cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago,
As you will notice, the story windows tend to be in the lower windows, for they needed to be accessible to those being instructed by the priest. See the round medallions in the lower windows - each one depicting an incident in the bible or in the saint’s story. The higher windows, by contrast, tend to have larger pictures, such as prophets and kings. For more on stained glass layout, look at a history of ugly stained glass.
These windows come in many designs, of which I will try to provide examples. In general, and unexpectedly for most modern visitors, these windows tend to read from bottom to top, not from top to bottom, though there are exceptions.
I am developing this area mainly in terms of the stained glass, which has been a constant background for my paintings, though you might find it difficult to see the connection [An art gallery is a part of abelard.org.]
However, I shall also steadily fill in background to the development of the great building boom of gothic cathedrals during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I am no expert in this, just an interested amateur. Where possible, I shall quote references where you may take your studies further.
While I shall be telling you about gothic cathedrals and stained glass from many points of view, and with varying detail, it is well that I start by introducing you to my prejudices. My prime interest is in twelfth and thirteenth century (1100-1299) stained glass. For me, from then on everything went downhill, until the camera was discovered. Only then, at last, did artists start to move away from attempting to make two-dimensional art imitate three-dimensional life. With the camera a great burden was lifted from artists, and they could once more start studying and using materials for their aesthetic qualities and for imaginative expression.
The beautiful quiet and subdued light of the early, rich glass was steadily displaced by an increasing preference for decorative fiddling and flourish, along with the practical man’s demand for more light.
For further discussion, see history of art relating to stained glass.
Viewing stained glass, and other features of the great cathedrals, is not always entirely simple and straightforward. Many of these buildings are big, big, big, and what you wish to view may often be at a considerable distance, or very high up (never forget to look right the way up, including overhead). Serious lookers tend to bring a pair of binoculars with which they are comfortable; and because at a distance, handshake may easily become a problem, even a small tripod.
Often the angles are difficult, and the light contrasts considerable. You you are not going to take good photographs if you do not have a fair knowledge of how to handle a camera. Maybe, one day, I’ll find time for a section on that as well, but I expect there is a good website out there somewhere without too much jargon.
Next, a reminder that many of these cathedrals are in the centre of crowded and, often, still medieval towns. Parking, or alternatively, carrying a load of clutter are not designed to improve your mood and the joy you may derive from a visit. As you will know from my constant repetitions, I have no love of crowds, but that can be an advantage with stained glass, as the cathedrals are often empty.
Stained glass is a living art form. It varies with the season and the light conditions. Stained glass is, of course, transparent and, therefore, can vary if there are clouds or trees beyond. During the height of summer, glass can tend to ‘wash out’ and halate a little. This means that the prime times for good viewing are the spring and autumn, not tourist time. Some people swear by rainy, cloudy days which produce an even light, whereas I am for the full variety of stained glass moods. The winter can also be a problem with short days and low light levels. As an aficionado, I view stained glass in all its conditions, but you may wish to keep the above in mind in your planning.
You will not be appreciated if you walk in on a Sunday service and start gawping and oo-ing and ah-ing. It is also quite common to find a cathedral closed for a couple of hours at lunchtime and shut by 6pm. As said, these are very big buildings and they are not much heated. If visiting at the colder times of year and spending any time there, you will be very well advised to consider wrapping up. You may also come across the odd jobsworth who decides it is their holy duty to order you to put on or take off a hat, or to stop taking photographs. It is usually enough to wait for them to go away. Fortunately, what I regard as best viewing times often coincides with near deserted buildings.
I intend to cover the following cathedrals and churches in France, which I consider the most interesting and important in terms of stained glass. In some cases, there are also other reasons.
I am providing the list now, in order that you know where to look if you are in that area, prior to this part of abelard.org being developed fully.
To do list:
And one extra special, modern building: the Matisse Chapel near Vence on the Côte d’Azur (limited access - check visiting times first).
There are, of course, many others. After all, approximately eighty cathedrals and five hundred substantial churches were constructed in the great building craze of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But these are the ones to which I return and go on my A-list.
The gothic cathedrals in France were generally built very solidly. Some more ambitious projects failed at least in part, like the tower of Beauvais cathedral, while others moved - literally - over time. The West Rose at Chartres is one example, when restored in the nineteenth century, the whole rose had been found to have rotated about 15 degrees.
The world wars of the twentieth century [1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945] caused much damage to many cathedrals built in the northern half of France. Cathedrals badly damaged by German shelling in the First World War include Soissons and Reims, while others were damaged during World War Two. During World War One, all down the Front, the German gunners took potshots at the churches and cathedrals in boredom and sheer vandalism. Beauvais and Rouen were badly damaged in the Second World War. Chartres cathedral, amazingly, was hardly touched as the Allies swept through on their way to Paris in 1944.
The building of gothic cathedrals developed in step with the development of the design process. Through the medieval apprenticeship system, accumulated knowledge was passed down. Over a period of about a century and a half, designs increased in complexity and sophistication as the new techniques developed into a coherent ‘gothic’ style.
Added to this accumulating knowledge taken from experience, came the use of small-scale models, constructed similarly to the proposed full-scale building, and used to test the overall stability of a design. Detailed testing was made ‘on the job’, by building the cathedral one bay at a time, while using proven elements from previous designs.
So it was that cathedral construction evolved, with ribbed vaults and pointed arches appearing at the start of the eleventh century. This first major innovation in gothic cathedrals - the pointed arch - replaced the rounded Roman arch and enabled the building of more complex and higher buildings. This evolved to include the ribbed, arched vaults of large buildings, which able to span much large spaces than could the Roman arch.
By trial and error came the flying buttress to counteract outward pressures, so allowing ever taller and more complex structures. Flying buttresses were first recognised as being used in Notre Dame in Paris shortly before 1180.
Later, throughout the twelfth century, came the technology that gradually removed the requirement for walls to carry loads. The gothic builders discovered that it was no longer necessary to build curtain walls between the load-bearing skeleton of the church, because the skeleton carried all the weight. This allowed the builders to become much more adventurous, and to fill the spaces between the load-bearing pillars and ribs with glass.
The cathedrals were built over extended periods, often centuries. Frequently, the work was started then stopped for years or even decades, according to the availability of will and resources. Therefore, the dates below must be read with caution.
Extremely well illustrated - the paperback version [title: Rose Windows] has 59 pictures in colour and 82 in black-and-white and densely packed with facts. An ideal primer to be carried around with you on any visit. Like so many books, written by informed hands, it is very badly organised and laid out. My Thames and Hudson glued paper-cover version started falling apart from early on, but always travels in its own protective plastic cover to keep the pages in one place. I cannot resist giving these books five GoldenYaks, if only because I know of nothing better. The new hardback version [title: The Rose Window] is lavishly illustrated with 300 colour and 50 b/w images. While author now has greater experience, the text is less dense and not the sort of thing to carry around in a back pack.
Painton Cowen has also produced a very useful directory of stained glass in Britain:
cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
gothic cathedral and church construction
Chartres - wonder of the world
history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
Auch cathedral choir and stalls
Rouen and Monet
Dax and church iconography photographs, Dax
Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
Poitiers, neglected masterpiece photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire photographs, Angers
Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen photographs, Laon
Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
Notre Dame of Lausanne
Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals
Germans in France - Arras cathedral
Germans in France - Reims cathedral
Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
Germans in France - Soissons cathedral
cathedral plans, and facts
using metal in gothic cathedral construction
cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
cathedrals and cloisters of France by Elise Whitlock Rose
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the address for this document is http://www.abelard.org/france/cathedrals-intro.php