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2. Gothic Architecture |
To let there be light, the builders composed symphonies in stone

Gothic Architecture is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 38, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The visionaries of Gothic married technology to faith, and across western Europe there arose soaring structures that move men toward God

Gothic Architecture - To let there be light, the builders composed symphonies in stone

Gothic Architecture - To let there be light, the builders composed symphonies in stone
Light streams through windows under the vaulted ceiling of St-Denis, bringing to the worshipper the luxurious sense of purity that Abbot Suger intended. The abbot, inspired by the writing of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, saw light as a vehicle of God’s grace.

As anyone could plainly see, a clash between Bernard, the caustic but internationally revered abbot of Clairvaux, and this man Suger (pronounced Soo-jay), the newly appointed Benedictine abbot of St-Denis (pronounced San-Denee), was inevitable. Each had a firm concept of what constituted a fit environment for the worship of God that appeared diametrically at odds with the equally firm concept of the other. Both were men of decision and action, both were very powerful, both knew they were dead right, and both seemed to agree on almost nothing.

Moreover, they came from sharply different backgrounds. Bernard, a member of one of the great noble families of Burgundy, had chosen a monastic life of poverty, chastity, and obedience–and unquestionably lived it. (His story is told in the next chapter.) Nobody seemed to know for sure where Suger came from. By one account he was the son of a poor knight, by another the child of peasant parents, and by yet another the illegitimate son of a former abbot of St-Denis. But by 1122 he had risen to the peak of power in France, was destined to serve as a regent and rule the country brilliantly when King Louis VII went to the Crusades, and had now been named head of the Abbey of St-Denis, shrine of the patron saint of France, where the kings were buried, indeed the visible link between the French royal household and Almighty God.1

As things turned out, both men would leave an imprint on western Europe from that time forward, Bernard through the Cistercian order that he brought to spiritual ascendancy in the twelfth century and would still be active at the end of the second millennium, and Suger, not as a great ruler but as a renowned architectural visionary.

It was no surprise to Suger why Louis had named him to St-Denis. However august its pedigree, the place was, frankly, a wreck. Suger himself cataloged its physical condition: gaping fissures in the walls, damaged columns “threatening ruin,” valuable ivories left to “molder away,” furnishings falling to pieces, finances in chaos with obligations to princely benefactors unfulfilled, revenues being illicitly handed over to favored laymen, tenants on the abbey’s extensive farms being mercilessly oppressed by nearby squires and barons.

As to the abbey’s spiritual condition, that was becoming similarly dilapidated. Before Suger’s appointment Bernard had already deplored St-Denis as a monument of monastic sloth, an “obscenity” cast on the French crown, a “workshop of Vulcan . . . a synagogue of Satan,” the monks wallowing in indolent ease. These problems Suger addressed immediately. He restored “holy order” to the monastery, he writes, “in a peaceable fashion without disturbance of the brethren.” Bernard had had something far more ferocious in mind that would have disturbed the brethren a great deal, but he never pushed this on Suger. Rather, he congratulated him for the improvements made and let it go. Why did he back off? There seems only one explanation: Bernard had asked Suger to intervene with the king regarding an individual with whom Bernard was having problems. The individual was promptly fired. Although Bernard would remain a critic of opulence, he thereafter found no fault at all with the Abbey of St-Denis.

Now, this was very odd. Bernard’s Cistercians were building their abbeys in a style as austere as the life they led. There must be neither towers nor porches, said Bernard, nor polished stones nor costly carvings and paintings, and certainly no gold near the altar. St-Denis, though run down, had never evidenced such austerity, and Suger had had a love affair with the place ever since his boyhood. At nine or ten he had been turned over to the monas-tery by his parents, designated to become a “black monk” of the Benedictine tradition. He found himself being educated along with the future King Louis VI of France, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship, as he later would also do with the king’s son Louis VII.

Hence his rocketing rise in the service of the French crown. Now at age forty or forty-one he would continue to serve the kings of France as abbot of St-Denis. For Suger, St-Denis was the spiritual center of the monarchy, a proper place of pilgrimage. If the glory of the monarchy was to be reflected in St-Denis, it must become the most beautiful, luxurious, and instantly captivating place of worship in the entire West.

He had acquired some definite ideas on how to do this, having been inspired by the descriptions of Justinian’s church Hagia Sophia (pronounced Eye-ya So-fee-ya, Holy Wisdom), in Constantinople, and the biblical description of Solomon’s Temple. He had observed the new Norman churches, where the crossed ribs of the roof carried its weight not to the walls but to columns that conveyed it directly to the ground. He had carefully inspected the new monasteries and churches being built by the Benedictines in Burgundy, where stained glass had been in use for many years, though the windows were never large because that would weaken the walls. More than anything else, however, it was not the building but the writings ascribed in those days to St-Denis himself, patron saint of France, that had enthralled Suger.

He would have heard that there were, indeed, three men named Denis who had been conflated by French tradition–meaning, in this case, legend–into one. There was the aforementioned third-century bishop and martyr, about whom almost nothing is known. There was the Dionysius (the Greek name for Dennis) listed as a convert of St. Paul (Acts 17:34) following Paul’s sermon on the hill called the Areopagus in Athens, about whom nothing more is known. Finally, there was the man known as Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, probably a fifth-century Syrian monk, about whom a great deal is known. This Denis left voluminous records of his theology, a blend of Christianity with Platonic philosophy, all of which was firmly ascribed to St-Denis, the third-century martyr and France’s patron saint, and avidly devoured from boyhood onward by Suger.2

To this Denis, commonly called “the Pseudo-Areopagite,” the chief element through which God discloses himself to men is light. But he gave the word a much broader meaning than mere physical energy, borrowing from Plato the perception of light as the ultimate reality. In the material world it makes biological nature possible. But it also acts through and illuminates our intellect so that we can perceive what is true, good, and beautiful. He identifies this with the “light” portrayed in the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel: “In him [i.e., in Christ] was life, and the life is the light of men,” and “the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Since the contemplation of the material leads the mind to the spiritual, this justified Suger’s encrusting his great rood (cross), chalices, and Gospel covers with gemstones, and it was one of his principal answers to Bernard’s asceticism. Suger reasoned that every segment of a great church should be pervaded by light, and not just daylight or sunlight but light in all shades and colors as it filtered through the stained glass of expansive windows that depicted the figures and events of the Christian faith and its biblical background, with the light from the higher windows drawing the eye upward to the vaulted roofs and the soul upward to God.

But how could this be made possible? The walls of big churches had to be thick and sturdy to bear the weight of the roof. Putting many windows in them would represent a fatal weakness. That was why the old Romanesque churches were of necessity dark and candlelit. Yet the Romanesque buildings were not without their own charm and beauty. The style had spread through Europe in the late tenth century and the eleventh, with its message of sheer massiveness–sturdy piers, large towers, thick walls, and decorative arcading. Because of its round arches, it appeared to be a return to Roman architecture, though much simplified, hence the term “Romanesque.”

It came at a time of unprecedented church growth across Europe, and many Romanesque churches–such as Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, the Baptistery in Florence, and San Zeno Maggiore in Verona–would survive to the end of the second Christian millennium. In England nearly all the twenty-seven cathedrals that went back to early Christian times were begun in the Romanesque period, as in Spain was the famous Santiago de Compostela. In Germany the Rhine and its tributaries were dotted with Romanesque abbeys, and Romanesque churches appeared in Tunisia, Serbia, Hungary, Sicily, Scotland, and Scandinavia.

But with the twelfth century, men like Suger and others in the Paris area realized that the Normans had solved the weight problem with their cross-ribbed vaulted roofs borne by piers. However, the Normans had not yet grasped the full potential of their discovery. Neither had they realized that the round “barrel arches” of their Romanesque churches could be brought to a point at the top, enabling them to carry and disperse a far greater load.

Suger’s mental visions soon began appearing as a physical reality. His ideas found their way into the new choir at St-Denis–that part of a church, later called the chancel, that included the “sanctuary” around the main altar. It was completed in an amazing three years, and no one had seen anything quite like it before. The historian Otto von Simson (The Gothic Cathedral) calls it “one of the epoch-making buildings in the history of architecture.” The entire sanctuary “is pervaded by a wonderful and continuous light.” It was the first church where the facade at the approach to the building was specifically designed “to evoke the idea that the sanctuary is the gate of heaven.” Next came the nave, the main body of the church that accommodates the worshippers. This was a major job that would not be completed until after Suger’s death in 1151.

But he worked on it tirelessly. Though his responsibilities to the king remained heavy, his heart was unquestionably centered on the new St-Denis. A small, unimposing man of short and spare body, he was nevertheless a hands-on manager. When his workmen complained that he was calling for roof beams larger than anything local trees could provide, he spent a sleepless night, then personally searched the nearby forests until he found what he wanted. The work plainly thrilled him, but it was preeminently a spiritual endeavor. On one occasion, writes his twentieth-century biographer Erwin Panofsky (Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis), when he noticed newly made arches tottering dangerously in midair as they were hoisted into position, his solution was a quick “prayer to the holy martyrs.” That saved the day and the arches.

Though he could certainly inspire men, Suger was far from universally beloved. He was “enormously vain,” writes Panofsky, reveled in and boasted about his connections at court, and brazenly recorded his name at thirteen places in the new St-Denis. Nevertheless, infatuated though he was with the gold and jewels that glittered in his church, the tiny cell where he slept, not much bigger than a large cupboard, astonished other monks. In his personal life “he puts us all to shame,” said Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny.

However vain, he also developed close personal friendships, one in particular. That was Bernard, who through Suger’s stream of letters to him came to accept that for people who were not monks, beauty is essential to inspire the worship of God. But the influence worked both ways. From Bernard’s new Cistercian abbeys Suger discovered and adopted the beauty manifested in simple geometric patterns and symmetry, a beauty that also found its way into the new St-Denis. On his deathbed Suger pleaded for “one last visit” by Bernard. Bernard had to tell his “dearest and most intimate friend” that he could not come, and he prayed for the dying man’s blessing. If, as Jesus had said, one can identify his servants because they love one another (John 13:35), here, surely, was a case in point.

But could Suger be called the “Father of Gothic,” the role mid-twentieth- century historians assigned to him? No, writes Lindy Grant in a more recent biography (Abbot Suger of St-Denis). “Suger’s position as patron of a seminal building is unassailable. But assessments as to his real involvement range right across the spectrum from those who have seen Suger as the creator of Gothic to those who see his own contribution as little more than paymaster. The truth, as we might expect, lies somewhere between the two.” Without doubt, Gothic was far bigger than Suger and far bigger than France.

Even so, two other of Suger’s friends would begin adopting his revolutionary architectural ideas and spreading them throughout the immediate area of Paris, known as the Ile-de-France. Thence they would reach all France and most of western Europe. This first became apparent in the new cathedral at Sens, where Suger’s longtime colleague the volatile Archbishop Henry, swayed by the preaching of Bernard, had abandoned his courtly life and worldly ways and had proclaimed himself “converted” to Christlike austerity. He modeled his own new church on that of St-Denis, and Sens became the first of the new cathedrals.3

Not far away, another Suger colleague, the bishop of Chartres Geoffrey of Leves, who reputedly helped bring about the “conversion” of Archbishop Henry, was in personality nothing like his convert. Gentle and learned, he brought the works of the School of Chartres in theology, philosophy, and literature to such international renown that they reached across Europe and even, it was said, into Islam. Geoffrey, too, was among the first to discern the power of Suger’s vision and worked it into the new facade and western tower then under way at Chartres.

There were other more substantial emulators. In the eleven years before Suger died, construction began on two new cathedrals, at Noyon and Senlis in Picardy, followed in four years by a third at Laon. Then Louis VII, deeming it essential that Paris have such a cathedral of its own, began the project in 1163. Thus, Notre Dame of Paris came into being. Tours was started seven years later, and four years after that an architect named William, a layman who had worked on Henry’s project at Sens, was commissioned by Canterbury, the archepiscopal center in southern England, to rebuild Christ Church Cathedral, which had been destroyed by fire. The Gothic vision had crossed the Channel.

Fire also accounted for what is almost universally regarded as the greatest architectural triumph of the whole movement, in particular for the technical innovation it initiated. On the night of June 10, 1194, a blaze broke out in Chartres that destroyed most of the town and most of the cathedral. More serious still, it was assumed to have destroyed the relic that made Chartres one of the most sacred sites in all Christendom. For here, it was generally and fervently believed, was preserved the very tunic that the Virgin had worn when she gave birth to Jesus. Without the tunic and without the cathedral, it was thought, Chartres as a city was doomed.

How boundless therefore was the joy of the faithful when amidst the ruins the tunic was found and declared authentic. This could mean only one thing: Blessed Mary herself had seen a purpose in the fire. Clearly, she wanted a new cathedral of the new visionary design. Thus it was decided that Notre Dame of Chartres must be Europe’s most beautiful church. Although the costs would be astronomical, far greater than any other public project in the Middle Ages, everyone would contribute to it. In 1194 the great work was begun, with money streaming in from all over France and beyond.4

The builders faced a daunting task. Expectations were soaring, not only those of the people, but also (in the view of just about everybody) of the Virgin Mary herself, who, to the medieval mind, was there, an invisible but living presence, watching the work as it progressed. What would she think if they failed? They did not fail, however, proving equal to this challenge by a masterstroke of architectural ingenuity. By the crossed ribs in the vaulted roofs, they had been able to channel the weight of the roof to slender columns that took it to the ground. But as their churches rose higher, the thrust on the columns was not only downward but also outward. Too much height and the columns would buckle, collapsing the whole structure. The solution became known as the “flying buttress,” an arch-shaped stone support that transferred the outward thrust from the exterior of the building to a freestanding pier conveying it to the ground. (But where the idea originated for the flying buttress has remained a matter of historical debate. Some ask if it was really at Chartres. Something like the flying buttress had appeared earlier at Notre Dame in Paris and also in Reims.)

Whatever its origins, the result at Chartres was a phenomenon that still enthralls, raising ceilings to truly impressive heights. When Chartres was finished, one could stand on the floor of the nave and look upward to the roof vaults 121 feet above–the height of a modern ten-story building. Cologne, started in the following century, would top that with a nave 142 feet high, equaling a thirteen-story building.

But at Beauvais, in Picardy, the builders finally went too far. The vaulted roof of its new cathedral, begun in 1220, boasted a ceiling 159 feet above the floor, the highest church in Christendom, and at about eight in the evening of November 29, 1284, it came crashing down. There is no record of injuries, but Beauvais never recovered from the disaster. It would remain to this day a cathedral with only choir and transepts.5 Beauvais sought to compensate for its loss by building a great tower 291 feet high and topped by a spire that took it to 438–equivalent to a forty-story building–at the point where the transepts meet the choir. On April 30, 1573, the whole thing collapsed into a heap of rubble just twenty minutes after the Great Procession for the morning Mass had left the church. Two people, still in the building, were injured. The tower was never replaced.

Before the end of the twelfth century, fascination with the new church architecture was engulfing western Europe, and cathedrals exploiting the new methods were under construction in fourteen French and English cities. Soon they began to appear elsewhere as well: in Spain, Germany, Flanders (Belgium), Holland, Portugal, and Italy. Between 1050 and 1350, writes the historian Jean Gimpel (The Cathedral Builders), eighty cathedrals, five hundred large churches, and more than ten thousand parish churches would be erected in Europe. In the year 1220 alone, work started on new cathedrals at Amiens, Toul, Metz, Beauvais, Salisbury, and York.

By the end of the Middle Ages there would be one church or chapel for every two hundred people in western Europe. Norwich, Lincoln, and York, cities of five to ten thousand, boasted fifty, forty-nine, and forty-one churches, respectively. Some of these edifices were enormous, such as the cathedral at Amiens, which could accommodate, by one account, nearly ten thousand worshippers. Not until the twentieth century would the world see another such building boom.

That each cathedral town should have one of these spectacular buildings was altogether understandable, especially since the cathedral was far more than a place of worship. Its nave was the municipality’s central place of assembly, where trade was talked, deals made, politics discussed, marriages negotiated, and gossip exchanged. There were no chairs or pews; people from all strata of society mixed and strolled about, intent upon worship, business, or socializing.6 They sometimes brought their pets with them: dogs, cats, falcons. They ate in the nave, and some slept in the crypt (i.e., basement). City councils often met there, as did business and trade guilds. But the cathedral’s choir and sanctuary, where the cathedra (chair) of the bishop was located, and where Mass was celebrated and the daily offices observed, was separated from all this rabble by a “chancel screen,” intended to protect the clergy from the noise of everyday affairs and the common people. (And “also the smell,” notes one memoir).

So construction of one of these mammoths was a momentous undertaking. Direction of the work early moved away from bishops and abbots and was taken up by professional architects or master builders, who developed into a well-paid professional caste. Monks still worked as laborers, but bishops and abbots set forth what they wanted in the new building and the professionals provided it. Wooden lodges were built to house the “free” masons, who moved from project to project. Among these, says Gimpel, eventually arose the Masonic movement.

Building a cathedral was more than a job of work, however; it was preeminently a communal endeavor. The church itself provided much of the financing, but money also poured in from kings, barons, knights, merchants, and wealthy widows. Accounts also survive of “cart pilgrimages,” where lords and ladies trudged along rocky roads or through knee-deep mud, pushing or hauling carts full of stones, building supplies, or food to the jobsite.

Thus they could enter into the thrill of the project, shared by both spectators and workmen, and well captured by author Ken Follett in his best-selling historical novel The Pillars of the Earth. He describes “the irresistible attraction of building a cathedral–the absorbing complexity of the organization, the intellectual challenge of the calculations, the sheer size of the walls, the breathtaking beauty and grandeur of the finished building.” Dorothy L. Sayers in her excellent play on the construction of Canterbury puts the same sentiment into the mouth of its architect, William of Sens: “We all have our dreams . . . Churches we shall never live to see. Arch shouldering arch, shaft, vault and keystone, window and arcading higher, and wider and lighter, lifting roof, tower, spire into the vault of heaven–columns slender as lily-stalks–walls only a framework for the traceries–living fountains of stone” (The Zeal of Thy House, Part II).

Although such churches continued to appear right to the dawn of the sixteenth century–and two, Washington National Cathedral and St. John the Divine in New York, even in the twentieth (see pages 60­—61)–much of the passion and creativity went out of the movement early in the 1300s. Thereafter, writes Gimpel, practically no progress was made in construction technique. Most historians attribute the decline to the Hundred Years’ War, which in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries crippled France, seedbed of the whole phenomenon. In the Renaissance that followed, the entire movement was vehemently denounced as barbaric by artists and architects like Raphael Sanzio and Georgio Vasari. It was truly “Gothic,” they sneered, a product of the wild tribes who had destroyed the cherished civilization of Greece and Rome. The derisive term stuck. The fact that some seven hundred years had separated the vision of Suger from the brutal onslaught of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths did not subdue the scorn.

The three following centuries continued to frown on the great cathedrals. In 1568 Sainte-Croix (Holy Cross) of Orleans was destroyed, a victim of the Protestant-Catholic wars, although it was rebuilt within forty years. St. Lambert of Liege was not so fortunate. It was destroyed and permanently lost in the French Revolution, when statuary and artwork were vandalized in many cathedrals and hundreds of ancient monasteries were demolished.7

In the nineteenth century there came a dramatic turn, however, when the whole Gothic phenomenon was reappraised and discovered to be astonishingly beautiful. The connotation of the word was now reversed. No longer a term of contempt, it came to signify the majestic, the awesome, and the aesthetically powerful. This gave rise to new Gothic, or “neo-Gothic,” which inspired tens of thousands of churches, both Protestant and Catholic, throughout much of the Christian world, all modestly imitating some outward aspects of the originals. Ironically, however, some of the great cathedrals now fared ill at the hands of their would-be friends, whose determination to “restore” them became efforts to “improve” them–often with what many view as deplorable results.

But then the modernist movement of the early twentieth century brought on yet another wave of anti-Gothic revulsion. Once again, Gothic was portrayed as an unedifying vestige of the crude, prerationalist delusions of an antiquated Christian culture. Such delusion, it was decreed, must now yield architecturally to the austere higher purity of the straight line, the right angle, and the fluorescent tube. Not everyone was enthused. To some, this turned out to mean living in houses that looked like boxes, sending children to schools that looked like warehouses, and attending churches that looked like experimental union halls. A reaction ultimately set in.

That reaction is generally known as postmodernism, and as the second Christian millennium closed, it was producing some opinions and theories that many postmodernists may have found disturbing, if not downright alarming. Some few art historians actually appeared to be looking back on those eight- hundred-year-old houses of worship as a possible source of insight. Could it perhaps be, they were asking, that the creators of the seemingly imperishable Gothic knew something that modern man never knew or has forgotten?

Mary Carruthers’s book The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric and the Making of Images, 400—1200 shows how medieval techniques of rhetoric enabled monks to memorize holy scripture by mentally filing verses away in rooms of imagined monasteries. Qualities became associated with them, such as happiness with the cloister garden, and visions of architecture could lead to actual construction; such was famously the case with Cluny Abbey. It was a process that carried over into their own abbeys, in which holy imagery and relics in altars became prompts for commemoration.

Even the number of altars could be symbolic, as demonstrated in Nigel Hiscock’s book The Symbol at Your Door: Number and Geometry in Religious Architecture of the Greek and Latin Middle Ages. Because it was believed that God, as the Divine Architect, had created order in the universe “by measure and number and weight,” the liberal arts taught how the divine order could be comprehended, and this gave importance and meaning to number and geometry. For instance, it is no coincidence that baptisteries and fonts are usually eight-sided, since the number eight signifies salvation. Similarly, in the geometric tracery of church windows, trefoils can signify the Holy Trinity, quatrefoils the four Gospels, and cinquefoils the five books of Moses.

As the desire for meaning gathers pace, many will look up at the distant vaults of Winchester Cathedral in Britain, or the two great towers of the Elizabeth Church in Marburg, Germany,8 or St. Michael’s Cathedral in Brussels, or Chartres, or Cologne, or St. Eulalia’s in Barcelona and find themselves captivated by the overwhelming grandeur all around them and above them. Such works as these occur when faith combines with reason to produce power and beauty, and thereby bring into being a whole new world. In the oncoming era, such a transformation was about to occur to thirteenth-century Christianity, and these great churches were but the first instance of it.

This is the end of the Gothic Architecture category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 38, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Gothic Architecture from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at