Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Form of Gothic

Tintern Abbey
Previously, I discussed the "Spirit of Gothic", highlighting the perspective of 19th century author, artist, naturalist John Ruskin from his treatise "The Stones of Venice" wherein he describes Gothic first in terms of its internal nature, the moral characteristic, the mental expression, the source of its power that he simply describes as its Spirit. Ruskin further elaborated on the external identifying physical features, what he describes as the "Form of Gothic". Likewise early 20th century architect and author Claude Fayette Bragdon contributed insightful commentary into what distinguishes the Gothic as a deeply humanistic yet unique architecture in a series of essays collectively entitled "The Beautiful Necessity". Drawing from these two sources I'll attempt to undertake an examination of the true Nature of Gothic, its Spirit as manifested in physical Form.

The Pointed Arch

Worcester Cathedral
Gothic was not the only architecture to have made use of the pointed arch; however, it certainly exploits the form to its fullest potential, particularly noteworthy in the vaulting of its interior ceilings. Western architecture specifically witnessed three developments in ceiling design: post and lintel exemplified by the Egyptians and Greeks, the rounded arch, including barrel vaults and domes reaching a pinnacle of achievement during the Lombardic and Byzantine Romanesque, and finally the myriad of possibilities associated with the pointed arch and resulting vaults of the Gothic. Closely associated with what Ruskin earlier identified as the spirit of Variety, he noted that "capable of perpetual variety, the pointed arch was not merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations in itself; for the proportions of a pointed arch are changeable to infinity, while a circular arch is always the same." 

The Acute Gable

We can think of the Gothic ceiling itself really as a gable with curved sides as an arch is truly a continuous curve and can't actually be "pointed". The Gothic ceiling does not serve as the external roof of the structure as occasionally might occur in the domed roofs of the Romanesque. What distinguishes the Gothic gable however, it that the angle declining from its ridge is nearly always acute and severely acute in its best examples. In its natural home of the Northern climates this acute pitch of the roof serves the practical function of preventing heavy snow accumulation. So in a summary to this point we can identify the form of the Gothic roofing system as an acute gabled roof surmounted above a pointed arch or "curved gable".

Notre-Dame de Paris


Palazzo Ducale
Aside from ornamental enrichment there are really two types of foliation that are manifest in Gothic architecture, both being associated with the pointed arch. The first is the general outline of the pointed arch itself, necessary as its greatest potential structural weakness is the possibility of giving way on the sides if receiving downward force upon the point above. The practical solution obtained was to integrate cusps on either side, although not intended precisely to imitate foliage, would imbue as Ruskin observed "the same characters of beauty which the designer had discovered in the leaf." Hence the architectural term "foliation" meaning "leafy or leaved" to describe this type of opening.

Bishop's Eye, Lincoln Cathedral
The spirit of Naturalism keenly expresses itself with second expression of foliation characteristic of the Gothic, that of foliated traceries filling windows and portals. Again, this was not in direct imitation of nature but drew upon her as a source of inspiration as Ruskin opines, "The idea that large Gothic structure, in arches and roofs, was intended to imitate vegetation, is, as above noticed, untenable for an instant in the front of facts. But the Gothic builder perceived that, in the leaves which he copied for his minor decorations, there was a peculiar beauty, arising from certain characters of curvature in outline, and certain methods of subdivision and of radiation in structure. On a small scale, in his sculptures and his missal-painting, he copied the leaf or thorn itself; on a large scale he adopted from it its abstract sources of beauty, and gave the same kind of curvatures and the same species of subdivision to the outline of his arches, so far as was consistent with their strength, never, in any single instance, suggesting the resemblance to leafage by irregularity of outline, but keeping the structure perfectly simple, and, as we have seen, so consistent with the best principles of masonry."  

Clustered Columns

In my previous post I had affirmed that Gothic architecture might very well be the most humanistic architecture ever conceived. I would point to the principal means of support, the system of columns to uphold this contention. Like the pointed arch the clustered column allows for a myriad of adaptations whereas the single shafts of the Classical orders (admittedly of anthropological origins and humanistic themselves) establish whilst constraining the proportional variations possible in the resultant architecture of which Ruskin provides the following critique, "we must no more expect to derive either pleasure or profit from an architecture...whose pillars are of one proportion, than we should out of a universe in which the clouds were all of one shape, and the trees all of one size." 

Amiens Cathedral
Gothic cathedrals are known for their ascending heights. However, whereas the Renaissance solution for a similar effect such as at St. Peter's was to enlarge the column, creating colossal orders, the Gothic masons found a means through the articulation of the clustered column to maintain a scale in relation to the individual, a point well articulated by Claude Bragdon, "architecture is not necessarily the most awe-inspiring which gives the impression of having been built by giants for the abode of pigmies; like the other arts, architecture is highest when it is most human. The mediaeval builders, true to this dictum, employed stones of a size proportionate to the strength of a man working without unusual mechanical aids; the great piers and columns, built up of many such stones, were commonly subdivided into clusters, and the circumference of each shaft of such a cluster approximated the girth of a man; by this device the moulding of the base and the foliation of the caps were easily kept in scale."


Amiens Cathedral
Symmetry, specifically bilateral symmetry certainly provides an obvious state of balance. This occurs vertically of course in the human body, at least if dividing facing its front or back. Nevertheless, nature provides numerous alternative states of equilibrium of which Bragdon highlights an example familiar to all of us, "If one were to establish an axial plane vertically through the center of a tree, in most cases it would be found that the masses of foliage, however irregularly shaped on either side of such an axis, just about balanced each other." He goes on to illustrate how that principle of balance was well understood by medieval builders and informed their work, "A far more subtle and vital illustration of the law occurs when the opposed elements do not exactly match, but differ from each other, as in the case of the two towers of Amiens, for example. This sort of balance may be said to be characteristic of Gothic."

Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Thank you for posting this interesting article.

  2. Very good, it greatly supplements my enjoyment of the cathedrals I recently visited (including Chartre) in France.