Medieval skyscrapers - Gothic cathedral giants

In the Middle Ages, the main role of constructing thick walls was to hold the heavy roofing, which had a drawback: little natural light could enter in the buildings through the relatively small windows. Strangely, the Gothic architectural innovations that brought the role of light to the fore were not inspired by practical aspects primarily, but by theological views and the descriptions of the celestial city found in the Book of Revelation. It says that at the end of the world, a city will descend from heavens; a city with high walls decorated with colourful gemstones, which has golden roads, where the shining of divine glory will be seen.


Revelation of the celestial city

2014_2218_b.jpgThe central element of medieval Christian architects’ life goal was the life after earthly life, getting into heaven. But beyond that, contemporary theologians believed – following Aurelius Augustine – that the created world reflects God’s glory (just like churches do). Theology professor Arnold Angenendt thinks that this is also the point of the Gothic. With the “mesmerizing magic” of amazing lights and colourful glasses, they evoke heaven, the image of the coming celestial city and the wonder of the apocalypse, when according to their faith, the wonderful power and glory of God will shine through the whole world. 

„I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven” (…) „And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. .”  - 21:1-2, 10-12 Book of Revelation

Gothic architects recognised that the architectural-artistic realisation of the vision about shining golden glory could be solved by sunbeams shining through windows, thus by building large windows. The first appearance of the Gothic is related to the building of the Saint Denis Abbey in France in the 12th century, and to Abbot Suger, who identified light with the presence of God (mainly for theological reasons):

“Work shines nobly, writes Abbot Suger about the church. This nobly shining work may enlighten souls, so that they can get to the true clarity by the true light, where the true door is Christ.”

Besides that Abbot Suger was convinced that religious buildings should radiate God’s glory through the decorations and glitter as well, a popular theological work in Saint-Denis also had a great role (according to French medieval historian Georges Duby) in the fact that light came to the fore architecturally. It was the treatise Theoligica Mystica, which claims that God is light. This doctrine comes from the Bible originally. 

„This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” - 1:5 the 1st Letter of John


Beyond the theological hints to light, a certain part of the Book of Revelation, the descriptions of the colourful gemstone adornments of the celestial city could serve as inspiring sources for the concept of decorating with colourful glasses. From his own notes we know that Abbot Suger raved about the ornaments of the church so much that he felt an almost spiritual experience when he dealt with it:

"When my love towards decorating God’s house and the colourful beauty of stones distanced me from other worries, I felt like floating above the ground, as if I had been born in a higher sphere.” 

The role of peaked arches and piers

ptszeti_stlusok0001Copy_c.jpgTo build bigger windows they needed thinner walls, thus the Gothic architects identified the load bearer lines and they loaded weight on piers and frames instead of thick walls. The challenge was that in case of classic Roman arches, where the headstone exerts sideward power, the pillars slid apart at a certain height and the ceiling crashed in. The French engineers discovered that if they built peaked arches, the power exerted by the headstone would burden towards the lower part of the pillars. Because of that, the pillars could carry more weight, the arches could be higher and the church could be bigger, while the significant part of its walls might consist of windows. However, they found that when they had built too large windows and too high buildings, their construction often collapsed, despite the technical innovations; and when piers were built, they decreased the light getting into the building. Master builders found a solution finally: they strengthened the walls with piers and supporting arches, which solved the structural problem, meanwhile the amount of light was not diminished either.


Medieval visualizations and earthquake-resistant cathedrals

128389_b.jpgHowever, medieval cathedrals are not absolutely earthquake-resistant buildings (for example their ceiling might be damaged), but their towers are in most cases. The Cologne Cathedral is a good example for that, which survived – during the past couple of hundred years – more than 120 earthquakes that their modern peers did not. How could it be possible for the Cologne Cathedral to swing like a pendulum in case of an earthquake, which swallows power of the earthquake? The answer is hidden in the ideal division of weight. A base built from 120 thousand tons of rock in the soft sandy soil, which goes down 16 metres, made it possible; and it equals with the basing deepness of skyscrapers like the Empire State Building in New York. It is a mystery whether this foretimed technical solution was due to the natural scientific knowledge of architects or it was just the result of coincidental circumstances. Our information pieces related to the details of medieval architecture are deficient, because contemporary plans – the plan of the Cologne Cathedral for instance, which was created in the 13th century – do not contain descriptions and explanations. Among others this is the reason why it is so difficult to reconstruct buildings like the Notre Dame de Paris to near original condition. Because these plans were more like visualizations, whose main goal was, instead of technical aims, to recruit financial supporters.

Erdélyi Károly

Translated by Zita Aknai