Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Theology and Metaphysics of the Gothic Cathedral - part 3

Continued from here and here.

Beauty & Order in the Gothic Cathedral

St Thomas Aquinas has said: “ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur”, and these three requirements of beauty are integrity, right proportion or harmony, and claritas (brightness, vividness). Beauty was vital to the cathedral if it were to adequately symbolize the celestial City, and indeed beauty pointed to God who was the bestower of all created beauty and in whose Beauty all beautiful things participated. As such, if the Gothic church was to be a symbol of the new creation, redeemed and ordered by Christ, then it had to have beauty, and thus, it had to have integrity, harmony and brightness. These three elements are indeed central to the form of the Gothic cathedral, as we shall see. Moreover, as Von Simson notes, “the cathedral is perhaps best understood as a ‘model’ of the medieval universe [and] the intimation of ineffable truth”. Thus, it had to stand as a symbol of the beauty of both the created order, as well as the revealed order in which all creation is made new in Christ. This is clearly a tall order, but it was believed to be possible because there were certain requirements of beauty, chiefly proportion, of which the three elements we mentioned above are all a kind. As Von Simson says, then: “If the architect designed his sanctuary according to the laws of harmonious proportion, he did not only imitate the order of the visible world, but conveyed an imitation, inasmuch as that is possible to man, of the perfection of the world to come”.

The Gothic cathedral, we have seen, is a model of the cosmos. This Greek word, κόσμος meaning order, harmonious arrangement, or even ornaments, gives us an indication of how the medievals saw the cathedral. The key to cosmic perfection, and thus to the perfection of the cathedral, was geometric proportion. Coming from Pythagoras’ geometry which influenced Plato (in particular his Timaeus, which was one of the few Platonic works known to the early medievals), the writings of St Augustine and Boethius emphasized the harmony of the universe and the ordering of the universe according to perfect Pythagorean proportions and ratios. This was taken up by the Platonic School of Chartres, such that Alan of Lille could say that God was the elegans architectus who constructed the universe and ordered it as the divine geomancer. In this regard, the medievals cited Wisdom 11:20, “You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight”. Hence, the cathedral architect who wished to construct a model of the universe had to employ geometry and Pythagorean proportions, so imitating the divine architect who had created the cosmos itself. In this way, the cathedral, with its carefully measured form, was a true symbol of the cosmos. The architect might also have had in mind the Old Testament account of the construction of Solomon’s Temple, for which God himself gave the measures and proportions. So too, the new Temples of God had to follow these proportions; an example of this being done is the Vatican’s Sistine chapel. Therefore, we see in the medieval architect’s love for perfect proportion, a desire for consonance and harmony – one of the ‘requirements’ of beauty – in their work.

The medievals also had a fascination with numerology and sacred numbers, for St Augustine had said that “The Divine Wisdom is reflected in the numbers impressed on all things”. For example, the number three, of course, was the number of the Trinity and consequently of the soul, and of all spiritual things. Therefore, complex combinations of geometry, perfect ratios, and number symbolism can be found throughout the Gothic cathedral although Mâle warns against making this kind of symbolism too ubiquitous in one’s interpretation of the church. Even so, there are clear instances of an interplay of geometry and beautiful proportions and sacred numbers which we have already mentioned. The façade of Milan cathedral is one such example, which relies on the proportions of the Pythagorean triangle. Even more perfect is Chartres cathedral of which Von Simson notes: “the elevation of Chartres cathedral is the supreme vindication of this philosophy of beauty” based on the perfection of proportions.

However, it is important to note too that the medieval architect’s preoccupation with ordered measurements was not at the expense of structural stability. Indeed, the use of proportion, mathematical ratio and geometry aided the stability and strength of the building, so that one sees in the Gothic cathedral a marriage of beautiful form and structural function, thus giving integrity – another ‘requirement of beauty – to the building. Hence Von Simson said that “architecture that is scientific and good must invariably be based on geometry; unless he obeys the laws of his discipline, the architect must surely fail… And it is taken for granted… that the stability and beauty of an edifice are not distinct values, that they do not obey different laws, but that, on the contrary, both are comprehended in the perfection of geometrical forms”. It may be that today we find the medieval ‘obsession’ with Pythagorean geometry and Platonic ideas of cosmic design and arrangement to be somewhat esoteric. However, one cannot argue that these buildings have stood the test of time, being both beautiful and fine structures, thus witnessing to the science, the recta ratio, right reasoning, indeed, that was the foundation of the architect’s art.

Metaphysics of Light

One of the major characteristics of the Gothic cathedral is its soaring height which, compared to the Romanesque church, is flooded with light, often mediated by beautiful stained glass windows aglow with colour. The Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and Chartres cathedral, are two of the most evocative Gothic churches on account of this ‘jewelled reliquary’ quality. St Thomas’ third ‘requirement’ of beauty is claritas, which he qualifies thus: “things are called beautiful which have a bright colour”. As such, Von Simson notes that for the medievals “stars, gold and precious stones are called beautiful because of this quality [of luminousity]”. However, these things are beautiful because of the way they reflect and refract light. Light is of great importance because it is linked to the central notion of vision; light enables us to perceive beauty, and even, in some sense, to see God. As St Thomas says: “corporeal light is necessary as regards external sight, inasmuch as it makes the medium actually transparent, and susceptible of colour”. The Angelic Doctor also says that, “The created light is necessary to see the essence of God, not in order to make the essence of God intelligible, which is of itself intelligible, but in order to enable the intellect to understand” and again, “This light is required to see the divine essence, not as a similitude in which God is seen, but as a perfection of the intellect, strengthening it to see God”. Indeed, Blessed Dionysius held that God himself was “an incomprehensible and inaccessible light” and that all creation is an act of divine illumination, so that all things participated in God’s light, and there was a hierarchy of perfection according to the illumination of the thing. Moreover, it seems that light was likened with being, so that for the Areopagite, “if light ceased to shine, all being would vanish into nothingness”. As such, light – who is God – was necessary for the order of the universe, and for its being.

Exeter College apseConsequently people like Abbot Suger believed that created light was the best created symbol by which to see and know God, and so he proclaimed: “Bright is the noble edifice that is pervaded by the new light”. The lux nova is both Christ and the physical light that filled his new church, and its brightness is a reference to claritas, and so, to its beauty. Therefore, Von Simson says that “Light and luminous objects, no less than musical consonance, conveyed an insight into the perfection of the cosmos, and a divination of the Creator”. Given such a metaphysics of light, it is no wonder that the Gothic age developed an aesthetics of light that is most beautifully expressed in the Gothic cathedral, for it is by the latter that we come to experience the former. Or as Von Simson put it, “corporeal light [was an] ‘analogy’ to the divine light”. Light is thus a vital element in the Gothic worldview and vision, and it is characteristic of the symbol that is the Gothic cathedral.

Continued in part 4: the Rose Window & Conclusion

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: