July 17, 2014
An Art Analysis of the Gothic Church
There are many Gothic churches/cathedrals around Europe. When you think of a church in Paris you think of Notre Dame but there are others. The church I chose to talk about is “The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, known as the first Gothic structure and was developed in the 12th century by Abbot Suger. The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of St Denis, provided an architectural model for the cathedrals and abbeys in northern France, England, and other countries” (The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis ). The church was a place of pilgrimage and burial ground of French kings. Located in the northern part of Paris, the beauty of the cathedral with its stained glass windows, its soaring vaulted arches, and the tombs of French kings and queens is something to behold. “The church is commemorated to Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who was beheaded at Montmartre and according to tradition carried that head several miles before expiring. An earlier church was dedicated to his memory and a monastery has been at this location since the 7th century” (Sullivan). “In the 12th century, Abbot Suger rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features that were drawn from a number of sources, resulting in the first truly Gothic building. Two architects who worked under Abbot Suger’s direction remain uncredited, identified only by their unique stylistic contributions. Suger’s masons drew on the new elements which had or been introduced to Romanesque architecture: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. This was the first time these features had been brought together” (The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis). In Paris, I arrived at the western façade (the face of a building, especially the front) of the Cathedral Basilica of St Denis and marveled at the sheer height and size of it. The façade had three portals or large doors. Above that was a small rose window. “The tall structure only had one tower because the other tower was demolished after it was unsuccessfully restored” (Sullivan). Even with that one remaining tower the building was still amazing. Upon observing the church I noticed that “the façade featured some elements from Gothic (pointed arches) and Romanesque (round arches)” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). The portals and windows of the façade had rounded arches. Before entering the church I took notice of the three portals. The portals were carved tympanum, a semi-circular decorative wall. “For Abbot Suger the three portals represented the Trinity” (Sullivan). “The central portal represents the Last Judgment with a Christ in majesty showing his wounds to the dead rising from their tombs” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). The arch of the central portal really depicts how important it was to be bound to the church, convincing people that if you are good then you will go to heaven and scaring them with the disturbing hellish scene in the arch. “The left portal has relief sculptures of the zodiac. The right portal depicts the scenes from the martyrdom of St Denis” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). “It shows the labors of the months” (Sullivan). The right portal is helpful because it depicts what labors were done based on the season. Once I was inside, I was stunned and mesmerized by this Gothic church. The nave or central part of the church was three stories high and had a vaulted ceiling. A vault is a roof in the form of an arch or a series of arches. A Gothic vault is constructed using pointed ribs (arches). “The ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses take on the weight of the roof, freeing wall-space for larger window bays” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). A buttress is a structure that supports a wall or building from the outside. “The nave featured two lower aisles and the high windows which bring outside light to the inside of the church” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). The lower aisles feature clustered columns, ribbed vault ceilings, and rows of windows. When I first entered the church and looked at the left aisle, I noticed that light was not coming through the window because the windows were attached to the wall. The Gothic church is already flooded in lights by the stained glass windows above, so it is almost unnecessary to add more. The nave was supported by soaring, large clustered columns with pointed arches. The clustering columns look like multiple beams constructed together to make a single column. I think clustered columns are cool. They are different and more unique than columns in Romanesque churches. The first time I ever saw a clustered column was in a Harry Potter movie at the Gothic styled castle Hogwarts. A pointed arch is an arch with a pointed crown. I believe that clustered columns and pointed arches fit well together. A round arch cannot compete with the massive column. It would not complement the style. Besides the aisle chairs, there are few objects in the nave. But with the openness of the nave and light colored glass windows, you get a better sense of the massiveness of the church. The Abbey church of St Denis is known for its beautiful stained glass windows. Stained glass windows could be set into walls admitting light through expanses of stained glass. Light was a religiously important element for Gothic cathedrals. The stained glass is spectacular, and the windows were in colors of purple, blue, and red. “Above each arm of the transept, two wide rose windows were placed, similar to those in Notre Dame” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). A transept crosses the main body creating a shape of a cross in the floor plan of the church. A rose window is a circular window divided into segments by stone mullions and tracery. The rose window made me think of an exotic purple flower. The lighting from the stained glass windows reflected off the cathedral walls and alter, bathing everything in stunning rainbows. The colors reminded me of the illustrated book Rainbow Fish that I read in my childhood. I felt transported, like it was heaven on earth, which is what churches represented during those times. I can imagine a person in the Middle Ages entering the church and being in awe of the magnificent windows. ‘“The abbey is often referred to as the “royal necropolis of France” as it is the site where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries. Marble statues of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution, those tombs were opened and the bodies were moved to mass graves”’ (The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis). “The tombs of the kings and queens of France are placed mainly in the nave” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). Sculptures of the royals were made out of marble. Overtime the sculptures became more detailed and realistic. I heard of this tomb, but I was not sure which church it was. I knew of it because it houses the famous memorials of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the famous last queen of France before the revolution. It is remarkable that this church has housed French monarchs for centuries. Some of the statues lying on the tomb have their hands sculpted together as if they were praying. All of them looking like Medusa had turned them not into stone but marble. The realistic sculpture shows us what the kings and queens looked like. The sculptures are not just sculptures, but are pieces of art. While I was standing in the choir, light was pouring in through the windows surrounding it. The choir is the part of a cathedral or church between the alter and the nave, used by the choir and the clergy. “Abbot Suger wanted a choir that would be suffused with light. Suger wanted open space to allow light to flood in” (The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis). The ambulatory is a place for walking, especially an aisle around the apse or a cloister in the church. Suger used the new elements for the reconstruction. “The churches choir is generally considered to be the birthplace of Gothic architecture because of the innovative rib vaults resting on pointed arches in both the ambulatory and the chapels. Springing from slender columns in the ambulatory and from thin masonry walls between the chapels, these light vaults allow for the elimination of the walls between the chapels as well as lessoning the need for such weight-bearing outer walls so that they can now be filled with stained glass” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). I lifted my head when I was under the ambulatory and noticed a web of pointed vaults (a roof in the form of a series of arches). “The ribbed vault has crossed or diagonal arches under its groins which form the armature of skeletal framework for constructing the vault” (Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica). The ribs (arches) and vaulting above are vertical, like the majority of the churches ceiling. I believe that it is constructed that way because it gave a sense for humans having a closer reach to heaven. The Abbey Church of St Denis is known as the first Gothic cathedral/church and its influence spread across Europe. That does not mean that there are no differences between those other cathedrals/churches. The famous Notre Dame Cathedral was inspired by the Gothic architecture but it is not completely the same. I know some information on Notre Dame, so I am able to compare the two cathedrals. I noticed that the Abbey Church does not have any bells but Notre Dame does. The outside of Notre Dame has gargoyle statues and the church doesn’t. In my opinion, I think that the sharp spire on top of the church is not as dramatic looking as other Gothic churches. “With the Abbey church’s display of funerary sculptures of kings and queens of France, the Cathedral Church of St Denis is one of the most important royal necropolises in Europe.” There is a big difference between Gothic architecture and Romanesque. “Romanesque architecture contained both Roman and Byzantine elements.” From what I can recall, Romanesque churches walls are solid, with small windows which makes the church dark inside. The Abbey Churches interior is illuminated by its stained glass windows. Romanesque arches are round while the Gothic churches are pointed, excluding the round arch portal at the façade of the church. The Abbey Church of St Denis, or the Basilica of St Denis, is an architectural landmark, the first major structure that is designed and built in the Gothic Style. Both stylistically and structurally, it led the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture. Not only has the church played a role in the history of France, it played a crucial role in the history of architecture. It certainly is a fascinating and extraordinary structure that certainly should never be forgotten. Works Cited
"Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica | French Moments." French Moments RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2014. <http://www.frenchmoments.eu/saint-denis-basilica/?nggpage=2>. Sullivan, Mary Ann."Images of Basilica of St. Denis, Paris." Images of Basilica of St. Denis, Paris. Bluffton University, n.d. Web. 16 July 2014. <http://www.bluffton.edu/~Sullivanm/france/paris/stdenis/index.html>. "The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis - Boundless Open Textbook." Boundless. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2014. <https://www.boundless.com/art-history/gothic-art/french-gothic-art/the-abbey-church-of-saint-denis/>.