During the middle of the twelfth century, in the region surrounding Paris, several innovative art and craft forms began to coalesce within the renovations of existing church buildings. Initially consisting of hybrid components within earlier structures, fundamentally the Romanesque abbeys, the original style soon accentuated its own merits. Before passing from favor, the expression we know today as Gothic Art would dominate European architectural expansion for nearly four hundred years.
The churches and cathedrals of the Gothic era are currently enjoying a renewed importance and reverence. It is a vast understatement to say that this was not always true. Throughout the centuries, Gothic structures have suffered far more than disinterest and disdain. Periodic turns of popular taste have at times inspired movements for the outright annihilation of these grand structures.
At perhaps their saddest point in history, throughout the reign of Napoleon III, the French Gothic structures were threatened with complete extermination by Imperial order. Ironically, this objective was achieved most efficiently in the heart of Paris. In the very birthplace of Gothic spirit, a great number of beautiful churches were ravaged or completely demolished by the great grandchildren of their medieval builders.
At an earlier point, within the eighteenth century, one of the finest precedents of Gothic proficiency, Saint Nicaise, was destroyed without the slightest compassion. In Cambrai, an entire cathedral was thrown down and laid in ruins. Such an act fronting a cultural or historic monument would be hard to envision today.
The exact scale of destruction is now impossible to estimate. The only concern during later ages was the complete removal of what were seen as “immense monuments” to primitive “bad taste.” It would seem that no other period of artistic accomplishment has been so ruthlessly humiliated. Yet the devastation never realized anything near a complete obliteration. Today we may still benefit from the profound spiritual, architectural and cultural legacies received within the structures that arose from the Gothic era.
Architecture is what we think of most as the expression of the Gothic era. Its first forms arise within the 12th century, seemingly from the very heart of their Romanesque forebears. As the premier builder of the Middle Age centuries, the church provided this new creative and technical form with its greatest avenue of an exhibition. It would not be until the Neo-Gothic era of the nineteenth century that the style would make an expression through secular structures on any broad scale.
Contrary to popular perspicacity, Gothic style refers to more than cathedral structures. The design applies to art, sculpture, glass works, decorative pieces and illuminated manuscripts from the mid 12th through the early 16th century.
The label of Gothic was coined in Italy, during the Renaissance, as a derogatory reference to the art and architecture of these earlier centuries. The denigration was a parallel to the earlier Goth barbarians. With the passing centuries, Gothic became more clearly correlated with the final era of the medieval age. In time, the demarcation point would solidify around the distinctive style which followed the Romanesque period. There remains a magnificent degree of argumentative definition to this day, as a blending of the two styles can be found at many sites. One prominent example is Canterbury in the United Kingdom, which was reconstructed after a grand burning, yet retained scarce earlier determinants.
The accepted Gothic period spans some four hundred years, from the twelfth century through the early decades of the sixteenth. This fact alone argues against a precise method and style. Today, we communicate through miracles such as the one which carries this learning. We take for granted the ability to interchange ideas and cooperate on designs across the world. During the Gothic age, communication of craft and style was restricted to the physical travel of small guilds of craftsmen. Over time, original ideas imported from earlier sites evolved into new forms which reflected refined technique and regional influence.
The characteristics of French, English, Italian, German and Spanish Gothic are represented by more than mere geography. Over time, a dedicated research will reveal the variety of distinctions. The serious student will soon enough “pierce the veil” and come into the treasure house of artistic and spiritual intent held in unique forms at each and every structure. These treasures still beckon powerfully to those of yearning mind and spirit. Their legacy challenges personal experience and innovative interpretation.
That the grand Gothic cathedrals of the Medieval period portray a manifestation of brilliant architectural skill, is self-evident. Frequently lost to us today, due to the entertainment of the wonderful, is the gesture of purpose. Within the broad view of architectural history, this aspect is evidenced by outstanding success by the medieval builders. Within their time, Gothic churches and cathedrals were far more than sheltering houses of worship.
While today, religious ceremonies are still held in most medieval churches and cathedrals, their role within society is greatly diminished. Modern architectural accomplishments are endowed by leaders of business not spirit. Our skylines are now dominated by temples of commerce, against which, even the grandest of cathedrals is overshadowed. For the most part, we find ourselves drawn to the strangeness of the Gothics, standing out, as they do, in sharp contrast to the structures of later ages.