Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gothic Cathedrals

In the Middle Ages, religion was the central, organizing force of society. But there was one problem: how does a religion organized around a book and the stories it tells exist in a mostly illiterate society? By telling the stories in other forms. In fact, the Church retained control of the stories exactly by keeping them from the masses; Bibles were written in Latin, so someone had to first know Latin before learning to read it – and the only people (generally) who could do both were clerics, trained by the church. So only educated clerics could read the Bible stories themselves, but everyone else could “read” them in the churches they entered every week, in stained glass, statues, and wall painting.

In the middle of the 12th century, a new development in church architecture, now called Gothic, arose that allowed churches more window room to tell their stories, while at the same time providing an inspiring space that drew worshippers’ attention to God. Gothic architecture evolved from Romanesque, primarily in France, England, and Germany. Myriad stained glass windows both let in light and tell Bible stories to parishoners; in hotter climates such as Italy, Gothic architecture didn’t flourish because church designers were trying to keep the sunlight and heat out of the church rather than let it in. Both the height and the wall space for windows were acheived by using pointed arches rather than rounded ones, and with flying buttresses that took the forces of the roof to the outside, allowing the walls to be thinner and lighter. After a century of experiments (not all of which worked out), masons learned how to make the walls taller and thinner than in the early Gothic churches, allowing more glass and a more soaring central space, resulting in an almost magical space very different from the worshippers’ daily surroundings.

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