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Early civilizations
The east
Rock-cut architecture
Early Christian churches
Middle Ages
     Medieval castles
     The vaulted stone roof
     Capella Palatina in Palermo
     St Denis and Chartres
     Sainte Chapelle in Paris
     Italian Gothic

15th - 16th century
17th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

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Medieval castles: 9th - 13th century

In feudal Europe, where armed men are granted rights over often hostile territories, the castle becomes an important feature of the countryside. Such castles are often surprisingly flimsy affairs. It comes as a shock to read that William I, in his invasion of England in 1066, lands at Pevensey on September 28 and builds himself a castle before fighting the battle at Hastings on October 14.

It is of the mound-and-bailey variety, also called motte-and-bailey (from the Norman French motte for a mound). This is a design developed by the Franks in the 9th century and adopted by the Normans.


The construction of a mound-and-bailey castle is a simple matter of hard and rapid labour. A circular ditch is dug (when filled with water, it becomes a moat). The earth from it is piled inwards to form a mound, preferably adding height to an existing prominence. On top of the mound a tower is built, within a palisade.

An adjacent area is surrounded by another palisade, and sometimes also by a moat. This is the bailey, or outer courtyard, in which the garrison live and keep their livestock. A bridge crosses the moat to reach the more secure mound and its tower. In the first five years of the Norman conquest of England thirty-five such castles are established, nearly all of them of wood.


Where stone and time are available, it is clearly preferable to construct a castle of the stronger and non-combustible material. During the 12th century stone walls and towers become more common in European castles, together with more sophisticated forms of bastion and battlement.

One influence is the Byzantine castle architecture seen by the crusaders on their way east. They soon create in the Holy Land magnificently impressive examples of their own - such as the great Krak des Chevaliers, largely built by the Knights of St John and occupied by them from 1142.


In Europe the castle as a fortified garrison is seen in a highly developed form in the great series built in the late 13th century for Edward I along the coast of Wales, uncompromising in their purpose of keeping the Welsh in submission.

In subsequent centuries the castle evolves into something more akin to a great man's residence, his fortified palace. This is true of the famous French castles of the Loire, built in the 15th and 16th centuries. And it is true of the magnificent castles of exactly the same period in two very different cultures, in India and Japan.


Romanesque: 9th - 12th century

Romanesque, a word not coined until the 18th century, is first used to describe the architecture of western Europe from about the 9th to 12th century. It has become applied by extension to other arts, in particular sculpture. But the term remains most appropriate to architecture, where the round arches of Romanesque can easily be seen as what the name implies - a continuation of the Roman tradition.

The round arch is characteristic of much in Roman building - whether in their great aqueducts and bridges, in emperors' triumphal arches, or astride classical columns (as, for example, in the churches of Ravenna).


A perfect example of this continuity is the tiny baptistery at Fréjus in the south of France. This warmly reassuring little building, with its round-topped windows and striped interior arches on top of classical pillars, has the informal charm of many a small Romanesque church of the 10th or 11th century.

But it dates from the late 5th century - a period when the Germanic tribes are already in France, but far too early for there to be any architectural influence other than Roman in this region. This apparently Romanesque gem is pure Roman.


By the time of the period properly considered Romanesque, many variations of its Roman origins have evolved. Seeking out the sources of Romanesque is a complex academic exercise. One well-established line of influence comes through Ravenna to Aachen; Justinian's 6th-century church of San Vitale inspires Charlemagne's early 9th-century chapel.

Charlemagne's chapel in Aachen, with its classical columns and round striped arches, also recalls the little baptistery at Fréjus. And both are echoed in the full flowering of the Romanesque style, as seen in the 12th-century nave at Vézelay.


Vézelay is a pilgrimage church (the monks here have on show the bones of Mary Magdalene), and many of the Romanesque churches of France are on the great pilgrimage routes which develop at this period - particularly those leading to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

An innovation of architectural significance in French Romanesque relates to the pilgrims. The ambulatory, a passage behind the altar following the curve of the apse, makes possible the addition of several small chapels to contain relics. The pilgrims can progress in their devotions from one to another. The cluster of little curved roofs at the east end, seen from outside, becomes a characteristic feature of many a Romanesque church.


The vaulted stone roof: from the 11th century

Romanesque in the north tends to be more massive in style than the delicate arches of Vézelay. A good example is the interior of Durham cathedral - the glory of English Romanesque (often given the alternative name of Norman architecture).

The chunky pillars of Durham, many of them decorated with deeply incised patterns, support a vaulted stone roof over the nave - a significant Romanesque innovation of this period. The construction of Durham begins in 1093, a few decades before the nave of Vézelay.


The vault, like the dome, is among the technical achievements of Roman architecture, but the Romans are content to cover their large rectangular buildings (or basilicas) with wooden roofs. This remains the case with the first Christian churches, based on the Roman basilica. And it is still the case with all rectangular Romanesque churches until the last few decades of the 11th century. Before that time naves are either covered with flat wooden ceilings or are open up to the timbers of the roof.

The problem with a stone vault, spanning a large space, is that it needs to be very thick and therefore heavy. This in turn requires vast side walls and buttresses. It is no accident that cathedrals such as Durham are massive.


Durham has one feature on its vaulted roof which in the longer term points to the solution. The vaults appear to rest on crossed ribs, ranged like a row of starfish along the ceiling. It is a very early example of 'rib vaulting' - though the ribs here may be largely decorative in intent, for the vaulting remains extremely thick.

Like the cast-iron struts of the Crystal Palace, stone ribs are capable of forming an independent structure - holding up a much thinner roof of stone to keep out the weather. This concept, of a light structural skeleton, will be developed to an extraordinary degree in the next few centuries by the builders of the great Gothic cathedrals.


Capella Palatina in Palermo: 1132-1189

The small palace chapel in Palermo, with its walls covered in bright pictorial mosaic, is one of the most exquisite buildings of the Middle Ages. Known as the Capella Palatina (Latin for 'palace chapel'), it is begun in 1132 and completed in about 1189.

The mosaics are in the Greek tradition, created by craftsmen from Constantinople. Christ Pantocrator is in the apse and cupola, in traditional Byzantine style. Round the walls are sequences of scenes from the Old Testament, and from the lives of St Peter and St Paul. This is a narrative convention which will later be much used in Italian frescoes.


The roof of the Capella Palatina, by contrast, is unlike anything in a Byzantine church. In vaulted wood, carved and painted in intricate patterns, it would seem at home in a pavilion of a Muslim palace or in a covered section of a mosque. The sturdy round arches supporting the walls are from yet another tradition - that of European Romanesque. Classical pillars, inherited from an earlier period of Sicily's rich history, complete the influences seen in this eclectic building.

It perfectly encapsulates the merits of Norman Sicily.


Gothic: 12th - 15th century

Gothic, descriptive now of some of the most sublime creations of the European imagination, begins as a term of abuse. It is used by theorists in the Renaissance to blame the Goths for 1000 years of non-classical architecture - from410 (when Rome is sacked by the Visigoths) to 1419 (when Brunelleschi uses classical motifs on the façade of a foundling hospital in Florence). The term is applied also to sculpture of the same period, much of it found on buildings.

Art historians later recognize a major stylistic division within this long period. The early part becomes known as Romanesque. Gothic, losing any pejorative sense, is reserved for a style which emerges in the 12th century.


The Gothic style, though also used in secular buildings, is most associated with the great cathedrals of Europe. There are certain immediately recognizable characteristics in any Gothic cathedral.

The interior gives an impression of lightness and height, with slender columns framing large tall windows and reaching up to support a delicately ribbed stone roof. The exterior is encrusted with a filigree of delicate ornament, again essentially slender and vertical, made up of a blend of elegant statues, bobbly pinnacles, the skeletal patterns of the stone tracery in the windows, and the open fretwork of flying buttresses.


There is much argument about exactly where the most characteristic ingredients of Gothic first appear. A pointed arch is one of its distinguishing characteristics, as opposed to the Romanesque round arch, but this shape is not in itself a Gothic innovation - it can occasionally be found earlier in Muslim architecture. Equally rib vaulting over the nave, a feature of every Gothic church with a stone roof, is seen in the Romanesque cathedral at Durham.

Neverthless these two features are intrinsic elements in the Gothic style. They make it possible for the building to become a lightweight skeleton of stone, into which decorative features may be inserted.


The features characteristic of a Gothic church include large windows, bringing in colour as well as light through the medium of Stained glass. On the end walls of transept or nave there is now space for a particularly glorious innovation - the great circular openings known (from the petal-like arrangement of their stonework) as rose windows.

The two most striking exterior details of Gothic cathedrals are the tall recessed porches, rising to a high peak and providing ample surfaces for sculpture; and the so-called flying buttresses, in which the sideways thrust of a wall is contained by delicate filaments of stone (as if some masonic spider has been at work on the building).


The Gothic style first appears in France in the mid-12th century. It soon becomes a much wider phenomenon. All the great medieval cities of Europe have Gothic buildings, unless destroyed by war or other disaster. Nevertheless the earliest and greatest achievements are in France, during a relatively short period from the mid-12th to mid-13th century. It makes sense to describe the movement through the best French examples. (English Gothic, though known for its three distinct periods, is closely related to the French.)

The one great exception within the tradition is Italian Gothic, which needs a section of its own - for the colourful flamboyance of its churches, and the exceptional beauty of its secular buildings.


St Denis and Chartres: 12th - 13th century

On 11 June 1144 a distinguished company assembles in the new abbey church of St Denis, near Paris. The church has been built during the previous few years by Suger, the energetic abbot, who entered this abbey some fifty years ago as a bright 10-year-old from a poor family. He has since risen to a position of power as the confidant of the king, Louis VII.

Today Louis and his queen are in the congregation to consecrate Suger's new church. When they admire the tall pointed arches of the choir and apse, and the windows full of Stained glass (including an image of the abbot himself presenting a window), they are marvelling at the birth of the Gothic style.


At this same time, in the 1140s, a famous movement begins in Chartres, the city now known for the finest of all Gothic cathedrals. Chartres has an outstanding relic - the tunic which the Virgin Mary is supposed to have been wearing at the time of the Annunciation. It inspires a sense of deep devotion in visiting pilgrims.

Construction of a new west front, to enlarge the cathedral, is under way. From about 1145 ordinary people of all classes lend a hand, dragging heavy wagons of stone from the quarry to the cathedral. Known as the 'cult of carts', this fashion spreads to other cities of France as an expression of Christian piety.


Fifty years later this pious effort at Chartres seems to be divinely rewarded. When the rest of the old cathedral is destroyed in a fire of 1194, the west façade - with its two great towers, and the triple entrance flanked by superb sculptures - miraculously survives (as does the Virgin's tunic). The cathedral authorities, gathering in the funds of the faithful, are inspired to build behind this façade an entire new cathedral in the Gothic style.

The soaring interior, with its vertical lines unbroken from the ground to the rib vaulting of the roof, is completed by 1222. The great windows are as yet blank spaces intersected by stone tracery. By 1240 they are filled with a blazing display of Stained glass.


Chartres cathedral survives today as an outstanding example of three different aspects of Gothic - architecture, sculpture and Stained glass. It is also a testament to the wealth and the energy generated by two closely linked passions of the Middle Ages, the cult of the relic and the love of pilgrimage.

Chartres is the large and public expression of this medieval impulse. An exquisite miniature version of the same theme is constructed in the years immediately following the completion of Chartres. The Sainte Chapelle in Paris, housing its own relic, refines the glories of full-scale Gothic to something more like a jewelled casket.


Sainte Chapelle: 1243-1248

All important relics in the Middle Ages are put on display to be venerated by pilgrims. In 1239 the king of France acquires a relic of such significance that he creates, to contain it, a perfect miniature Gothic church.

Western knights, occupying Constantinople since the fourth crusade, have been pawning some of the holiest Byzantine treasures to pay their armies. Louis IX, the king of France, redeems three of them from Venetian money-lenders. His greatest acquisition is the Crown of Thorns. Included in the same lot are a fragment of the True Cross and the head of the Holy Lance which pierced Christ's side.


To house these relics, Louis builds a new chapel, the Sainte Chapelle, in his palace on an island in the Seine - the Ile de la Cité, in the heart of Paris. The surprising outer shape of the building, unusually tall for its size, is because the king's apartments are on the first floor of the palace. He wants to be able to walk straight into his chapel. It occupies only the upper half of the structure.

This Gothic gem is completed in a very short time, between 1243 and 1248. Its interior - more glass than stone, with every panel of the windows in Stained glass and every inch of stone painted or gilded - is one of the marvels of the Middle Ages.


Italian Gothic: 14th - 15th century

Italy comes late to the Gothic style but makes of it something very much its own. To move from the west façade of Chartres cathedral to the equivalent in Siena or Orvieto, dating from two centuries later, is like seeing a play which has been adapted to the extragant demands of opera. These two Italian façades of the early 14th-century, encrusted with ornament and bright with pictorial panels, glow in the warm Italian sun like enormous trinkets.

When Italian builders follow the northern Gothic style more closely, as in the 15th-century cathedral of Milan, they outdo their model with a glorious riot of pinnacles and tracery.


The most impressive Italian contribution to the story of Gothic architecture is in secular buildings. In 1298 the authorities in Siena publish regulations for the city's central piazza, the semicircular Campo. The height and style of the surrounding houses are to be carefully regulated. Over the next few decades the commune builds the town hall, the Palazzo Publico, on the straight side of the gently sloping semicircle (the great tower is completed in 1348). The other sides fill in, as decreed, to provide a sense of harmonious Gothic unity.

The Campo in Siena, so carefully planned in the 14th century, can lay good claim 600 years later to be the most beautiful public space in Europe.


The last flowering of Italian Gothic is the most beautiful style of all and is like nothing in any other city. It is the secular architecture of late medieval Venice. An exceptional example is the Doge's Palace, built in its present form between 1340 and about 1500.

The top-heavy appearance of the palace, with an almost solid wall resting on two storeys of delicate open arches, is caused by the need to accomodate a great council hall on the top floor. Amazingly, this imbalance does nothing to lessen the beauty of the building.


More typical of Venetian Gothic is the exquisite Ca' d'Oro, built betwen 1421 and 1440. There is a wonderful contrast and harmony between the wall with its nine inset windows on the right (stone with an occasional pattern of space) and the three tiers of balconies with their filigree arches on the left (space with an occasional pattern of stone).

This design blends the Gothic with other influences, deriving from Venice's connections with the Byzantine and Muslim east. The result is a beauty, purely Venetian, which can be glimpsed in many of the older houses on the city's canals. But while Venice is building the Gothic Ca' d'Oro, Florence is already busy with the architecture of the Renaissance.


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