Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16
Historical Background

DEFINITIONS of a style or point of view in art history are often vague and arbitrary; but just as Abbot Suger's Saint-Denis ( 1140 and 1144) reflects a dramatic departure from Romanesque, so the new synthesis and transformation of early Gothic forms in the cathedrals of Chartres (begun 1194) and Bourges (begun about 1195) mark the dramatic emergence of two kinds of High Gothic architecture. Both Chartres and Bourges are not only extraordinary monuments in themselves; they are also central in their influence on the design of subsequent monuments. The Chartres master omitted the gallery or tribune of the four- story cathedrals like Noyon, Laon, and Paris and rethought the relatively squat three-story elevation of the format of Sens and the choir of Vézelay at the same time that he increased the verticality of the twelfth-century four-story cathedrals. He created a new relationship of parts. The clerestory was greatly enlarged to equal the height of the soaring nave arcade, while the dark triforium passageway, similar to triforia in Noyon and Laon, acted as the middle, dividing zone. Further, the Chartres master developed a new nave pier with four attached colonnettes and employed, for the first time, a uniform four-part vault for each bay of nave and transept. In contrast to Early Gothic cathedrals, in which the ribs rise from capitals at the bottom of the clerestory, the Chartres ribs rise from a much higher point in the clerestory zone. Flying buttresses, invented for the nave of Notre- Dame of Paris in the 1180's, are used to stabilize the vaults and roof of the entire cathedral. Thick wall buttresses and flying buttresses, placed at right angles to the longitudinal axis of Chartres, impart a dynamic animation to the exterior which is consistent with the interior treatment of nave and aisles. Forms identifiable as Gothic first appeared in church interiors, but in the relation of interior space and exterior mass, vestiges of a Romanesque mural emphasis remained and were not eliminated until late in the twelfth century, when flying buttresses were employed in the construction of the nave of Paris. As the discussion of Chartres will illustrate, the Chartres master, although dependent on the innovations of Early Gothic masters, created a new kind of Gothic -- High Gothic. The plan, elevation, spatial treatment, structural system, and massing of Chartres ( 1194) influenced in turn the design of the cathedrals of Soissons (late 1190's), of Reims ( 1211), of Amiens ( 1220), and others.

The master of the Cathedral of Saint Étienne at Bourges (begun about 1195) retained more features of Early Gothic architecture than did the Chartres master. He continued to employ the six- part vaults of Laon and other twelfth-century cathedrals, with the resulting alteration in the design of the nave piers. However, with four aisles flanking the nave in a plan reminiscent of Notre- Dame of Paris, the Bourges master created an unusual lateral extension of space through the high nave arcade into the inner aisles with their triforia and clerestories. A smaller church of three stories thus echoes the elevation of the nave. Features of Bourges affected the design of later cathedrals such as the choir of Le Mans ( 1217), Coutances ( 1230), and cathedrals in Spain. The impact of Bourges, however, was not as strong or as widespread as that of Chartres in subsequent High Gothic designs.

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