The Gothic Cathedral: Height, Light, and Color

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Editors: Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,695 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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The Gothic cathedral was one of the most awe-inspiring achievements of medieval technology. Architects and engineers built churches from skeletal stone ribs composed of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses to create soaring vertical interiors, colorful windows, and an environment celebrating the mystery and sacred nature of light. Based on empirical technology, the medieval cathedral provided the Middle Ages with an impressive house of worship, a community center, a symbol of religious and civic pride, and a constant reminder of the power and presence of God and the church.


The growing impact and power of the Christian church in western Europe after the fall of Rome in 400 influenced church architecture. In Mediterranean Europe where sunny skies and hot summer days mandated buildings with small window space and thick walls, the Romanesque style dominated church architecture. However, in the northern and western regions of the continent, cloudy days and less intense summer heat were common so designers developed a style that attempted to maximize interior light and uninterrupted interior heights. Architects sought a style that would provide larger windows to illuminate the buildings' interiors. Because a cathedral nave flooded with light would have a dramatic effect on the faithful, vast window space became a necessary characteristic of the Gothic style and responded to one of the goals of a growing and dominant religion in the medieval era.

The Crusades also affected the development of the Gothic style. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought with them many relics, and church fathers wanted to display these holy objects prominently. Devout Christians often undertook several pilgrimages in a lifetime; because hordes of pilgrims paid homage to these relics the numbers of worshipers entering those churches increased intensifying the need for a greater amount of interior light and space.

The use of light as a factor in worship and in understanding the mystical paralleled another chief goal of the medieval cathedral builder: the pursuit of greater and greater interior heights. At a time when religion dominated everyday life and when the faithful spent an average of three days a week at a worship service, church leaders sought an architectural style which created a sense of awe, a sense of the majesty and power of God for anyone who entered the church. Waging a constant battle against gravity, master masons, who both designed and built these cathedrals, wanted to create as much uninterrupted vertical space as possible in their stone structures. These soaring heights provided a dramatic interior which served to reinforce the power of the church.

Medieval master masons used three architectural devices to create the Gothic style: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the flying buttress. The pointed arch, a style that diffused to the West from the Arabic world, permitted the use of slender columns and high, large open archways. These stone arches were essential in the resultant stone bays that provided the basic support system for a Gothic cathedral freeing the area between arches from supporting the building. For the church's interior, these "curtain walls" added to the delicacy, openness, light and verticality of the space. The curtain walls on the building's exterior were filled with glass, often stained or colored glass, conveying some biblical or other sacred tales.

The use of ribbed vaults for cathedral ceilings complemented the pointed arch as an architectural element. By carrying the theme of slender stone members from the floor through the ceiling, ribbed vaults reinforced the sense of height and lightness in the building. In a visual and structural sense, these vaults connected several stone columns throughout the building, emphasizing the interconnected stone elements which produced a skeletal frame that was both visually dramatic and structurally elegant.

The flying buttress completed the trio of unique Gothic design elements. In essence, this kind of buttress, typically used on the exterior of a church, supplemented the structural strength of the building by transferring the weight of the roof away from the walls onto these exterior elements surrounding the edifice. Often added as a means of addressing a problem of cracking walls in an existing building, these buttresses were incorporated so artfully into the exterior design of the cathedral that they became a hallmark of the Gothic style. By freeing the walls from supporting much of the weight of the cathedral roof, the flying buttress allowed medieval architects to pursue their goal of reaching ever greater interior heights.

The combination of these new architectural elements, which defined the Gothic style, along with the Church's interest in increased interior light, space, and height, resulted in a new technology heavily influenced by religion. Religion's goals provided the impetus for a daring empirical technology; at the same time, technological methods allowed the church to achieve an innovative awe-inspiring space within a new architectural style.


The Abbot Suger of St.-Denis near Paris first promoted the Gothic style in medieval France. As the leading French cleric of his time, Suger headed the mother church of St. Denis with its strong ties to the French crown. When he sought to transform that church into an impressive center for pilgrimages and royal worship, he turned to the emerging Gothic style. Gothic elements would allow him to create a building with soaring heights, with curtain walls to fill with stories and lessons in glass, and with a display of light used to represent mystery and divinity. For Suger, the Gothic style created a transcendental aura, a theology of light and he hailed it as "[the]ecclesiastical architecture for the Medieval world." Suger's architectural preferences spread throughout France so effectively that the country became home to the most impressive and successful Gothic cathedrals. His notion that architecture could serve as theology appealed to the Church with its great influence over a mass of illiterate believers. The Gothic cathedral became a huge edifice of stories, signs, and symbols filled with church teachings and lessons for any who passed by or entered these churches. For many people of the Middle Ages, the cathedral became the poor man's Bible.

The cathedral itself was a citadel of symbols. The orientation of the building usually positioned the altar facing east toward the Holy Land with the floor plan in the shape of a cross. Exteriors contained sculptural elements representing both sacred and secular themes. A depiction of the Last Judgment often adorned the west portal so all who entered were reminded of their ultimate fate. Usually, the west portal also consisted of three entryways to mirror the doctrine of the Trinity. Interiors contained rose and other stained glass windows with the same mix of the sacred and the secular scenes present on the exterior. Rose windows themselves served as representations of infinity, unity, perfection, and the central role of Christ and the Virgin Mary in the life of the Church. The interplay of geometry and light in rose windows and the special qualities of changing color tones and glowing window glass in all of the stained glass windows created a visual experience with mystical and magical qualities that transported a viewer into a world far different from his or her mundane medieval surroundings. Sculptures within, along with paintings, tapestries, and geometric patterns in columns and walls, added to the teaching environment; inside a cathedral one could not escape being exposed to lessons or stories. Add to these the awe one felt by the great interior heights and the cathedral's impact was overwhelming, reinforcing the church's power and influence in the medieval world.

In addition to its role as a center of church lessons, the cathedral served as a source of community pride. Often the largest structure in a city or town, the church served as community center, theater, concert hall, circus ring, and meeting place. The cathedral at Amiens in northern France, for example, could house the entire population of the city. Often sited on the highest point in a city or in the city center, the cathedral dominated the cityscape. With its soaring towers and spires it could be seen for miles around and became a symbol of a city much as skyscrapers or tall monuments define cities in modern society. Because the cathedral was a source of civic as well as religious pride, cities vied with each other to build the largest or the tallest churches. As a multi-purpose structure, the cathedral served as much more than a house of worship.

Anyone who visits an extant Gothic cathedral today quickly understands the impact it had on medieval life, religion, and technology. Just as religion dominated the era, the cathedrals themselves dominated, and continue to dominate, much of the landscape of western Europe leaving no question regarding the major force in people's lives.

For example, Gothic cathedrals commanded the physical landscape with interior and exterior heights not matched until the late nineteenth century. External central cathedral towers rising as high as 450 feet (137 m) and uninterrupted interior space of 130-160 feet (40-49 m) from floor to ceiling overwhelm modern visitors much as they did medieval worshipers centuries ago.

Because Christianity reigned over every aspect of medieval society, the sacred and the secular became intertwined so that a cathedral played, and continues to play, both ecclesiastical and civic roles. With so much interior space, it remains the center for many special occasions as well as regular church activities.

Likewise, the cathedral as a marvel of an empirical technology, using relatively simple tools and skilled craftsmen aided by a large labor force, remains an impressive example of the interaction of technology and religion. That linkage has had an impact so strong in the Western world that the Gothic style has become synonymous with church architecture. The neo-Gothic style appears in many churches, and even skyscrapers, built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Standing today as reminders of a historical era, the Gothic cathedrals provide insights into the power of religion, the achievements of technology, and the role of civic pride and responsibility. Their impact has endured over the centuries and continues to inspire awe in both the sacred and the secular worlds just as they did when these magnificent stone structures were first built in the Western world several centuries ago.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2643450147