An introduction to some of the most astonishing architectural monuments the world has ever known—Gothic cathedrals. We shall study the art, literature, intellectual life, economics, and new social arrangements that arose in the shadow of the cathedrals and that were such an important part of the revival of cities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The goal of the course is a better appreciation of the High Middle Ages, a world that is still recognizably our own.
What you will learn
Introduction & Saint-Denis I
An introduction to the history of Paris in the centuries of chaos following the death of Charlemagne in 814 and the building of the first Gothic cathedral at Saint-Denis, just north of Paris. The old abbey church, where the kings of France were buried, was inadequate, and so a new building project was undertaken by Abbot Suger, who financed the new building through efficient land management and the commercial Fair of Lendit along a trade route between northern and southern Europe.
Here we encounter the portrait of Abbot Suger via his account of how and why he built Saint-Denis, what is portrayed on the West façade of the cathedral, and how the doctrine of God as light, encountered in a book which had come from Byzantium to the abbey centuries earlier, was translated into architectural form. We see some of the objects that are part of the treasury of Saint-Denis and discuss the Abbot’s notion of “anagogical uplift” as a way of moving—via stained glass—between the Old and New Testaments and from the material to the spiritual plane.
Filling in the background of Romanesque churches that preceded Gothic buildings, we discuss the origins and engineering innovations of the new style of religious architecture. These include ribbed vaults, reinforced pillars, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and a modular system of bay construction; all of which permits the construction of higher and lighter, thinner walls filled with stained glass.
Notre Dame de Paris
Moving to the heart of Paris, we explore the initial construction of Notre-Dame and the innovations that were undertaken almost as soon as the building began. We discuss the sculptural programs of Notre-Dame’s West façade, including the portal which depicts the life of Saint Anne, Christ’s grandmother, and Mary, his mother and the central portal of the Last Judgment. Along the south side, we discover the story of the stoning of Saint Stephen; and, along the North, the miracle of Theophilus and the Virgin. Moving inside the cathedral, we encounter the stunning rose windows of Notre-Dame.