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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts


Mix Master
About Mr.B
Gothic Europe:

The Gothic style is that of the Goths. We know that a style is the way art communicated with people, but who are Goths? Basically, they are Scandinavian vikings that relocated to the area of modern day Germany. These Goths, were later seen as "barbarians" who would eventually take out Rome, so it is clear they had some power. But as we see time and time again, it is the "winners" that write history. The Goths would soon loose power to some of the other European groups and their ideals left with them. The "barbarian" label was a jab given by the people of the Renaissance. Why did the Renaissance people dislike the Goth's? That is simple: They saw Gothic art as crap, barbaric, small minded, unskilled, and too abstract: They were rough critics. Although the Gothic style is generally considered German, it is actually of French architectural origins. More is mentioned on this down the page, where I focus on Architecture. 

The focus of the typical Goth was religion, farming, and laborious work. The Gothic era, also known as the Medieval time period, is considered by most scholars as the "Great Age of Faith." So, how does religion, farming and labor fit in with the more modern term, Gothic? Well, simply, it’s a misunderstanding. During the time of the Romantics, writers like Victor Hugo, and the creative people in the society were quite inspired by the Gothic style that began around 1140 and lasted into the 1500s AD. So, when Hugo wrote is amazingly popular The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, the Gothic architecture became the Romantic backdrop. This would mold into an idea that Gothic structures like Notre Dame are Romantic (or centering on fear). This was never the indented message, but one that was passed along all the same. The modern "Gothic style" (or lack there of) with its dark and gloomy vampire look-alikes that scare people at the local mall have nothing to do with the historic Gothic.

On the spectrum of priorities, art and education were at the bottom of the list for people living during the Gothic influence. Ironically, although art and being educated was unimportant, there was a high demand for books. Books were needed for students at the University of Paris, for royalty and nobility as a status symbol, and obviously, for religious reasons. Due to need, illustrated books were being created as never before. Books represented power because only the rich had the expendable money to spend on books and only the nobility had the luxury of literacy. The hand written and bound books were painstakingly illustrated. The illustrations are visual elements that work with a text. This was largely done by one of the only groups of literate people at this time, the monks of the church. One of the first non-religious stories to be written was the story of Gilgamesh. He was a hero-king that sought eternal life. On his journey he single handedly kills a pride of lions, attacks monsters, survives a great flood, and so on. But most could not read this great adventure. So illustrations were drawn in the book so that the illiterate could get a sense for the story even though they could not read the text.

One of the great illustrators of this era was Parisian, Master Honoré (1288–1318). His principal workshop (in operation from 1288-1291) largely worked for the Royal Court of Philip the Fair. He was known for the ornaments, largely ivy with pointed leaves, that framed the pages and small capital letters. His pictorial motifs would influence many stained glass window designs throughout Europe.

Stained glass goes hand in hand with Gothic architecture, as well as Gothic illustration. The invention is a lot older than what is Gothic, but the grand scale of Gothic stained glass work make is a major component. The glass is used to tell stories to the illiterate Biblical stories, but the windows also act as symbolic reminders. The idea taught was simple, as light passes through the window, it takes its color without breaking the glass. Thus, teach that it is possible for God pass through Mary without breaking her virginity and pass us without our knowing as well. The process of making these windows is an extensive one. It begins with a sketch of the desired story to be used in the illustration and the colors desired. The sketch is transferred to scale on wood panels. The glass is placed on these boards. Next the contours of the design are painted on the glass and the colored glaze is painted onto the glass, complete with fabric folds, faces, and various other values required in the window. There glass pieces are fired in a kiln so the colors are fused into the glass. These fired glass sections are weather resistant for centuries. There glass sections are connected with lead channels that are soldered together making a lead web that holds the colored glass. Metal armatures reinforce the windows from within the framework. One of the most amazing examples of stained glass work is La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) in Paris. The glass work began here in 1239 and was not completed until 1248. The effect created here is a virtual wall of class and color that was truly worthy of the relics of the Passion housed in La Sainte-Chapelle.


During this medieval time, the Christian church had power over everything. Cities built cathedrals in the center of town. Many of these cathedrals took over 100 years to build with nothing more than hand tools and scaffolding. These structures were religious and civic centers for the community. The cathedral was used for many things including performances and open-air market places. Although the Gothic architectural style was unlike any other, it was not developed out of thin air. The earliest medieval cathedrals had to be constructed with extremely thick walls, like their Roman counterparts. But as the Gothic style grew, the Gothic would be come more unique, but they continued to have three consistent similarities. The similarities between Gothic and Roman cathedrals are that they both have: three sections, two spires, and are symmetrically built.

Gothic and Roman cathedrals are very distinct in numerous ways. A knowledgeable student would be wise to know several of these differences between Gothic and Roman Cathedrals, being sure they know what group has what characteristic. I like to view it from the Gothic, nothing that Gothic Cathedrals: have more statues, have rounded windows (also called rose window or eye of God), are less geometric (and thus have less wall space), have more windows (possible with the flying buttress), uses the pointed arch (where Rome uses the rounded arch), and ceiling uses a ribbed vault system (designed from two intersecting pointed arches).

As previously mentioned, the Gothic style is of French architectural origins. It began in a small kingdom called Francia (that occupied lands that contained Paris in its center) where Abbot Sugar was placed in charge of building the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis. This Abby, located a few miles north of Paris, France, is built on the spot where St. Denis died. The patron Saint of France, St. Denis was (and is) a very popular Saint in Paris. As the story is told, St. Denis, who was the Bishop of Paris at the time, had his head cut off by some Roman soldiers around 250AD in the area now known as Montmartre (Martyrs Mount), on the far northern edge of Paris. His headless body picked up his head and walked away, traveling two miles north, allegedly preaching the entire way. With this special task of building an Abby on this site, Sugar wanted it to look amazing. He brought together the architectural components of the Burgundians (with their pointed arch) and the Normans (with their tall rib vaulted ceilings); thus creating the Gothic style. Sugar wanted to make the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis pleasing to God, so it was designed using the Temple of Solomon as the prototype. In 1 Kings 6:2-4 of the Bible, it describes the Temple; "…the length thereof was sixty cubits, and the breadth thereof twenty cubits, and the height thereof thirty cubits…And for the house he made windows of narrow lights." Using Biblical numbers in Gothic Architecture is quite common. Although measurement tools have changed, simple conversions show these round Biblical numbers being used commonly. The numbers 40, (Moses in the mount 40 days), 50 (Noah’s Arc was 50 cubits wide), 144 (height of the wall in Heaven), 300 (length of Noah’s Arc), and so on. Light was also seen as a major element of Solomon’s Temple, so Sugar thought the design needed light flooding in. Sugar’s plan would influence numerous cathedrals throughout France, Germany, England, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Transylvania, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and many other countries throughout Europe that implemented the Gothic style. This is really the first time in history the majority of the world is creating using one stylistic idea.

It is truly amazing to reflect on a wall of glass that supports a ceiling of stonein these Gothic Cathedrals. This is only possible using those unique features of Gothic Cathedrals. The pointed arches redirect pressure toward the ground rather than outward. The points of the arch that do have downward pressure, have that pressure redirected using the flying buttress system.

Amiens Cathedral:
The original cathedral in Amiens, France was destroyed by fire and the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Amiens was started in 1220. The construction was completed in 1288. Many towns competed for height of the cathedral spires (towers). The highest in all of France is the Amiens Cathedral. It is 157 feet high (that's as tall as a 20 story building) and holds about ten thousand people. This is a very large construction, keeping in mind that they were built without engine driven machinery or modern building practices. This being true, it was not built without flaws. One of the flying buttresses that supports a wall is too tall. So the pressure of the arch, that is supporting the vaulted ceiling, is basically sliding under the support. This caused many of these cathedrals to collapse.
Notre Dame:
There are many cathedrals with the name of "Notre Dame", but the prototype for the Gothic cathedral is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. It was so influential because it put a new twist on the Gothic architectural formula. There are many features that make Notre Dame interesting, and strangely, none of them has anything to do with Quasimodo. All the same, in the words of Victor Hugo, "The church of Notre-Dame at Paris is doubtless a sublime and majestic edifice. But, not withstanding the beauty it has retained, even in it's old age. One cannot help but feeling grief and indignation at the numberless injuries and mutilations which time and man have inflicted on the venerable structure, regardless of Charlemagne, who lain the first stone of it, and of Philip Augustus, who laid the last." Much work has been done to restore the structure since Hugo's day. The huge structure, built around 1250, is 426 feet long and the vaulted ceiling reaches 115 feet tall (far larger than most Gothic cathedrals). The main level is thirty cubits high, the same hight as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Another of its interesting features are the jamb figures. These figures represent some of the religious, civic, and church leaders. They are known for their elongated style. Along the front of the cathedral is a row of twenty-six French Kings. These are meant to represent the historical consistency and power of the monarchy. So the story goes, during the French Revolution in 1793 a mob of citizens were so enraged that they literally scaled the cathedral to chop off all their heads. The damaged sculptures were replaced and the cathedral was masterfully restored. Later, in 1977, twenty-one of those heads were found buried in a field and now housed in the Musée de Cluny, Paris’s Medieval art museum. Another of Notre Dame's main features is the stained glass windows. Again, these windows are possible becuase the walls are supported by flying buttresses. These windows were used to teach the Bible to the illiterate, and to add color and decoration to the cathedral. The original windows were preserved by storing them underground during times of war in France.

Religious Persecution:

Christians were the most powerful group in Europe. Jews were persecuted and forced to wear special clothing so they were easily identifiable. The people of Jewish faith were attacked and killed all over Europe. The Christians not only singled out Jews, but also went after social outsiders labeling them "witches." These so called witches were also killed in unfair trials. If anyone questioned the Christian church they were labeled a heretic. During a period of the Inquisition, inquisitors looked for these heretics to "change their minds" on their religious beliefs. This was truly one of the darkest chapters in Gothic history. It was during this time that Galileo Galilei, one of histories most respected scientists, was summoned before the Inquisition because he supported the Copernican theory and was forced to publicly deny the theory or face the consequences: He did what he had to do. In 1095 the Holy Wars drove Muslims from their Holy Land in a series of four wars. The Wars and the "barbarian" control of Europe hurt the visual arts during the Gothic era.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063