Famous Gothic Churches

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Abby Church of St. Denis

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St. Denis in Paris, France is where gothic architecture got its start.


The Abbot of St. Denis, Abbot Suger, began reconstruction of his Romanesque church some time in the 1130s. The church was already 300 years old. As was true of most churches at the time, St. Denis was a dark church of heavy stone walls and little light due to small windows. Suger wanted the new church to bring its visitors closer to God, and he hoped to do that through the use of light and a new, seemingly weightless style of building.


He rebuilt the ambulatory of the choir using pointed arch rib vaults supported by piers rather than walls. he rebuilt the chapels in the choir so that they radiated out from the ambulatory and were unified with the space of that ambulatory. There was no longer much in the way of walls between the chapels. he also put large windows in the chapels. This was possible because the rib vaults, though heavy, were not as heavy as the old barrel vaults. Also, the rib vaults were supported mainly by freestanding piers rather than walls. That made the remaining walls thin enough to support large windows. Lastly, those large windows were made of small pieces of colored glass. The effect was of the interior of the church being flooded with colored light.


The rest of St. Denis was eventually changed over to the gothic style, but it was the ambulatory and chapels that got the gothic craze going in France.

Chartres Cathedral

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Chartres Cathedral was one of the first, and certainly the greatest of, all-gothic churches. The bishop of Chartres, a friend of the Abbott Suger of St. Denis, decided to rebuild his cathedral in Suger's new gothic style when it burned down in the 1140s. Fifty years later, it burned down again and was again rebuilt in the gothic style. That is the church still standing today. Because of a great push by the bishop, Chartres was rebuilt in 26 years, an amazing rate for a time when churches often took 50 or 80 years to construct. Because Chartres was built so fast, it seems more visually unified than many other churches. It almost certainly was constructed from beginning to end by the same master builder.


Chartres became the most famous of gothic churches. Most churches to follow were based on its plan. It had a large nave bordered by a single aisle. It had a transept and a semicircular apse with an open ambulatory and radiating chapels like at St. Denis. Chartres was built on three levels. The arcade was at ground level, then the triforium, which was basically an aisle or gallery above the arcade that is separated from the nave by a roll of piers and pointed arches. Above this is a very large clerestory of stained glass.

Only Chartres has all its original stained glass windows, and they cast an eerie, otherworldly light over the interior of the church. This is the heavenly light that Abbot Suger wanted to promote in gothic design.

The flying buttresses at Chartres are short, almost timid, as if the builder was unsure they would work. Later churches displayed very long, slender flying buttresses that seemed more worth the name.

Chartres is heavy and dark for a gothic church, but its basic plan was such that builders could easily understand it and apply it in more adventurous ways in later churches.

Reims Cathedral

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The Romanesque cathedral of Reims burned down in 1210. Its gothic replacement was finished after eighty years of construction. Reims takes the gothic ideals in Chartres Cathedral and improves upon them. The church is built taller than Chartres and with more decoration, that is more sculpture and stone carving, mostly on the outside of the church.

But, because the church was taller and its vaults heavier, the walls of Reims are every bit as thick and heavy as those at Chartres. The ribs holding up the heavy vaults are as thick as the piers that support them.


The new church was the most decorated gothic building ever. The three entryways at its west facade become sculpture as much as architecture. Unlike other gothic churches, the doorways extend out from the face of the church, like huge covered porches covered in carvings and sculpture. The statuary representing the kings of France and figures from the Bible not only cover the west facade as is usual for these churches, but they also cover all other sides of the church.

Bourges Cathedral

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Bourges Cathedral was built about the same time as Chartres Cathedral. This makes Bourges one of the very first true gothic churches. It was very different from Chartres. Where Chartres has a large nave with an aisle on each side, Bourges has two aisles on each side of its nave. The inner aisle has its own triforium and clerestory, very unusual in gothic churches.

 

Chartres has a cross-shaped floorplan with the nave as the long vertical line of the cross and the transept as the horizontal line. Bourges has no transept. Its two aisles wrap all the way around the church without interruption. Chartres has small, heavy flying buttresses, as if the builder was unsure of this new technology. The flying buttresses of Bourges are longer and thinner, weighing less than half as much as the flying buttresses of Chartres (if you count the buttress pier the flying buttresses "fly" to), but support just as much weight.


Some would say that Bourges is a better built gothic church, but it was Chartres that became the model for most future churches. Some believe that the plan for Bourges was too hard for builders at the time to easily understand, that Chartres was easier to appreciate. That may be why Chartres became the basic form for gothic churches.

Amiens Cathedral

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Amiens Cathedral may be the high point of the high gothic style. It was built to inspire through its height, its beauty and the overwhelming light from its windows.


Amiens was begun in 1220 and was pretty much finished by 1270. From floor to the crown of its vaults, Amiens stands 144 feet tall on the inside. Long flying buttresses carry most of the weight of the vaults, which are very thin and light to start with, so there are almost no walls to speak of. Large windows line the arcades on either side of the nave. Both the clerestory level and the triforium are filled with windows also. This combined with the thin supporting piers gives an impression of the blazing light of some heavenly world.