Science

It took a village to build Europe’s Gothic cathedrals

Published November 29, 20,22

20 minutes read

Gothic cathedrals can often render spectators speechless—awestruck by dazzling stained glass, towering ceilings, and engineering marvels. Orson Welles, an American filmmaker, might also be inspired by the cathedral’s elegance. He once described France’s Chartres Cathedral as “this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation.”

Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, these soaring sacred spaces are among Europe’s most popular tourist attractions today. From They attract visitors from all parts of the world to marvel at their elaborate sculptures, pointed arches, light-and-air marriage.

The Gothic is perhaps Europe’s most iconic style of Christian architecture. It was created in France in the 12th Century and has since spread throughout Europe. The Gothic is often described as the ultimate expressions of the medieval spirit. It represents a society so obsessed with heaven that it created pointed arches to support its aspirations to the realms of God.

(What is “Gothic?” It’s more complicated than you think.)

Although it is true that such projects were inspired by a deep spiritual passion, Gothic cathedrals were also created by mundane forces. It took them many centuries to complete. They required dedicated funding, support from the political system, and skilled labor. Historiographers can learn a lot from the construction of Gothic cathedrals about medieval society organization and how these buildings were shaped in response to the economy, character, and availability of natural resources found at the locations where they are built.

Power and prestigeThe term “cathedral” has evolved into a sort of catch-all descriptor for large, grand churches. It’s technical definition is a church that houses a cathedra (Latin for “bishop’s throne”). One of Europe’s first cathedrals is the fourth-century Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, the seat of the pope in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

Cathedrals were used not only to celebrate Christian rites; they also became centers of political power in the Middle Ages. There was also some day-to-day governance happening within the sacred space. The chapter, which was composed of canons and priests from the cathedral, would meet in the cathedral choir to discuss diocesan issues. This space is also used for prayer. They were also responsible for deducting funds for the cathedral from rents and taxes collected. A portion of this money was also given back to the community as improvements like roads and hospitals.

In some ways, the cathedral was the medieval equivalent for a public forum. As a place to meet clients and close business deals, merchants used cathedrals. There was a guild that negotiated. There were many shops and businesses that grew along the outer walls. The first university schools were located within the cathedral complexes. The cathedral housed the municipal council, and justice was sometimes served at its doors.

This role was established well before the advent of the Gothic age. The Gothic was also preceded by monumental stone-built cathedrals. These cathedrals were built in Romanesque style, and first appeared in the 11th century due to the wealth accrued to European cities from the extensive network of pilgrimage paths.

(Majestic medieval church arose on pilgrimage routes in Europe.

The Gothic was born from the Romanesque. This style is distinctive for its round arches. This technique could allow walls and ceilings to reach higher heights than they were before. This pointed arch directs the gaze upwards. It emphasizes the height of naves. Their use led to another important feature of Gothic architecture: the ribbed vaults at the ceiling.

Flying buttresses are perhaps the Gothic’s most iconic architectural advance. These structures are located outside a cathedral and distribute the burden of ceilings and other structures. This meant that cathedral walls were less thick and could be penetrated with large glass windows. This allows for more light and air to enter the building.

The building generally considered to be the first, true Gothic structure is the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis near Paris, parts of which were completed in the mid-1100s. From There, the Gothic style was spread throughout France, Spain, Italy and Germany.

It took many centuries to build these magnificent churches. It is possible for a craftsperson to begin work on a project, but not live to see it complete. Construction of Frances’s Notre Dame de Paris took nearly two centuries, lasting from 1163 to 1345. Cologne in Germany was home to the Gothic cathedral. Construction began in 1248. The iconic twin spires that make up the iconic Gothic cathedral were not completed until the 1800s.

(See Notre Dame 16 vintage photos taken from our archive.

Different reasons influenced the importance of placeCathedrals. Santiago de Compostela is located in northwestern Spain and is believed to be situated over the grave of St. James, the patron saint for Spain. Other Gothic structures were also built to house sacred treaures. Sainte-Chapelle was in Paris, commissioned by King Louis IX, to keep holy relics relating to the Passion. A large cathedral with strong religious ties could draw pilgrims to a place, and bring in attention and commerce. Many cathedrals were built on top of older structures. Sometimes it was intended to convey a message. In Spain some cathedrals—such as the 13th-century cathedral of Toledo—were built over the site of mosques, to hammer home the symbolism that Spain was now a Christian country.

Built over a Romanesque crypt, the cathedral’s choir at its eastern end was rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174. It is the first major Gothic structure built in England.

Canterbury Cathedral (England).

Built over a Romanesque crypt, the cathedral’s choir at its eastern end was rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174. It is the first major Gothic structure built in England.

Peter de Clercq/Age/Alamy

Gothic cathedrals often replaced older Christian structures. For example, at Amiens in France, the Gothic cathedral of the 13th century replaced the Romanesque structure which had been destroyed during a fire. After an 1174 fire destroyed the choir of England’s Canterbury Cathedral, the damaged part of the building was rebuilt over the next decade in the Gothic style. Segovia in Spain, an unusual example of cathedrals that were moved to another part of the city, is another. In the 16th century, after the old cathedral was destroyed in a regional rebellion, a vast, late Gothic structure was built in the former Jewish quarter, where—as a result of the recent expulsion of the Jews—land was available and affordable.

(Historian uses lasers for unlocking mysteries of Gothic cathedrals.

Cities could benefit from the transportation and purchase of materials required for cathedral construction. The cathedral of Seville, Spain was built in 1401. It is the most important Gothic structure in the world. The church authorities set up a huge crane in Seville’s river port to unload the blocks arriving from the quarry sited downriver, near the coast. The church rented the crane out to other merchants, and it became a source income.

Local resources also had a dramatic impact on a cathedral’s outer appearance. Many Italian cathedrals are influenced by the availability of marble in Italy. For example, the Gothic cathedral of Siena is covered in colored marble which gives it a dramatic look.

People who make cathedrals Authorities were responsible for recruiting and managing engineers, craftspeople, and laborers as well as transporting the raw materials to the site. It took a lot political will and money to bring everything together and keep the project going.

Romanesque architecture, which was before the Gothic, could have been built by large teams made up of relatively untrained workers. Gothic construction however, was built by smaller, more skilled groups of professionals. Sometimes, slave laborers, often prisoners of war, were employed. Many cathedral builders received adequate wages and enjoyed tax exemption. They often received housing. There are also examples of workers protesting low wages or poor working conditions.

Each working group was led by a master builder who acted as a primus inter pares—a first among equals. The master builder would be proficient in all aspects of daily life, including shaping the block of stone used to create an arch or carving a relief. They had to coordinate, manage and direct the project team. A master builder who is experienced might abandon hands-on work to give instructions from the scaffolding. This could lead to resentment. A second essential figure was the foreman. He maintained quality, ensured the project was on budget, and made sure deadlines were met.

Women make up a third of the cathedral workers. They were usually able to carry materials or mix mortar. However, there are some records of female master builders. In Cuenca, Spain, records show that a woman called María directed the stained glass workshop. In 13th-century Strasbourg (then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and today in France), the sculptress Sabina von Steinbach is believed to have created the doorway of the city’s cathedral, although some historians argue she may be legendary.

Once the site had been selected and cleared, the master builder measured the ground plan and excavated the deep foundations. Although architectural plans were drawn up in advance, many cathedrals adapted and modified the plans as new techniques became available. According to some sources, master builders would meet with other officials when technical problems occurred during construction. This was done in order to exchange ideas and decide on the next steps. There are many examples of conclaves that can be documented. One example is the one held in Girona Spain where the brave idea of building a wide nave was brought up and ultimately adopted. This led to the construction of the largest Gothic nave in the entire world.

(How England’s stonemasons preserve its oldest cathedrals.)

Many meetings took place in the 14th- and 15th centuries during construction of Milan’s cathedral. They were intended to provide engineering solutions for the ongoing work. Leonardo da Vinci himself presented some proposals. Milan and other cities had architectural plans that were used as guides. However, they weren’t as detailed as modern-day architectural projects. This left many issues open to discussion. The design process was solidly practical. It was based more upon compasses and set squares than abstract calculation.

A whole range of machines and tools were needed by workers to accomplish specialized tasks. These included carving stonework and transporting and lifting heavy material. This period saw the introduction of many technological innovations in Europe, including the rotating crane, the metal-wheeled carriage and various cutting machines. The humble but revolutionary wheelbarrow was also introduced. Carpenters were essential in the creation of scaffolding and falsework, which are wooden props that support vaults and arches during construction.

Inflicted damage and delays Even though models or partial full-scale drawings called “mounts” were used, sometimes there was no way of knowing if a building was going to stay upright when scaffolding that provisionally supported roofs was removed. Some of the most innovative structures fell or had to be reinforced.

Particularly domes topped with heavy lantern towers were especially vulnerable. When the dimensions of the naves exceeded what could be supported by science, they could become wobbly. Beauvais in France. The vaulting at the top of the choir, near the main altar, collapsed in the 13th Century. After that, it was necessary for the number to be doubled. The project was stopped as soon as it was completed.

(See photos from France’s Gothic Revolution.

The Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca in Spain was almost as tall and wide as Beauvais. A system of counterweights was devised by workers to allow the huge cathedral nave to be completed. A ring of side chapels in Amiens, northern France was created to support the cathedral’s central section. These were not sufficient. Pierre Tarisel, master mason and king of France was brought in for additional reinforcement. He devised a solution around 1500 that still supports the cathedral: a wrought-iron chain that wraps around the cathedral.

Many times, ambitious plans were stopped by a lack funds. Building work on cathedrals was often halted because of budgetary problems rather than building issues. The Gothic Narbonne Cathedral in southwest France was only half-built after it entered an economic and political crisis. A few half-finished cathedrals might give the impression of an older church being swallowed by a newer, larger and more complete one. It was not possible to complete the massive extension that was planned for the nave in Siena, Italy. However, its unfinished arches and walls still make up part of the skyline.

The Gothic was not as well-known in Italy as it is elsewhere in western Europe. Italy’s Renaissance in 15th century saw the birth of a new style for cathedral-building. This would make the Gothic look more old-fashioned than modern. In keeping with the humanistic nature of the times, new architecture placed more emphasis on classicism. When we look back at classical architecture from Rome or Greece, pillars were replaced by domes. This was the beginning of the Renaissance style. Cathedrals, churches, and other civic buildings opted for smaller, more proportioned versions of the Gothic.

(20 stunning photographs of architecture around the globe.

Times and styles changed, but the old Gothic structures still stood tall, and huge numbers of them still dominate Europe’s cityscapes. These gravity-defying architectural feats were similar to today’s space race. Cathedral-building, which was fraught with risk and required huge investments, allowed European society explore its limits, test their capabilities, and strive to be better than its competitors.

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