The Gothic transition: “useless art”

Considering the transition from Romanesque architecture into Gothic, it is humbling that this transition took place not necessarily out of a practical concern, but out of a desire to bring glory to God with every means available, to set apart a space for the sacred. Of course, it can be argued the worshippers wanted allow more light to enter the church by expanding the size of the windows, or that they wanted to expand the size of the space to accommodate more people at once. While those may indeed be legitimate reasons for explaining this transition, we know that such “utilitarian” concerns were not the only ones motivating the innovators and architects behind l’art Gothique. It is very easy to get caught up in the functionality of Gothic cathedrals, to become so preoccupied with how they work that one forgets why they are designed to work that way.

The desire to make heighten the vaulting ceiling of the cathedral, to dramatically direct the beholder upwards; the desire to raise the arches over the windows, to allow more light in because of its symbolic significance; the desire to expand the cathedral outwards to stand as a monument to God’s glory, and indeed, to allow more worshippers to gather together at once in a single sacred space.

These vaulting ceilings were accommodated by the invention of la croisée d’ogines, a technique in which two vaults intersect and are bound by ribs and the ceiling itself is made to support more of the weight of its bulk, as opposed to the weight being placed upon the rampart-style walls of Romanesque architecture. Similarly, the arched windows no longer support themselves, subject to their position in the “rampart” walls. Strong arches provide support in a way that allows the windows to be dramatically heightened to allow a magnificent amount of light, plus they serve as a canvas for stained glass, allowing a greater expanse of iconographic representation to immerse the worshipper in the great story. Finally, l’arc-boutant provides external support for the high, thin, glassed walls of the structure.

In each of these cases, the structural symbology is powerful. In contrast to a Romanesque church, a Gothic structure relies upon its ribbed, vaulted ceiling–that is, its covering–for its support, and of course this draws the viewer directly upwards. Similarly, the high, delicate glass windows are made possible by the strength of the overhead arching support — yet another symbol of overhead covering. The flying buttresses which provide external support to the arched, glass walls symbolize a complete reliance on something other, something outside of the self, for its existence.

All of these advancement in Gothic architecture serve to direct the viewer upwards and outwards. We are drawn out of ourselves, up to God by the experience of such a sacred space, and the physics reflects this. But we must remember that all of these seemingly “useful” or “utilitarian” means to achieve the end of “a bigger, brighter, better cathedral” are actually useless. This does not mean they are purposeless. On the contrary, their purpose is to give glory to God. But they have no material function, other than to set apart a sacred space for God’s glory (cf. Exodus 28).

As Abbot Suger writes: “The dull mind rises to the truth through material things.”


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