In my art classes, we take time each year to study Gothic architecture. This style of architecture emerged within the 12th century in France, and at the time was referred to as “French style.” Gothic art is the last phase of the Middle Ages that followed the two earlier phases (Early Medieval and Romanesque). Within a segment of the Gothic phase such a large number of cathedrals were rebuilt to replace older churches that this period has also been celebrated as the “Age of Cathedrals.”
Art in the Middle Ages demonstrated an appreciation for the physical world and divine order. This can be seen in the elaborate ornamentation and decoration in Romanesque churches. Views differed as to the purpose of such ornamentation, however it stood that such decoration was beautiful, even described as wondrous. Romanesque churches featured wall paintings and mosaics, while Gothic churches manifested a beauty in geometry and light through stained-glass windows. Both Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals were large in size to accommodate pilgrimages.
Beauty was considered transcendent and was also defined in theories as to what is considered beautiful (aesthetically) and good (morally). Influenced by Pythagorean theory on music, philosophers described beauty as a harmony of proportions and numbers, as demonstrated by the rose motif. Elements of geometry and symmetry were prevalent in architecture. Equilateral triangles, squares, and circles were considered the most beautiful because of their symmetry. Brilliance of light and color were also important and appreciated, as evident by the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals. This art contained symbolism and Biblical stories, and light was symbolic of God’s presence. Philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas attributed beauty two main qualities: proportion and luminosity. All these views influenced the design of Gothic Cathedrals.
Abbot Suger, the abbot of the Gothic Cathedral St. Denis, played a significant role in the emergence of the Gothic style as he supervised the construction to rebuild St. Denis. Although he did not invent it, his views with regards to the measures of music, the symbolic nature of architecture, and importance of light all contributed to this style. To step into a Gothic cathedral such as St. Denis was to enter another realm, a representation of the Heavenly city.
The Notre-Dame de Chartres is another Gothic cathedral, famous for the way it directs the attention of its visitors to "proportion and luminosity." The original Notre-Dame de Chartres was destroyed by fire, except for the West façade, and was rebuilt during the Gothic era. This church has a special association with Christ’s Mother, Mary, and housed a linen believed to have been worn by her. This linen was spared in the fire. The design of this cathedral demonstrates harmony of proportions, likened to music. This is most evident in the three magnificent and luminous rose windows of the west, north, and south facades. They demonstrate the blending of math with ornamentation and command great attention as focal points of the exterior.
Any good art class will teach students about shape, balance, and symmetry. But as the Gothic cathedrals show us, these aesthetic and mathematical elements, when studied and shaped with care, can direct our attention to so much more. I share the art, architecture, and history of these cathedrals with my students so that they may learn the value of these artistic elements, as well as the deeper messages of Truth which can be conveyed through them.