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The best way to understand the various elements of art, particularly when it comes to examining architectural art, is by studying examples of the various styles that have been developed over the centuries. With a clear conception of the ideas and techniques employed in a particular period, it is possible to gain a greater understanding of a particular period. Through this type of study, one can gain an idea not only of the major characteristics of a particular period but also of how ideas were changing during this period leading into the next. Toward this end, three gothic cathedrals – Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres, France; St. Etienne Cathedral in Bourges, France; and Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany – will be compared and contrasted.
The Notre Dame Cathedral
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres, France was built from approximately 1145-1220 AD. The floorplan of the church takes on the basic shape of a Latin cross, with a rounded upper end and two short transepts that make up the arms of the cross. The church was one of the first to employ the flying buttress, which was designed to help provide the church with its then record-making height. The entrances to the church became the ‘bible of the people in that they typically included sculptures that illustrated important Bible stories. These stories were supposed to help the illiterate make the connections between the royal lineage of Christ and the royal lines of France, giving the royalty the authority of divine placement.
The doors of the Chartres Cathedral reflect the rounded arches at the top of the doors that comprise the vaults. The sculpture was created in a stylized, columnar representation, complete with stone haloes encircling the heads of the figures. The church features elegant stained glass windows throughout which continued to tell the various stories of the Bible while allowing in light to the otherwise darkened interior spaces.
St. Etienne Cathedral
St. Etienne Cathedral in Bourges, France was built from approximately 1195-1323 AD and was designed to overcome some of the issues that were seen in the earlier cathedrals of its type. It differs from the Notre Dame Chartres in that it has no transepts to create the ‘arms’ of the cross as most other cathedrals had, but it retains the rounded far end as well as the rounded arches. St. Etienne also features ribbed groin vaults that became one of the primary characteristics of Gothic churches. These ribbed vaults allowed the builders of St. Etienne to include more and larger window openings thanks to the additional strength of the walls.
This allows for an open and spacious interior that encourages visitors to look up toward the heavens. The towers of St. Etienne, like those of Notre Dame, are decidedly Gothic as they feature high-reaching spires and a high level of decorative style.
The Cologne Cathedral
The Cologne Cathedral in Germany, on the other hand, is an example of the high gothic, with construction starting in 1248.
The builders returned to the classic Latin cross floor plan and the use of flying buttresses to support what remains one of the highest vault ceilings in the world. Like other Gothic churches, there is heavy use of stained glass windows to help teach the illiterate about the stories of the Bible and tall spires pierce the heavens from the two bell towers with a high degree of ornamentation. However, these stained glass windows are somewhat different from their counterparts in France in that they illustrate a more German approach to representation with a high painterly style as opposed to the more traditional styles used in France.
The construction for each of these cathedrals was started at roughly 50-year increments from each other demonstrating both the advance of ideas as well as the fundamental elements of Gothic design.
St. Etienne is seen to represent a significant shift in design despite its central location in dates in that it eliminates the transepts or arms of the cross while Cologne managed to accomplish an even higher vault than that seen in the Notre Dame. Each of these churches makes use of flying buttresses, tall spires capping the bell towers and numerous stained-glass windows to both bring in light and educate a less-educated public.
Howe, Jeffrey. (1997). “Cologne Cathedral.” High Gothic Architecture. Boston College: Digital Archive of Architecture. Web.
Howe, Jeffrey. (1997). “Notre Dame.” High Gothic Architecture. Boston College: Digital Archive of Architecture. Web.
Howe, Jeffrey. (1997). “St. Etienne, Bourges.” High Gothic Architecture. Boston College: Digital Archive of Architecture. Web.