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Gothic Monuments in Soaring Stone

CHARTRES cathedral, often called the epitome of Gothic architecture, rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Most of the Romanesque church on the site had been damaged beyond repair by fire in 1194. The crypt under the church was safe, and the West Front was not harmed. These were retained. But a new edifice was built, most of it in the astonishingly short time of 20 to 30 years. Some eight centuries later, except for a few later completions and additions, this is Chartres cathedral.

The different cathedrals at Chartres were by no means unique in their history of destruction by fire and subsequent rebuilding. It happened at Laon, at Canterbury, and at Rheims. At Chartres it had happened at least twice before. But the response to such devastation - after initial despair - was not to restore what was lost but to rethink and reinvent. It was an opportunity for improvement.

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This eagerness for the new was perhaps partly the result of ambition, but conversely, it also grew out of a humility that admitted the possibility of learning from past inadequacies. It also must have had something to do with the stonemasons. These remarkable medieval craftsmen were often itinerant, and, summoned to the place of a new building, they brought with them considerable experience of other recent building projects. All the evidence also points to the fact that they were continually eager to sur pass themselves, to build on previous achievements, but also to extend them experimentally.

The stonemasons' energy seems integral to the energetic architecture of the Gothic period, which architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described as "far from reposeful." Gothic cathedral architecture is vigorous and directional, not tranquil. This is true of Chartres, yet at the same time it has a fresh coherence and unity that invests the lively repetitiveness of ribs and arches with a kind of single-minded clarity of space.

The building of a new cathedral was also a chance to make the new building less vulnerable to fire - by using more stone and less wood. The older churches' use of wood, particularly in roofs and spires, had been a fire hazard. Though the 1194 fire at Chartres had swept up to the cathedral from the city below, sometimes fires started inside cathedrals and churches themselves.

Cathedrals were not simply places of worship. They were public halls, social centers, places of learning, and the culmination of pilgrimages. They also served as hostels and hospitals. Pilgrims - or so a guide at Chartres informed the group I was in - would camp in the nave and cook their food on open fires. So accessible to the masses were the cathedrals that there are even decrees on record curbing ball games inside them, not to mention regulations to stop the launching of missiles (stones, presumably)

at birds who had unfortunately found themselves within the walls.

Religious fervor does, however, seem to have been the driving force - along with available funds - determining the speed with which Notre Dame de Chartres was rebuilt in the early 13th century.

By 1222, a chronicler could write: "None can be found in the whole world that would equal its structure, its size and decor ... the mother of Christ has a special love for this one church.... None is shining so brightly than this nowadays rising anew and complete, with dressed stone, already finished up to the level of the roof."

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The style of this cathedral was indeed new. The idea of completeness - increased visual and structural unity between all its various parts, not unlike the natural relationship of the different parts of a tree to each other, from root to canopy - took a decisive leap forward in the design and making of this building.

Absolutely crucial to the fulfillment of this concept of what a cathedral building should or could be were the skills of the stonemasons. The quoted chronicler doesn't fail to mention "dressed stone" in his proud description. What stone, that most earthbound, massive, weighty, and difficult of materials, could be made to do in the hands of masons willing to follow the highly imaginative and ideal demands of their masters, is still cause for wonder.

A writer and architect of today, Wim Swaan, observes succinctly: "The most important craftsman in the construction of the Gothic cathedrals was the stone-mason and his associated workers."

Depictions of these craftsmen that survive in carvings or painted on glass (a window at Chartres, for example, shows masons carving a statue) invariably bring us down to earth because they are quite "ordinary mortals," just artisans, wielding the modest, basic tools of their craft - mallet and chisel, sometimes picks, now and then compasses. They did inspire admiration, clearly, and were probably not as anonymous as tradition has since claimed, but most of their names have gone unrecorded. They were not exactly equipped with power tools, and what they achieved by manual labor takes the breath away. At their best, they were great sculptors. En masse they were extraordinary builders - and indefatigable workers.

Swaan, in his book "The Gothic Cathedral," provides some revealing statistics. "We have documentary evidence," he writes, "that 15 master-masons, at least three of them assisted by an apprentice, worked for 15 years on the main portal of Rouen Cathedral carving the 34 large statues, the numerous small figures, and the tympanum."

He also points out that, in summer at least, when the daylight lasted longer, they worked hours no union would permit today. "At York Minster workers were supposed to start before 5 a.m. ... and continue until between 7 and 8 p.m."

However significant and theologically symbolic the sculptural programs were in cathedrals, and however integrated with the architecture, they were not, of course, the main concern of the masons. The structure of the building, of nave and aisles, of arcades and columns and piers, of window tracery and rib vaulting, of galleries and choir screens, of stairways and passages, and of those endlessly relished external supports, the flying buttresses - all these are made of stone.

As "Gothic" developed ever more ambitiously and elaborately in the two centuries after Chartres, the demands made on stone, and the proficiency with which these demands were met, grew more and more incredible. Gothic architecture grew more decorative. The stone ribs of the ceilings, for example - at first a beautiful structural way of adding support to vaults while satisfying the need for the eye to move without awkward interruption from floor up the columns to the center of the arching ceiling - took on

a life of their own. In the end, it was as if the stone ribs could never be fanciful or decorative enough.

Yet for all their structural and practical origins, these slenderly curving ribs were even at the outset in conflict with the inert, gravity-bound, block-and-mass character of the quarried stone itself. Such pliant linearity belongs more truly to the stems of plants or the branches of growing trees, than to masonry. But by the time Gothic had developed into such fancies as the roof of Henry VII's chapel at Westminster or the cloisters at Gloucester, stone was being made to look like a multiplicity of t wigs or the delicate intricacies of lace. Something similar was happening to the tracery of windows, particularly rose windows, as Gothic architecture "progressed" (or declined, depending on one's aesthetic view).

Wim Swaan, discussing Rheims Cathedral (also built in place of a burnt-down predecessor, but beginning later, in 1210) describes a change from the stone tracery in the windows at Chartres. "At Chartres the shapes of the lancet and rose had been punched out of the solid wall surface, as from a plate. At Rheims they are separated by light members, constructed independently, and the `plate tracery' of Chartres has given way to the first `bar tracery,' opening a world of new possibilities: In the dexterous h ands of the Gothic stonemason tracery would be bent and twisted to trace the filigree outline of a multipetalled flower, to branch into a thousand twigs, or flicker like tongues of flame."

The architects of Gothic cathedrals - or master masons - were in an effective position to make the working masons under them carry out such extraordinary demands, since they had, it is believed, worked their way up through the ranks. They were elevated masons. At the same time, there must have been an astonishing degree of rapport, of ambition and imagination, between them and their ecclesiatical masters in the church itself.

It would be misleading to conclude that the maturing of the Gothic cathedral was the result of developing engineering skill alone. The primary demands came from ecclesiastical visionaries who conceived their church buildings as glorious visual symbols of the divine. Proportion and a love of geometry were part and parcel of the intellectual atmosphere out of which these medieval monuments grew, and God was seen as the architect of the universe to be emulated in these temples.

As one new cathedral followed another in the comparative short space of time in which the Gothic developed, one of their most potent symbolic aims is clear enough. Today we would call it "lift off." The height of the vaults was not just a constructional feat; it was intended to be an exaltation heavenwards.

In order of construction, the vaults of Laon Cathedral were 79 feet, of Notre-Dame in Paris 110 feet. Chartres rose to 114 feet, while Rheims went up to 125 feet. Amiens beat them all with a height of 139 feet.

In "Civilisation," art historian Kenneth Clark, with his special capacity for singing praises, called the Gothic style "one of the most remarkable of human achievements."

He goes on: "Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture, say the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground.... He had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight.... Now by the devices of the Gothic style - the shaft with its cluster of columns, passing without interruption into the vault and the pointed arch - he could make stone seem weightless: The weightless expression of his spirit."

And the people who should be celebrated - and not forgotten - for the actual carrying out of this remarkable achievement, are the ones who hit chisels with mallets.

* First in a two-part series on Gothic cathedrals. Tomorrow: stained glass.

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