An owl's eye view of forests and trees

A Shining Moment When Gothic Meant Light

Ephemeral once,

Shattered walls of rainbow light

Now glow infernal.


Recent events in Paris triggered ruminations on how art can transcend its contextual origins to affect us a primal level. Let us take comfort in that art, and remember how, once upon a time, craftsmen played with light to create a glimpse of Heaven down on Earth.



Hubert Hitier/Agency France-Presse-Getty Images.


On April 15, 2019, a fire started in the attic area of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and then spread. The church burned for twelve hours. Lead melted. The central spire fell. The roof and its supporting timbers crashed down.


EDIT: This New York Times article provides more details about how the fire was handled.


The spire collapse. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.


The burning roof. Associated Press Photo/Thibault Camus.


Aerial view of the blaze. Benoit Moser/Paris Fire Brigade, via Associated Press.


As many have pointed out, the church has suffered damage and plundering before and survived as an icon. This time, many artifacts were saved. No one was killed. A lot of the cathedral remains, thanks in no small part to the building’s construction and long-standing disaster planning by the Paris fire department. The stone structure right now appears to mostly be intact and sound, although later assessments may say otherwise. Of the damaged portions, the cathedral is well documented; its art and windows mapped and digitally recorded. People can rebuild and reconstruct. The world has not lost this site of religious, historical, artistic, and architectural significance.


Burnt timbers and stone from the roof and ceiling collapsed in the nave. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via Reuters.


More of the fallen roof remains. Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.


The damage to the ceiling. The stone vaulting, as well as the firefighter’s handling of the blaze, resulted in much of the church, including many of its windows, surviving the fire. Pool photo by Christophe Petit Tesson, via the New York Times.


It still hurts. Some things are gone. Reconstructions offer comfort, but, as a historian, I will always lament the loss of originals. The whole building could have been destroyed, and I would have consoled myself that nothing lasts forever, and that burnt out cathedrals litter European history. All the same, consolations still mean there have been pain and loss.


Winston Churchill walking through the bombed ruins of the Cathedral Church of St. Michael, Coventry, United Kingdom, September 1941.


Photo of the ruins of the Cathedral Church of St. Michael in 2013, by David Dixon.




I confess I have no expertise in art or construction. I offer the following discourse only as an oversimplified layperson’s summary of some complex aspects of art and architecture.


Art, in all its varied forms, seeks to affect us at some spiritual, emotional, or intellectual level. It can create transformative experiences in the observer, transcending historical or religious contexts from which the art originated. An opera aria, a depiction of waves, or the bust of a long dead Egyptian queen found discarded in a workshop can each move us, even if we do not comprehend the language, the culture, or history which formed the work.


“O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, sung by Montserrat Caballé, Munich, 1990.


As I was writing, someone demanded this one get put in too. Enjoy. “The Queen of Night” aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, sung by Diana Damrau, from her album “Arie di Bravura,” 2007.


“The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, first published between 1829 and 1833. This stylized work has come to symbolize the power of nature cross-culturally.


Bust of Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, believed to be created in 1345 BCE by sculptor Thutmose, in whose workshop it was found. There is something intimate and amazingly beautiful about this over 3,000-year-old work.


The Taj Mahal offers us the serene and the intricate in a stunningly beautiful combination that touches the observer’s soul. We can admire it and stand in awe without knowing a thing about the reason it was built or the culture which crafted it.


The Taj Mahal from afar. Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.



Some of the details of the Taj Mahal up close.


When we learn that, far from being a palace, the Taj Mahal serves as a mausoleum, built to hold the remains of a ruler’s beloved wife, we may find ourselves moved even more deeply. The devotion to and admiration for a beloved seems obvious in retrospect. However, the building stirs strong emotions even without that context. Most not familiar with the building come to love it on sight, without having to know its purpose as a mausoleum or that a Muslim culture created it, and thus, as a monument to the dead, it has religious connotations. The Taj Mahal complex even includes a mosque.


The false sarcophagi of Shah Juhan, who built the Taj Mahal, and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.


The couple’s actual tombs on the lower level of the building.


We can look at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral as a historical treasure but should also recognize that its place in history rests on its role as a religious structure. However, we can mourn its burning even without feeling religious or historical twinges. Like the Taj Mahal, the art transcends the building’s religious context and affects us simply as human beings. We would regret that art’s loss. Which is one of the reasons why, even though people may say not to worry and that what hasn’t been saved can be rebuilt, it’s okay if we still find the thought of the Notre-Dame fire distressing.




Construction on Notre-Dame de Paris began in 1160, in the Gothic style. In this instance, Gothic does not mean dark or gloomy. Those who have stepped into Gothic cathedrals often find themselves captivated, regardless of their personal religious leanings.


Gothic style architecture originated in France in the first half of the 1100s. Notre-Dame de Paris was one of the earliest cathedrals produced using it. Obviously, people had been erecting cathedrals before then. Almost everything builds on something that went before. Gothic architecture is no different, evolving from the Romanesque style. The most significant features of the Gothic style include the rib vault and the flying buttress, which combine for the architectural equivalent of “Let there be light.”




When talking about vaults in this context, I mean the part of a ceiling structure that arcs allowing for a wall on one side and the other with space in-between, i.e., essentially a long hall with a high ceiling. Romanesque cathedrals frequently used regular rounded arches to accomplish this.


The good old Roman arch sturdily gets the job done through the centuries. The beauty of the arch lies in its geometry which holds it together and, thus, lends it strength separate and apart from any mortar. The weight from the roof bears down on the keystone of the arch, which also keeps it in place and the arch strong. Meanwhile, the semi-circular shape allows the downforce from that weight to transfer along the arch’s curve to the pillars or walls upon which the arch rests. Many of the naves, or central halls, of Romanesque churches had an arched ceiling, called a barrel vault.


The lovely, curved barrel vault at the Abbey Church of Saint Foy, Conques, France.


We know arches last, as can be seen from still standing, millennia old, Roman construction. However, when it comes to creating long hallways, arches have a few drawbacks. As noted, the downward force on the keystone works through the arch’s semi-circle of stone to transfer that weight to the pillars or walls on which the arch rests.


However, since it’s moving in a circle, at the point it reaches the supports, the force is no longer straight downward, but also pushing outwards, laterally. As a result, the arch’s sides require heavy building elements to anchor or support them. For Romanesque churches that tended to mean thick walls. That, in turn, meant only a few, relatively small windows, or face the possibility the strength of the walls or windows would be compromised. Those churches not relying heavily on arches for their vaults tended to use triangular trusses and a flat ceiling, which also put a lot of weight on the supporting walls, requiring them to be thick as well.


Note how the downward force from the weight above transfers both straight down and to the side, requiring extra support to the side of the columns or piers on which the arch rests.


Bear in mind just how dark things were before light bulbs and electric lighting. Oil lamps and candles flicker and offer considerably less light at the expense of a lot more heat and a fire hazard. Don’t forget the soot stains and wax drippings. People tended to do their most active work in the day for a reason, and it wasn’t just about crops and when the farm animals wanted to be awake. The sun offered a lot more illumination than one could manufacture on one’s own. Without the numerous indoor and outdoor lighting options of later centuries, the night was a lot darker too. Luminescence of any kind was a precious commodity, and Romanesque church construction made it difficult to get other than through candles.


Furthermore, thick stone walls and dim lighting make even a large space feel cramped. The Romanesque style developed some workarounds designed to let the sunshine and space in.


Buttresses helped deal with the lateral forces by supporting the nave walls to the side and taking more of the burden. Think of it as a second set of walls parallel to the ones supporting the arches, with a set of triangular trusses connecting the two. This allowed the inner walls to be a bit more varied, and the outer buttress walls to be a bit less thick than if they took up the whole load-bearing task on their own. Outer walls could have more and bigger windows, within limits. The inner walls could have arches of their own, to open the space up a bit and let the window light into the nave. See the diagram below for the basic idea.


The buttresses are the outer walls. The inner walls, which would support the vault or ceiling, are the row of arches supported by columns running parallel to the outer walls. The arch/column effect allowed the light from the outer wall windows to reach the church interior.

Here are some other examples of the interiors of Romanesque churches. Note that a second story with arched windows also added light and a feeling of openness to the structures, but again, meant more weight to be supported. Pale stonework helped brighten the place as well.


The Abby Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France, sports a barrel vault supported using arches and columns. You can just make out that the interior continues beyond the colonnade to buttresses.


The Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, lightens things using columns and a second story with windows, but you can still see how heavy the walls needed to be, both for the inner columned wall (look at the arches’ thickness) and the outer buttress wall (look at the window frames). The roof uses triangular trusses, but arches and domes are everywhere.


St. Michael’s, Hildesheim, Germany, has alternating piers and columns, a painted wooden ceiling and a second story or so. Again, one can just make out that the columns do not lead to the exterior.


All in all, the Romanesque architectural style made for some lovely, sturdy churches, solidly built.


Romanesque style Tum Collegiate Church, Poland. Note the limited size and number of exterior windows.


Toward the later Romanesque period, architects started using a pointed rather than rounded arch. No longer being a perfect semi-circle, the downward forces transferred better down the arch to the support with less force transferred to the side, although lateral forces remained. The change allowed for somewhat thinner walls and more windows. However, innovation never stops. This development led to experimentation, combination and eventually, the ribbed vault.


The pointed barrel vault, showing the direction of lateral forces, which were even more of an issue with the rounded barrel vault.



The ribbed vault essentially consists of two concepts combined. The first is the pointed arch and pointed barrel vault. The second is the expansion of the groin vault concept. Groin vaults occurred at the intersection of two barrel vaults. Imagine a church with two intersecting nave style halls, to form a cross shape. At their meeting point, two rows of arches converged to create the shape depicted below.


A groin vault (using a pointed arch) viewed from the underside, showing the arris or ‘groin’.


The view of a groin vault from above showing resultant outward thrust.


Remember how a barrel vault has to deal with outward lateral forces all along its structure? When the arches intersect at a groin vault, crossing lateral forces cancel each other out in some areas while the remaining forces converge together at the ends of the arcs, as shown in the drawing above.


Replace the barrel vault with a series of groin vaults, one after another, using the pointed arch. The resulting row of groin vault squares means suddenly far fewer areas require huge support. The lateral forces push out only in certain areas, instead of along the whole nave, requiring less bolstering. Thus, the ribbed vault was born. Many earlier versions, like at Notre-Dame de Paris, had six ribs, not the four depicted above. The basic groin vault really is just two intersecting arches. Early Gothic architecture cautiously went with three intersecting pointed arches to make sure the structure was strong enough. Later Gothic construction realized that four ribs served just as well.


Ceiling, Notre-Dame de Paris, which combined three intersecting pointed arches to form each square that makes up the nave’s ceiling.


Romanesque churches used these elements too, but the Gothic style used it to much greater effect, taking things to new heights, literally. With the new system much more effectively distributing the roof’s weight, walls were not required to be so thick. With less downward force on the walls and lateral forces to buttress, the walls could also be higher without fear of collapse. Romanesque’s limited number of stories yielded to dizzyingly high structures in the Gothic style. Note in the photo of Notre-Dame de Paris above, that neither of the two stories of windows and arches seen is on the ground floor.


A big change in buttresses also assisted matters. Once a long set of parallel walls connected to that which they supported by triangular trusses, buttresses were renovated completely to a series of leg-like supports attached to the outside of the building. The good old arch strengthened the flying buttress’ structure. By tilting the arches, they could this time deflect the outward forces exactly as required, straight down a series of columns or walls, which branched out like a centipede from the church. They looked something like this, complete with a series of pointed and diagonal arches to distribute loads.


Form of flying buttress for Notre-Dame de Paris during the 13th century.

Replacing thick walls with complex spider leg-supports resulted in an airier interior. The structure looked like this from the outside. Contrast it to the solid, castle-like construction of the Romanesque church above.


Bourges Cathedral, France.


Here’s a close up of the top of the flying buttresses at Amiens Cathedral, France.


And here is a view from the side at Notre-Dame de Paris.


The flying buttresses allow the church walls to sport numerous huge windows, like this.


Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral.

Like the ribbed vault, the flying buttress also allowed for taller buildings, with less thick walls, and far less light blocking supports. The old buttress outer wall combined with the inner wall of columns along the nave often still existed. However, without needing to be so sturdy, more and larger windows could be set in the outer walls. Church naves became huge open spaces with much more opportunity for natural lighting from the side and above.


Look back at the exterior images of Notre-Dame de Paris, Bourges Cathedral, and even the remains of the Cathedral Church of St. Michael above to the exterior photo of the Romanesque Tum Collegiate Church. Contrast the number and size of the windows in the Gothic cathedrals as compared to the Romanesque. To the person of the time, it must have felt as if the builders had managed to make walls of air and light.


Add to that the hues from stained glass, and Medieval churches became places awash in glowing color. The era had no pyrotechnical stage shows, no moving pictures or televisions, and limited public entertainment of a visual nature. Just imagine the change’s impact, the transformative effect of the Gothic architecture on the human soul, and how it would have heightened the religious experience in these churches, as if a vision of Heaven had been brought to Earth.


Even talking religion out of the equation, the effects of light, space, and color still awe and move us deeply.


Notre-Dame de Noyon, France, three stories high and filled with light.


The nave of Notre-Dame de Mouzon, Ardenne, France. For the record, a lot of churches carry the name Notre-Dame.


Canterbury Cathedral Choir, Kent, United Kingdom.


Ely Cathedral, Lady Chapel, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, getting quite elaborate with its ribbed vaulting.


The nave of the Sante-Chappelle de Vincennes, Paris, France.


Chartres Cathedral, France. The light. The color. How the roof towers above.


Chartres Cathedral, looking up.


Windows of the upper chapel of Sante-Chapelle, Paris, France.

Gothic churches offer those who enter a vision of the ephemeral. It does not matter the time period, the culture, or the religion which created such works. Light and color, combined with vaulting spaces and amazing interior works of art, speak of brightness and wonder to places deep within our spirit. Art and architecture transcend their original contexts and inspire the soul.


Hopefully, by sharing a little of that beauty, I have offered some comfort in the wake of thoughts about the Notre-Dame de Paris fire, both what might have been and what did occur. I leave you with one parting offering of the beauty of light in a cathedral. Please enjoy scrolling around this view of Notre-Dame de Paris.


(This blog has been inspired by numerous conversations over the last several days, and especially by Annikki Raiford, Tom Elliot, Bryan Alexander, and Ross Anderson. Thank you to all of you.)



1 Comment

  1. Ross Anderson

    Wow. Serioously. Wow.

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