“Building the Great Cathedrals,” the acclaimed PBS science series Nova’s study of Gothic architecture, airs Tuesday, October 19, at 8 o’clock. This fascinating documentary, created by the makers of the award winning “Secrets of the Parthenon,” is presented as something of a how did they do it mystery story, setting out to follow scientists trying to answer some of the major questions surrounding these monumental works of art. How did medieval builders manage to construct such elaborate structures without the aid of modern technology? What has caused a failure in the structure of some of the buildings? And perhaps, on a somewhat more mystical level, did the planners of the cathedrals rely on a formula derived from the study of the Holy Scriptures for their building’s proportions?
The documentary begins by pointing out the differences between the early Romanesque style and the later Gothic. Romanesque churches used round arches for support. In order to get height in the buildings, thick stone walls were necessary, and thick walls tended to darken the interiors. Gothic buildings, on the other hand, were able to create the grandeur of height with thin walls laced liberally with stained glass windows. Their interiors were filled with natural light symbolizing the spiritual light of church doctrine. Gothic builders were able to achieve this through three architectural elements that have become the part of the standard defining qualities of the Gothic: the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault ceiling.
Modern engineers and builders working to rebuild a chapel transported from Europe to California by William Randolph Hearst illustrate how these support systems work. Modern scientists are also shown studying the structural problems in some of the famous French cathedrals. Cracks in the Cathedral at Amiens are analyzed with the use of lasers and computer models. Problems that caused a partial collapse in the Cathedral at Beauvais in 1573 are explained. Still, the scope of these problems only serves to emphasize the significance of the achievement of these builders.
Since these are after all holy edifices, it is not strange that there might well have been a religious element connected with their construction. Some scholars have suggested that the proportions of the levels of the Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as those of Chartres and Beauvais, are related to the proportions of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible. It is seen as a reflection of the attitude of medieval theologians who saw the deity as a kind of divine geometer providing perfect proportions. Of course, the central layout of the cathedral floor in the form of a cross is simply another physical manifestation of the building’s divine purpose.
While some attention is paid to the aesthetic elements of the Gothic and there are some wonderful shots of the various cathedrals, the major emphasis is on the scientific and the religious. The statuary at Chartres is surveyed and its inclusion of pagan figures is mentioned, and there is some discussion of the Biblical content of some of the stained glass windows. But this is limited; in fact, there is probably more time spent on the glass making process than there is on the analysis of the product. There is also a slide show with commentary on the science of medieval stained glass on the Nova website.
Like the monuments of the ancient world, the Greek Temples, the Pyramids, the Collesuem, the great Gothic cathedrals are a testament to mankind’s ability to accomplish wonders in an attempt to glorify and appease powers they looked to beyond themselves.
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