Gothic style in architecture is known to emerge at the end of the twelfth century as a contrast to the classical Romanesque style in building and design. Its heyday lasted until the beginning of the fourteenth century when the Renaissance epoch started. St. Denis Cathedral, Rebuilt by Abbot Suger, situated in Paris, France, 1140-1144, is a marvelous example of Gothic architecture in its visual dominance. It is characterized by replacement of conventional Romanesque columns by skeletal structure, which emphasized vertical dimension and ensured maximum penetration of light. In fact, this was the first historically known piece of Gothic architecture, which is still an object of research and admiration.
Gothic style was born in the epoch when devastated and hostile to each other lands started to unite into centralized states. During this time, crusades helped broad horizons about versatile types of architecture, which could be seen in foreign lands. Because of that, all required conditions were prepared for a birth of a new Gothic style, which was a ground-breaking one. When speaking about the architectural difference between Romanesque and Gothic architecture, several aspects should be mentioned. First of all, the design of the building is rather vertical, which has the spiritual symbolism of linking the earth and the heaven. Secondly, the construction allows much space for light because of huge windows, which reach the floor. As researchers point out, Gothic style is marked by “transformation of stone into something light and airy” while in Romanesque “the stones are there simply to hold the building up” (Gothic Innovation of St. Denis Cathedral n.p.). The newly rebuilt St. Denis Cathedral possessed these features, as well. The rebuilding began in 1231, and introduced a new style, which is marked by “linearization of elevations” (Bony 366). Because it was patronized by the King, St. Denis soon became a pattern to be followed when constructing other buildings.
When considering the trend of passing to Gothic architecture, it is important to remember that this was not an original sequence of the Romanesque style. If it uses any of the style, it rather refers to early Roman architecture, which is devoid of excess decorative elements. In general, however, it emerged as an opposite to Romanesque architecture, which suggested a totally new vision of the world. Its solemnity has different shades, as it is not solid and pompous, but quite etheric and pierced by light. St. Denis’ dome of light effect, refracted by colored stained glass windows is an example of such grace and illusion of weightlessness. In other words, if Romanesque style attempts to emphasize the beauty of the building, the Gothic cathedral is rather a beautiful frame for light. In this way, visual dominance of Gothic architecture reveals itself, as it gives a new concept of architecture where the building is not the only element of a large ensemble.
There are some details of Gothic architecture, which were present in St. Denis Cathedral and were later replicated in other Gothic cathedral. One of them was a pointed arch, which had been invented by Arabs, and now was quite suitable for major purposes of the architect. It gave an opportunity to cover any aperture, shifting the weight to the ribs and through them to counterforts –heavy pillars. Counterforts could be placed both inside and outside the cathedral, which enable one to spread the weight more evenly and give unique design touch. Thrust on counterforts outside, which were erected near the cathedral walls, was made through linking arches - flying buttresses. This kind of construction allowed changing walls for high windows and stained glasses, which were separated from each other just by narrow bridges of buttresses. The ribs were linked at the top of a dome by a flower or a saint’s figure.
A Gothic Cathedral is named a medieval encyclopedia, which reflected everyday life and values in architecture, sculpture, and stained glass windows. The cathedral was meant not only for religious service but also for the congregation of the community, business, legislation purposes, and burial of outstanding citizens. As one can see, the building was quite multifunctional, which architects had to take into account. It was the heart of the city, and it had to look in this way. The domination of vertical lines refers to the concept of the Ascension as of human’s strive to unite with God. Arcades, pillars, galleries, and arched windows are pointed upwards inside the cathedral, while a huge number of decorative towers, styled flowers, and window frames do the same outside.
The first evidence of St. Denis Cathedral refers to the fifth century when the first church was built at the place. According to the scriptures, St. Denis was the first Parisian bishop who was sent to Gallic lands on Pope Clément’s request. The legend says that, after being executed by beheading, Denis managed to stand up and walk for six kilometers holding his head. In the middle of the eighth century, King Pepin the Short decided to rebuild the basilica, so new walls on the old foundation were erected. This reconstruction was finished when Karl the Great came to power. In 775, a solemn sanctification of the chapel took place, at which the royal family was present. By the twelfth century, however, the church was in poor conditions because centuries had passed since its construction, so it needed renovation. Besides, the authority of Saint Denis grew, so a new building was needed to perform all necessary functions. In order to match its new status, not only old buildings had to be renewed but also new ones built. Abbot Suger was the one who managed the construction process, which started in 1230s and lasted for twenty-five years. In fact, he is believed to be the father of a new architectural style, called Gothic.
Abbot Suger referred to the style as the “architecture of light”; this name, in fact, reflected its main features and purpose. He gave life to new architectural designs and trends, such as stained glass window and the round window above the main entrance. He was especially proud of the thematic stained glasses, which were united by the same motifs. They were grouped in cycles, each of which had a particular religious story that it told visually. One of them depicts the first crusade; another is based on the story written by Karl the Great about his visit to the Holy Land. Historians mention the links of other images to the second crusade. The opening of the cathedral was an outstanding event, which was visited by the royalty and aristocracy. They were so much impressed by both the interior and exterior that exclusively gothic cathedrals had been built for a long time.
When the word “gothic” first appeared, it had a negative connotation as it denoted a contrast between classical art and the “barbarian” one. It is interesting that, only in the seventeenth century, the word was coined to denote the architectural style, which meant that when St. Denis Cathedra; was build, the concept was unknown. It is quite natural, though, because the cathedral was the first example of early Gothic, and it takes many objects to shape a new style. The designation has been invented by the artists of Renaissance, who are known to be ardent fans of Romanesque art, so there is no wonder that they have had a certain bias against Gothic. Thus, the derogatory meaning in relation to this word ceased by the nineteenth century only, when some historical time lapse allowed watching different styles objectively and with equal interest. At the same time, debates have lasted for a long time on what exactly should be classified under the title “gothic style.” Some researchers believe that it is enough for a building to have the most obvious characteristics, such as the pointed arch and the rib vault; however, others claim that these elements were not enough to come to this conclusion. The point is that some Romanesque cathedrals have these elements too. Therefore, to be sure about classification, certain original elements should be considered: “flying buttresses, windows with tracery, and piers composed of colonnettes or shafts bundled around the core, that serve hallmarks of the style” (Moffett n.p.).
Windows are a special feature, which makes gothic cathedral outstanding. They give the touch of solemnity and spirituality, by filling the building with light and color. Suger, Abbot of Saint Denis Cathedral said about his plans, “The church would have "the most radiant windows" to "illuminate men's minds so that they may travel through apprehension of God's light"(Basilique Saint-Denis n.p.). When speaking about the exterior of St. Denis, some interesting design decisions should be mentioned, some of which were still successfully borrowed from the previous epochs. Thus, for instance, the façade of the building refers to the Norman buildings like St. Étienne in Caen, and there are elements of Romanesque architecture, as well, which make it look more massive than some other samples of the Gothic architecture. Yet, other elements of design are completely innovative; moreover, they have become cannon for later gothic churches. For instance, the round rose window, sculptured gateway, or division of arrangements into three levels. The researchers point out the following elements, which make St. Denis remarkable in terms of its visual dominance, “The entrances, with their free-standing jamb figures connecting the three portals to a visual and iconographic scheme, were much more complex than those of Romanesque church façades… the twenty column figures of Old Testament kings, queens, and prophets were originally attached to the jambs or upright support of the façade portals, eight along the central or Last Judgment portal, and six each along the north and south portals” (Architecture and Sculpture at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis n.p.). There were other sculptural compositions too, which, unfortunately, were destroyed in the epoch of the French Revolution. There was also a statue of Christ on a large stone pillar, which affected the building of other churches, as well.
Abbot Suger hired artists and artisans, which came from different French lands, other than his native one, so it started a new tradition of sharing approaches, while art was quite closed and confined to the place before. This helped Suger to avoid association with Romanesque style that was typical for Parisian region at the time. Instead, artists from lands like Burgundy brought more decorative elements, which were absent in more massive and simplistic forms that Romanesque churches had. The tympanum of the gateway was decorated with mosaic, which pictured the Coronation of Virgin Mary. Application of mosaic for this purpose was quite unusual, and yet this was not Suger’s invention. Researchers believe that he was much inspired by Italian architecture, namely Abbey of Montecassino situated near Rome, which was built by another reformative abbot. However, it is hard to say whether mosaic became a trend of Gothic art, because St. Denis Cathedral is the only case of this style, which has it and remained until now.
The north entrance includes a relief of St. Denis’ martyrdom, which was added later, in the nineteenth century. This piece of art pictures St. Denis after his execution, when he had remained alive for several more hours and walked beheaded several miles, with his head in his arms. This sculpture is quite naturalistic in its style, yet it matches the rest of the gothic design. A researcher gives an account of the northern portal in the following way: “The portal of the north transept, known as the Porte des Valois…included thirty crowned figures in the voussoirs (truncated wedges making up the arch), framing the scene of the Martyrdom of Saint-Denis. Six statues of kings, variously interpreted as the elders of the Apocalypse, the kings of France, or vassals of St. Denis, occupied the door embrasures” (Architecture and Sculpture at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis n.p.). There were a variety of sculptures inside; however, all of them were transferred to Louvre and can be observed there at the moment. Sometimes, the sculptures are compared with those of Norte Dame; however, it is claimed that St. Denis could boast by more delicate and more decorative sculpture design.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that St. Denis Cathedral is a marvelous example of early Gothic style, which was a revolutionary work of art in its epoch. It set standards of architecture for following builders and marked the main concepts of Gothic architecture, such as emphasis on the vertical forms and dominance of light. In terms of building models, it introduced the ones that were different from Romanesque art. Among them are pointed arches, ribbed structure, and stained glass windows. The special focus on decoration and visual effects makes it true to say that visual dominance is one of the key features of Gothic architecture.
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