Friday, November 06, 2009

A view from the roof at Chartres

This post is strictly for ultra-nerds of Gothic architecture. I recently got this photo of the ‘transitional flying buttress’ between the nave and choir of Chartres Cathedral – something that is not at all easy to do, as the buttress is not visible from the ground but requires access to the cathedral roof. I’d gone up there for other purposes (a Nova documentary on Gothic churches), and so sadly hadn’t come properly prepared to take photos – this one is from my mobile phone, and so is not of high resolution. But I want to put it up here in case anyone else should ever want to use it without the hassle of getting permission to go up on the roof. The structure is significant because it challenges the idea that the nave is older than the choir. The arches of the nave flyers are in a more squat and massive style, with rounded arches, which could be taken as a sign that they were built first, perhaps by a different master, with the slender pointed arches of the choir flyers (more ‘Gothic’, one might say) being added by a later hand. That was the case argued by Louis Grodecki in the 1950s. But this sole ‘transitional’ flying buttress on the east of the transepts seems to be an attempt to merge the different styles of the nave and choir, as though this was part of the plan all along – perhaps, as Jan van der Meulen suggests, the crossing and transepts were built first, and both the nave and choir built out from them at much the same time. All this is discussed in my book Universe of Stone.


Unknown said...

It amazes me that people back then took the time and effort to make things beautiful, even structural elements up on a roof where very few people would be there to see them. How could they have known that people of the future would have cell phone cameras to help the rest of us appreciate their craftsmanship?

Philip Ball said...

They knew, of course, that God's camera was never turned off.
Mind you, one has to take care not to overplay this: the contemporary masons at York Minster assure me that there wasn't a complete aversion to cutting corners...

omnivorist said...

I haven't read your book Universe of Stone (I'm looking forward to doing so) so I trust you'll forgive me if it already covers the following:

The different phases of building Chartres and other cathedrals can be partly understood by recognising that different master masons carried around their own 'personal' units of measure. By analysing the linear dimensions of the cathedral it is possible to group them according to their conformance to a common underlying module (HCF, I suppose). Nice idea. But is it true ?

I recall this from a lecture on Chartres that I heard some years ago. I can't recall who gave it - Keith Critchlow perhaps, but I think it was someone else.

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Galliena said...

How were you able to discover that place, Philip? It would be more interesting if you took more photos of it from different angles! Gothic architecture really has a great appeal to people's emotions. Even those who are not into gothic architecture will be suddenly amazed by it, especially if they see it in person.

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