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In the middle of the Twelfth Century, in France, a miraculous new architecture was created, which was to dominate Europe for four hundred years, and to be influential ever after. The Gothic cathedrals are recognised as buildings where the experience of architecture becomes spiritual, where somehow the constructions of humanity lift us to a new state. Other arts have done as much, before and since, but the origin of the Gothic is more clearly discernible, and has special lessons for us.


Abbot Suger of St Denis, near Paris, was a good administrator, and a practical man, a statesman who was more than once Regent of France, but he was also deeply spiritual, a mystic and a visionary. He understood from his own experience of art and beauty that the lift in his consciousness was a spiritual change, and he made a deliberate choice to build upon the efficient tool of Romanesque architecture (the great masterpiece of which was in construction at Durham) and create an architecture which would not only house the functions of the Church impressively, but also raise people in a spiritual ascent. The effect of art on Suger was what we would today call a "peak experience" - his success was to identify the quality and to inspire his masons to evoke it in their architecture


Little of Suger's abbey survives, but his work was continued by the builders of Chartres Cathedral, where many themes started by Suger were further developed. Chartres was a centre of Christian Neo-Platonism, where the Western tradition of spirituality was cherished and communicated. Chartres Cathedral is almost intact, the first great high cathedral of the Gothic, where gravity was seemingly overcome (through the use of flying buttresses externally), and where walls seem dissolved into light. It is the stained glass of Chartres that is usually first mentioned, but it is also a home for thousands of carved figures. Here the glass and sculpture comprise one co-ordinated system of iconography, a system of great subtlety, which speaks even to those outside the Christian tradition, with a psychological meaning accessible to any attentive person.


After Chartres, the Gothic quickly spread, to immediate development at Amiens, Reims, and Westminster, and then quickly all over Europe, for example, soon to Prague. The masons who were inspired by Suger and the theologians of Chartres seemed to find an unerring ability to build in a way that stimulated the human imagination, choosing themes that resonated favourably with the preferences of the human mind. They built buildings that were visually rich, but well organised and clear in design, to stimulate the centre for spatial awareness in the right half of the brain; they built buildings that were colourful, powerful and complex, to satisfy the preferences of the deeper limbic centre of the brain; they built buildings that were enclosed with lines rather than solid masses, active buildings to wake us up; they building buildings that seemed to defy gravity, great masses of stone that soar upward, giving us a psychological and spiritual lift, from earth-like mind to heaven-like mind; they built buildings that were composed as a hierarchy from human scale to the great scale of the building, a ladder reaching upward; they built buildings that employed the visual harmonies most comfortable to the mind, such as the Golden Proportion, buildings that conform to the natural structure of the mind and body that were rich and complex, and all these methods come together to produce an exciting and stimulating architecture accessible to people well outside Christian culture. Not much architecture has been more powerful than the Gothic of the great cathedrals.


The builders were men who were members of a mature craft tradition, structurally competent and artistically vibrant, but these builders were inspired by patrons who were churchmen living at a time of great inspiration, when the deepest wisdom of spirituality was understood, in particular at such a place as Chartres, a centre of Neo-Platonism and non-dualist Christianity. The secret knowledge was not in any obscure tradition of geometry preserved through the chaos of the Dark Ages, but in the self-knowledge present among these men, knowledge of who they really were, and in the action of this confidence, this acting with faith in existence, in enlightening and inspiring a sound craft tradition.

Worcester Cathedral
Nave, Exeter Cathedral
Ambulatory, Chartres Cathedral
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