The birth of Gothic: building heaven on earth

How did the elements of what we now call Gothic come together in medieval Europe? Emma J Wells takes us back to this great age of cathedral-building, when masons set out to replicate heaven here on earth.


Across medieval Europe, people of all ages and backgrounds united in daily labours that echoed the biblical construction of Babel’s great ‘tower with its top in the heavens’, as described in Genesis. They harnessed themselves like animals to wagons, dragging stone from quarries and hauling wood, grain, and other provisions, while an ever-present hum of song reverberated off the stones as they toiled. All this effort was to build the great Gothic cathedrals.

As the churches physically rose from the ground during this building fever, so too they grew in prominence and appearance. Usurping the ‘Romanesque’ – that solid, robust, earthbound architecture indebted to classical antecedents – the great age of cathedral-building in Europe’s Middle Ages would become associated, stylistically, with something quite different, summed up in a single word: ‘Gothic’. No one called it that at the time, however. In the 16th century, critics scoffed at this architectural approach, identified with the barbarian ‘Goths’ of the Germanic lands, who had overthrown the culture of ancient Rome in the 4th to 5th century AD. In 1550, the ‘Father of Art History’, Giorgio Vasari, lambasted the style as ‘monstrous, barbarous and disorderly’, whose ‘vulgarity’ contrasted starkly with Greek and Latin sources. In reality, Gothic had nothing to do with Goths. But as a description of a coherent set of stylistic approaches and the era in which they thrived, ‘Gothic’ retained its potency and currency. Indeed, it is now virtually inseparable from our image of the word ‘cathedral’.

The interior of the Abbey Church of St-Denis, just outside Paris. It was here, during renovation work from 1137, that already existing elements of what we now call Gothic – including the pointed arches and ribbed vaulting shown here – were brought together as a ‘unified whole’.

Of course, the Gothic style did not explode, fully formed. Much Romanesque remained, particularly the round arch, fundamentally based on the mathematics of a circle. Change began with one French visionary, who has, for the past century or so, been credited as the ‘Father of Gothic’. That man was Abbot Suger of the Abbey Church of St-Denis, located just a few miles north of Paris. The church was the custodian of and depository for the regalia for French coronations that took place at Reims, so naturally its abbot commanded a significant place in the political and royal scene. It was no surprise then that during the renovation of St-Denis from 1137, Suger looked to a style that proclaimed the church’s central importance to the still fledgling French realm of the Capetian kings. Suger’s (and his builders’) quest for innovation resulted in, among other things, the pointed arch, which was both stronger and more flexible than its rounded counterpart. And yet, the pointed arch was nothing new. The world had seen it before – it was in widespread use in the Sasanian Empire (AD 224–651) in Persia, for example. Adopted again in the 12th century, however, the pointed arch allowed buildings to be raised to once-impossible heights, in a new era of expectation where nothing under 100m would be considered fitting for a House of God. Although Suger’s master mason is unknown to us (whether by chance or purpose), between mason and abbot a new combination of styles was shaped.

Chartres was also renovated after a fire in 1134, with a new great western entrance flanked by two square towers (shown here). Flying buttresses that allowed the cathedral to reach soaring heights are visible along the outside wall on the left.

Maximum height and maximum light were core aims of the Gothic style, and both required fundamental reinforcement. Plenty of light floods in through the tall, lancet window, but windows are structurally weak. So, to be able to reach soaring heights while still creating the impression of delicacy, cathedral-builders needed something else: the flying buttress. The arched supports of these buttresses, like outstretched limbs, came to line the exterior of Gothic cathedrals. They allowed walls to continue to climb and expansive stained-glass windows to be inserted in them. The stone rib-vaulted roof made up of small diagonal arches is another archetypal feature of Gothic. This too is found at St-Denis, albeit at a somewhat modest height. But as the sophistication of vaulting grew, it became possible to build ceilings bigger, higher, and stronger than before. And so this unique, Gothic combination of architectural ingredients came together.

This is the standard narrative of the birth of Gothic. Yet the true picture is more complex. Builders had been applying pointed arches and simple mouldings to existing thick Romanesque structures in England, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Spain for years, and, across the Iberian Peninsula, Islamic and Moorish masons had erected elaborate structures – all unaware that they were the apparent missionaries of the elements of a so-called ‘Gothic’ style. In reality, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were a blend of imitation and invention, and St-Denis was merely the earliest assemblage of all the component ‘Gothic’ parts. Builders at St-Denis combined existing techniques towards creating a ‘unified whole’, as Abbot Suger himself implied. That much was new: hence Suger referred to Gothic as ‘modern’ (opus modernum). In some ways, it was specifically French, so others dubbed it opus francigenum – ‘French work’. Nonetheless, a hunger for innovation and rivalry continued to propel Gothic towards ever more extreme schemes.

The corona of Canterbury Cathedral, a small rotunda chapel to house a fragment of the skull of recent martyr St Thomas Becket, was built by William the Englishman, who served as master mason from 1178. PHOTO: Emma Wells.

Nearby Chartres was no exception. Following a fire in 1134, work began on a new west end for the cathedral. Bishop Geoffroy de Lèves was fortunate to have as his friend that very ingenious abbot and he closely observed as Suger tested out Gothic at his own abbey church. Having witnessed the efficacy and vigour of the new architectural concepts at St-Denis, Geoffroy was determined that his own slice of heaven on earth would be a model of excellence in design as well as construction, a fitting expression of Chartres’s slowly growing prestige.

What began to rise, as Geoffroy’s masons set in mortar the pierre blonde (bright limestone), was a new dominating western entrance, sandwiched between two great square towers. From 1145 to 1155, 11 different sculptors carved scenes into the cathedral’s stones, injecting their eclectic styles. This was all for the chief in command, God.

Still, the architectural formula used in Geoffroy’s construction at Chartres was far from innovative. The monastery of St-Martin- des-Champs in Paris (and, of course, St-Denis) also had a skeletal walled structure (or long roofs and short upper storey) like Chartres. A tangible thread still ran through the buildings of northern France. Chartres’s triumph was again in the sum of its component parts. Through a manipulation of existing technologies, Gothic had achieved its ideal, its canon.

The imposing western front of Wells Cathedral is twice as wide as its nave and aisles, and features vast numbers of sculptures, serving as a visual bible.

More was to come. The ‘French work’ was no longer an architectural prodigy, because across Christendom a great number of new Gothic churches was rising from the scaffolding of its army of builders. It infiltrated Norman and native building styles to produce an ‘English’ variation; and then it spread across Europe, pushing the limits of technology and experimentation, as medieval masons were far from resistant to stylistic borrowings and intermingling as they travelled around from project to project.

A crusade to erect cathedrals had already been in full swing across English soil for a century or more, starting with Canterbury in Kent under Archbishop Lanfranc in 1071. Then, in 1174, a conflagration had left Christ Church Cathedral a wreck, demanding reconstruction. An experienced pair of French hands was tasked with reviving England’s pre-eminent church, as, following an international competition, William of Sens was appointed master mason. William had already created some of the grandest religious structures in France, earning him a ‘good reputation’. In 1175, with free rein, this ‘most subtle artisan’ planned an innovative east end for Canterbury in the ‘new’ Gothic style, which was still largely unseen in England. Employing the skill and intellect he had shown in his French projects, William’s plan embraced vaults, an eastern transept, a palatial horseshoe-like apse, and an adjacent ‘corona’, all while retaining as much of the outer walls of the cathedral’s eastern ruins as possible. The corona, a new small rotunda chapel, was virtually a proportional replica of the former church’s eastern inner circle, but, despite the similarity, the space had a new purpose. It was intended to house the severed fragment of crown (corona) sliced off the head of the cathedral’s resident saint: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who had been martyred within the cathedral a few years earlier in December 1170, and canonised in 1173.

William (and his successor from 1178, William the Englishman) shaped the reborn cathedral in an architectural language that combined the modern Gothic style with Canterbury’s local identity. Among his structural alterations was a revolutionary stone skeleton of flying buttresses encasing the eastern exterior, which was replicated from Notre-Dame de Paris. These flying buttresses ameliorated the downward thrust so the new structure could reach a soaring height. The verticality was further enhanced by the triforium gallery and, above that, the clerestory (a high row of windows) that crowned the space. This arrangement was one that had been seen elsewhere – at Laon Cathedral, also in France.

The Decorated west front of Salisbury Cathedral is richly adorned with sculptures in French-inspired canopied niches, contrasting with the plainer Early English interior.

Most significant of all was the cathedral’s interior, where now William the Englishman’s innovations were boundless. He replaced the flat wooden ceiling with sexpartite vaulting. Columns were set in contrasting colours of the most expensive stone available. Smaller shafts of ashen Purbeck were set against light, creamy Caen with exotic (probably Mediterranean) rose-pink marble framing the area in which St Thomas Becket’s new shrine would be situated. This design evoked the opulence of St Edward the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey in London. The columns were also reminiscent of France, with their capitals adorned with restrained foliage like that seen at Notre-Dame de Paris. The incomparable work at Canterbury ensured that the latest style would spread quickly across England, and rival sites soon vied to steal the Gothic crown.

Further west, Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset joined the building spree after a fire in 1184 destroyed the existing building. But while much that was Romanesque continued to characterise other churches in the area, it was Wells that began a different, more Gothic course. By the time its nave was nearing completion in c.1240, the Early English Gothic style had evolved, with its preference for plainer decoration. Yet the ornate motifs once overlooked were gaining distinction throughout the West Country.

The west front of Wells was a true showpiece, twice the width of the church’s nave and aisles, and as wide as the façade of Notre-Dame de Paris. Bookended by two massive towers, it teemed with sculpture. Nowhere else were English masons experimenting with anything but comparatively bare west fronts. The abundance of ornamentation was highly uncharacteristic – as was the adherence to the French system, with a trio of portals engulfed by nearly 300 brightly painted life-size sculptures and a gallery, so that the carved company of heaven appeared replicated here on earth. From floor to roof, the cathedral was a vast bible for the poor and the unliterate, and in glorious technicolour – with carving gilded and painted, inside and out, and reminiscent of the three-dimensional pages of an illustrated manuscript.

The nave of Wells Cathedral, with one of the strainer arches – and their apertures resembling owl eyes – installed by William Joy at the central tower. PHOTO: Emma Wells.

Over in neighbouring Salisbury, the cathedral was now ready to emulate and compete with the decoration of its counterparts, and ostentation became the order of the day, at least on the exterior, and certainly in comparison to what had come before. Inspired by the immense horizontality of Wells’ façade, Salisbury’s workers embarked on their own 33m square ‘screen’ across the exterior of the western end. The initial expectation was for it to have an eclectic combination of austere plainness and Early English touches, like the earlier eastern parts of the church (begun 1220). But plans changed as the shiny new Gothic subcategory later called ‘Decorated’ unfolded at Westminster Abbey. The style had probably been brought across the English Channel by Master Henry de Reyns, who had royal patronage in both France and England, working on the rebuilding of the French coronation church of Reims and then as Master of the King’s Works at Windsor. What emerged across Salisbury’s west front was later described by art historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘perversely unbeautiful’. Decorated layers wrapped around the exterior. Between 75 and 150 figural sculptures, in French-inspired canopied niches, were arranged into these bands of ornamentation and created an elaborate contrast with the interior’s simple lines. Sharp lancet windows pierced every wall, casting a colourful hue across the unpolished mushroom-tinted stone. Below, triple doorways delicately evoked the Holy Trinity, while the façade was capped by images of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, echoing the cathedral’s dedication. It also elegantly suited the demands of its processional rites, especially on Palm Sunday, when the west front was the third and final station of the procession before entry into the church. After almost 40 years of heavy toil, Salisbury Cathedral was dedicated on 30 September 1258.

The Cathedral of St Vitus, St Wenceslaus, and St Adalbert in Prague, commissioned by Charles IV, King of Bohemia. Construction started in 1344, and passed, in 1356, to the inventive Peter Parler.

But English Gothic innovation was far from over. Back at Wells, the late addition of a Decorated-style central tower (erected c.1315-22) was adding unbearable strain to the entire structure – so much so that it was forcing the central crossing to sink, causing cracks, and putting the whole cathedral in danger of collapse. The solution fell to the pragmatic local master mason, William Joy. Joy adopted a tried and tested approach to the eternal struggle between thrust and counterthrust, and one Joy himself had experimented with, about a decade earlier, in the 1320s, over at nearby Salisbury. This was the elegant ‘strainer’ arch, which has been compared to gigantic scissors in appearance, or – because of two round apertures created on either side of the arch – the faces of ‘angry owls’. Three sweeping S-shapes, each stacked one atop the other, together formed a figure ‘X’, at right-angles, under each crossing arch of Wells’ central tower, successfully bracing, stabilising, and ultimately saving the structure. Joy’s bold and ingenious engineering was his making – and his remedy became one of the most famed feats in all English architecture, celebrated across the country.

Having visited France and Italy, and witnessed the great Gothic cathedrals rising before him, Charles IV, King of Bohemia and ‘King of the Romans’, desired that his Master of Works should now duplicate them as an ideal design for his Königskathedrale – royal cathedral – in Prague. The laying of the cathedral’s foundation stone came in 1344, and in 1356 construction reins passed to a young, talented Swabian builder named Peter Parler (Petr Parléř). Parler started his work on this kingly church with the unfinished north side of the choir. What he produced was something never before seen in Bohemia. Parler made great use of dense linear patterning, dynamic play with recesses, fantasy, and invention, perhaps under the influence of the flourishing Decorated movement in western England. Many believe Parler had seen some of these English edifices himself, owing to the apparent familiarity with Joy’s touches at Wells and at the parish church of Ottery St Mary, Devon. But he made the Decorated elements his own in Prague, and his decorative freedom and spatial ingenuity undermined the traditionally flat and vertical conventions of the typical Rayonnant (from the French rayonner, ‘to radiate’) Germanic great church. Parler’s endeavour was soon counted among the most inventive exercises in the design of Gothic elevations.

Gothic cathedrals tell a narrative of faith, intellectual culture, art, politics, and economy, from the arrival of Christianity to the birth of modern science, through to the explosion of secularism and scepticism about the sacred and wider knowledge of the panoply of other belief systems in the contemporary world. Far from barbaric, the sheer invention and variety of their architecture, and the rapidity of the Gothic style’s mutations and proliferation, is proof of the energy and ingenuity of its makers. Nevertheless, like so many fashions, it was to have its day – and, by the 16th century, the old opus modernum was to make way for a new Renaissance. Still, without it, we would have no heaven on earth.

Heaven on Earth: the lives and legacies of the world’s greatest cathedrals by Emma J Wells is published by Head of Zeus in September (price £35; ISBN 978-1788541947).
ALL PHOTOS: Dreamstime, unless otherwise stated.