Sunday, December 30, 2007

Stone Love: The Gothic style

The Gothic style takes elements that were already developed in Romanesque architecture: the flying buttress, ribbed vaults, the pointed arch: and combines them into an innovative integral whole with its own unique aesthetic effect. Gothic architecture is lucid, light, soaring, and bright. The space is opened to the flow of light, lattices and spires stretch heavenward; the effect is transcendent, the church made supraliminal.

When we step outside of the Gothic cathedral, the architectural marvels that give the illusion of lightly floating concrete branches suspended in space within the cathedral are revealed as marvels of human intellect. The emotional effect of the interior is balanced by the intellectual appeal of the exterior; the building gives away its tricks. Nikolaus Pevsner writes: “Like a Bach fugue, a Gothic cathedral demands all of our emotional and intellectual powers. Now we find ourselves lost in the mystical ruby and azure glow of translucent stained glass, and now called back to alert attention by the precise course of think yet adequately strong lines.”

The Gothic style is born with the consecration of the new choir of St. Denis Abbey near Paris in 1144. Constructed at the behest of the Abbot Suger, the architect of the Saint Denis choir is anonymous, in keeping with the anonymity of the medieval craftsman. Nevertheless, he had accomplished something revolutionary: in four short years (1140-1144) he had created a new aesthetic style. The radiating chapels of Saint Denis have no side walls or walls between them and now encircle the ambulatory (the aisle around the apse). The apse is bathed in light, as if in a greenhouse. This is appropriate: unlike the Romanesque, which seems an unmodifiable organic whole, the Gothic cathedral is never complete, always able to branch further upwards.


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