France) compared to thin, tall French style. William of Sens completed four bays before he fell and had to return to France. He was replaced by an English architect who built the apse with a larger clearstory. Raised choir, long windows in chapels, for pilgrimage to the Thomas Beckett cult (like St. Denis with raised platform, open architecture and glazed wall with iconography). Note squeezing of choir at east end because of line of original Romanesque walls, leading to Corona chapel. It leads the eye to the centre and the shrine. Head cut off, brains and blood collected by monks and reflected in architecture and use of marble.

Wells Cathedral has no clear French influences, very severe, small clearstory passage at clearstory level. Everything is in threes. Mouldings, shafts. long tunnel-like vistas. Very thick and architectural chapter house with single column support. Wells choir in our period with retro choir at back and Lady Chapel. Old English nave. Octagonal chapter house. Uses tracery and elevations to redefine the elevations up to the Leon vault with little prismatic parts. English love heavy decorated architecture. Scissor arches had to be added to stop tower falling down.

Lincoln followed on from Canterbury and its success with the Beckett cult. Earthquake 1180s. Cult of St. Hugh of Evalon after first unsuccessful cult,tri-partite elevation. Small clearstory. Elaborate richness rather than height – Syncopated arches in side walls was very expensive and typical. Nave continued in 13thC. Note ridge rim with forest of ribs crowding out windows. Richness and elaboration. Really went mad with crypt of Saint Hugh. Musical angels over tomb. Complete saturation.

Westminster Abbey is very important for our period. 1240s onwards. Henry was looking to French monarchy as a role model and we see a French style. Rose window. Highest of all English Gothic cathedrals. Architect called Henry of Reims (was he French? or from Shropshire). Small dipolar flower motives on ashlar of stone is very English, polychromed masonry. Windows do not use the width of the bay. Even in most French of English architecture it is different from French cathedrals.

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