Chartres Cathedral; Taking Gothic Style To New Heights, Part Two

by bria4123 on March 28, 2012


The fire that destroyed all of the old cathedral at Chartres (except the west entrance) was a blessing in disguise.

People could build a new church from scratch, and synthesize features from earlier Gothic cathedrals into something new. They also employed new technologies which allowed them to raise Gothic style to one of the high points of Western culture. Chartres Cathedral became a model for High Gothic architecture all over Europe. It’s easy to see why.

One of the greatest innovations at Chartres Cathedral is the use of flying buttresses.

You can see them in the above photo of the east end. They rise up to the green roof line, and apply horizontal pressure to support the high walls. The picture below shows the revolution.

Here, flying buttresses support the northern wall of the nave. You can see two levels of them. For the first time, flying buttresses supported the entire cathedral. This allowed some of the greatest flowerings of art in world history.

Here’s the line of graceful buttresses from a higher elevation. No other culture did anything like this. Khmers were building their grandest monuments at the same time–their king was building a huge royal city called Angkor Thom. It’s magnificent in its own way, but Gothic style is unique too:

1. The flying buttresses allowed people to greatly increase the height of the nave. Gothic style’s expansion in the vertical dimension expressed people’s desires for spiritual transcendence.  Khmers achieved height either by building a monument on a hill (like Phnom Bakheng), or by building a high central tower (like Angkor Wat). But the entire Gothic cathedral rises over 100 feet, and towers have soared to over 500 feet (Lincoln Cathedral’s central spire rose to 524 feet, until a windstorm ripped it down in 1549).

2. Flying buttresses allowed windows to take up most of the wall space. People in Romanesque churches were enclosed by two-dimensional walls. Now, folks were surrounded by light shows that nobody in the world had seen before. People in the height of the Middle Ages, with all that new space and height, created one of the world’s greatest art forms. We’ll bask in the glory of Chartres’ stained glass windows in the next post, on Gothic style’s heart.

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