Gothic Cathedrals – The Origin of the Term Gothic in Architecture

The term “Gothic” originated in the Renaissance, when humanists and classicizing writers derogatorily referred to “the Goths” who – in the humanists’ view – had destroyed classical culture. In architecture these Renaissance writers differentiated between the Gothic buildings and their favoured classical style.   

Medieval Gothic cathedrals amaze numerous people worldwide. Every year they attract visitors, whether they are Catholics, Christians from other denominations or even non-believers. We generally associate with these magnificent buildings specific features like pinnacles, gargoyles, spires, pointed arches, flying buttresses, tapering pillars, spacious interiors, profuse decoration, ribbed vaults, a large-scale use of stained glass and the circular oculus.

These are also many of the salient characteristics of Gothic architecture. In relation to architecture the term Gothic was actually coined during the Renaissance. Especially Italian humanists as well as classicizing writers and architects of the 16th century like the painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), for example, referred to “the Goths” in a derogatory way to distinguish classical architecture from the – in their view – “barbaric” style in the medieval period.

According to Vasari in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori; 1550, enl. ed. in 1568), this “monstrous” style showed no sign of “any accepted ideas of sense and order.” Broadly speaking, the Renaissance writers linked medieval architecture to the 5th-century Gothic tribes that – in their opinion – had been responsible for destroying the classical culture of the Roman empire.

Instead of the – in Vasari’s words – “accursed buildings” with their pointed arches, the Renaissance men favoured principles or features they attributed to classical architectural style including human dimensions, simplicity, elegance, symmetry and balance. Even though the 16th-century writers correctly pointed out the differences in the architecture of the classical, medieval and Renaissance or early modern period, they made a complete misjudgment regarding the aesthetics and the qualities of Gothic structures.

Intriguingly, Gothic architecture evolved from the Romanesque architectural style. The latter is characterized, for instance, by thick walls, round towers, tunnel vaults, semi-circular arches and windows that are limited in number and size. As far as the Gothic cathedrals are concerned, they originated in northern France during the 12th century. Today, medieval Gothic cathedrals are scattered about Europe. Undoubtedly, one of the most famous of them is Notre-Dame de Paris, which was built between 1163 and 1345.

Notre-Dame de Paris (another view, 2017)
Notre-Dame de Paris in 2017

Needless to say, the recent fire in this impressive place of worship justifiably shocked a very large number of people across the globe because it resulted in immense damage. Thank God and thanks to the firefighters and men like the courages priest, Jean-Marc Fournier, the fire neither destroyed the whole building nor consumed sacred relics such as the Crown of Thorns and several of the irreplaceable artworks.

However, the horrible event has understandably worried a lot of people, above all the French. Notre-Dame de Paris constitutes a house of God, one of the iconic landmarks of Paris and a part of Western civilization. For this reason, statements that depict the famous Gothic cathedral as a mere building are inappropriate. A sign of hope is certainly the great willingness to donate money for the rebuilding.

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang – A Short (Visual) Reflection on a Line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73

England’s monastic past is evoked through a line in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It  also reminds us of what happened to many monasteries and abbeys in Britain during and after the Reformation in England and Scotland.  

Poetry generally possesses a unique character. However, because of the metaphorical language and the elusive allusions, we frequently have difficulty in deciphering the stories poems tell or the messages they convey. The same applies to William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Although Sonnet 73 is no exception in this regard, a single line is particularly striking. We find it at the end of the first quatrain:

“That time of yeare thou maist in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange

Upon those boughes which shake against the could,

Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.”

(This quatrain is taken from Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. P. 234.)

Here Shakespeare evokes England’s monastic past but also alludes to the monastic ruins in the post-Reformation period. In general, the one-line evocation gives a feeling of nostalgia. It permits the interpretation that Shakespeare arguably assumed a critical attitude towards the English Reformation, while he appeared to be in favour of late medieval monasticism and Catholicism.

During as well as after the Reformation in England and Scotland the overthrow of late medieval monasticism resulted in the dissolution, destruction and pillage of many monasteries, abbeys and other religious buildings. A large amount of church land was also transferred.

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The ruins of Battle Abbey (2012)
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Inside Battle Abbey (2012)

Today, we can still visit the romantic ruins. They are a reminder of a distant past. Examples are Battle Abbey, the partially ruined building on the alleged site of the famous Battle of Hastings, and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey beside the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, even though in the 17th century the demolished Augustinian monastery was rebuilt and fell into disrepair in the 18th century.

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The ruins of Holyrood Abbey (2018)

Note: All photos were taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in 2012 and 2018. 

Source

Duffy, Eamon. Saints, Sacrilege & Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformation. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.