Elements of Gothic Architecture

The pointed arch is not known in existing remains of architecture (outside of Assyrian vaulted drains and ruins of the upper Nile) before the time of the Arab buildings. There is no doubt that it was through contact with these that its form became familiar to the Crusaders as well as to architects of Spain and Southern Italy. The pointed arch is found in occasional use in the later Romanesque, and we find here another instance of the transitions by which the new style was reached, but as it appears in these cases it was used without any distinct system of Gothic development. In the case of the Gothic style it is clear that its adoption was not due to imitation of Saracenic art or to any decorative preference. The decorative preference might appear to be indicated by its constant decorative use, for the round arch is not found in the Gothic period, excepting in Italy, but the original explanation is to be sought in the weight of the vaulted ceilings. The decorative use followed the construction.

The view of the ruin of Melrose Abbey is the best illustration on this head, because its peculiar and unusual exhibition of a section of the actual construction shows the weight of masonry which presses on the arch. The weight is greater here than was usually the case, but the illustration serves its purpose. This will consequently lead us to consider the difficulties and problems which beset the constructors of the round-arch Romanesque vaultings. We have already insisted on the point that the Gothic can only be comprehended through a preliminary study of the system of vaulting employed by the Romanesque.

Mathematically considered, we know that the round arch is a perfectly stable form, but physically considered, the resistance on the sides must be sufficient to keep its blocks in position. If the side resistance gives way or is weakened, the blocks of the arch are displaced and the entire structure is ruined by its fall. That this disaster actually befell a certain number of early Gothic cathedrals during or soon after construction is known, and helps us to understand the pains taken in other cases to avoid this possibility. For instance, in the case of the choir of Beauvais where unusually lofty dimensions were attempted, the ceiling of the choir fell in, twelve years after completion, and the entire building had to be reconstructed in consequence.

In the enormous development of dimension in the buildings which began to be used in the Gothic period, the round-arch vaultings were found insecure for the increased height, width, and weight. Some instances of the dimensions attained will explain the reasons. The height of the nave at Amiens is 132 ft., at Beauvais 146 ft., at Cologne 140 ft., at Burgos 140 ft., at Milan 157 ft. Milan Cathedral holds 40,000 people. The spire of Strassburg is 452 ft. high. The church of San Petronio at Bologna was planned for a length of 640 ft. The exterior length of Cologne Cathedral is 530 ft., of Lincoln Cathedral 524 ft., of Salisbury Cathedral 430 ft. The area covered by York Cathedral exceeds by 4,100 ft. that of St. Paul’s. The span of the cathedral nave of Palma in Spain is 65 ft., at Gerona in Spain it is 73 ft. When the average dimensions of the great cathedrals are considered and especially the great heights of the naves, the reason for the use of the pointed arch will easily appear. In preference to adding to the weight of the exterior walls, which would have been practically impossible, resort was had to the pointed form of the arch, in which the lateral pressure relieves the keystone from a portion of the weight.

From the way in which two leaning objects will support one another, we may understand how the two sides of a pointed arch lean against and tend to support one another. The employment of the pointed arch in doors and windows was a convenience of use following that which was absolutely necessary, and its application to decorative details was a natural consequence.

A consideration favoring the use of the pointed arch was its adaptability to the varying widths of nave and aisles when connected with one given pier. In the Romanesque interiors, it will be observed that only the alternate piers have pilasters, which are connetted by ribs with the ceiling of the nave. The given number of piers represents ribbed supports for every bay of the aisles (compare the aisle of Peterborough, which are half the width of the nave ; but because the round arches are concentric they must span a greater space when they rise to a greater height. With the pointed arch every pier of the side aisles was also available as a true pier for the nave, because arches of varying height could be carried from the same pier. The gain in security for the nave, or what comes to the same thing, the economy of material to secure a given result, is obvious. We can see that the arches inclosing the upper windows of the bays must be more pointed than those which span the nave, and in Fig. 80, for the Romanesque, we can see that the arches which span the nave are equal in size to those which reach from the same piers to form the upper bays of the nave. The intermediate piers are here only available for the vaultings of the aisles.

I have intentionally massed together the views for the interiors of the Gothic churches. In all of them the solid masonry of the ceiling must be especially considered. In some of them the skeleton framework of the ribbings, which are the main lines of support for the ceiling, is especially distinct in the pictures. A point which cannot be well illustrated in photographs, and which can with difficulty be observed in the buildings when the ceiling is viewed from the floor, is the manner in which the spaces between the ribs are slightly arched in such a way as to make the ribs the actual supports of the ceiling. These in their turn transmit the pressure to the piers.

The piers of the Gothic have a lighter and more slender construction than those of the Romanesque. The latter were sometimes of plain square section (Figs. 79, 81) or were square and beveled at the corners, or were sometimes massive and clumsy round supports, as in Fig. 82 (the latter mainly Norman). With other Romanesque piers are found small pilasters leading up to the ribs above and connected with them (Figs. 78, 80). In the Cathedral of Mainz, we see the square pier alternating with the square pier and pilaster.

In the Gothic the piers are generally treated as a cluster of slender ribs, each rising to its own definite and special functions. Effects of a massive or clumsy appearance are avoided. A strictly logical and strictly economical use of materials and forces is apparent. Round piers are not unknown to the Gothic, but they are not generally found in highly developed or characteristic examples of the style. In the use of the pointed arch there is the appearance of an aspiring tendency and of a sentiment for altitude. This is enhanced by the treatment of the pier, which multiplies, both by lights and by shadows, the rising lines which tend to enhance the effect of height. The same sentiment is visible in the actually enormous altitudes of the cathedrals. These effects of altitude are also exaggerated by a relative narrowness of nave and aisles. The general result is to dwarf the spectator and his immediate surroundings.

It was not only actual dimension but the effect of dimension which was sought for and attained. Disproportionately high apartments and those which surprise the eye by an effect of height are known to have this effect of dwarfing, in appearance, the persons in them. In this point of the effect of dimension the cathedrals attain greater results than the Pyramids, with far less material effort.

For the matter of the Gothic windows we should logically be speaking of the interiors for whose service they are made, but exterior views may illustrate them more visibly as being taken from the sides of the buildings rather than down the length of nave or aisles. In developed examples almost the whole wall surface, aside from the facades, is given up to the windows. The infinitely varied designs of their delicate stone ribbings are a beautiful feature of the Gothic. The perpendicular stone bars are called “mullions.”

The delight in the color effects of the stained glass window pictures is undoubtedly one explanation of their dimensions and number, but it should be added that throughout the developed and later Gothic, there is an obvious effort to dispense as far as possible with blank walls, or solid masonry surfaces. It is on this account that in developed and later Gothic, as far as the masonry appears, it is treated in filigree, so to speak; broken up as regards effect of bare surface by the expansion over the wall surfaces of a tracery system borrowed originally from the designs of the windows (Figs. 94, 101).

It is in the same sense and to the same purpose that the statuary decoration is conceived and elaborated. We must remember, however, that the effort to illustrate the lessons and teachings of religion and to glorify the. saints and prophets and apostles was also in question here. In the great Gothic portals the statues may be counted by fifties and by hundreds, and they are frequently lavishly distributed over other portions of the building, especially on the facades. There are two thou-sand statues on the exterior of Milan Cathedral.

So far we have considered everything but the one thing of importance essential to all the rest, namely, the stability of the building. When we remember that these tremendous vaultings of the interior have been raised high in air over walls which on the sides of the building at least are conspicuous for their flimsy appearance and large window openings, it is evident that the buttress architecture of the exterior was a serious and necessary feature—not designed for ornament or to please the eye, but the absolute and sole condition of the existence of the building.

It is here that our own modern copies of the Gothic buttresses have tended to obscure their original use. The vaultings of the old Gothic cathedrals have been so rarely attempted in modern times that the instances are not worth mention as a matter of argument. Where vaultings are seen, in appearance they are imitations in cement or in stuccoed laths and plaster. At the time when copies of the Gothic became fashionable in modern architecture, little attention had been paid to the constructive conditions of the old buildings. It was their appearance, not their construction, which was imitated. The sentiment which called for these imitations was a literary historic interest, a literary fashion, not a movement inspired by the necessities or habits of modern construction. We have consequently become so familiarized with the appearance of the buttress in imitations of the Gothic, that it is difficult to realize its constructive necessity in the ancient cathedrals.

It is undeniable that the use of the buttress in appropriate and modest dimensions was transferred to village timber-roofed churches—equally undeniable that there is not one great Gothic cathedral of the continent of Europe which is not vaulted and that the style as such is a vaulting style. There is not the slightest objection to a wall buttress, wherever and whenever it is needed, and it may easily be made a means to economy of material in a timber-roofed church, but its imitation as a matter of “style” without reference to use, which has been a very general thing in the modern Gothic copies, is absurd—as all unthinking imitations must always be. It is this frequent lack of constructive necessity in the modern Gothic buttress which has promoted the recent movement in favor of the modern “Italian Gothic” and the modern “Romanesque.”

In the old cathedrals the “flying buttress” was a necessary consequence of the higher elevation of the nave as compared with the lower elevation of the side aisles. Its practical use is perhaps best illustrated by the view of Melrose Abbey, although it appears here in a rudimentary and clumsy form. The buttress was frequently surmounted by a pinnacle ; always, in fact, when the flying buttress was used ; or by a statue surmounted by a canopy. The pinnacle added an additional weight to the resisting power. It also emphasized the rising lines of the building and its effects of altitude. It was, in a word, an ornament emphasizing construction.

It will, on the whole, best explain the uses of the buttress to consider in the case of a given building, what the alternative would be if the given cathedral were Romanesque. In this case the wall would necessarily be as thick at all points and in solid mass as it now is where the buttresses project. The same economy of material and effort is therefore visible here which appears otherwise in the Gothic. The resistance of the buttress is always exactly opposed to the interior pier. We have seen that the treatment of the ribbed skeleton of the vaulting is such that all the weight converges on the pier. It is exactly at the corresponding exterior point that the buttress is placed. This will be also apparent by comparing the exterior relation of the window spacings between the buttresses, to their interior situation between the piers.

An ornament which is very common in the middle Gothic and later Gothic of the- continent, but less common in England, is the gable-shaped skeleton masonry form which appears over portals or window in. This is a reminiscence of the upper construction of a cathedral in cross-section, understanding the gable line as representing the exterior roof and the pointed arch line as representing the interior vaulting. It must be observed that the solid stone covering leading to the line of the roof, as it appears in Melrose Abbey, is an unusual exaggeration of the usual construction, which admitted an interior vacant space between the arched vaulting and the beams of the exterior timber roof which was always, of course, tiled or slated over. This point regarding the distinction between the exterior protecting roof and the interior masonry ceiling is an important one. The former was demanded to prevent the penetration of moisture into the joints of the masonry and its consequent disintegration as the result of frost or otherwise.

The capitals and other ornamental details of the Gothic show at first dependence on the later Romanesque and gradually develop from them, but the naturalism which, in the Romanesque, had advanced to grotesque form s taken from the animal world, now seized on the forms of vegetable life and applied them in beautiful adaptations to architectural detail. The later Gothic shows a great deal of closely realistic ornament, but with the necessary amount of conventional treatment required by the solid material.

I have so far avoided reference to matters of local interest or to individual buildings, points, and in the choice of the views I have been controlled by the availability of the photograph for a given purpose, rather than by the reputation or other importance of the building; but some indications on the head of specially famous buildings will be expected.

According to explanations given, the French Gothic deserves first consideration as a matter of logic, and because the deviations from French standards in other countries are to be explained where they occur, by local causes or national predispositions. The picturesque beauty and the grand effects of the Gothic are found in all European countries, but since they are due to France in the first instance, this country should stand first in mention. Among the earliest fully completed Gothic cathedrals of France may be mentioned those of Noyon, Laon, and Notre Dame at Paris. In order of time the Cathedral of Amiens is the first example of developed Gothic. Rheims, Chartres, Rouen, and St. Denis near Paris, cannot be omitted from any mention. The Church of St. Ouen at Rouen (distinct from the cathedral there) deserves and has an equal reputation. Not to mention many others will seem unjust to those who know them by name or by fame.

In Germany the Cathedral of Cologne stands first Strassburg and St. Stephen’s at Vienna probably deserve the next mention.

In Italy, Milan—and in Spain, Burgos, claim the first mention.

In England, Westminster Abbey or Canterbury would naturally take first place. After these are named discrimination becomes difficult.

In Belgium the Church of St. Gudule, at Brussels, and the Cathedral of Antwerp are rivals of the first rank. It is difficult to dwell on the number or the magnificence of hundreds of other churches of this period, without apparent exaggeration of language or descriptions which have not much value apart from illustrations. It is to be remembered, however, that, although the Romanesque is somewhat at a disadvantage in the matter of modern survivals and also of popular reputation, it has its own distinct and noble worth. In the matter of picturesque exteriors, at least, it has no cause to shun comparison with the succeeding style.

Both in the Romanesque and Gothic there is a regular transition, depending on sequence of time and regular historic development, from the simple and severe to the elaborate and ornate. The early Gothic is quite simple and relatively massive, the windows are smaller, and tracery less developed, the towers heavier, the facades plainer, the proportions less exaggerated in elevation, and the piers plainer in treatment than in the developed Gothic. The ornament is restricted, and there is little that is realistic. It was only by degrees that the pure Gothic character was reached and this again at a later date became florid, overladen, pedatic, capricious, and illogical, always also by degrees, but with increasing rapidity as the sixteenth century was neared. The corruption and decadence of the style were very apparent before the Renaissance style appeared in Northern Europe, and in some senses the Gothic died a natural death.

These distinctions of development within the Gothic have been designated in English terminology for English buildings, as the three periods of the ” Early English, the “Decorative,” and the “Perpendicular” styles. The word ” perpendicular” relates to only one phase of the Gothic decadence, and is illustrated by the cloister of Winchester, where the upright lines of the window tracery are seen to enter the exterior lines of the arch abruptly. Compare the window tracery for other methods of treatment. This was only one trait of the decay of taste out of many which are seen in the decadence, but it is by this trait that the English Gothic , decadence has been specifled in general. A very depressed arch was used in England in the late Gothic, which is known as the ” Tudor arch.” The period in which this use is found is the most inferior of all. The late Gothic is known in France as the “flamboyant,” i. e., the florid (or flaming). Otherwise the designations of ” early,” “middle,” and “late ” Gothic are accepted. It must be understood that there are no definite limits between these periods. Speaking generally, the late twelfth century was the time of Gothic beginnings in France, and it is rarely found in other countries before the thirteenth century ; the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are both periods of great perfection, and the fifteenth century is the time of relative decadence. Both in Germany and England the thirteenth century was the time of the introduction of the Gothic. In Italy it was never fully or generally accepted. Within the field of the Gothic proper (i. e., excluding Italy) England is the country where local and national modifications are most obvious, many showing that the style was practiced more or less at second hand. In picturesque beauty and general attractiveness the English cathedrals may be compared with any, but preference must be given to the French in the study of the evolution of the style.

As regards the changes of Gothic style dependent on its general evolution and decline, it must be observed also that these are constantly apparent in the various parts of one given building, which may often also include portions dating from the Romanesque, and occasionally from early Christian time. The consequent varieties of treatment in different parts of one building have much to do with the picturesque qualities of medieval structures. Canterbury Cathedral is a fine instance. The amount of such variations depends on the length of time during which the given building was undergoing construction. Fifty or one hundred years was no unusual time, and many exhibit the work of four or five different centuries at least.

In the Gothic cathedral we still find the plan and essential arrangements of the basilica. The choir, which frequently occupies more than a third of the church area, is the development of the apse. The arrangement of the nave and aisles was also derived from the basilica. Although there are local instances in which the aisles rise to the height of the nave, all the great cathedrals inherited the higher nave elevation.

The effects of the upper light thus obtained have much to do with the mystery and power of these buildings. The upper portion of the nave rising above the aisles is called the clerestory. In some of the Romanesque churches, there are galleries over the aisles opening on the nave, for instance, in the Pisa Cathedral.

This arrangement is found also in many Gothic cathedrals and is known as the ” triforium “. In other cases the wall surface above the arches and below the clerestory is relieved by an imitative gallery of arches and pilasters. The number of aisles frequently rises to four in the great cathedrals and this number is already found in some basilicas. The transepts are developed very considerably beyond the limits of the Romanesque.

The spires of the Gothic are an evolution from the Romanesque towers, but are never found in the four-fold flanking fashion which is seen, for instance, in the Rhine cathedrals. The disposition of the spires is generally, in important churches, two flanking the facade and one rising above the junction of the nave and transept. The original of this last arrangement is also seen above the Romanesque transepts. Many cathedrals were unfinished at the opening of the sixteenth century, when the style was generally abandoned, and the completion of the spires was always left to the last. It was not till after 1871 that the completion of the Cologne Cathedral spires was under-taken. The famous spire of Strassburg is only one of an intended pair and there are many similar cases.

A dissimilarity in the two flanking spires is frequently found, resulting from erection at different dates. Such an explanation at least, is constantly offered, but it is apparent that had the wish for exact symmetry existed, the different dates of erection need not have interfered with it. The fact really is that mathematical symmetry of details in corresponding parts of a building was not only indifferent to the Middle Ages but that it was actually repugnant to its taste. Moreover, it is in such variations that the picturesque quality of the buildings lies. It is generally admitted that the ancient Gothic buildings are superior to the modern imitations even when the modern dimensions approach the old, but the exact causes and conditions of this superiority which is so easily admitted are by no means clear to the public conscience; and for the improvement of our own architecture it is very desirable that these should be understood. The presumption generally is that the charm of antiquity, the associations of the past, and historic interest are mainly responsible for our superior interest in old Gothic buildings as compared with new. In other words, our own modern Gothic might in the future, to some modest extent, vie with that of the past. This is by no means the case.

We may begin our explanation by noting the astonishing varieties of appearance presented by the medieval cathedrals (of any epoch) when one is compared with another. Constant surprises in contrast of individual appearance will meet the student at every turn. The individuality in single examples of a given style is undoubtedly much more marked than is the case in our modern copies. Now the same variety which appears in different buildings, when one is contrasted with another, is apparent in corresponding parts within the limits of a given building. In the complicated window traceries of the developed Gothic it is rarely the case that two adjacent windows or any two windows of the one building are exactly alike. In the sculptured decoration of the capitals of the columns the same variety appears. In the sculptured “gargoyles,” or waterspouts for carrying off the rain from the roof, we shall find generally a new design for each separate piece. The surface traceries and the details of masonry cutting all exhibit this spontaneous vitality in individual execution.

It is in this variety of the details that the charm of the building consists. The eye is mystified, kept busy, and kept interested. Every change of view is a change of effect. The medieval cathedral has the same qualities of perpetual variety which interest us in landscape scenery or in the forest vista. When we ask the cause of this quality, we shall find it to lie in the individual creative talent and artistic genius of the masons, stonecarvers, and artisans. The details of the buildings were executed by their own spontaneous efforts, without set patterns or preconceived formulas. They built, carved, and designed, as they went along. The same genius and inventive talent which is found in the handiwork of antique domestic art is equally common to the Middle Ages.

Once more the explanation must be that in modern times division of labor and the use of machinery have destroyed in the working and artisan classes this inventive and executive capacity. The stonecutter of today gets his pattern from a contractor, who gets it from a builder, who gets it from an architect, who gets it from a clerk in his office. The stonecutter of the Middle Ages was given a capital to decorate and was himself the artist who conceived and did the whole thing. This means that the execution was vital and vigorous, that the pattern itself was an inventive and creative effort, not a mechanical copy, and that the details of the buildings had the resulting variety.

Finally, when we come back to the point that the architect of the entire structure was its master-mason, we understand how such an architect could modify and change his plan and in many senses build his design as he went along, and how it is that the point of variety holds for different buildings as the necessary result of the variety in the parts of one.

We are able to return now to our remarks about the changes of style as found in the construction of one building. What appear to us varieties of style were to the eye of the Middle Ages natural varieties of detail. Some details changed in each new bit of work of a given carver or mason ; some changed because they were done by different workmen of one time, and some changed because they were done by different work-men of different times. We cannot too much insist on the fact that the thought of ” style ” as such, was foreign to the Middle Ages. The history of the cathedral falls into the three grand divisions of the timber-roofed basilica, the round-arch vaulted building, and the pointed-arch vaulted and buttressed building, but these were different modes of practical construction successively called into use by matter-of-fact causes, and susceptible of endless variations of treatment, in which the really interesting thing is the independence of the individual example, not the resemblances of the general type.

In the matter of combined styles we have two especially interesting cases in the Pisa Baptistery and the facade of St. Mark’s at Venice. Both these buildings date before the Gothic period in construction ; both have exterior ornament in the style of the ” Italian Gothic,” and yet no one would imagine from their appearance that they were not homogeneous, artistic creations. In the matter of medieval repugnance to exact symmetry, we probably have a very remarkable instance in the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, which appears to have been an intentional construction, in spite of some opinions to the contrary.