The Origins of Gothic at the Church of Saint-Denis

Written with Stephen Murray, medieval historian at Columbia University
This is my Columbia University senior thesis in the History & Theory of Architecture. This work expands on my films about Amiens Cathedral, published here.

Abstract

Around the year 1140 CE, a new style of architecture and way of thinking about how to construct buildings developed in Northern France. This way of building soon spread across Europe, seeding cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and churches wherever masons traveled. Centuries later – long after masons ceased building in this style – Renaissance architectural theorists began calling this style the “Gothic.”
The one church traditionally associated with this 1140s stylistic shift from the earlier Romanesque style to the newer Gothic style is a small building just north of Paris: the Abbey Church of S-Denis. However, although the popular narrative of architectural history assumes this building to be the world’s first Gothic building, little structural evidence to this effect survives. This thesis follows two strains of inquiry: 1) why this church is deeply associated with the origins of Gothic and 2) how surviving fragments of the 1140s S-Denis fail to support claims of the structure’s primacy.
Why does this matter? S-Denis reveals a tendency to tell history – particularly architectural history – in terms of individual structures when, in fact, the origins of the Gothic style might be more complex. By abandoning a Paris and S-Denis centric origins story, we might be able to better appreciate the diverse array of local sources from which medieval masons found inspiration to build.

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Read the thesis online

Opens as PDF in new window

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Strangely enough, despite the widely accepted fact that S-Denis’ architecture was significantly rebuilt, numerous sources continue to assume this church to be the first. Copied below is a quote from S-Denis’ official website:

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The birth of Gothic art. The church, designed by Abbot Suger, kings’ advisor from 1135 to 1144, was completed in the 13th-century during the reign of Saint Louis. A major work of Gothic art, this church was the first to place a great importance on light, a symbol of divinity, in religious architecture.

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Or this quote from leading German medievalist Dieter Kimpel:

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Suger, abbot of the most important of all the royal abbeys, that of Saint-Denis, and sponsor of the western part and the sanctuary of the abbey church, works considered rightly as a milestone in the history of the birth of Gothic architecture, left us a detailed account of his activity as abbot.

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Amiens Cathedral: Construction Sequence

Supervised by Stephen Murray, historian at Columbia University
Presentation delivered March 2018 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University

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My goal is to recreate Amiens Cathedral digitally. My method is to build an interactive and open-source computer model of the entire cathedral that is accurate to the foot and photo-realistic. This project would be impossible without the guidance of medievalist Stephen Murray, who introduced me to Amiens in his fall 2016 seminar at Columbia University.

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of S-Denis. And I continued building computer models as a research assistant at the Columbia University: Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction sequences of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
– Notre-Dame in Paris (forthcoming)

Burford Church: Construction Sequence

This project is also featured on Burford Church’s official website.
Created with Cathy Oakes, medieval art historian at Oxford University

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Construction Sequence: 1175-1475

While studying history at Oxford University, I based my final research project on Burford Church near Oxford, England. With the generous help from Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and recreated its 300 year construction and evolution through a computer model. View the resulting animation above or download the digital source files for free at this link. Narration below:

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  • c.1175 – Work begins on the Norman church working from east to west.
    It is a simple structure with round Norman windows and a choir, nave, and tower.
  • c.1200 – Demolition to construct a chapel, aisle, and entrance foyer.
  • c.1250 – Addition of north and south transept. Chancel is expanded.
  • c.1400 – The crypt is added, and the tower is heightened. The architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic, from round arches to pointed. Local cloth merchants construct a separate guild chapel at a slight angle to the main church.
  • c.1475 – Guild chapel is demolished to build the Lady Chapel. Most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two new aisles, a larger west window, and new clerestory windows. Two chapels are added to either side of the choir, as well as a three floor entrance tower (not visible from this angle).
  • This completes the construction of Burford Church.

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Visual Analysis

What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social history can be deduced from the church decoration? Without written historical records, how can we tell the story of this church based on building fragments alone?
Here is my tour of the architectural fabric.

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The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

Created with Stephen Murray, architectural historian at Columbia University

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1. Construction Sequence: 1220-1528

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Music: Beata Viscera by Pérotin, c.1200.

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1220-c.1225
Master Robert de Luzarches began work on the foundations and lower wall.
He may have been assisted by Thomas de Cormont
1225-30
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont constructed the south nave aisle
rapidly to provide space for liturgical celebrations
1230-1235
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont built the north nave aisle
soon afterwards
1240s-c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave and belfries of western towers
c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont died having completed the upper nave,
begun the upper transept and laid out the lower choir
1250s-1260s
Master Renaud de Cormont completed the upper transept and upper choir
The axial window of the choir clerestory was installed in 1269
1280s-c.1310
Main roof installed from east to west
1360s-c.1400
Construction of west towers
1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré completed c.1533

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Text by Stephen Murray

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2. Amiens Cathedral in Cross Section

This film shows the cathedral in cross section,
exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces.

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Music: Mille Regretz by Josquin des Prés

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Section of choir

Section of western half of cathedral

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3. Cathedral Flythrough

Viewers approach Amiens from the west, like medieval pilgrims did. Viewers then move through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral vaults. The animation then reconstructs the dynamic geometry that engineers encoded in the cathedral floor plan. The film closes with the view from below the foundations, as if the cathedral were floating on air.

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Music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198

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Section of the nave roof

Section of west façade

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amiensAlong with the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral is introduced each semester to students in Art Humanities. This seminar has been taught since 1947 and is required of all undergraduates as part of the Core Curriculum. Through broad introductory courses in art, literature, history, music, and science, the Core aims to produce well-rounded citizens of Columbia University students. Amiens was chosen as representative of all Gothic architecture, and as a lens through which to teach skills of visual analysis. This computer model I created instructs over 1,300 students per year.
Based on the computer model, I produced the three short films above: (1) a construction sequence, (2) a digital flythrough of the finished cathedral, and (3) a speculative animation of the cathedral in cross section. This trilogy is complemented with music from Pérotin (the thirteenth-century French composer) and Josquin des Prés (the fifteenth-century composer). Both musicians also happen to be featured in the Music Humanities component of the Core Curriculum.
My objective is to digitize and re-imagine Amiens. To borrow a quote from Viollet-le-Duc, the legendary nineteenth-century preservationist-architect of Notre-Dame de Paris, my aim was “to restore the building to a state of completeness that may have never existed.” For instance, Amiens lost almost all of its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. My project responds by presenting the cathedral in an idealized light. Awkward walls, ugly later additions, and anachronistic features can all be airbrushed away from my model, so as to reveal how the master masons originally envisioned their cathedral in the thirteenth century.
A building is dynamically experienced as a sequence of sights and sounds. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture limited information. Photography, film, and computer simulations are, in contrast, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of architecture. This project seeks to capture dynamic Amiens through a visual, auditory, and user interactive experience. Through film, one can recreate and expand the intended audience of this architecture, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage.
In Viollet-le-Duc’s 1863 book, Entretiens sur l’architecture, he presented Gothic architecture as the synthesis of a Roman basilica and a Romanesque church. After several centuries of evolution, these two forms merged into the singular form of the Gothic cathedral. For him, the Gothic cathedral (particularly Amiens) was the pinnacle of human architectural and aesthetic achievement. In other words, the cathedral’s form and plan evolved in response to theology and changes in the rituals of the Mass.
The two animations below illustrate Viollet-le-Duc’s thesis about Gothic. Although later scholars dispute this simple (or simplistic) analysis, this remains a powerful image.

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Evolution of the cathedral from early Christian to late Gothic

 

Development of the cathedral plan over 1,000 years.
Inspired from Viollet-le-Duc’s writing

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Cathedrals and History

In the absence of surviving written records, many scholars read cathedral construction as a proxy for economic growth, or as a symbol for the structure of medieval society. The decision of where and when to start building a cathedral was closely tied to the right economic and political conditions. The large majority of cathedrals were built in the region of Northeastern France during the High Middle Ages – during a period of remarkable economic growth and productivity. Construction fell off after climate change caused failed crops, followed by the Great Famine (1315) and the Black Death (1350). The economic conditions and cathedral construction never rebounded for a long time afterwards, and when construction did rebound, Europe had entered the Renaissance with a new aesthetic sensibility different from Gothic Amiens
The cathedral can equally be read as a political symbol. Funding came from a combination of donations, indulgences, and taxes on church-owned farmlands. The logic between competing regions and feudal kingdoms in medieval France reads something like: the larger and prettier the cathedral, the larger and more powerful the city and sponsors behind it. For many of these towns, the size of the cathedral was well out of proportion to the actual size of the town. Amiens, for instance, was one of the largest cathedrals in Europe for a town of only ~26,000. The other cathedral town of Chartres was, similarly, competing with Paris for power and independence; the cathedral was an architectural symbol for these political desires. In this light, the cathedral became as much a religious space as a political statement of civic identity.

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Credits

I am indebted to the expert guidance of medieval historian Stephen Murray, who mentored me in the fall 2016 seminar Life of a Cathedral: Notre-Dame of Amiens. I also thank Columbia’s Center for Career Education for funding this project through its Work Exemption Program.

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Method

Anyone can download this model from Sketchup for free and edit it from their computer. Over 3,000 people have downloaded this model, and numerous others have 3D printed it as part of their architecture studios. This model is built with free computer modeling software called Sketchup. Among software, Sketchup is easiest to learn. Within minutes, students and teachers unfamiliar with Sketchup can build their own models with ease. In response to several rounds of edits and suggestions from Stephen Murray, I finished this model and exported the animation for final edits and special effects.
In this recorded lecture, I describe the workflow and editing process behind this project.

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Sources

– Based on Stephen Murray’s measurements and drawings of Amiens from 1990 (link)
– And these hand drawings by George Durand from 1901-03 (link).

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of S-Denis. And I continued building computer models as a research assistant at the Columbia University: Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
– Notre-Dame in Paris (forthcoming)

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The cathedral from your computer

Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

This model shows a section of Amiens’ nave with the labyrinth below. Photo-realistic textures from actual photos and drawings of Amiens enhance the illusion of reality. Click numbered annotations to view details. Click and drag mouse to fly around. Please be patient while the model loads…

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Computer Model

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Photos

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Amiens Cathedral Interior

Gallery is organized linearly to mirror the experience of walking through the cathedral.

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Cross Sections

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Dynamic Angles

Computer models allow us to explore architecture in ways not possible in reality. With Amiens floating in the sky, one looks up to the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The cathedral is real, but the views of it are imaginary.

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Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.
Also featured in the Columbia Daily Spectator in September 2016

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The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine soars above the low-slung tenements and boxy towers that edge up against it. Unfinished it survives; funds have long since dried up in our era of secularism and consumerism. Yet powerful it stands; solid stone will outlive the concrete and glass city. The cathedral’s soaring jagged silhouette seems to proclaim against the soot that darkens its façade and the urban din that drowns out the sanctity of silence: Come weather, wind, or rain, I will stand.

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