French - Gothic (1140-1500)


At the moment this is just a page holder. I hope one day to be inspired enough to draft something on the art, architecture and antiques of this period. I live in hope!

This period covers perhaps as many as 30-odd medieval rulers (between 1016 and 1399) including the four great English Plantagenat kings: Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. Gothic would also include Houses of Lancaster and York, including Henry VI, through to the Tudor period starting in 1485.

The same period also includes the Capetian dynasty in France, probably starting with Henri Ier (1031-1060) and including Philip Ier, Louis VI, Louis VII, Charles V, and probably ending with Louis XI (1461-1483).

Gothic has more or less four different designations: Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant, and Late Gothic or Flamboyant. Without being over pedantic Early Gothic architecture starts with Notre-Dame de Paris in 1163, and Chartres Cathedral (built between 1194 and 1260) has been classed as High Gothic by the experts. Re-building started on Notre-Dame de Reims in 1211 but the nave was not roofed until 1299, however it is considered a fine example of Rayonnant because ...

Surviving examples of medieval secular architecture mainly served for defense. Castles and fortified walls provide the most notable remaining non-religious examples of medieval architecture. Windows gained a cross-shape for more than decorative purposes: they provided a perfect fit for a crossbowman to safely shoot at invaders from inside. Crenellation walls (battlements) provided shelters for archers on the roofs to hide behind when not shooting.

The various elements of Gothic architecture emerged in a number of 11th and 12th century building projects, particularly in the Île de France area, but were first combined to form what we would now recognise as a distinctively Gothic style at the 12th century abbey church of Saint-Denis in Saint-Denis, near Paris. Verticality is emphasized in Gothic architecture, which features almost skeletal stone structures with great expanses of glass, pared-down wall surfaces supported by external flying buttresses, pointed arches using the ogive shape, ribbed stone vaults, clustered columns, pinnacles and sharply pointed spires. Windows contain beautiful stained glass, showing stories from the Bible and from lives of saints. Such advances in design allowed cathedrals to rise taller than ever, and it became something of an inter-regional contest to build a church as high as possible.

It is the pointed arch that most clearly makes Gothic building look different from Roman and Romanesque work. In the older style the semicircular, round arch was used everywhere. But Gothic architects did not invent the pointed arch. It had been used much earlier in the Near East. It was used by Muslim artists in Asia, Africa, and even in parts of southern Europe. The use of the pointed arch in Europe started very soon after the First Crusade (1099), when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims. Thousands of crusaders from Western Europe saw buildings and works of art entirely different from those that they were used to. Though they did not believe in the Muslim religion, there was no reason why they should not imitate the art that pleased them. This explains the arrival of the pointed arch in Europe.

The Europeans used the pointed arch in a new way. Medieval buildings were constructed with vaults--ceilings made by continuous arches of heavy columns. Architects of the late Romanesque period had experimented with the ribbed vault, which allowed them to build much higher churches. The plan of the church was divided into square sections called bays. At each corner a pier (large pillar) was built. Diagonally from corner pier to corner pier, round arches were built. Because the diagonal of a square is longer than its side, round arches on the sides of a bay would not be as high as the round arches that spanned the bay diagonally. It was found that pointed arches at the sides and round arches at the diagonals would all reach the same height. This system of building is called ribbed vaulting.

The weight of the vaults on the walls tended to force the walls outward. This is called thrust. To support the walls, structures called buttresses were built against the outside of the walls. As ribbed vaulting enabled the construction of higher buildings, it became more difficult to resist the thrust from the arches. To support the additional weight of a higher building, buttresses had to be taller and to project more and more from the wall. Architects discovered that a fairly low buttress could be used to support the taller walls by means of a sloping arch, reaching up from the buttress and pressing against the outside of a higher wall. This kind of buttress is called a flying buttress.

When the flying buttress had been added to the ribbed vault and the pointed arch, all the main parts of Gothic architecture were there.

To summarise, during the middle ages religion was one of the most important aspects of daily life (a period often called the “age of faith”). Places of worship, e.g. cathedrals were built as houses of God and as shelters for the relics of holy figures. With time they became increasingly grandiose, and the Gothic cathedral was by far the most decorative, e.g. pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained glass windows, and gargoyles. Gargoyles essentially protect the stone from water erosion, and in fact date back to the Greek lion on the Acropolis in Athens. Gargoyles are in fact functional creatures, and grotesques or chimeras are the other decorative beasts found on church walls (e.g. not waterspouts). One explanation for the gargoyle is the legend of “La Gargouille”. It described a creature with a long neck, slender jaw and membranous wings, similar to that of a reptile or dragon. This creature ate ships, caused flooding and had a fiery breath. The people of the town would bring the creature a human sacrifice once a year in order to appease it (usually a criminal). One day the priest decided that he would perform an exorcism on the creature. He subdued the dragon with a victim and took it captive. The animal was killed and burned at the stake, leaving only its head and neck, which was hung on a wall in the town. Both gargoyles and grotesques are used as protectors for the cathedral (if you need protection from evil it better look frightening as well). Serpents, and dogs and lions with human faces were often used but gender could be ambiguous and some grotesques could be mixtures of several animals. For obvious reasons they all have their mouths open.

This time period was dubbed by historians as the Age of Faith, therefore the churches were the most important structures (Medieval Culture). Cathedrals built during the Gothic period were by far the most decorative of all Medieval architecture. They became increasingly decorative since the Romanesque. Characteristics such as pointed arches, flying buttresses, and elaborate stained glass windows were common during this period. Another aspect of Gothic architecture are gargoyles and grotesque figures. Although such creatures can be found prior to the Gothic era, they became much more common. Not only religious imagery adorned Cathedrals, but also secular as well. These characters date back to the beliefs of the earlier pagan groups and the legends related to the towns surrounding the cathedral.

Gargoyles in its most technical term refer to waterspouts projecting from the roof of the Cathedrals. These beasts spray rain from their mouths off of the side of the roof protecting the stones from water erosion. Not all waterspouts were carved as gargoyles but in the tradition of Gothic decor, they were the preferred architectural touch. The earliest record of a gargoyle like creature was a classical Greek lion on the Acropolis in Athens, dating back to the 4th century. Sometimes the functional benefit of the gargoyles was more of a nuisance. Although such a device is good for the building, the people walking below would have to dash through the pouring water in order to exit or enter the Cathedral, therefore getting drenched by the spouts. As earlier stated, the term gargoyles really only applies to the functional creature, however over time other beasts have been dubbed with the same name. These creatures are more likely known as grotesques or chimeras, and are more so decorative than functional. These type of creatures are not used as rainspouts, but are considered more as protectors of the cathedral.

Gothic furniture relies on mortis and tenon joints but not so much wrought iron (as in the Romanesque period) to strengthen the structure. As in the Romanesque period the furniture would be made of solid (oak, sapin, noyer), and still be designed to be easily moved around. Features are based upon Roman architecture features: arcs brisés, pinacles. Wood panels could be carved with: “plis de serviette” as during the Romanesque period. During the XVth C coffres could have elaborate panels sculptured as gothic windows

Also as in the Romanesque period the main furniture elements are

Bancs, coffres, tables with tréteaux and planche, but the dresser dressoirs and some forms of individual seats appeared in the XVth C.