The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Fiat Lux!

Somewhere in the late fifth or very early sixth century, someone in the Levant, in Syria perhaps, composed a number of treatises on mystical theology using the pseudonym ‘Dionysius the Areopagite.’ The forgery worked, and for centuries people believed that these texts were by the convert of St. Paul.

Pseudo-Dionysius, as this author is known, became very popular, with translations from the Greek into Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic, and was read widely throughout the various churches and communions of the Middle Ages; his popularity only waned in the modern era, when the hoax was revealed on the one hand, Protestants like Martin Luther declared him unbiblical on another, and – on the third hand – scholars detected and discussed his ‘Neo-Platonism’, a charge many a Christian theologian has had a hard time shaking.

The spiritual theology of Pseudo-Dionysius is about the glory and majesty of the Creator God whose very nature and power overflowed into the creation of the universe. God Himself is the light, and our goal, our telos as His creatures is our return to Him, our ascent and encounter with the celestial hierarchies. Our return, our reditus, is achieved through asceticism and mystical contemplation.

The Christian pedigree of these ideas lies within the trajectory of Origen-Evagrius-Cassian (as so much does!) with similarities in the Syriac Liber Graduum and St. John Climacus. The imagery of exitusreditus is an integral part of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dionysian spirituality is the cornerstone of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. But more about them later. For more on Pseudo-Dionysius, check out The Catholic Encyclopedia.

As stated above, Dionysian spiritual theology was very popular very quickly. He is quoted by Mar Severus of Antioch, the Monophysite patriarch almost right away (if you do not believe these works to be by St. Paul’s disciple), and is soon translated into Latin. His popularity in the West increases, no doubt due to the prestige attached to the name as well as the importance of many of his doctrines, such as the incomprehensibility of God, and his similarities to the popular monastic writer St. John Cassian.

And so, in the ninth century, Hincmar of Reims, a scheming, strategising Carolingian bishop with a large library at his disposal, a knowledge of canon law, and a desire to see the fortunes of the western Frankish realms increase, took up Pseudo-Dionysius’ cause. Already the easy confusion of people named Dionysius had probably begun; Hincmar skilfully accelerated the process.

St. Denis, 16th-c statue I saw in the crypt of his basilique

The Areopagite was merged with a martyred bishop of Lutetia (Paris), who had died there around 250 (en français il s’appelle St. Denis). St. Denis of Paris was a martyr of the mid-third century who, along with his companions, was beheaded by the Romans on Monmartre (Latin: Mons Martyrum), today in the North of Paris. Upon being beheaded, he took up his head and walked to the site of the future basilica and declared that he was to be buried there.

What we know for certain is that there was a Christian church on the site since at least the fourth century and that there seems to have been some sort of crypt beneath. The church was rebuilt in the Carolingian era and again later on when the abbey that came to be connected with it increased its fortunes through royal associations – starting with Dagobert I (d. 639), the majority of the kings of what we know think of as France were buried there.

The Basilique St-Denis, Paris

Eventually, the abbey and its Romanesque basilica got a new abbot, Abbot Suger (abbot 1122-1151). Suger, it seems, was a reader of his abbey’s patron, St. Denis (the Areopagite, of course; that this is a likely possibility, read this article about twelfth-century Dionysian influences). And the cornerpiece of Dionysian theology is light. God is light (is Christ not the light of the world?). Therefore, Suger rebuilt the apse with a double ambulatory as well as the chevet. The apse of a church is the round bit that sticks out the back and frequently houses the holy table; an ambulatory is a space that allows you to walk around the back of the apse; a double ambulatory is one such that has two aisles, with side chapels radiating out from the apse where priests can say private masses. The chevet is the entryway that you pass through before the narthex and nave.

What Suger created was the oldest existing Gothic architecture. When I visited St. Denis, a request was made to explain what makes it Gothic. The appellation has nothing to do with Goths, first off (it is a Renaissance denigration). Gothic architecture is light and airy, whereas its predecessor, Romanesque (Norman), is still heavy, blocky, dense – although late Romanesque such as Durham Cathedral is moving towards the airiness of Gothic.

Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

The most important feature for this airiness is the pointed arch. Pointed arches enable the builders to span wider spaces. Thus, we get such places as the majority-Gothic Duomo in Milan and York Minster that have very high ceilings and very wide naves. The Basilica Sant-Ambrogio in Milan, on the other hand, cannot span as great a distance, being a tenth/eleventh-century Romanesque construction. The Duomo is the largest interior space I’ve ever been in that wasn’t a hockey arena, if that gives you an idea of what Gothic can do.

These pointed arches bear the majority of the weight of the roof and structure. Therefore, walls of glass become a possibility. When perhaps the walls alone are not enough, another Gothic innovation is the flying buttress. Flying buttress are supports on the exterior of the building that bear its weight almost as half arches, thus not casting shadows and saving light. The double ambulatory at St. Denis has flying buttresses outside.

The Apse of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

As a result of these two innovations, Abbot Suger’s double ambulatory is radiated with light on all sides, as the sun shines through the coloured panes and across the altars arrayed there. We often have an image of the Middle Ages as a dark, grim world. Gothic architecture defies the darkness and grimness of stone and allows God’s first recorded words to be realised in the space of worship – Fiat lux.

Eventually, in the mid-1200s, the Romanesque nave of St. Denis was replaced with Gothic architecture as well, with the addition of transepts (imagine a medieval church as a cross – transepts are the arms) and a renovation of the upper portions of the apse. The apse is almost all window now, and the transepts are adorned with rose windows, filling the space with the beauty of light:

Nave of the Basilique St. Denis (my photo)
Rose Window, North Transept of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

Light, light, light. I write as though this is all that Gothic architecture cares about. To a degree, it is. My first encounter with a real Gothic cathedral was St. Sophia’s in Nicosia, Cyprus. Today it is a mosque (I found it amusing that my first Gothic church was a mosque). The walls are whitewashed and there is no ecclesiastical furniture, let alone statues, grotesques, frescoes, or mosaics, to adorn it. But it is a large, bright, cleanly-lit space.

Some of the architects of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century believed that Gothic architecture was that form of architecture best suited to capturing and most devoted to embracing light. I think they may have been right.

For more images of Basilique St-Denis, click here. There is also a Flickr Group called Gothic Churches. To contrast, check out the other Flickr Group Romanesque Architecture and Paintings.

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