In 1163 construction began on a new Cathedral for Paris in the eastern end of the Ile de la Cite. The rise to Bishop of the charismatic Maurice de Sully, Parisâ€™ recent growth in population & power, competition with the nearby Abbey of St Denis and a supportive monarch in Louis VII combined to allow the city to embark on building a grand statement in the exciting and evolving new style of the day. Gothic was the name given to these buildings and this style by successive generations who (like the wealthy family that finds its hard-working and humble ancestry shameful) refused to acknowledge their lineage, disparaging and devaluing the era with a name linking it not to themselves, but to the barbarians who helped destroy the classical culture they held so dear. Parisians of the twelfth century had no such view of their times and would have nodoubt been insulted had anyone suggested that their new feats in stone been built by or been dependant on the Vikings and Visigoths who had pillaged and looted their way through the French lands only two centuries before. But they were indeed heavily indebted to these very tribes. After the onslaught in the ninth century when Paris, Poitiers, Tours, Blois, Orleans, Bayeux, Chartres and others were sacked repeatedly, the Vikings were eventually placated. After a failed four year siege of Paris towards the end of the century, the region around the mouth of the Seine was ceded to their leader, Rollo the Raider, who became the Duke of Normandy in 911. Newly converted and appropriately zealous the Normans conquered England & Sicily, set about building new Abbeys and through these, modernising their newly acquired lands.
Peterborough Cathedral (begun 1118)
Durham Cathedral (1093-1133)
In these abbeys and cathedrals, the Normans developed a new technique that eased the construction of vaulting by using ribs that could be built with less wooden formwork and so more cheaply. Smaller ribs were already used in the Loire region, but the Normans put them to more systematic use throughout their buildings, as they did with the pointed arch which was inherited from Burgundy (Durham being the first building where the two were used together). Combined with a love of the sculptural effect of boldly expressed structural members and a monumentality perhaps learnt from Ottonian architecture, the Normans developed a structurally inventive and architecturally consistent style that was to be taken to new heights by the Frenchmen of the Ilede-France. The Abbey of St Denis was the richest and most important abbey in the land having enjoyed royal patronage for over five hundred years and having thus been endowed with country estates, vineyards, orchards, villages and forests. It also held an annual fair in October lasting a month that brought tradesmen from as far away as Syria. The abbey itself was too small to accommodate
all of its functions and so in 1137 the Abbot Suger began construction of a fitting church for such a wealthy corporation.
Plan of Sugerâ€™s St Denis where the signs of a regularised structural system based on the efficient transfer of load can be seen
The building used cross-ribbed vaults with pointed arches, like Durham Cathedral, and radiating chapels like other continental Norman buildings, but these features were put to a new use. A fresh outlook had come over Christianity in these times: Jerusalem had been recaptured and those on the crusades had seen the vast and tall domes of Constantinople, Pope Gregory VII was reforming the Church, cities were growing and classical texts were once again being circulated. Knowledge was being sought and in their buildings the French now sought height, space and light. Where the Normans had found an expedient to the roofing of their buildings in stone that fit their architectural oeuvre, the French saw a vehicle to the heavens. St Denis had radiating chapels whose walls were all glass and large clerestory windows, letting in an exceptional amount of light, and all of this permitted by exploiting the latent potential of the ribbed vault and pointed arch. Previously, the barrel and groin vaulting that had been used exerted great lateral thrust all along where the wall met the vault, necessitating walls of consistent thickness in the nave and aisles and allowing only for small, deep windows. In St Denis they had realised that the pointed arch significantly reduced the amount of outward thrust, and with ribs the forces were carried along specific channels and could be focussed onto piers instead of spread along the whole wall. They capitalised on this, building tall windows and reaching to greater heights. The opening of the new church in 1144 was attended by the king, the court and all the Bishops of Louisâ€™ realm. The building had an immediate effect and within 20 years the cathedrals of Sens, Senlis, Noyon, Laon and Paris were all under construction.
Laon Cathedral, Plan 1165-1170
Paris Notre-Dame, Plan 1163- before chevet and nave chapels
Paris was the grandest in scale of these, and, as with the others continued the structural and stylistic experimentation that was becoming a hallmark of the second half of the twelfth century. A new road, the Rue Neuve Notre-Dame, was built to ease the passage of materials coming in from all over the Paris region. On site was a Masonâ€™s workshop where the final dressing and detailed carving of the stones was done before they were hauled into place. These facilities were put to good use for a relatively problem-free, nineteen year term building the choir.
Even with their grasp of the principles of arching and vaulting, the masons of the middle-ages had no guarantee of an untroubled or disaster-free construction process based on pre-prepared designs: the building itself, in its bay by bay growth was the Master Masonâ€™s wind-tunnel and structural engineer. Because the units that comprise a Gothic building are modular, one bay is representative of most of the building, and because each bay had been finished for months while the next was still growing, structural flaws would make themselves known early in construction (in the form of cracks in the masonry) in the first bays, which could then be remodelled and the design adjusted accordingly. Even over a century later in 1284, after all the great structural experiments of Chartres, Bourges and Reims, the Choir of Beauvais Cathedral collapsed, as did its tower in 1573. Considering Notre Dame was introducing such a novel feature as the flying buttress, she and her masons seem to have admirably avoided any structural problems during or after construction. It was a different matter when it came to aesthetic issues.
Paris Notre Dame, Nave section before chapels & high clerestory
Laon Cathedral, Nave section Single aisle led to no problems with light
By 1220, the main body of the church was completed and a problem had arisen. Keeping to Norman precedent, the designers of the Notre-Dame had built a gallery above the first side-aisle, but because there was another aisle beyond of the same height which needed a lean-to roof, a window of the desired height could not be built at the back wall of the gallery. To overcome this, the masons increased the height of the vault and wall to accommodate a large window; unfortunately this raised window did not allow significant amounts of light in.
Paris, choir elevation and raised gallery windows
As the section shows, the light from the window at the end of the side-aisles would not have had much impact in the nave either. The Cathedral was also unusually high, an achievement gained by the use of flying buttresses, and, as with the other Cathedrals of the time, it had a third level before the clerestory. Where this level in the other cathedrals had been a screen to decorate the wall between the gallery and the clerestory where the roof of the gallery rests (triforium), in Notre Dame it was a rose window. If the gallery window had been lower and the aisle window closer, together with the rose and clerestory, the church would have positively shone, but as it stood the upper windows were simply too high to light the lower nave which was cavernous and dark at the bottom.
Paris, Nave before(left) and after(right) Enlargement of windows
Paris, Nave with high clerestory windows and one restored bay (far left) as it stands
Between 1225 and 1230 the high windows of the choir, nave and transepts were enlarged at the expense of the roses. This was probably done because of the Chartres (1194-1220) example that showed a three storey elevation with an outsized high window was possible with flying buttresses. Learning so fast how to better harness a Parisian invention from a later, distant building shows the amount of mobility the Bishops and their builders had in that time and their capacity for mutual exchange. In fact cathedral builders even learned from one another as their buildings were rising in tandem. Unfortunately any improvement the alteration may have led to was negated when in 1235-1245 chapels were built flanking the side-aisles of an already problematically deep section, leaving only a dim glow to emanate from the distant extensions.
Paris, window of nave-aisle chapel
Paris, Nave looking west in darkness
Something beneficial did come from the ill-planned additions as the transept seemed diminished from the outside and so it was extended in both directions by one bay, giving the cathedral its most influential features (their forms were to be repeated as far away as Uppsala in Sweden) and its final form, excluding only the ambulatory chapels (1296-1320) built by Pierre de Chelles and Jean Ravy.
Paris, section as is
Paris, plan as is
The north transept was built starting in 1258 by Jean de Chelles with a large stained-glass rose fit into a wall that has almost entirely dissolved into glass. The south transept, designed by Pierre de Montreuil, followed the north faithfully with only the addition of blind tracery that continued the feeling of a light, filigree structure down to the lower levels. By the time the transepts were built, Gothic architecture had reached a period of refinement where, for the most part structural experimentation had halted and effort was concentrated on hollowing out the walls and systematising the application of structural and decorative elements into a complementary whole.
Paris, north transept
Paris, south transept
Paris, blind tracery on south transept
Paris, ext of north transept
The paradigm of this new phase was the rebuilt St Denis begun in 1231 that was designed by Pierre de Montreuil. The design and that of the Sainte Chapelle are considered by some to be the peak of Gothic creation, where the previously developed structural technologies are used to their full to create cages of coloured crystal; piers became composed of multiple shafts that each led from their support to that which they supported, and on; all elements became interconnected and of the same species- in forms altered only to suit the function they represented; and design contradictions were overcome, such as the rose being fully incorporated and the triforium balancing horizontal and vertical tendencies.
Paris, Sainte Chapelle, begun 1243
St Chapelle, nave piers and vaulting
Plan of Montreuil’s St Denis
In parallel with, or rather guiding Gothic architecture, was Scholasticism. The scholars of the time were asking more questions, dealing with more contradictions between faith and reason and translating more classical texts than ever before. In their treatises, the scholars created a style, a system of organisation befitting the quest to “elucidate the content of revelation” itself through logical inference. Their style was for them the very process of reason in writing: for the first time books were split into “partes” and progressively subdivided, each section relating to the others to make a clearly discernible whole, but individually containing distinct arguments. These scholars were after intellectual consistency, logical clarity and extreme attention to detail (“the postulate of clarification for clarifications sake”). In the plan of Notre-Dame de Paris one can see these tendencies. Within the compact form of a round-ended rectangle has been organised the tripartite division of the trinity through the high bays forming the choir, transepts and nave, and the lower bays of the aisles and ambulatory- clearly separating the church into three zones; a Latin cross has
been achieved without breaking out of the rectangular whole; and each zone is comprised of similar units, mostly organised in a module that contracts and expands for the import of the space. The sexpartite vault of the nave & choir has been called an inconsistency and that it should be a quadripartite vault (see Charters choir) that holds clearly to the grid. But for me this type of vault helps differentiate between the high & low/wide & narrow spaces, expanding within the grid while not breaching it, and reconciling the scholastic tenets of distinction of parts and unified totality.
Chartres, quadripartite choir 1194-1220
Paris, sexpartite choir
Paris, side-aisle vaults
In the same way, the Paris apse has departed from the quadripartite unit to a vault that admirably suits its purpose while not becoming conspicuous in its difference. The semicircle is divided into five triangles (two of which do not sport the same plan) which each cover the two aisles of the ambulatory, and the choir. There is an extra pier in the aisle which means that there are tripartite and quinquepartite vaults successively from the choir, consisting of neat, undistorted vaulting, whereas in other cathedrals of this type, uneven quadripartite vaults are inelegantly squashed in. The two solutions were reconciled at Bourges.
Le Mans, apsidal vaulting
Paris, apsidal vaulting
Paris, ambulatory looking east
Notre-Dame cannot be clearly read from its elevations as later buildings can. This was important because a cathedral was the house of God and, as scholars of the age were working to validate the unquestionable revelations of religion through reason, so the churches became symbols of the divine that should be explicated and strengthened by a clear and readable logic. The interior organisation should be read from the exterior, the type of vaulting and where the forces lie should be read from the location and density of shafts, and so on throughout the building. Though the various ribs are to some extent represented by shafts, they abruptly end at the capitals of columns (though the side aisles contain columns surrounded by colonettes that correspond to the vaulting) and the on-off rhythm that should be present along the nave and choir walls -because of the sexpartite vault- is repressed for in the name of an imposed uniformity.
Paris, north transept looking to choir
Paris, nave column, capital and beginning of pier shafts
The faĂ§ade too is something of a shortcut. Organised into a grid, its tripartite division belies the five-bay layout behind, though the wonderful result of this is a perfectly held rose.
Paris, west front rose
Paris, west front
The enjoyment of Paris Notre-Dame is not that of a masterpiece -the perfected execution of a perfected style- it is rather that of a building full of experimentation where often things havenâ€™t quite worked, but these (such as the gallery windows, lack of light, lack of a counterbalanced interior horizontal etc.) tend to highlight the successes. The great height is more noticeable as one looks up from the darkness to the inpouring light high above, and it is strengthened no end by the unchallenged dominance of the verticals. The west front â€“a direct descendant of Norman Abbey facades- balances the muscular, structural verticals with the decorative horizontals magnificently, while neatly compartmentalising the doors and windows and leaving just enough bare stone to not have the same, gaudy & over-decorated feel of later cathedrals.
Caen, St Etienne Abbey (Norman), begun 1068
Amiens, west front, finished 1236
This is not to belittle its achievements: Paris gave Gothic the flying buttress, it developed the plan of Suger’s St Denis and paved the way for the conclusion of its logic in Bourges as well as literally reaching to new heights. In this Cathedral is frozen the spirit not only of an experimental style but of a vigorous time when a rapidly urbanising and increasingly wealthy people were pushing religious, architectural and artistic precedent to the limits of what it could offer, while rapidly innovating and attempting to synthesise it all into a complete and finalised solution. But before its final rest the church was altered by another era that was grappling with change and that found an analogy with itself in the Gothic middle-ages.
Paris, pinnacles replaced by le-Duc with these turrets
Paris, reconstructed tribune
The Cathedral slowly deteriorated until the nineteenth century, surviving an attempt to burn it down and suffering, during the revolution, the conversion into a temple of reason. In 1831, the young Victor Hugo published the hugely successful novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ sparking a widespread interest in the fate of France’s Gothic heritage and especially Notre-Dame. Between 1845 and 1853 a thorough restoration was carried out by the famous medievalist Violletle-Duc which often included his own personal interpretation of Gothic (what can be better for a work than its constant reinterpretation? And this so fitting in built form to Notre-Dame as a catalogue of architectural experimentation). Though he often took liberties, thanks to him and around eight million Francs, Notre-Dame was saved from a dismal state of affairs (and from becoming a romantic ruin for purist architects to swoon over), and having reached the current
stage in its long evolution, it now stands on the bow of the Ile de la Cite: one of the great “books in stone” in Victor Hugo’s words, open and easily read as a thoroughly contemporary icon of Paris’ progression through time.
Notre-Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chapelle, Yves Bottineau & George Allen and Unwin
French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries, Jean Bony
Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Erwin Panofsky
Gothic Architecture, Louis Grodecki
Gothic Architecture, Paul Frankl
French Cathedrals, Jean Bony, Martin Hurlimann
Notre-Dame de Paris, Wonders of Man Series
Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200, Pelican History of Art, Kenneth John Conant
Experiments in Gothic Structure, Robert Mark
Published on Dec 1, 2011
An essay I wrote (in imitation of certain art historians whose style I was at the time in love with) on Scholasticism and Aesthetics in the...