Category Archives: Gothic

Chain, Chain, Chain

Last evening I watched the rebroadcast of a somewhat disappointing PBS documentary on the building of Gothic cathedrals which, while not quite as eye-rollingly ridiculous as your standard Conspiracy Channel – aka History Channel – piece, still had some rather bad bits to it. This is, as always, based on a lack of understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and an unwillingness or invincible ignorance on the part of the filmmakers either to educate themselves or their audience. Among other curiosities for example, the generalized assertion was made during the film that a cathedral could not have been built without the invention of the pointed arch. However cathedrals, with and without pointed arches, existed both before and after the period in which Gothic structures were built.

Any Catholic knows (or ought to know) that what makes a cathedral a cathedral is not the style or the size of the building, but rather the fact that a cathedral is the seat, or “cathedra”, of a bishop. Thus the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, while the largest church in the city, is not the cathedral, for it is not the seat of the Archbishop. Similarly, the Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Stephen in Speyer, Germany, is a Romanesque building, and the Cathedral of St. Matthew, here in Washington, is a Neo-Byzantine building. The former predates the Gothic era, and the latter postdates it: neither of these has a pointed arch in sight, but each is still a cathedral.

A more interesting part of the film dealt with the issue of height and how the effort of builders during the Gothic age to build impossibly tall vaults often led to disasters. The Cathedral of Beauvais is perhaps the most famous example, and it was astounding – indeed, quite frightening – to see the present state of the Cathedral there, with horrific bracing and scaffolding trying to keep the whole thing from collapsing. I have written about Beauvais recently as regular readers will recall, but to see mass being celebrated amidst terrifying structural supports was truly a skin-crawling moment.

In examining the Cathedral of Amiens, the documentary showed how the vaults are both caving in and pushing out, using laser-guided computer modeling taken at the site. Many of my readers may not be aware that probably the only thing keeping this beautiful structure from tumbling into ruin is a massive, wrought-iron chain. It was installed, red-hot, around the triforium of the crossing in 1497, and down the length of the structure. The hope was that, as it cooled, it would pull the walls and columns of the building back into place and hold them there, which it has done successfully for over 500 years now.

The use of chains as integral engineering design or post-construction patchwork to support tall structures is not unique to Amiens; in fact historically, the use of enormous iron chains proved particularly important for domed structures. For example, inside the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren wrapped a giant wrought iron chain to keep the sides of the dome from spreading and causing the structure to collapse. A similar design was used by Brunelleschi when constructing the iconic dome-within-a-dome of the Cathedral of Florence, as well as in restoration of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul, and even in the restoration and support of Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

As the film moved on, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary’s review of the decoration of the great French Gothic cathedrals was what I believe to be a missed opportunity to consider their facades. In addressing the aesthetics of these churches the filmmakers focused on the stained glass, naturally enough, and presented a bit on the design of a cathedral portal, although this latter was particularly unsatisfying. The filmmakers thought it odd that Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists would appear, sculpted in stone, on a cathedral facade. Again, as in the case of what makes a cathedral a cathedral, the film shows only a cursory understanding of the Church. We know that many theologians in the Scholastic era of the Church looked back to the preserved knowledge of the ancients for clues as to the Mysteries of Creation and the Incarnation.

So for the enjoyment of my readers, I wanted to show an image of what the exterior decoration of Amiens originally looked like. Our ancestors in the Faith were a far more colorful and interesting people than the stark, sometimes imposing, present-day condition of their churches would in certain instances lead us to believe. In this sense, there is a conceptual chain which links them to the classical past, which itself was not the blindingly white world that modern interpretations of classical architecture, such as the monumental core of Washington, D.C., would otherwise indicate.

As you may be aware, the Greeks and Romans did not build the white-washed temples that we see today, but decorated their facades with brightly, often garishly painted sculptures. The decoration of the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives us some notion of what the Parthenon, for example, must have looked like in its heyday, before the effects of weather, war, and decay bleached it to its bones. Similarly, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages loved color on the exterior of their buildings, as much as they loved it on the interior; the latter aspect is more familiar to us as exemplified in the stained glass windows and altarpieces which have come down through history.

When the Cathedral of Amiens was being cleaned in 2000, researchers came across multiple traces of polychrome decoration on the sculptures of the West Front, underneath centuries of dirt, grime, and pollution deposits. The carvings themselves were completed between c. 1230-1240, a remarkably short period of time, meaning that they have a wonderful harmony of design. Using their findings and computer imaging, experts were able to come up with an overlay projection of the original decoration of the facade. This is now projected on top of the West Front in the evening during summer and at Christmastide; a photograph of one of these illuminations is reproduced below.

If this writer is ever fortunate enough to make his way to Amiens on pilgrimage, he is hopeful that it will coincide with one of these displays, for it no doubt will be an awe-inspiring thing. Certainly I would like to see the great chain that keeps the entire thing from going the way of Beauvais, but I would also like to see this projection as a kind of chain in and of itself. For after all, Christianity is not a break with the Ancients, but rather the final, missing link of centuries of human yearning for something more, beyond the hedonism of pagan times.

The West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Amiens,
with an approximation of its original polychrome decoration
projected onto the facade.

Leave a comment

Filed under architecture, cathedral, Church, engineering, France, Gothic

>Losing Their Heads: Stewardship in Spain

>Common sense warns us that carrying on certain activities in proximity to certain structures is not such a good idea. Reasonable people would, presumably, agree that lighting a large bonfire next to a log cabin is not such a good idea, since a stray spark could set the structure on fire. Another example of common sense would be, the use of explosive materials in close proximity to a historic building is also probably not such a good idea.

And then, of course, there is the current batch of Spanish socialists.

The central square in Toledo, Spain, is dominated on the SW corner by city hall, and on the NE corner by the Cathedral, seat of the Primate of Spain. It is generally considered to be the most important of the Spanish Gothic cathedrals, completed mostly between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On this past Sunday, the Feast of the Assumption, the city council set off a mascletà in this town square. Although more common in Valencia than in Castile, a mascletà roughly speaking is a combination of fireworks and large amounts of gunpowder, designed to impress viewers with the shock wave effects of coordinated explosions. These fireworks have taken place over the past three years despite warnings from the Dean of the Cathedral and the Partido Popular (the Spanish national conservative party), that the use of explosives so close to the Cathedral was not such a smart idea. The Socialist city mayor and his counsellors on the other hand, have always maintained that reports from their technical experts say it is perfectly safe to stage the explosions in the square.

And so it was that on Sunday night, the shock wave from the explosions ended up decapitating one of the 14th century granite angels on the facade of the Cathedral. The head fell right next to a man and his son who were leaving the building at the conclusion of the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Archbishop Braulio Rodriguez, the present Primate of Spain. Fortunately, no one was injured.

As one can imagine, this is an “I told you so” moment for those who cautioned that this was a dangerous activity. It has been announced that the city will pay for the repairs to the cathedral, and that the site for the fireworks will be moved next year to a safer location. However, the mayor has also responded that despite their protests, the conservative party never provided technical reports to substantiate their claim that the activity was unsafe.

It should not be necessary to explain, in the 21st let alone any other century, that setting off explosions next to old buildings covered in sculptures, located in a crowded urban nucleus, is unsafe. The activity is lacking in basic common sense, regardless of what technical reports indicate. A technical expert can, at best, speak in probabilities. Even if the probabilities are extremely low, however, if there is no absolute reason to engage in an unsafe activity around an historic monument such as the Toledo Cathedral, why risk it in the first place?

Similarly, regular readers know that I am not exactly thrilled with the prospect of tunneling a high-speed train tunnel close to the foundations of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which Pope Benedict XVI will dedicate and declare a Minor Basilica this November. There have been warnings from a number of very reasonable people that this is not such a good idea, since the structural integrity of the building could be compromised by tunneling or the vibrations of passing trains, or both. These are also being ignored by the present government.

There needs to be a greater appreciation throughout Spain that one of the reasons people flock to visit is because of the magnificent and unique architectural heritage in cities like Toldeo and Barcelona. Putting that heritage at risk of damage or destruction is not, in the long term, going to improve the lives either of the country’s citizens, nor indeed the reputation of Spain in the eyes of the world. There needs to be a great concern for the stewardship of these monuments and a fundamental respect for them, regardless of whatever political party happens to be in control of either city hall, the Cortes, or Moncloa. While the angel can be repaired, this damage should never have happened in the first place.

Head of the angel from the Cathedral of Our Lady,
damaged in Sunday’s fireworks display in Toledo, Spain

Leave a comment

Filed under architecture, Barcelona, cathedral, Church, engineering, Gothic, Sagrada Familia, sculpture, Spain, Toledo

>Barcelona in the Details Part V: Municipal Water Fountains

>Barcelona is a city which has become justly renowned around the world for its attention to design in its architecture and infrastructure. Back in 2008 I wrote pieces about the city’s unique variety of sidewalks, its unusual street lights, its distinctive royal residences, and its unusual Christmas traditions. Another element of the city which deserves attention is the variety of municipal water fountains – as distinguished from purely ornamental garden or patio fountains – to be found throughout both the older and newer portions of downtown.

Access to water is, of course, one of the elements necessary for the growth of any city. Recently my parents and I admired the remnants of one of the Roman aqueducts that brought fresh water from the mountains that sit at the north end of Barcelona proper down into what is now referred to as the Gothic Quarter, the heart of the ancient city. These arches were only uncovered recently, holding up part of an 18th century building across from the great Catholic bookshop Editorial Balmes, when an old apartment building had to be torn down. City officials wisely decided not to redevelop the site, so as to leave the arches exposed.

Throughout the twisting streets of the Gothic Quarter, medieval water fountains of highly varied design can often be found. Take this amusing example, which sits in the small square in front of the ancient Basilica of Saints Justus and Pastor, which served as Barcelona’s pro-cathedral during the 11th century. It was built in 1367 with funds donated by Barcelona City Councilman Joan Fiveller, to pipe water from the same mountains where the Roman aqueduct had once run:


Most of the municipal water fountains to be found today are based on a 19th century design, featuring a columnar base and domed top. They come in several versions, large and small, featuring one or more taps. Some of these form the base of one of the wrought-iron Victorian street lamps which still illuminate much of the city. The most famous example of this particular style is the Font de Canaletes, located on the Ramblas. Legend says that if you drink from the Canaletes fountain, you will return to Barcelona one day, and the fountain has become the gathering point for fans of Barça, Barcelona’s legendary soccer team, whenever they win a match.

The design of these 19th century fountains has become so emblematic of Barcelona as to be copied in many other cities throughout Spain. In fact, it is available in a reduced size in many tourist shops, for those wishing to have their own personal-sized version on their desk or counter top. The one photographed here is seen in the early hours of the morning in the Eixample, Barcelona’s 19th century expansion district, at the intersection of Pau Claris and Diputació:


A grander version of this 19th century design however, can be found at the intersection of the Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s equivalent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, one of the prestigious, broad avenues lined with fountains and palatial banks, theatres, and hotels which cut across the 19th century city. Like the other, larger municipal water fountains, it has a columnar base, domed top, and multiple spigots for obtaining fresh water. Unlike these however, given the prominence of its location, this fountain is more elaborately decorated, and features gilt-bronze goddesses holding up the dome. It was only recently restored and re-installed by the city for the use of citizens and the admiration of those who appreciate its beautiful design:



It might be considered somewhat unusual, in this day and age, when homes have running water and concern grows over new infectious diseases such as swine flu, that Barcelona would continue to upkeep these beautiful elements of civic infrastructure. Certainly the user should obtain water from these fountains knowing full-well that to do so might run them certain health risks. However, in Mediterranean countries where fresh water is often difficult to come by, providing these many points of access to local water supplies is something which the city has always thought important to maintain in the interest of good civic service to its population.

1 Comment

Filed under architecture, Barcelona, design, engineering, Gothic, Victorian, water fountains

>St. Clare and the White Stones

>REMINDER: Gentle reader, you have until midnight on August 15, 2009 to enter your submission in The Courtier’s Birthday Contest!

+ + ++ +

As yesterday I wrote a bit about El Escorial on the Feast of St. Lawrence, to whom that basilica-monastery complex is dedicated, it is only fair that today, on the Feast of St. Clare, I write a little about the Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes, which has been in the hands of the Poor Clares since its founding in 1326. Clare Scifi, daughter of the Count of Sasso-Rosso, was born in Assisi in 1194, and died there on August 11, 1253. In the year 1212 she left home to follow St. Francis of Assisi, and later founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, renamed The Poor Clares after her death.

In the 14th century, Barcelona grew to the height of its territorial expansion across the Mediterranean, but it suffered a blip in its imperial efforts during the reign of King James II. In a somewhat unusual land swap, and not the only one of his reign, James got involved with fighting his brother, parleying with the House of Anjou, and meddling by Pope Boniface VIII, and decided to trade his rule of Sicily for rule over Sardinia and Corsica. This particular relinquishing of territory, among others, were later reversed by his successors.

When he died in 1327 his fourth wife, Queen Elisenda of Montcada, was still a young woman only 18 years old, and she could have married again. Instead, she retreated north of Barcelona to the village of Pedralbes (a Catalan name deriving from the locality’s original Roman designation of “Petras Albas” or “place of white stones”.) The year previously, in 1326, she had founded the convent of Santa Maria de Pedralbes for the Poor Clares, and she entered into the cloister there.

Being not only a Dowager Queen but also coming from an extremely wealthy and powerful Catalan noble family, the Queen had encountered little difficulty in constructing the resulting monastic complex. Elisenda not only had enormous wealth, but the will and the good taste to have things done exactly how she pleased. The large monastery church, for example, in pure Cistercian Gothic style, was built in the unbelievably short period of 13 months.

By 1343 the beautifully preserved Chapel of St. Michael in the three-story cloister, decorated with (for the time) highly contemporary Sienese frescoes, was completed. When Queen Elisenda died in 1364, the large majority of structures on the site were also finished. The detail I would like to draw my reader’s attention to is the unusual double-sided tomb of Queen Elisenda.

As was typical of monarchs for many centuries, Elisenda wanted her sepulcher to be as close to the center of things as possible. Her large and highly decorated tomb stands within the wall just to the right of the High Altar of the church. On this side, the recumbent figure of Elisenda is dressed as a queen, surrounded by gold and lavish decoration with a large architectural canopy. However, the other half of her tomb gives onto the cloister, on the other side of the wall, and on that side the figure of Elisenda is dressed as a Poor Clare in (comparatively) much simpler decoration.

Clearly, either Elisenda or her successors at the convent did not forget who she had been before she left the world for the cells of the Poor Clares. Whether this marble and alabaster monument was what she herself wanted for herself, to be honest, I do not know. We can be reasonably certain that the Foundress of the Order probably would not have approved – St. Clare, despite herself the daughter of a powerful noble family, would not have wanted her body put on display in a glass case, as it is today in Assisi. Nevertheless, allowing some license for beauty and its ability to draw us into contemplation of the Divine, Queen Elisenda’s exceptionally good taste brought about the completion of a superb and cohesive example of 14th century architecture that is well-worth the trek to the northern end of modern-day Barcelona.

Tomb of Queen Elisenda, inside the sanctuary of the monastic church.

Tomb of Queen Elisenda, inside the monastic cloister.

1 Comment

Filed under architecture, art history, Assisi, Barcelona, Catalonia, Church, Cistercian, Gothic, Montcada, Pedralbes, Poor Clares, Queen Elisenda, sculpture, St. Clare

>St. Thorfinn of Hamar and the Ginormous Barn

>Today is the Feast of St. Thorfinn, Bishop of Hamar, a somewhat obscure Norwegian saint who lived in the 13th century. He came into conflict with King Eric II of Norway over the perpetual problem of separation between Church and state, specifically the right of the state to interfere in episcopal affairs. Along with a number of other Norwegian bishops, St. Thorfinn went into exile in Rome. Eventually he settled at the Flemish Cistercian Abbey of Ter Doest, in present-day Belgium, as it is believed he was originally a Cistercian monk before being raised to the episcopate, and he died there in 1285.

I was reading about St. Thorfinn and did a search for the Abbey of Ter Doest, just to get a sense of what the place looks like. St. Thorfinn’s native Trondheim or Hamar are better-known to me as a result of reading books like the “Kristinlavransdatter Saga” of Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset. Sadly, the monastery itself is long gone, destroyed by the Protestants during the Reformation. What remains however, is an absolutely astounding piece of construction: a huge Gothic barn or “tiendenschuur” that was completed around 1280. St. Thorfinn would have watched the construction of this massive structure during his time at the abbey.

Gothic agricultural outbuildings like barns, stables, and similar structures are, for obvious reasons, extremely rare. They were working buildings rather than sacred space. As a result, when they fell into disrepair they were often razed and replaced with new construction. In addition, when an abbey fell short of money or the town encroached as a result of urbanization, hard-up abbots often had to sell off their lands – or indeed, were stripped of their lands by order of the state. The survival of this colossal, beautiful building is truly miraculous. What must the barns and outbuildings of larger and wealthier monastic communities such as Cluny have been like?

Leave a comment

Filed under architecture, Belgium, Church, Cluny, Flanders, Gothic, Norway, Undset