The Magazine

The Gothic Vision

Blueprints for technology in patterns of design.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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The west wall at Reims seems perfectly natural and is, but its recursive structure solves a tricky problem. It's often difficult to design a satisfactory composition based on two of something. (Try arranging exactly two flowers in a vase in a non-ridiculous-looking fashion. It can't be done.) The large majority of Gothic west façades have one rose or none, but recursive structure allows Reims to have two, and the effect is spectacular.

The Gothic cathedral of Chartres, begun in 1194, established the classical or "high Gothic" style and is, as such, one of history's most beautiful, influential, and surprising buildings. Remarkably enough, the Gothic cathedral of Bourges, begun in 1195, is in many ways just as beautiful and surprising, although radically different. Bourges inspired its own small group of important buildings, including Beauvais Cathedral and the east end of Le Mans.

Many classical Gothic cathedrals have a lower level or story (the aisles and arcades), a medium level (the triforium), and an upper level (the clerestory). Entering at the front of Chartres, and finding yourself in the nave, you see the large windows of the clerestory along the upper level of the nave walls to your left and right; beneath them, the triforium is a dark, windowless band; below the triforium, aisles at ground level on each side, separated from the nave by arcades. The aisle ceilings are much lower than the nave.

At Bourges, this design undergoes a startling recursive revision. Imagine the nave cut in half down the middle, front to back. Pull the two halves apart. Insert a whole second church in the gap, telescoping upward from the newly opened slot (or popping out like a triumphant slice of Gothic toast). Now there is a second clerestory at the very top; below that, a second triforium; below that, a second set of arcades, left and right--each tremendously tall because each spans the whole vertical space from the bottom of the new triforium to the floor. The result is a space that builds in a jubilant crescendo towards the center, from the low outer aisles to the tall inner aisles to the enormous volume of the nave in the middle.

One of the most important aspects of mature Gothic design, and one that takes us right into the presence of the Gothic mind, is tracery--the thin, curvy, carved stone partitions that separate one window into many regions, or decorate blank wall surfaces. (The tracery within each window forms a structurally independent whole, separate from the window frame.) Tracery windows were a technical advance over earlier "composite windows," where a group of holes punched in stone panels yielded a set of related forms.

Tracery is central to Gothic because the medieval artist cared, above all, for design, not representation; his first goal was to create beautiful lines, surfaces, and volumes, not the painted or sculpted illusion of three-dimensional space. So medieval art is design art, and design begins with drawing--and tracery is pure drawing, abstract drawing representing nothing but itself; drawing in stone. Many later Gothic buildings use tracery not merely within windows and on wall surfaces but as a free-standing element of an architectural composition.

Recursion is basic to the art of tracery. Tracery was invented at Reims in around 1210 and used soon after at Amiens, the last (with Chartres and Reims) of the triumvirate on which the high Gothic style is based. To move from the characteristic tracery design of Reims to that of Amiens, simply add one level of recursion: at Reims, an arch containing a foiled circle supported on two smaller arches; at Amiens, an arch containing a foiled circle supported on two smaller arches, each containing a still-smaller foiled circle supported on still-smaller arches.

Exactly the same transition connects the windows of the apse and those of the nave in the chapel of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, dating from the late 1230s.

Tracery recursion can go deeper, too. The great east window at Lincoln Cathedral dates from around 1275. (Most English medieval churches terminate not in curved chevets but in flat eastern walls--ideal places for spectacular windows.) Within a large arch is a circle supported between two smaller arches. Within each smaller arch, a circle supported between two still-smaller arches. Within each still-smaller arch, a circle supported between two even-smaller arches. The result is an enormous "eight-light window," with a row of eight lancets forming the bottom register.