All public architecture… has significance beyond its mere utility.
Near the middle of the 12th century, a new philosophy in France challenged the Romanesque precedent of self-denial and austerity. Under the banner of Abbot Suger’s lux nova (God is light) dogma and with the cathedral as a sort of political battle cry, the Gothic style became an intellectual and innovative charge. The impetus was religious and national, and vouched for the new found allegiance of church and state; therefore, the marvel and beauty of the facades of these cathedrals advertised the prosperity and ascendancy, the sickle and the scepter, of the city. These large basilica churches built during the 11th-14th centuries present more than functional solutions to township or religious needs. They are symbols in stone.
Gothic art had started with two monasteries and ended with two monasteries.
Basilica of St.-Denis
One of these monasteries was St.-Denis, an enlargement of a Carolingian structure from 775. Saint-Denis was the mother of this new style and Suger was a sort of midwife helping with the birth. It quickly became the template and inspiration for later cathedrals, such as Chartres Cathedral, and originally had two bell towers on the west facade. The north tower was removed by Viollet-le-Duc in 1847 due to differential settlement during repairs because of the French Revolution. The north tower climaxed in a spire that pierced heaven and expressed the sharp delicacy of the Gothic style more acutely than the existing tower’s bell gable and Romanesque compound arches.
Although Suger’s premise was to pierce and reduce the bulky walls of the Romanesque to allow light into the interior, St.-Denis is a crude novelty when compared to the transparency of High Gothic cathedrals. The entire west facade maintains a fortress-like appearance, with four turret-like abutments and a continuous battlement. There is no evidence of the hyper-sculpture frenzy, characteristic of the Style Flamboyant, i.e. Amiens. Rather, the facade is analogous to L’Abbaye-aux-Hommes, St. Etienne with its four vertical abutments, ungarnished stone, and three independent portals.
The sculpture that St.-Denis displays is mainly in the portals. The tympanum of the north portal shows the martyrdom of St.-Denis, while the jamb relief on either side of the door contains the signs of the zodiac. The tympanum of the central portal is a motif of the Last Judgment, while the jamb relief portrays the wise and foolish virgins. The tympanum of the south portal portrays Christ administering the Eucharist to Saint Denis and others on the eve of the Martyrdom.
Above the outer two portals rise two rows of three Romanesque, compound arches and engaged columns. The first row, with the middle arch being a window, is about half the height and twice the width of the row above it, with the outer two arches being windows. A blind arcade stretches above the second row of windows, serving as niches to eight noble looking figures. Above the larger, central portal is only one row of arches, with the middle one as a window, about the size of the sum of the areas of the other two arch geometries. Finally, instead of the blind gallery, the novel appearance of the stained glass rose window unobtrusively (being no larger than any one of the portals) assumes its place in the ‘forehead’ of this face. This is the chef d’oeuvre of the Gothic- the felicitous medium that modulates the natural light of the sun into a diffuse reflection of the Divine.
Seventy miles north of, and one hundred years after, St.-Denis stands Notre-Dame d’Amiens, the apogee of classical Gothic cathedrals and a dizzying spectacle of sculptural exuberance. In contrast to St.-Denis, hardly a stone is left untouched by tracery, finial, ornament, or sculpture.
When compared to St.-Denis, the sculptural program at Amiens Cathedral is far superior, not only in detail, but in scale and plasticity. For example, both cathedrals depict a row of kings set within an arcade, however, at St.-Denis the figures appear primitive, flat, and almost stamped in place. At Amiens the figures are full bodied, taller with dramatic realism, and appear to be standing back under the arcade ready to step out of the stone.
The portals at Amiens are not merely three distinct entries, but represent a complex integration of parts into a greater whole. Marcel Proust described the sculpture of the portals as a book, but one “written in a solemn language where each character is a work of art that nobody can understand any more.” In the central portal, the tympanum is set within eight receding voussoirs and features three visions of the Christ: the Beau Dieu, the Judge, and the Almighty coming to tread the great winepress. Protruding out from the facade plane, the yawning portals, like waves, seem to swell to a crest, break into nothingness, and pull back in through the doors. The entire cathedral is bulging out of its skin, creating a fleshly sense of volume and spatial cavity which are not found in St.-Denis.
Furthermore, the body of the facade is stretched beyond the squat proportions of St.-Denis. This creates a large amount of space between the portals and the rose, where two rows of arcades have been inserted, with the “Row of Kings” directly below the rose. The rose has become significantly more elaborate, slightly larger, and geometrically organic.
Although these two cathedrals reveal two ends of the Gothic spectrum, they share the same basic rudiments.
Both were vehicles of literal indirect communication concerning the prestige of the town, a connection with the soft expression of Divinity, and the collaboration of society.
What Abbot Suger developed in Paris based on the idea ‘God is light,’ became the central motif in the realization of the new architecture that swept Europe till the 16th century. This new style was not a static or rigid formwork making demands on new buildings, but a pre-Renaissance budding of critical thought and innovation giving place to both the subtle and the extreme reinterpretation of St.-Denis.