Symbolic & Liturgical Meanings of Gothic Architecture

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  • 0:20 The Footprint
  • 1:20 Spiritual & Material Planes
  • 3:00 Walking Through the Church
  • 4:20 Light of God
  • 5:25 Vertical Elements
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

In a world of illiteracy, the art and architecture of the church was an important source of religious teaching. Learn how the various parts of the Gothic church helped remind people of their place within the world of medieval Christianity in this lesson.

Architecture's Educational Purpose

The Gothic church was much more than a building in which people gathered to worship. In an age where very few people were literate, the art and architecture of the church also provided religious education to those within it. Here, we discuss how the physical structure of the Gothic church communicated a variety of symbolic and liturgical meanings to medieval Christians.

The Footprint

The first thing we will consider, and the first thing a church-builder needs to consider, is the footprint of the church. One of the goals was symmetry, having both sides of the building mirror one another. This creates a very organized and unified appearance. It was understood that perfect, divine things were also very orderly things. Thus, the church building was a reflection of perfection and divine unity that people should turn to in their spiritual pursuits.

For centuries, it had been traditional to build large churches in the shape of a Christian cross, and Gothic architecture continued that trend. The cross is the most powerful symbol in Christianity. Christ died on a cross, and that death is understood to be a sacrifice which allows salvation for the faithful, which is the ultimate message of the religion. Therefore, it makes sense that the holiest locations reflect the shape of the cross. The cross also resembles the shape of a person, and that comparison is also used in church architecture. The narthex is the foot of the person, while the apse is the head.

Spiritual and Material Planes

In Christianity, there is a strong theme of spirituality and materiality being opposing forces. The world in which we live is the material world. It is full of temptation and sin, which threaten one's salvation and entrance into Heaven, which is the spiritual world. The entrance is part of the west face, so called because it traditionally faces west. It's here that people enter the church through the narthex, or where the symbolic foot touches the ground. The west face is a point of transition from the outside, material world into the divine world of the church.

There are traditionally three doors in the narthex, reflecting the belief in the Holy Trinity. The Trinity teaches that God is composed of three natures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There's also three major elements to the west face: the two towers plus the section in the middle. These also symbolizes the Trinity.

Upon passing through the doors, a person transitions from the mundane into the sacred. To help remind people of this, there are decorations over the door in a recessed area known as a tympanum. Commonly, this is an image of Heaven, reminding people that God is always watching from above. Here, the baby Jesus sits on the lap of his mother, the Virgin Mary, who wears a golden crown indicating she is the Queen of Heaven.

A tympanum usually featured heavenly images
Image of a tympanum

Often, the tympanum image is related to the Final Judgment where Jesus passes judgment upon the souls of the dead, deciding whether they deserve salvation or damnation. This reinforces the lessons of moral living with a reminder that how you live your life impacts what happens to you in the afterlife. Here, the theme of divine orderliness is also seen. Heaven, to the left, is calm and orderly, while Hell, to the right, is chaotic and jumbled.

A tympanum might also feature images of the Final Judgement
Image of a tympanum

Walking Through the Church

If we were to pass through the narthex, we would enter the nave, the large, vaulted area of the church. This represents the body of our symbolic person. During services, it's full of everyday believers. After traveling the length of the nave, we would then reach the transept, which are the arms of the person. As ordinary people, we would now have to stop. The rest of the church, which we can equate to the head, is off limits to us. There is a screen which blocks our view.

In front of the screen is an altar, and that is where the priest will perform the ceremonies. Unlike today, when priests generally face the congregation, the medieval priest would face the altar, with his back to the congregation. This puts his focus not on the material people, but on the holiest part of the church, the apse, which is behind the screen. On our symbolic person, this equates to the head, which is the part of the body closest to the sky and, thus, to Heaven.

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