From The Vicar June 2024

In the early Middle Ages a new style of building construction transformed the style and appearance of churches throughout Europe and around the world. The new design which represented extraordinary innovations in engineering and architecture were first built in 12th Century France from a design conceived by Abbot Suger (1081-1151 CE). Immediately recognisable features including the pointed arch windows and ceilings (Rib Vaulting) and external buttressing (Flying Buttresses) resolved some of the long-standing weight distribution issues in previous structural designs. The resulting ability to increase height, space, and light instantly transformed the way a church might also heighten the sense of that which is sacred. This new design became known as Gothic Architecture.

Revealing the glory of God

As the design developed further, the effects of light and space became so unbelievably im[1]pressive that it might seem other-worldly to the Medieval mind. In any age, while looking up toward the spires and into the bright and colourful cathedral ceilings lit brightly by the huge stained glass windows, the devoted worshipper might feel they were literally looking into the revealed glory of God as described in Scripture. The glory of God is most commonly expressed in Scripture as light, brightness, or fire as in Exodus 24:17 NRSV ‘Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.’ And in the New Testament, the light breaking through from heaven to earth blinds Saul as described in his conversion, Acts 9:3 ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

The pointed arch ceilings give effective weight distribution to a larger roof structure. To fully appreciate the effect this new architecture had on those who entered the gothic churches and cathedrals, we look at that which had gone before. The Romanesque church[1]es (the previous style), presented architectural and engineering limitations of height and space, which also placed limitations on ambiance. The Romanesque and all previous de[1]signs required thick walls and smaller windows, and in comparison to their Gothic neigh[1]bours, these buildings often feel heavy and dark. Notice the smaller windows and the round arches below.

In contrast, the engineering and construction innovations in the 12th Century produced cathedrals of extraordinary height, light and space. The pointed arches of the Gothic style allows the use of tall spires with larger windows. Stabilising the outwards thrust of the walls and the weight of the roof with the Flying Buttresses enables the added height of the naves and soaring spires.

he Gothic style was so revolutionary that there have been various revivals of this architectural style since the Middle Ages (including our own Christ Church Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand).

The innovation, vision and simplicity of the Gothic style is held in great esteem. Even in the 21st century where construction materials and technique grant us even greater height and lightness, still… millions of people travel great distances for the experience of being within one of the great Gothic Cathedrals. Cathedrals: transformation in the Middle Ages Part two next month.

Nga Mihi,