The Architectural Roots of Humanism (2)

Architecture is a powerful force.

It petrifies and lays down once and for all the movement of life. Form places provocations or limits on the use of space. Architecture is not merely a public service to provide an indoor environment for people to live and work. It is a philosophical statement about man.

The major difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is their view of man. These views are reflected in their architecture.

A prominent abbot named Suger (he’s French, so sounds like soo-zhay) of St. Denis spearheaded a new philosophy near the middle of the 12th century, that challenged the Romanesque precedent of self-denial and austerity. This happened through his lux nova dogma and conception of “God is light.”

Gothic architecture was a technical response to a theological idea.

Suger wanted to let more light into the dark and gloomy interiors of churches. He had read the apostle John, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. The stained glass became a medium to modulate the natural light of the sun into a reflection of the divine. Three structural innovations were harnessed to transform building practice into a religious dialogue.

The pointed arch allowed for taller windows without the excessive lateral thrusts from the outdated rounded arches of Rome. Ribbed vaults produced more spacious bays. Flying buttresses freed the central nave from height restrictions due to increasing wind forces, by transferring them to the foundation through a system of arches. These structural solutions were strung together in linear repetition toward the altar to induce a solemn procession towards redemption.

Gothic architecture presents man in need of redemption to commune with the God who is light.

When Renaissance architects radically reorganized the layout of churches, they did more than propose a new style. They made a philosophical statement that now man was the center. Man himself became his own meaning, detached from the divine view of man’s role in God’s purpose. Humanity became an island, separated from the continent of the divine purpose and adrift in the sea of reason.

7 thoughts on “The Architectural Roots of Humanism (2)

    • Good question. I’m not sure. Today’s religious architecture is very programatic. Crystal Cathedral may be a good example of a building that tries to act as religious metaphor. I heard it has the dimensions of Noah’s ark but i’ve never looked into that. I’m not sure it accurately depicts man as the other examples did.

      I think Daniel Libeskind’s and Santiago Calatrava’s buildings are an apt metaphor for modern life. Fractured and complex movement.


    • Hi Phil,
      It is somewhat of a running conversation. I studied architecture at university and then attended a graduate Bible school so I reflect on the correspondence between the two often. So yes, I plan to post more of this kind of thing here.

      Glad you liked it!


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