"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.