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THE GOTHIC CATHEDRALS
IN the Arabian Nights there is a tale of a city in which every living thing had been changed instantaneously into stone. Generations of readers have been thrilled by the romantic possibilities latent in that theme. In such a city a wanderer might pass through street and market place, through palace and hovel, into hall and chamber, seeking from each immobile form to reconstruct the history of the life which once animated it. Caught and unalterably fixed as he was at the moment of doom, each separate person would have summed up in one frozen posture all he had been, nay, all he might hope to be, unless some necromancer with a word of power should restore to him the vitality which once was his.
Like that fancied wanderer, the archaeologist walks among the ruins of lost civilizations and reconstructs much of their former grandeur. Wherever it can find structures built by human hands archaeology is particularly capable of doing so. The Gothic builders left few and fragmentary records of themselves, but, fortunately for posterity, they left in their cathedrals, churches, monasteries, palaces, aqueducts and bridges memorials more eloquent than words. As the eye of science scans these remains, many of them yet retaining their original beauty, it is able to read therein the old, familiar story with which it has come to associate all other forms of human progress - the story of development through evolution.
The best refutation of a once popular belief that Gothic architecture was the product - and its technique the peculiar possession - of a single great association or fraternity of architects is to be found in reading aright the story which the cathedrals have preserved in their own walls of stone. Examined in a proper serial order, these buildings rehearse a drama of trial and error, of adventure and achievement, of disappointment and triumph, of trimming here and expanding there to meet the exactions of local taste or the limitations of local skill. They can be divided into species and classes, speaking French or German or Spanish or English as unmistakably as if they were capable of human speech.
The origin of the word Gothic, as applied specifically to architecture, is somewhat in doubt. Artists of the Renaissance period used the word as a contemptuous epithet which they applied to all the art of the Middle Ages. De Caumont and his brother architects in the nineteenth century began using it in its modern technical sense as referring to a distinct era of architectural development, placed roughly between the Romanesque and the Renaissance periods. Romanesque is a broad general term including all the various phases of the round-arch style of architecture intervening between the Gothic and the ancient Roman schools. For convenience it has become a practice to differentiate between the Roman and the Romanesque by the fact that Romanesque employed rounded arches to replace the flat lintels of the preceding period; to discriminate between Romanesque and Gothic by the fact that Gothic, in turn, supplanted the rounded arch with a pointed one. That usage is extremely loose, however, and is by no means to be regarded as a complete, or even measurably accurate, definition.
The Goths, after whom the medieval style is named, were members of Teutonic tribes which, in about the first century of the Christian era, lived in the vast area stretching from the basin of the Vistula river westward perhaps as far as Scandinavia. They have been roughly classified in two major divisions, known to history as the Western Goths and the Eastern Goths. The Eastern Goths, for a long period of time, stayed north of the Danube, but the Western Goths crossed the Danube in 376, entering the Roman provinces as peaceful settlers. This is not the place to recount the story of subsequent Gothic migrations; it is sufficient to say that in various streams these Teutonic peoples flowed in upon Europe, overrunning Italy, Gaul and Spain until, by the year 586, they were at the peak of their power and influence in European affairs. They had long passed the height of their affluence before the first of the buildings now existing and known as Gothic had been erected.
Distinctive features of Gothic architecture are best understood by contrasting them with styles of construction which went before. In the ancient Roman scheme of building, a structure, large or small, consisted of four walls, like the sides of a box, with a roof to cover it. When it became necessary to enlarge the structure, it was also necessary to strengthen its walls; the larger and higher it was, the thicker its walls had to be. Windows, that they might not weaken it, were made as few and as small as possible. For these reasons Roman buildings tended to be low and squat, dark and gloomy. The art of internal decoration naturally languished, since there was little use lavishing care upon adornments which could not be seen, or at best could be seen but imperfectly.
In later times the Romans learned how to avoid many of these difficulties. What must have been a triumph of art for them was the Basilica Julia, which was erected on the Forum. This was a rectangular building, with a central hall 255 feet long by 6o feet wide, surrounded by a double aisle of arches, carried on piers, with groined vaults. Afterwards, in the Basilica Julia, erected in the time of Trajan, piers were replaced by monolithic columns ornamented with Corinthian capitals.
When Constantine transferred the capital of the empire to Byzantium in the year 330, he took Roman builders with him and began the erection of buildings in the Roman style. But Roman art underwent, in the eastern city, marked transitions and modifications. Arches began more and more to take the places of lintels; daring and more daring the arch became in itself. By the year 532, when construction began upon the church of St. Sophia, the Roman school had given way completely to the Byzantine, itself an early stage of the Romanesque. The architects of that famous temple, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, laid out plans for a structure which was to be 260 feet from east to west and 238 feet from north to south, to carry a dome 107 feet in diameter, the apex of which should be 175 feet above the ground. This dome was to be supported upon four round arches.
The completion of St. Sophia was a marvelous accomplishment. The use of broad, sweeping arches gave to its interior an appearance of spaciousness such a no Roman basilica could boast. Although the first dome fell, it was rebuilt and the temple exists today in substantially its original form to remind the world of the intellectual splendor and material resourcefulness of an age which could design and execute a work so vast. The round arch was destined to distinguish a general type of architecture which in time became known in Italy as Byzantine and Lombard Romanesque; in Germany as Rhenish; in France as Romane and Norman; in England as Saxon and Norman.
By a slow process of experiment, the Gothic builders worked out many and astonishing changes from this Byzantine superstructure erected on a Roman foundation. For the pier-like walls of the original basilica they substituted an organized system of ribs, with flying buttresses and pointed arches, arranged to constitute a self-contained organization, so that the framework could stand without any walls at all, since the weight and outward thrust of the roof were taken up by the buttresses. In such a building the roof could be carried to a great height; as many windows could be used as the areas between pillars and ribs would accommodate. Each member of the structure could be employed as an element in the decorative scheme of the whole. Columns, piers and pillars could be carved in a great variety of shapes, could stand on ornamented bases and might terminate in graceful capitals.
Each rib could be twisted and fashioned into whatever form fancy suggested. Each arch could be made to flower into intricate patterns, like a blossoming shrub; floors and panels could be overlaid with rich and colorful mosaics, the subtlest shades of which could be distinguished in the abundance of light streaming in from numerous windows; the windows themselves could be as glamorous in coloring as any painting by a master artist. C. H. Moore, whose book on Gothic architecture has become something of a classic, summed these characteristics into this definition:
"In fine, then, Gothic architecture may be shortly defined as a system of construction in which vaulting on an independent system of ribs is sustained by piers and buttresses whose equilibrium is maintained by the opposing action of thrust and counter thrust. This system is adorned by sculptures whose motives are drawn from organic nature, conventionalized in obedience to architectural conditions, and governed by the appropriate forms established by the ancient art, supplemented by color designs on opaque ground and more largely in glass. It is a popular church architecture - the product of secular craftsmen working under the stimulus of national and municipal aspiration and inspired by religious faith."
How the style was perfected and how it originated still remain something of a mystery, with almost no two historians agreeing among themselves. That it proceeded to its culmination through a long series of experiments is plain enough, yet even so its full accomplishment continues a theme for never ending wonder. Moore, as is apparent from the quotation, saw the flying buttress as its chief characteristic. Others have seen it in the pointed arch, or in the rib vault, or in the use of stained-glass windows or in stone vaulting; still others have found the secret to lie in the manner in which all these peculiarities were united into an indivisible whole. Where and when any of them was originally developed, invented or discovered remains a riddle to which an astonishing variety of answers has been proposed. Earlier writers made ingenious guesses ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again; most modern historians have taken the ground that each distinctive trait developed little by little from an earlier form.
English historians of the style have claimed for their own land the glory of its discovery, urging that its advent was at Durham in the year 1100. The preponderance of authoritative opinion seems to incline, however, toward the view of French writers, who place the emergence of the style at the construction of the abbey church of St. Denis. Whether it did in fact originate, as enthusiastic Frenchmen sometimes assert, in the region known as Ile de France in the second quarter of the twelfth century, is a matter of conjecture; it certainly flourished there with early luxuriance and has left in that district some of its finest masterpieces.
Work began on the abbey church of St. Denis in 1137. In rapid order construction of cathedrals at Noyon, Senlis and Sens followed. By that time French taste for buildings of slenderer and more energetic types than those of the earlier churches had become pronounced. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was be gun in 1163. Some few years later construction started on the cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres, in which the flying buttress was brought to triumphant artistic culmination.
By examining one after another these ancient cathedrals it is possible to trace the working out of important details of construction. In imperishable stone the hand of medieval architecture wrote a stirring tale of adventure and achievement. Between the abbey church of St. Denis and the cathedral at Chartres stretch almost a hundred years of time, marked by milestones of progress. The edifice at Chartres was destroyed by fire almost as soon as it was completed, but clergy and people with undiminished courage at once set about rebuilding and soon a new structure had been reared. Its main portion, with the two famous towers - one of which was not completed, however, until the sixteenth century - stands today; within recent months this cathedral was accepted as the model upon which one of the costliest of American churches should be patterned. Chartres cathedral and the one at Rouen are usually considered as having marked the close of the first great period of Gothic architecture.
While the ashes were being cleared away at Chartres, newer and more daring ideas were taking shape in the plans for building the cathedral at Reims. This marvelous structure, which is regarded as having instituted the second great phase of Gothic development, was started in 1211. Its most striking characteristic, aside from the perfection of tower which so delighted Villard. de Honnecourt, was the use of ornamental stonework to form divisions between the lights of windows which, radiating from a center, suggest the unfolding petals of a flower.
The great rose window of that cathedral is too famous to require description here. It has awakened the wonder and admiration of centuries; it has inspired poets, painters, architects. It gave to the fine lines of a Gothic interior a crown of glory. The traceries at Reims gave new inspiration to French architecture. In 1220 a still larger cathedral was begun at Amiens; in 1247 one still more vast was begun at Beauvais. A novel perfection in aisle vaulting marked a still further architectural advance in the building of the cathedral at Le Mans. With the completion of Sainte Chapelle - begun at Paris in 1244 - Gothic architecture, as a learned writer has said, reached complete maturity. Here large tracery windows were brought to perfection, and moreover the structure was so organized into a series of wide window spaces, only divided by strong, far-projecting buttress piers, "that the stained glass ideal found full expression and the building became a lantern for its display."
In England as in France during all these years Gothic Architecture also had been undergoing an evolutionary process, the details of which differed from those in France as their purposes were modified by climatic and other local requirements. Edmund Sharpe has divided it into six distinct stages, beginning with the Norman, which he assigns to the years from 1066 to 1145, and following with the Transitional, which lasted for about half a century; with the Lancet, which endured for a similar period; with the Geometrical, which prevailed from 1245 to 1315; with the Curvilinear, which lasted until about 1360 and ending with the Rectilinear, lasting from the middle of the fourteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth.
That similar processes of development took place in other countries the facts abundantly testify. Goodyear in Roman and Medieval Art sums the matter up in a paragraph when, after commenting upon certain designations of main periods as being "early," "middle" and "late," he observes: "It must be understood that there are no definite limits between these periods. Speaking generally, the late twelfth century was the time of Gothic beginnings in France, and it is rarely found in other countries before the thirteenth century; the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are both periods of great perfection, and the fifteenth century is the time of relative decadence. Both in Germany and in England the thirteenth century was the time of the introduction of Gothic. In Italy it was never fully or generally accepted. Within the field of the Gothic proper (i.e., excluding Italy) England is the country where local and national modifications are most obvious, many showing that the style was practiced more or less at second hand. In picturesque beauty and general attractiveness, the English cathedrals may be compared with any, but preference must be given to the French in the study of the evolution of the style." These statements are somewhat didactic, but while the conclusions of Goodyear in some respects have been open to challenge, there must be substantial agreement with his chief contention, which is that the so-called periods shaded into one another by a natural and evolutionary process.
If this is so, many fanciful attempts to discover the origin of Gothic architecture have succeeded no better than have the fanciful attempts to discover the origin of Freemasonry. Here, as in so many other fields of investigation, the lineally minded historian has pursued his old fallacy of believing that every given thing should be retraced to some antecedent point in space or time. Lascelles decided that the pointed arch was originally suggested by the timbering of Noah's ark. Stukely and Warburton fancied that the Gothic builders were trying to imitate the groves in which Druidic priests conducted their mystic rites. Sir Christopher Wren believed they borrowed it from the Saracens. Findel and Fort say they got it from Germany; Leader Scott says they derived it from the Germans but learned it through the Masters of Lake Como. Hayter Lewis concludes it was so united and homogeneous in all its parts that it must have come from the brain of a single genius. He nominates Suger, counsellor of Louis le Gros and of Louis VII, as a plausible candidate for that honor. And of course there is the tradition of the one big fraternity which has bulked so large in Masonic thought.
Weighing against all of these theories is the story in stone which is to be read in the cathedrals themselves. It declares that Gothic architecture did not come into being full-blown, but evolved slowly from antecedent styles, accepting here and rejecting there. It asserts that the flying buttress, so essential in every phase of the style, was not given to the world as a single donative, but came into use through experimentation, many of the earliest Gothic builders having failed to make use of it, either because they did no know of it or did not approve of it. This tale in imperishable marble further proclaims the evolution of the pointed arch from the rounded arch, and says it was adopted in many buildings under the compulsion of necessity.
Something of this for a long time has been understood. Gilbert Scott enunciated the theory and Robert Freke Gould quoted Scott's remarks with strong approval in his History of Freemasonry. Gould in an exceedingly lucid discussion of the subject remarked that Gothic buildings of different lands exhibit altogether too many local peculiarities to admit of the supposition that their architecture was subject to central control. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that if the body of "secrets" of Gothic architecture had been in the possession of a single fraternity, subsequent experiments which resulted in local modifications would have been unlikely, if not impossible. "I have shown," wrote Gould in his most positive manner, "that the idea of a universal body of men working with one impulse and after one set fashion, at the instigation of a cosmopolitan body acting under a certain direction . . . is a myth."
In spite of all this, however, the idea survives in certain forms of Masonic writing. It serves the necessities of those who support the hypothesis that Freemasonry has been in continuous organized existence from the days of Adam until now, since they are required by the nature of their dogma to be able at any given period in history, to point to some particular set of men and say these constituted Freemasonry as it was in that day. If they cannot do that, the chain is broken; a broken chain means that the whole theory must fall to pieces. Clearly, if the Fraternity was in existence in the Middle Ages, the logical place to look f or it is among the builders of Gothic cathedrals. In point of fact, when it does appear as a distinct body of workers in stone, it appears first among the guilds which grew up with the Gothic system. But to suppose on that account that all the guilds and the Gothic architects themselves were united in a single society, or even in a general confederation of societies, is merely to believe what one wishes to believe notwithstanding the preponderance of weighty reasons against it.
Both the Gothic system and Freemasonry were social evolutions, and both appear to have been affected by the same major currents of medieval culture. Evolution presupposes orderly growth from a lower state to a higher. Biological evolution may begin with a single living cell, which develops, expands, divides, subdivides, acts upon its environment and is strongly reacted upon in return. Social evolutions follow similar processes. They, too, must have their beginning in at east one vital principle and must contain within themselves the power of reproduction and expansion. Civil government begins with the household, passes from household to clan, from clan to tribe, from tribe to state and from state to empire. It starts with an imperative need for mutual protection and with capability for reducing social arrangements to some rude order. It is modified by its surroundings, by considerations of soil and climate, shelter, fuel and food, by the forces of nature to be overcome or to be harnessed to do man's bidding, by the salubrity or the unhealthfulness of mountain, forest, morass or plain. In a fertile, well-watered and well-wooded land it possesses assets of inestimable value with which it may develop more rapidly than it can in arctic or antarctic regions or in the arid deserts of Arabia and the Sahara. Whether it does so develop remains a question of the inner spirit or genius of the people who form it.
To say, therefore, of a highly organized social structure that it has risen through evolution is to say with equal force that it developed from something. Whatever else it may be in its present form, it is at least a growth from previous forms and a development of them, else it is a new creation. It is moreover a growth which has been animated by forces resident within it and inherent in its very nature. From time to time it may gain new forces through the operation of old ones upon their environment, but always the primary, elemental force abides and replenishes itself by what it feeds upon. Sometimes it happens that two separate processes come into contact for the first time and profoundly affect one another. Here, for instance, is a plant which has borne nothing but yellow flowers, as its ancestors have borne them for countless generations. On the other side of the valley is another with an ancestral inheritance of blue flowers. One day a chance current of wind carries pollen from one to the other. From this union, all other conditions being favorable, may spring up a third plant which bears flowers of a color scheme different from that of either of its parents.
Cross pollination is not a miracle of botany alone. It can take place - indeed, is extremely likely to take place - in all fields of the mind where ideas bud and burgeon. The Middle Ages, in which Gothic architecture and Operative Masonry grew up side by side, saw the common man, after long, bleak centuries of despair, everywhere standing erect and peering upward through the gloom in search of light. Everywhere minds were thirsty for illumination. They eagerly drank from every stream of culture which trickled down to them out of the past. Men turned instinctively to the promises of religion and because religion fed this craving of their souls, they lavished upon their temples the utmost they could conceive of beauty and of grandeur. Gothic architecture was a splendid expression of that emotion; one more splendid the world has rarely known.
How useless it is to label that triumphant art as a new creation, formed in the brain of a single man or in the collective intelligence of a particular society! It was nothing of the sort. In response to creative impulse, peoples began to build, starting with what they already knew and incessantly trying to find further enlightenment by means of experiments. They were frequently unsuccessful, but often they were rewarded beyond their fondest dreams. In England, in France, in Germany, in Lombardy, in Spain, builders were at work, and on a thousand winds of thought the pollen of ideas was carried from one to another. Armies carried it, missionaries carried it, the Crusaders carried it, traveling artisans carried it, merchants, mendicants, minstrels, pilgrims, sailors, noble lords and ladies, journeying for business or pleasure, all bore it with them.
But it was not alone in architecture or in formal religion that cross pollination took place. The stirrings of medieval unrest took many forms. The world for so long had been drenched in blood and deafened by the clangor of war, so long had been conscripted by tyrannical force and marshaled into footsore armies, that it experienced insatiable longings for, peace and the pursuits of peace. For some the halls of monastery or convent offered asylum; others sought a measure of liberty and security within the stout walls of free cities or within the enfolding arms of strong secular brotherhoods. What happened earlier in the waning civilization of Rome and what, to a certain extent, is happening in the twentieth century, was taking place all over Europe at that time. Those who could flocked to the towns, and those who lived in the towns began uniting themselves into societies of various kinds. Skilled workmen banded themselves together into guilds, gaining emancipation from serfdom as time went on. Out of this grew craft industries. But industries cannot thrive without marketing and the exchange of commodities, so a new system of merchandising began to develop. The merchants formed themselves into guilds, organized fairs and perfected means of transportation, so that surplus commodities of one town or country might be taken to another for barter or sale.
The Crusades reopened to Europe commerce with the East. Returning warriors brought rich and soft fabrics, objects of art and luxury. The poor Knights of the Temple, whose original function was to protect travelers to the Holy Land, became common carriers of treasure; they waxed so wealthy that they drew upon themselves the covetous eyes of lords temporal and spiritual and ultimately paid at the stake or on the rack for their presumptuous prosperity. The feudal system, under which each baron had been a petty king in his own right, holding over his vassals the high justice, the middle and the low, and rendering to his king indifferent and grudging service, had begun to break down under the pressure of a new spirit of nationalism. The first glimmer of dawn for the common man had begun to steal over the horizon.
The common man early realized, however, that for everything he would get he must fight. As an individual he could no more hope successfully to compete with the social forces arrayed against him than he could hope, naked and armed with a club, to compete successfully on the field of battle with a warrior encased in linked mail and bearing battle-axe, shield and spear. But if he could not wage successful struggle in open warfare, he could associate himself with his fellows and in economic strife hope to prosper through organized weight of numbers. Every guild, whether of merchants or of laborers, was consciously or unconsciously a weapon with which that kind of contest could be undertaken.
The guild itself was no more a new creation than Gothic architecture was; it was simply a new phase of an old process. It, like that art, simply began to build upon foundations that were already laid, starting with familiar forms and always experimenting with new ones. It was inevitable, of course, that societies of men engaged in the various branches of technical construction should tend to identify themselves with the buildings they helped to erect. Here again cross pollination was to take place, until in time it was practically impossible to differentiate between the worker and his work. To erect Gothic temples it was essential to employ men particularly skilled in certain mechanical tasks; in time these men were compelled to depend upon the building of temples for employment. As the art of temple-building waxed, their prosperity waxed with it; as that art waned, their art waned with it.
Of all these architectural guilds, those of the stone masons were most important. Theirs was an industry which tended to become highly specialized. In their own eyes this invested them with peculiar dignity. They were aristocrats of the building trades. Their organization was precious to them. They cherished its traditions, preserved its operative secrets, maintained its discipline and decorum. They watched with anxious eyes the progress of their novices and apprentices and jealously guarded the approaches to mastership. Most important of all, they preserved a warm faith in the antiquity of their institution, which set it apart from all other societies of the kind even if only half what they believed about it was true.
Were they mistaken in that belief? It is possible to say that in a very true sense they were not. If their society was really a product of evolution, they could not have been altogether mistaken. Their guild had its ancestors, must have had them, although it is not feasible, out of the multitude of possible progenitors, to say of this or that one that it was sire or grandfather. Of all the groups immediately preceding the medieval emergence of the masonic guilds, however, there is none for which this honor has been more persistently and plausibly urged than f or that curious Lombard band known as the Comacine Masters. Further discussion of that claim must be reserved for another chapter.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014