The Meaning of Notre-Dame

The construction of Notre-Dame mirrors the larger story of the French nation.
Medieval France was splintered into regional kingdoms and alliances between local feudal lords. In the tenth century, the Capetian rulers in central France started consolidating power and lands. Through conquest, marriage, and diplomacy, the Capetians expanded their influence first to Paris and then outward. By the thirteenth century, the Capetians controlled most of the land within the present-day borders of what is now France. Over this Catholic kingdom, they ruled generation after generation in centuries of uninterrupted rule until the French Revolution.
While the Capetians did not start as the largest and most powerful kingdom in Europe, they soon amplified their power through alliance with the church. From Reims Cathedral (where all Capetians were crowned) to the Church of St. Denis near Paris (where they were all buried), the French monarchs asserted power through their relationship with the church. They claimed their right to rule descended from God’s mandate. God himself ruled through and expressed his demands through the soul and mind of the king. To oppose the king would therefore be to oppose the wishes of God.
The construction of Notre-Dame of Paris was therefore a project for the Capetian kingdom in the capital city of Paris. With the monarchy’s control of France’s largest and most important trade center, the cathedral became a central symbol of the power of the city and the kingdom. From across Europe and France, other peoples looked to Notre-Dame for design inspiration. The model and building techniques of Notre-Dame were copied far and wide. Paris might have had limited geographic borders, but through the churches and monasteries in other regions that looked to Paris for aesthetic inspiration and theological guidance, Paris wielded a soft power to influence culture.

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Expansion of the Capetian lands from 987 to 1223. Arrows radiating from Paris point to the cathedrals inspired from Paris and Saint-Denis.

The blue area shown in 1154 shows the competing empire from the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II. The orange lands shown in 1223 are fiefdoms dependent upon the French Crown under king Philip Augustus. Animation from Stephen Murray at Mapping Gothic France.

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Among medieval cathedrals known to take centuries to complete, Notre-Dame was finished in short time. In just eight decades from c.1160 to c.1245, Notre-Dame emerged from the rubble in the completed form the public would recognize it today. Soon, neighboring towns in competition with Paris began erecting larger and taller cathedrals of their own. Among them, the powers centered on the cities of Chartres to the southwest, Amiens to the north, and Rouen to the northwest expressed their competition with Paris through their grander cathedrals. Not to be outdone, from 1220 to 1225 the Parisians rebuilt the entire upper levels and vaults of Notre-Dame to be taller, more luminous, and more ornate than before. The powers at Chartres, Amiens, and Rouen were soon crushed in battle and became the allies of an increasingly centralized French empire.
The public interprets cathedral construction as an act of devotion to God. The fine materials, craftsmanship, and physical challenges of construction symbolize the builders’ devotion, or gratitude for God listening to their prayers. The more expensive the project and the more difficult the construction, the greater the finished cathedral becomes as a symbol of sacrifice. Medieval stories often speak of the devout paying penance for their sins by dragging carts of heavy cathedral stones from quarry to building site. Or when the cathedrals faced structural collapse, natural disasters, and frequent fires, builders and clergy read these events as God expressing his dissatisfaction that their project was not good enough.
Less often does the public see the sacred built environment as an expression of political power, or as a tool of diplomacy and nation building. For the church to somehow be caught up in earthly affairs of wealth building, land investments, tax collection, and power squabbles seems vulgar and a distraction from the higher sacred mission. Cathedral construction required massive fundraising and tax collection efforts, the mobilization of thousands of laborers, and the sale of indulgences (donations to the church in exchange for certificates promising to reduce the donor’s punishment in the afterlife). As Notre-Dame of Paris reveals, construction cannot be separated from larger political events.
At every step in the history of the Capetians, monarchs sponsored building projects and used their power to carry out the political agenda of the church. Louis IX was made a saint for leading the Crusades to retake the Holy Land and its trade routes from Islam. The Sun King Louis XIV relied on the papal Cardinal Mazarin during his earliest years in power. And the ill-fated Louis XVI refused to share the monarchy and church’s monopoly on power with the people, causing the middle and working classes to wage the French Revolution.
The French Revolution asserted that government’s right to rule does not descend down from God and the church, as monarchs had claimed for centuries. Instead, political legitimacy flows up from the people, their right to vote, and their support for the elected government. Skepticism in the religious basis for political power, coupled with the Enlightenment belief that science and human reason alone can unlock social progress and the project of democracy, re-centered society on a new foundation. Church and state were separated, and with that Notre-Dame fell into a half-century of decay and abandonment.
In the French Revolution, Notre-Dame and hundreds of other French churches were abandoned, desecrated, and often demolished for the value of their building materials. Notre-Dame was confiscated from the church and transformed into a “Temple of Reason,” while most of its statuary was destroyed. The statues of 28 Biblical kings on Notre-Dame’s west façade were mistaken as French because their robes were modeled after Capetian kings. And so they were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by the mob in the city square. Not until the mid nineteenth century was Notre-Dame restored by Viollet-le-Duc with a new spire, new windows, new carvings, and restoration efforts sometimes so extensive that the cathedral surviving today is as much a product of the medieval era as it is a nineteenth-century creation. Notre-Dame began to emerge as a symbol of the French culture, identity, and nation.
Notre-Dame’s fire on 15 April 2019 reminded the public once again of architecture’s role in shaping and symbolizing national identity. The fire was as much a loss of architecture and cultural heritage as it was a threat to the French identity. The cathedral’s fire-damaged vaults and wooden roof turned to ashes symbolized an interrupted continuity with history. The cathedral had survived hundreds of years through plague, world wars, and revolution, as if symbolizing the continuity and purity of the French language, culture, and history. And now this link with history and the origins of the modern French nation was severed.
The efforts to rebuild Notre-Dame “as it was before” reveal the larger misconception that there is such a thing as a pure and original state. Pre-modern builders and patrons interpreted fires and natural disasters as innovation opportunities to rebuild what was lost as bigger and better than before, and often with the latest building techniques and architectural style. The church that stood at the site of future Notre-Dame, and which was demolished to build the current cathedral, was itself hundreds of years old and dating back to the late Roman Empire. And yet medieval audiences demolished it all the same with the confidence that what they built would be better than what was there before. Past generations at Notre-Dame viewed the cathedral and history as something fluid that could be embellished and improved through cycles of demolition. As late as the nineteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc imagined and added new details to the cathedral that never, in fact, existed.
Just days after the fire, architects submitted dozens of proposals to rebuild the site. Preservationists instead decided to rebuild the cathedral with the same pre-modern techniques, materials, and interior wooden roof trusses. Is contemporary art and culture so impoverished of beauty that contemporary society is incapable of enriching Notre-Dame with the building techniques and aesthetics of the modern era? Do we no longer believe in the forward path of progress, and must therefore pause the appearance of Notre-Dame the way it was?
The fire revealed that there are, in fact, two cathedrals: the physical cathedral built as a symbol of the French state and faith; and then the cathedral of our memories, with all the personal meanings visitors drew from their experience of the space. The two cathedrals are not the same because the meanings and symbolism we assign Notre-Dame in our memories are different from the cathedral’s intended purpose. The medieval clergy and kings never intended to create a symbol of the modern French state, of Victor Hugo’s literature, or of international Christianity. Yet Notre-Dame’s ability to acquire new meanings and identities through time speaks to the fact that this cathedral is a living work of art. With or without the physical cathedral, the Notre-Dame of our imaginations, of art, of literature, and of the millions of souvenir photographs will continue to live. At least in the collective imagination, Notre-Dame is immortal.

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Fire on 15 April 2019

Notre-Dame of Paris Construction Sequence

Developed with Stephen Murray, medieval architectural historian at Columbia University
As featured in:
1. Notre Dame’s official website
2. Open Culture, May 2021
2. Rebuilding a Legacy, hosted April 2021 by the French Embassy, view recording
3. Restoring a Gothic Masterpiece, hosted May 2021 by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and Town Hall, view recording

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1. Construction time-lapse

This construction time-lapse illustrates the history of Notre-Dame from c.1060 to the present day, following ten centuries of construction and reconstruction. The film was created in the computer modeling software SketchUp, based on hand-drawn image textures. The ink drawings of nineteenth-century architect Viollet-le-Duc were scanned and applied to the model surfaces, as if to transform the two-dimensional artwork into the three-dimensional digital. I believe computer models should have a certain handmade quality.

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Music: Pérotin, Viderunt Omnes

View animation with music only.

Read text of Stephen Murray’s audio narration.

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2. Virtual reality computer model

Explore the interior and exterior of Notre-Dame in virtual reality.
Give thirty seconds for browser to load. Link opens in new window.
Complete model of Notre-Dame inside and out. Download includes simulation of cathedral construction sequence. Model was peer reviewed for accuracy by scholars at Columbia University’s art history department and at the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.

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Fire on 15 April 2019

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3. Computer model and construction sequence sources

– Dany Sandron and Andrew Tallon. Notre-Dame Cathedral: nine centuries of history.
– Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Drawings of Notre-Dame. From Wikimedia Commons.
J. Clemente. Spire of Notre-Dame. From SketchUp 3D Warehouse.
– Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Ferdinand de Guilhermy. Notre-Dame de Paris. From BnF Gallica.
– Caroline Bruzelius. “The Construction of Notre-Dame in Paris” in The Art Bulletin. From JSTOR.
– Michael Davis. “Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris” in The Art Bulletin. From JSTOR.

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4. Exterior still images from model

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6. Interior still images

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7. Dynamic angles

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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 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 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 at the University of Oxford

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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 St. Denis, and I continued building computer models as a research assistant at Columbia University’s 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 the late Cathy Oakes, medieval art historian at the University of Oxford

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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, building fragments alone can tell the story of church construction.
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, 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 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 his simplistic analysis, his work remains influential.

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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 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 in the thirteenth century. Construction slowed 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 also 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 ~26,000. The other cathedral town of Chartres was, similarly, competing with Paris for power and independence. Cathedral were architectural symbols for the competitions between cities and regions. 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 and edit this model for free with SketchUp. Over 3,000 people have downloaded this model, and numerous others have 3D printed it as part of their architecture studios. 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 St. Denis, and I continued building computer models as a research assistant at Columbia University’s 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 of Paris

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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 the model. 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 sequentially 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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