Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It also emphasizes the priest's role as an intermediary between the common people and God. He performs the rituals, which are important in earning salvation. The priest is also allowed to go behind the screen, unlike the average person, further emphasizing that he possesses a holiness and closeness to God the average person doesn't. The apse, the head of the church, is the most holy place in the building. This is where the high altar is located. This altar contains holy items such as relics, which are belongings or body parts of dead saints.
The Gothic style saw the widespread use of stained glass. Colored pieces of glass were arranged in windows to create abstract designs and images of important people, primarily religious characters. One of the purposes of these images is to instruct the largely illiterate audience. Another purpose was to fill the church with brilliant and beautiful light. Light represented enlightenment, purity and spirituality and, thus, was associated with God. To fill the church with light was to fill it with the presence of the Almighty.
There was particular emphasis on the light flooding into the apse. This is the first place where windows started to be widened when new engineering knowledge made it possible. Thus, the light of God was most powerful were the holy relics and the priests were located. In addition, the light was at its most brilliant during the morning. Churches were generally built with the apse facing east, toward the rising sun. The rising sun is a metaphor for rebirth and resurrection, just as the setting sun can represent death. So light of the new, reborn sun floods the apse every morning.
Earlier styles strove to build bigger churches in general. In the Gothic style, the emphasis was on building them taller. On the inside, the nave was many stories tall. Not only did this create visible space, it also allowed an immense area to be opened with stained-glass windows.
While priests, of course, taught many religious messages in the Middle Ages, the physical church building was also an important source of teaching. Entering the church was an act of leaving the mundane world and entering the sacred.
The symmetry of the floor plan reflected divine order. The west face and the tympanum reminded people of the Trinity and the rulership and judgment of Jesus from Heaven above. Standing within the narthex or nave of the church allowed people to be one with the spiritual. The priests' ability to step beyond the transept into the apse reflected the special, holy position they held within the church.
Light was an important part of the message as well. With walls stretching toward Heaven, builders were able to include massive windows that brought in light through stained glass, reflecting the power and enlightenment of God. All of these visual elements helped the average person understand their place in the world and how they related to the church.
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons