The Gothic Architecture Of France And England
Though France and England are not the countries most often associated with gothic architecture and gothic cathedrals, both nations played an integral role in the development of this classic style.
The distinctions between French and English Gothic architecture are defined by more than just geography. A wealth of artistic and spiritual meaning is contained in each unique form and in every unique structure. The early stages of Gothic Architecture in England span the end of the twelfth century through the first half of the thirteenth. The primary styles used to construct cathedrals during this period were Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln and Salisbury, each of which gleaned the majority of its forms and elements from the Romans. Conversely, the French Gothic style erected during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries tended to center around a rather mystifying array of ostentatious designs and garish motifs. However, this flamboyant style was not nearly as unsystematic as it sometimes appeared on the surface.
Throughout the height of twelfth century, in the region surrounding Paris, a variety of groundbreaking art forms began to be incorporated into the renovations of existing church structures. Originally composed of an amalgam of elements seen in previously constructed religious buildings (in particular, the Romanesque abbeys), the fresh approach soon drew attention to its own intrinsic worth. Before “going out of style”, the expression we know today as Gothic Art pervaded European architectural development for the almost four hundred years.
Actually, though, the churches and cathedrals of the Gothic era are presently experiencing a renewed enthusiasm. Unfortunately this recent interest comes long after the widespread annihilation of many of these magnificent structures. During the reign of Napoleon III, the French Gothic structures were threatened with complete extermination by Imperial order. Ironically, this aim was accomplished most successfully within the heart of Paris; the very place the Gothic spirit was born. During this ill-fated movement, massive numbers of superior structures were ravaged or completely destroyed by the great grandchildren of their medieval builders. The precise level of damage is currently impossible to estimate. The sole concern during later ages was the entire deletion of what were viewed as "immense monuments" to primitive "bad taste."
No other period of artistic accomplishment has been so mercilessly dishonored. Yet the destruction never realized anything near a total obliteration. Today we may still benefit from the profound spiritual, architectural and cultural legacies contained within the structures that began in the Gothic era.
Despite what many people think, Gothic style does not merely define cathedral structures. Art, sculpture, glass works, decorative pieces and illuminated manuscripts from the mid 12th through the early 16th century are also contained under the Gothic “umbrella”. Gothic architecture was part of an entire movement of gothic art and inspiration that infiltrated the literary, social, political, and religious communities of Europe.
Politics have actually always played a substantial role in European architecture. The size of most cathedrals was based upon how much money the Bishop had, or could extract from the townspeople. In fact, it was standard practice that right before a church member passed away, the bishop or one of the church workers would approach the dying person and ask if they would be willing to give all of their possessions over to the effort to build the cathedral.
A revolution in building techniques occurred when the structure of the Gothic vault was transformed from thick and heavy to airy and light. While the most primitive Gothic structures incorporated a vast assortment of styles, the construction of a new breed of cathedrals in northern France, starting in the latter part of the 12th century, encouraged numerous architectural innovations to be adapted. The creators of the cathedrals soon discovered that since the outward thrusts of the vaults were concentrated in the smaller regions and were also directed downward by the pointed arches, the pressure from excessive weight could be easily offset by narrow buttresses and by external arches, called flying buttresses. As a result, the thick walls of Romanesque architecture could be replaced in great numbers by thinner walls with glass windows, and the interiors could reach unparalleled levels of artistic achievement.
From the start, gothic architecture in France focused on meticulous attention to detail. Complexity was the defining element. Very often the structures incorporated two towers that would loom over the myriad of stained-glass windows, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. Extra columns and piers were usually added in an attempt to make the buildings look less repetitive and tedious. While the structures were usually quite precise and formulaic, this was often somewhat masked by the aesthetic embellishments.
This is in great contrast with English gothic architecture, which was at the onset, quite conservative and to some degree, more classical in design. Superfluities and sentiment were of far less concern than issues such as the number of windows flying buttresses and columns used. The walls and ceilings, built primarily of stone were much thicker and heavier than the French gothic structures, which gave the buildings a weighed down, beleaguered appearance. The master builders and craftsmen of the Gothic era learned through trial and error how to build strong, tall edifices that were both light and decorative. Some of the obstacles facing these men were wind pressure, balance, mass, abutment, thrust and how to support the sheer weight of these massive structures. Little mathematical theory was used in the design; tracing and sketching were used instead.
Having even just a spoonful of knowledge about why certain structures look the way they do and what they mean can bring to life the culture and personality of the entire country. The styles of cathedrals constructed in France and in England at any given time were undoubtedly representative of the political, social and economic conditions in place at the time of their construction The Gothic architectural style should always be viewed as part of the whole culture and its physical environment. For those reasons it is important to take into consideration all these facts when analyzing these historical masterpieces. Although not a primary subject of focus in world history, England and France’s developments in the area of gothic architecture were unique, innovative and as beneficial to the people of the future as they were to the societies of the past.