Lean, high-rise structures and sophisticated glazed envelopes are the
marks of contemporary architecture. Yet, eight centuries ago, the builders
of Gothic cathedrals had already explored this technology proving complete
mastery of all its construction and detailing problems.
Gothic cathedrals, searching for God and challenging the laws of gravity,
are the skyward explosion of the earth-bound Romanesque churches. While
the builders of the 7th, 8th and 9th century sought an all-embracing relationship
with the earth as the great protecting mother, Gothic builders sought
the sky, issuing the ultimate challenge and thus expressing the scope
of human life.
The economy of poverty and survival was behind the Romanesque churches,
with the few exceptions of the ones built by powerful cities (as St. Ambrose
in Milan). The rising powerful and rich merchant economy of the European
traders was behind the Gothic monuments.
Romanesque churches were inspired by the serene acceptance of God as the
universal and supreme power. He who giveth and taketh away good, evil,
life and death is sought in peace and humility by the mystic worshipers
of the eighth century. Medieval Gothic churches are the proud statement
of a new human consciousness.
The rigorous logical thoughts of the Doctors of the Latin Church, St.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), St. Ambrose (340-397), St. Jerome (340-420)
as spread and popularized by St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) and by theologians
like Peter Abelard (1079-1142), instructed the theoretical framework to
reach God with the mind. The dynasties of the Parler family (Schwaben)
and of the Eusingers, builders and masons for generations, a few centuries
later, built the architectural monuments of this creed.
Men and women of the 11th century did not feel any more like powerless
subjects, they did feel like the immanent vehicles of divine intelligence.
The great spiritual power that stemmed from this perception drove individuals,
moved societies, and gave birth to the ideal tension that was the brand
and the legendary force behind both Medieval achievements and miseries:
wars, crusades, sagas, cathedrals, monasteries, fortresses, castles, epic
poems, thought, schisms, heresies, curses. The new consciousness also
accounted for the spread of rebellions, revolts, unrest and upsurges that
marked the first steps of the long, dire and bloody journey from a society
of privileged and slaves to a society of equals and free: a journey spanning
eight centuries with still a long way to go.
If art is the expression of ways of thinking, values and culture, the
difference between Romanesque and Gothic architecture stands for the revolution
of thought that took place in Europe from the 7th century to the beginning
of the new millennium anticipating or actually setting out the foundations
for the subsequent new birth of the Arts: the Renaissance.
Economic centres were moving East, new production activities were established
in Central Europe (textiles, wool, silk, leather, steel, glass): new trades
brought new information, new agricultural practices learned from far away
countries and produce imported from the far East changed the way of living.
Endemic and periodic famine was eventually to end, population increased
by factors in a few hundred years. A new social class was fighting its
way to recognition: the burghers (la bourgeoisie), entrepreneurs, bankers,
traders, money dealers, manufacturers.
Hence the slow fading away of the relics of the Roman domination. The
matter of fact, military approach of the Romans gives way to the mythical
northern imagination. The ideal impulse of the culture of the Celts, with
its two thousands years of tradition, again takes the lead throughout
Northern and Central Europe.
Legendary heroes, fables, fairies, magic rites, dreadful curses, gentle
and sometimes fearful, animistic interpretations of nature, overwhelm
the vain and demanding gods of Rome.
The Gospel stories blend with the legends of the North and the spirit
of the place , the ethereal tutor of architectural design, is once again
a northern Genius, barbarian, and thus Gothic, a term coined by the self
appointed aesthetic representatives of the Renaissance, who saw themselves
as the founders of something that, in fact, had started two or three centuries
before and of which they were a logical, even if magnificent, consequence.
The forest, an overwhelming presence of the great North, is the genius
loci of the Gothic church. The tall tree trunks become columns, the ogive
vaults replicate the arching of the branches connecting the trees high
above. Light from the low northern sun filters through the long vertical
breaches between the columns as it does through the trees. The forest/cathedral
is home to northern imagery. Fairies, fantastic animals, ghosts, monsters
peek out from every corner and receptacle. It was in the forests that
Druids performed their liturgies and magic rites, that Celtic legendary
heroes went to seek their glory or escape their curses. Man was alone,
in the forest, and his relationship with God was personal, direct and
somewhat fearsome. One name suffices to recall the many Burgundian legends:
that of Sigfried the hero of the Nibelungenlied.
Pointed arches appeared as features of church and civil building construction
at the turn of the millennium . Full deployment of the Gothic international
style with all its accouterments (pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying
buttresses, stained glass windows and rose-windows) are to be found in
the great European churches and cathedrals from the second half of the
twelfth century (1150). The Gothic age, from its first signs to its maturity,
lasted for more than four hundred years until the end of the fifteenth
century: in terms of human life-span, approximately 16-18 generations.
Gothic art and architecture are the flowers of the Middle Age, a period
of history that has been branded with many misleading generalizations
and historical clichés, a period which is in fact difficult to
describe due to the diverse, contradictory features: the cruel exercise
of power, the mystical serenity of the monasteries, the violence of endemic
warring, the destructive power of recurring plagues, the early signs of
cultural rebirth closely associated with the despairing darkness of an
The cultures behind the construction of the great Gothic churches and
cathedrals are not easy to trace in the complex and fragmented structures
that were the cradle of modern Europe: Roman rule, even in its Byzantine
passionate and distant revival, was a long-gone memory, but some of the
threads of command lingered here and there, blending with old and new
local customs. The governing bodies were dynamic and fluid combinations
of secular and religious powers, different, specific and peculiar to the
various European regions. What we would describe today as a lose array,
anarchy to some: men of war and armed bands organized on an ad-hoc basis,
no central beaurocracies, no universities, no banks or financial institutes,
no lawmaking institutions, justice by the (s)word of the king at best,
by the whim of the chieftain at worst, the common law still at the dawn,
Roman jus forgotten. Feudalism, the tree-like articulation of power from
the emperor to the local lord through grant of land property and mutual
assistance exchanges (fiefs) has for a long time been the generalized
Middle Ages paradigm, but according to recent reviews the term feudalism
is an eighteenth century invention with scant evidence to support it as
being the actual governing structure of Medieval Europe. There were some
contracts of a feudal kind, but none of them can be assumed as meaningful
of a general rule nor as supportive evidence of it. In fact there is much
more evidence to support the autonomy and independence of the castles,
communes, signorie, republics, duchies, counties, margraves. Alliances
were often related to family connections, but nevertheless lose and fleeting,
many local rulers had binding contracts with more than one lord and the
position in case of their conflict was not always a clear one.
Legendary knights like Bohemond (b.1050/58-d. 1111) the son of Robert
Guiscard, young and handsome kings like Manfred (b.1232-d.1266) or magnificent
emperors like Frederick II (b.1194 d.1250) organized Crusades and Wars
that were to change the geography of Europe and of the World.
Young Norman lords would leave their families to seek fortune as mercenaries
and fight private battles to conquer titles and castles. Strong men, thugs
and brigands organized their bands to hold up travelers and pilgrims.
If feudalism cannot be assumed as a general reference model for the Middle
Ages, the existence of the very privileged few, extremely powerful and
rich, over a multitude of destitute and slaves, is instead a paradigm
not easily deniable and supported by consistent evidence.
Rebellions and revolts were current affairs even if it is difficult to
assess exactly what these movements were and how important they actually
were on the basis of the contradictory historical evidence available .
A grim light is shed on the whole picture when we read the edicts and
bulls that granted safe life to peasants at their plow. The
revolts very rarely succeeded, usually ending in blood baths or thorough
cleansing of the rebel faction. Punishment for the survivors
was of appalling cruelty to set gruesome, lasting examples: clipping of
hands and feet, stripping of ears, branding with fire, digging out eye
balls, were standard rituals of spectacular public executions.
Everyday life for the peasants, craftsmen, merchants was hard and, for
the great many, mere miserable survival.
In the far distance, the Pope and the Emperor; closer, the Bishop and
the Count, in physical contact the Counts strongmen, brigands, marauders,
preaching mendicants. Violence, plague, famine, hunger, fear, cold, stench
were the recurrent curses or everyday miseries of men and women of the
The general dismal picture was enlightened, here and there, by exceptions:
there were also just and fair lords, noble and generous men of war, rightful
fighting men and knights, communes ruled by elected wise and democratic
councils, regions under the illuminated and peaceful canon of the great
monasteries. The essence of the Middle Ages, lacking any specific model,
is the conflicting blend of violence, piety, cruelty and mystical love
that nourished hate, greed, faith and vision and led the action to great
Among them, beyond the limits of time and space, the vision of the Gothic
monuments: the towers, the vaults and the glimmering transparency of the
coloured stained glass windows.
Indeed the most outstanding legacy of the Middle Ages to the future.
In the uncertain, multifaceted, loose and changing economic, social and
political situation of the high Middle Ages, for more than four centuries
and over a territory that required a 3 months journey from one end to
the other, Gothic monuments had a peculiar homologous architectural set
of styles. The construction of a cathedral required vision, determination,
multi-generational commitment, financial planning, engineering, technical
and managerial skills, site and infrastructural services (roads, canals,
means of transportation).
Demanding conditions indeed, in the context of anarchy and uncontrolled
random violence that was the mark of the eleventh century life in Europe.
If one looks at the context in which cathedrals were built it is difficult
to characterize them as a current expression of the societies that conceived
them: either they are exceptional monuments that rise above the specific
history of their time, or something is missing in our understanding of
the Middle Ages. The construction of the cathedral was a multi-generational
commitment that involved entire populations. Towns, Kings, and powerful
families were indebted for decades to the donations for the construction
of the Cathedral. Taxes were levied to provide the money. Roads and canals
were built to transport construction materials. The Gothic culture in
Europe had that deep rooted ideal force, be it religious faith or religious
desperation, be it vision of a different world or the fight to change
the present world: whatever it was it was there and they had it.
Thus, it is a reasonable to assume that the construction process of the
great Gothic monuments was one of the main conditions of the making of
Europe. In fact there is objective evidence to support the hypothesis
that this process was an institution far stronger than the social and
economic environment in which the cathedrals were conceived. Which is
the reason why many authors refer to the Europe of the Cathedrals.
The construction of the cathedrals paid back with technical skills and
induced new social values: the power of those who possessed technical
knowledge, the authority of 'the man with the rule' gave rise to a new
elite in the European bourgeoisie, the technical masters, the engineers,
the contractors: those who took risks to carry the task through on the
confidence of their knowledge and of their skills. Geometry, engineering,
mechanics and physics were not futile matters for ideological musing of
idle minds. They were tools of power, that allowed them to go beyond known
and accepted limits, to take challenges never previously dreamt of. The
age of magic and obscure powers was over. A new age was beginning.
The utopian vision of the cathedrals set forth the confidence in scientific
knowledge and in engineering tools: the cultural revolution of the year
one thousand, fourhundred years before the currently accepted date for
the beginning of Renaissance. Authority and command were awarded on account
of competence and knowledge and not by God's anointing, the concept of
responsibility was the great gift of the Middle Ages to modernity, eventually
the gift of the builders of the cathedrals.
Architects, building masters, clients and technology
The site of the cathedral was an institution that lasted for decades .
It employed vast economic and labour resources for generations and throughout
entire regions. Quarries were opened to provide marble and stone. Overall
logistics and procurement required attentive management and innovative
engineering. The masters of the construction (rectores fabricae) and the
architects were recognized authorities: they spoke to kings, bishops and
popes. Their demands were executive mandates.
All crafts were called upon by the intersectoral operation: quarry technology,
heavy load transportation and handling, logging, sawmills, wood carpentry,
stone and marble precision cutting and carving, glass, woodworking, metal
smelting and forging.
The technological fall-out from the construction of a cathedral was vast:
transportation, site handling and lifting of heavy loads, horse harnessing,
pulleys, winches, bindings and fixings, ropes and hooks, evaluation and
control of stresses due to stationary and dynamic loads, tracing of cutting
planes on the stones and setting out of plans and cross sections, planarity
of adjacent surfaces, cutting and carving tools, thermal treatment of
iron tools, geometry of cutting and carving edges, wood carpentry, timber
sawing, temporary structural supports; glazing, large window assemblies,
glass colouring, metallurgy of lead and tin, knowledge and control of
thermal movements, management, work scheduling, procurement, bidding,
bookkeeping, design and engineering.
At the beginning of 1200, architects with reliable experience were difficult
to find. Construction masters and clients were trying to lure them from
other sites to be able to start their own projects. Jealousies and rivalries
between architects and masters were the order of the day. Building construction
science was based on the ancient Roman heritage (Vitruvius), whereas scientific
structural knowledge came from the Islamic mathematical tradition and
from the ancient Greek texts collected by the Islam libraries, recovered
and translated by the Monasteries after la Reconquista of
Spain by Charlemagne and his Dynasty. Sophisticated Geometry was mastered
by Medieval Architects and Stonecutters a knowledge which is well documented
by the drawings found in Historical Archives of various cathedrals and
sometimes traced and carved on the very walls of the buildings.
The professional roles on the Medieval site are not always clearly set
out by the literature:
Client: according to the political organization may have been any of the
following: the King, the Prince or Duke, the Abbott, the Council of Canons,
the City Council, special ad hoc Councils nominated by wider ruling bodies
Site Master: responsible for procurement, site programming and personnel.
This role often overlapped with the role of the Client. Powerful Abbotts
like Suger and Sully were the de facto Site Masters stretching
their role from financing decisions and responsibilities, procurement
and contracting to engineering and design decision making.
Architect: responsible for the design and in charge of Client relations,
technical supervisor, coordinator of the various crafts operating on the
Stonecutter: responsible for the procurement of stones, stone cutting,
tracing, setting out and building, controlling the carvers and superintending
lifting and handling of cut stones and sculptures, sometimes the authority
of the stone cutter exceeded the authority of the architect;
Glass Master: supplied coloured glass windows and was responsible for
the whole process from the rough coloured glass bulks to the assembled
Any one of the professionals would bring his own staff of skilled craftsmen.
Unskilled labor was usually supplied locally. As happens today, the stronger
personality took the lead, which was not always an easy and smooth process.
The site of the church or cathedral was also the site for most of the
complementary productions: stained glass, blacksmiths, lead smelting,
stone cutting, stone carvers, sculptors, carpenters all had their workshops
close to the building and most of the workers had their living quarters
there as well. The building rose among a cluster of barracks, huts, workshops,
yards: as if it had roots connecting it to the region around and feeding
it with a daily flow of components and materials.
Stone cut construction came to Europe from the North. It was the main
technology for the construction of Gothic monuments and was brought to
France and England by the Normans around the year 900.
The heavy buildings supported by columns demanded good knowledge of foundation
technology which the Gothic builders acquired through some tough experience
: excavations carried out by Viollet le Duc or during contemporary restoration
works demonstrate that they knew how to distribute concentrated weights
in order to avoid differential settlement and pay careful attention to
the soil bearing capacity. Trial pits were dug to assess soil geology,
and the same geological layer was used with great wisdom. Knowledge and
wisdom sometimes were not enough and buildings collapsed, especially when
their height was exceptional. (Beauvais crossing spire). The history of
some of the churches like St. Pierre cathedral in Beauvais, is the history
of a particularly tormented learning process by trial and error.
Gothic churches required huge quantities of wood for their construction.
Tall trees were necessary for temporary supports and carpentry. Since
long trunks were difficult to find and expensive the scaffolding generally
did not reach the ground, it was hung to the walls and lifted when construction
progressed. Permanent spiral stone staircases were built in the thickness
of the walls and were used for access during construction.
This is a story directly taken from Abbot Suger diary on the construction
of St. Denis (Suger De Consecratione, 1140)
(quoted by Jean Gimpel in La Revolution Industrielle du Moyen Age,
Le Seuil, collection Points Histoire, Paris, 1975, translation
of the author)
" Searching the timber for St. Denis carpentry
To find the beams we consulted the carpenters at our place and in Paris
and they told us that according to them in the region on account of the
lack of forests it was impossible to find any, and that it would have
been necessary to have them transported from the region of Auxerre. Everybody
agreed on that, but we were very worried by the thought of such a huge
work and of the long delay that would derive to the construction; one
night , coming back from the matins, I started thinking in my bed that
I, myself, should have gone through the nearby woods, look everywhere
and cut down construction time and any delay finding the beams. So leaving
any other problem behind, one day, very early in the morning with the
carpenters and the sizes of the beams we needed, I went to the forest
of Rambouillet. While going there through the valley of the Chevreuse
I questioned all the sergeants and guardians of our lands
who knew the forest well, if we stood any chance to find beams of the
wanted size. They looked like smiling and certainly if they could they
would have laughed out loud, for the wonder of our ignorance that there
was nothing in that region. Even more so after the Castelan of Chevreuse,
Milon, who was our man and kept for us half of the forest, had been at
war with the King and with Amaury de Monfort, did not leave anything intact
and in good shape having himself built high defensive towers. As far as
we were concerned, we rejected all the stories that were told to us and
with great audacious trust, we started to roam the whole forest. After
one hour we found one beam of the right size. We did not need anything
more to continue the search, before noon, and maybe earlier, in the very
deep forest to everyones astonishment, we found twelve beams: that
was the number needed. We had them immediately carried to the holy basilica
and placed to cover the new building to the admiration and glory of our
Lord Jesus who deserved them with all the Martyrs, since he protected
the beams for us against the thieves"
Steel ties had a major role in the Gothic structural solution: some of
them have been removed during recent restoration. The most extensive and
sophisticated steel ties system was in the Parisian Sainte Chapelle (construction
ended in 1248). Probably the earliest example of stone masonry associated
with steel ties was in the Soissons Cathedral (southern arm of the transept)
that dates back to 1170.
The Gothic builders perfected the site machines known by the Roman builders
with remarkable ingenuity. The wheel crane was then the current lifting
technology. The size of these machines must have been impressive, with
wheels up to 8 metres in diametre that hoisted loads of several tons (with
a 2.5 m wheel one man could lift up to 600 kg). Weight-balanced lifting
cranes were also widespread.
The problems of manufacturing a large number of windows of the same size,
with the same armatures, with the same adjacent components, suggested
solutions that were the embryo of industrialized production. The cartons
and the models for the repetitive decorative elements were a precious
asset of each master and of each shop, sometimes transmitted for generations
in the trade. Each master jealously guarded the models of his masterpieces,
Madonne, Apostles, Christ faces and figures, eventually adapting them
to new commissions. These items were the software of his trade.
The technology fall-out continues today because maintenance of the cathedral
yields precious data and knowledge on the behaviour of stone load bearing
structures after centuries of life, on interaction between climate and
building materials, on aging of various building construction materials
The feature of the style is the concentration of vertical compression
stresses to specific lines and enhancement of the vertical vector with
the weight of the pinnacles to contain outward thrusts created by the
arches and support them with leaner vertical columns and walls. The architectural
elements of the gothic construction are designed by these requirements:
ogive vaults, buttresses, flying buttresses, pinnacles, lean vertical
columns. The heavy walls of the Roman churches, needed to contain the
forceful outward thrust of the round Roman arches and vaults, are gone.
The heavy masonry gives way to windows or to light marble lace decorations.
Glass came as the ideological and technological answer to the problem.
The huge stained-glass pictorial windows illustrating the Gospel and the
life of Christ and of the saints were also amazing and powerful teaching
tools, very popular with the sponsors.
The tall windows of the gothic cathedrals are an interesting example of
technology/design, or problem/solution circularity: the concentrated vertical
load bearing structure made thick walls obsolete and required a light
closing component. Or else: the condition to host huge stained-glass pictorial
windows suggested and promoted the concentration of vertical loads...
problems requiring solutions; solutions creating new problems; the cycle
Gothic pictorial windows are a unique item of Medieval Europe with no
other known examples in the ancient world. Not only art, technology and
architecture converge in their making, but many other disciplines and
trades as well. Representing the events of the Bible requires theological
background, the composition of the illustrations, the positioning of characters
and figures demands cultural knowledge and political wisdom. A lot of
complementary information is supplied by the accessory illustrations and
decorations: the pictorial windows are vast archives and visual evidence
on habits, costumes, material history of the Middle Ages. The families,
princes or guilds that sponsored them wanted their specific messages to
be conveyed to posterity: sometimes these messages had strong political
According to literature and excavations, the Romanesque basilicas of the
6th and 7th century were already equipped with stained-glass windows (Lactantius,
Prudentius and St. Jerome). The poet Sidonius Apollinaris (5th century)
describes coloured glass windows in Lyon. Pope Leo III (795-816) ordered
coloured glass windows for St. Paul's basilica in Rome. The Cathedral
of York in England had coloured glass windows as early as 669.
Early Christian churches had small openings filled with marble or thin
alabaster slabs, some featured wooden boards pierced with holes with coloured
The idea to illustrate the Saints and the holy Gospel so that the windows
could become a tool for the education of the early Christ pushed the technology
to higher achievements. A clever idea, typical of the practical culture
of Medieval monasteries: windows protect the interior space of the church
and at the same time illustrate the glory of God. Besides, with clear
glass windows the light inside would have been too bright, disturbing
the concentration needed for prayer.
The technique of joining different pieces of glass with lead to make stained-glass
pictorial windows is thoroughly described in the Diversarum Artium Schedula
written by the monk Theophilus between 1110 and 1140 (see note 34 in Part
The full size model of the window was drafted on a white-washed surface,
each coloured part being associated with a piece of coloured glass. The
glass was cut on the model using a red hot iron. The hot iron would start
a crack on the edge of the glass and was moved to outline the wanted design.
The crack allowed the master craftsman to break away from the sheet of
glass a part that was then grozed to exactly match the drawing. Once all
the pieces were set on the table, the details of the drawing were painted
on the glass with vitreous enamels and the pieces were put into a kiln
for the enamel to melt on the glass and to eliminate any crack left on
the edges by grozing. The slow cooling cycle annealed the glass for maximum
The pieces were again placed on the table and joined with lead profiles,
the cross section of which had the shape of an H. The lead ends were soldered
and a sealing putty was rubbed under the leads for waterproofing and to
prevent tinkling when the wind swept against the windows, which may have
disturbed the prayers in the church.
Colours were obtained by mixing metallic oxides in the molten glass: copper
for ruby, cobalt for blue, iron for green, manganese for purple, antimony
for yellow. Glass sheets were produced with the early cylinder method
in sizes of 25 x 30 centimetres and they were of a thickness varying from
3 to 8 millimetres. Specific colours (such as red) were obtained by 'flashing'
the cut pieces: the method consisted of the immersion of the hot piece
of glass into melted coloured glass so that a very thin layer of coloured
glass would cover the surfaces.
The pictorial panes obtained were very heavy and flexible on account of
the lead joints and they required iron holding frames (armatures ) to
resist wind. load and stresses due to their own load during handling and
transportation. In the early gothic windows the reinforcing frames were
functionally placed where needed with little, or no respect at all, for
the figure. In later times the reinforcing iron frames (armatures) became
part of the composition as the lead profiles had been since the beginning.
With the desire of the sponsors for larger illustrations and pictorial
wind the mastery of the art of coloured glazing grew as well. The figures
of the prophets in the windows of the Augsburg Cathedral (1125) measure
only 1.1 square metres in area, the 'Crucifixion' window at Poitiers (1163)
contains approximately 16.3 square metres of stained glazing, whereas
the 'Life of Christ in Chartres (c. 1325) is 23.2 square meters
in area. The subdivisions of the holding frames were much more sophisticated
and consisted of vertical and horizontal elements that subdivided the
illustrations according to a logical set of images.
The technique and the mastery of pictorial windows became very sophisticated
and one can refer to them as to a complete integrated building system:
in the great Gothic cathedrals of the 13th century the large rose marble
windows, the vertical stone mullions, the marble lace filled by coloured
glass, figures, scenes, frames were so elaborated that any distinction
between masonry and fenestration was virtually impossible.
The unity of the final masterpiece required close coordination and understanding
among the various crafts: iron framing, stone masonry and marble laces,
glass colouring processes, glass cutting, grozing and joining, had to
work together with a very efficient cross flow of information.
The stained-glass windows at Chartres are an example of how the technology
was mastered in the 13th century: 2,500 square metres of surface in 176
windows, three rose windows, each more than 12 metres in diameter.
Nine different masters and their workshops worked at Chartres, that was
completely glazed in less than 40 years (1203-1240)
The problems to be solved for the construction of these impressive components
would be a challenge for contemporary engineers: weight, differential
thermal movements, wind load, water tightness, fatigue, joints to adjacent
components, corrosion, and the problems related to glass durability of
colours, fragility, durability of the glass itself, not to mention the
clients! The clerics supplied the masters with a program to which they
had to comply. Preliminary drawings were proposed to obtain the approval
(called with the Latin term 'vidimus' = we have seen) and consequently
transferred to full size cartoons. Technical innovations, new colours
and processes that took place during the long period needed for completion,
certainly implied contracting and administrative problems.
Perusing the vast literature available on Gothic cathedrals, it is clear
that most of the attention of researchers and critics is devoted to the
iconography and to the meaning of the images, with little concern for
technical details. With the formidable exception of Viollet le Duc, architect
and builder of the eighteenth century, almost everyone considers at length
the colours, the structure of the figures, the composition of the illustrations
and their evolution from the early examples to the great churches of the
14th century. Great attention is also given to historical meanings, messages
and theological statements: the windows are in fact powerful archives
for historians. The dynamic interaction of the stained-glass windows with
sunlight is also a matter of attentive description. Some authors describe
with passionate detail how the blues and the ambers and the reds of the
Sainte Chapelle vary during the day with the movement of the sun, and
how the light in the church softly turns from the vivid brightness of
the morning to the subdued tones of the afternoon. Very little is recorded
about the construction details that made the magic possible: about the
fastening technologies, about the joints and about all the problems that
the medieval builders (rectores fabricae) faced and solved to set out
hundreds of square metres of heavy glass curtains, to withstand wind,
driving-rain, weather and aging. Seven or eight centuries of operation
are witness to the professionality and the skill of the medieval engineers.
Some of the great stained glass windows have been restored with little
respect for the original artifact; some have been damaged beyond repair
during the wars, some have been destroyed and substituted with clear glass
by the Abbotts of the Renaissance who just wanted more light
into the church; some have been stolen, sold or replaced.
A great number of these treasures was destroyed during the 1500 as sacrilegious
supplements to idolatry, windows were sometimes saved because of their
... usefulness. In 1577 William Harrison in his Description of England
writes: Monuments of idolatrie are remooved, taken downe and defaced;
onlie the stories in glase windowes excepted, which for want of sufficient
store of new stuffe, and by reason of extreame charge that should grow
by the alteration of the same into white panes throughout the realme,
are not altogither abolished in most places at once. Not by intelligence
were they saved, but thanks to avarice and to cold...Later another crusade
against religious images was spurred by the Puritans. In 1643 the stained
glass windows of Norwich Cathedral were destroyed and so reads the diary
of Mr. William Dowsing, commissioner of the British Parliament: Sudbury.
Gregory Parish, 9 January. We have destroyed ten large glass angels. The
total is now 80. Eye, 30 August; seven superstitious paintings in the
choir and in the transept, one depicting Maria Magdalena, all of them
in glass, and six in the windows of the church.. Many other windows had
already been destroyed.
But some are still there or visible in museums throughout Europe and their
story still inspiring. The details clearly show that their success is
due to the simple, hands-on, ingenuous approach that was typical of medieval
technology and know-how.
The windows were the product of team work. One master generally headed
a team of three to four helpers and assistants and was responsible for
the whole process from the design of the cartoons to the colouring, cutting
and mounting of the glass on the lead jointing profiles. He supervised
the crafting of the steel frames (armatures) and the subsequent setting
out of the heavy and delicate component in the masonry frame. Many such
teams worked at the same time on the site of the cathedral, called upon
by the powerful clerics in order to complete the job in the shortest possible
time. The practical scope of the clients brought together masters from
all over Europe and supplied the opportunity for important exchanges of
knowledge, craft secrets and subtleties: we call them "workshops"
The masters called by Bishops and Kings on account of their fame traveled
throughout Europe. Some of the names have been recorded by history, some
were never recorded. Very seldom they signed their works for conscious
humility and out of respect for the cathedral (house of the Almighty).
Some of them were legendary characters and rich; some obscure and humble.
John from Lincoln and John from Chester were the glaziers who between
1350 and 1352 completed the St. Stephen Chapel at Westminster. Gherlachus
was among Germanys most important craftsmen in the trade at the
turn of the XII century. His work is rich in colour and design, gracefully
drafted figures on beautiful complex backgrounds. According to the learned
critics, Gherlachus, who probably came from the Middle Rhine, directed
in his old age the manufacturing of the stained-glass windows of the Strasbourg
cathedral. Other masters are only known by their works, like the three
main ones that worked at Chartres: the Master of the Good Samaritan, the
Master of the New Alliance, and, probably the most outstanding for Gothic
modernity, the Master of St. Stephen Relics. With the Masters of Saint-Eustache
and Saint-Cheron, and the brilliant Master of the Saints Protasius and
Gervasius in Le Mans, they have to be recorded as the most important European
painters of the 1200s.
The windows were sometimes commissioned by Bishops, Kings, noble or rich
families who paid for them and wanted their specific message to be recorded.
Sometimes they were sponsored by Trade Guilds or Craft Corporations: these
are rich pieces of information on the material history of the Middle Ages,
for they depicted the crafts, illustrated the shops and sometimes recorded
technological details or customs, otherwise undocumented.
The great gothic pictorial windows mark the beginning of one of the highest
moments in the history of light in architecture.
Deep, intense reverence for a God of great might lingers in the great
naves. The columns dissolve in the darkness above and the light, filtered
by the holy illustrations, lives in magical, changing colours. The feeling
of the divine is here. Voices whisper while the timeless praying chants
and lauds echo from the vaults as directly reverberating from heaven,
singing to earthly misery...gloria in excelsis Deo... but the daring arches,
the high vaults and the huge windows are, at the same time, a proud statement
of human skill and mastery: a clear sign that the Renaissance and its
new values were already born in Europe.
Suger was born in 1081 near Paris of peasant stock. He showed outstanding
intelligence from childhood and was sent to the nearby abbey of Denis
to study with the monks. The school was attended at the same time by the
young Louis Capet, who was to be crowned King Louis VI in 1108. The two
young boys became close and very affectionate friends, a relationship
and mutual understanding that was to last throughout life, with some consequence
for the history of France. Suger became secretary to Abbott Adam, but,
more important, he became the closest and most authoritative counsel to
the King. In 1122 Suger, then aged 41, was elected Abbott of St. Denis.
He strongly believed that a close association of the Abbey to the French
crown could unite the nobles to their King and greatly enhance the strength
of the Kingdom on account of the great symbolic meaning of St. Denis,
the Saint that brought Christianity to Gaul. In 1124 the Holy Roman Emperor
Henry V invaded King Louis VI territories. Louis rode into battle carrying
the banner of St. Denis, the Oriflamme. The appeal to the veneration for
the Patron Saint of France, strongly supported by Sugers authority,
mobilized all the nobility to the side of Louis: the largest army that
had ever pledged allegiance to a French King. The sight of the French
field under the Oriflamme was so formidable that Henry V decided to yield
the ground without battle.
As Abbott of St. Denis, Suger, urged by Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, established
a more severe lifestyle for the monks notoriously behaving in a rather
lavish and secular way. Suger and Bernard were close friends, the latter
being close adviser to the Pope and probably the most authoritative spiritual
leader of Europe at the time. In 1137 King Louis VI died and his son Louis
VII did not accept Suger as close counsel. In the following years Suger
was able to dedicate all his efforts to the construction of the new Abbey:
his intelligence, conceptual strength and versatility is behind all the
important architectural and technical choices. St. Denis is an original
example of a new structural asset of the gothic vaults, of the stone ribs
for the concentration of stresses and of the extensive use of stained
In 1142 Louis VII clashed with Thibaut count of Champagne, a powerful
feudal lord with many followers in the French nobility. Irrational, arrogant
and with no military experience, Louis VII was not up to the task. When
the situation got desperate Suger stepped in with authority, assuming
command and curtly putting aside the distressed King. He rapidly got the
situation under control and negotiated a peace treaty between Louis VII
and Thibaut that saved the Kingdom of France from sure disaster. The treaty
was signed in St. Denis, at the dedication ceremony of Sugers masterpiece,
the new architectural gem of France.
Louis VII was urged by Bernard of Clairvaux, as a penance for the high
death toll of the vain war, to finance and lead a Crusade to free the
Holy Land from the Muslims. Suger was very worried about the weak financial
situation of the Kingdom after the civil war and tried to oppose the project,
with no success. He found himself against the Pope and against Bernard
and had to yield.
Louis VII and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine left for the Crusade on June
11, 1147 and left Suger as regent of the Crown. The Crusade was to end
in a ghastly and expensive disaster, but the Kingdom under the wise government
of the intelligent Abbott flourished. Suger reviewed the taxation system,
passed edicts for the prevention of deforestation, controlled a revolt
of the nobles that wanted to make Robert count of Dreux and brother of
Louis VII, king in his absence.
When Louis VII came back from the Crusade the general assumption was that
Suger would not return the crown: which instead, with great loyalty, he
In 1150 Bernard and Suger, who, in the mean time, had changed his mind
on crusades, were making plans for another Crusade, but, at the age of
70 Suger fell ill with malaria and died in January 1151.
The Abbey of St. Denis, jewel of gothic architecture in France, and the
early unity of the French kingdom were the legacy of the great Abbott
Suger whose power came from intelligence and from his childhood, affectionate
friendship with a boy who was to become king.
By chance, or was it the outcome of the farsighted wisdom of the monks
who prepared their future, intelligent and powerful, Abbott, favouring
his friendship with the future king?
The Abbey of St. Denis (in the city of St. Denis now a northern suburb
of Paris) was founded by Dagobert I, the last Frankish King of the Merovingian
dynasty, in the year 751. Abbot Suger in 1136 built a new Basilica that
incorporated the earlier Merovingian church. The church built by Suger
is currently regarded as the model building of French Gothic cathedrals
(such as Chartres and Notre Dame) and in general of all the later French