The European Gothic age or era (1150-1500) was an architectural and engineering achievement. Gigantic stone structures rose upward in the worship of God. With many cathedrals the architects, who designed the buildings, often did not live to see their creative efforts finished. For example, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (translated to mean "Our Lady") was begun in 1163 and completed in 1255. How many years in the making?
Also, nature played a part in delaying the completion. Lightning would strike a steeple of many stories in height, only to have the wooden frame burn. That meant a different architect would design the re-building. Chartres Cathedral in France has two different spirals in its steeples: one build originally in the 13th century and the other in the 14th century.
The Cathedral at Rheims was another natural disaster where Man tried to overcome the forces of gravity. The roof fell, killing several workmen inside the half-completed cathedral.
How, you may ask, were these magnificent structures built since modern-day technologies and equipment were perhaps only the subject of dreams? First, the foundation was dug that today contains the crypt or burial tombs for nobility and religious leaders of yesteryear. This lay-out was usually in the shape of a cross called a "cruciform" (kru'/sa/form). Inside the cathedral, the area from the foot of the cruciform to the cross beams or arms was called the "nave" (nav) or main aisle. The crossing arms, near the high altar, was the "transcept" (tran'/sept). The worshippers would enter at the beginning of the nave and leave by the two doors at both ends of the transcept. Since the people in the Gothic age were very religious, the practical control of human traffic could aid in the entering and exiting of many thousands of parishioners during one service.
The outside of a building is called the "facade" (fa/sad'). In the front of the facade of the cathedral were three doors or "portals" (por'/tls), each representing the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Usually the middle portal was the largest. However, sometimes the portals were symmetrical (picture a mirror image in which each could be laid exactly on top of the previous door). The portals were recessed, meaning positioned deeper into the cathedral than the outer wall or facade. In the Gothic era, the portals were Roman arches with points. The pointing of the arches were to alert the entering worshippers to look Heavenly. Above each portal was a semi-circle called the "tympanum" (tim'/pan/um).
Around the door frame, in several layers, and on the tympanum were carved figures, representing both heavenly, pagan, and earthly people. Church fathers in early Christianity believed that the pagan people would convert to Christianity if both religions were somehow combined. Thus, the Christian Easter was once part of the pagan rite to spring, the death of Old Man Winter and the re-occurance of new life in spring.
Once through the portals, the parishioners gathered and greeted each other in the "narthex" (nar'/theks), before entering the nave or side aisles. Usually, there were two side aisles, one on either side of the nave. Since no electricity existed, natural light had to come through the "clerestory" (kler'/stor/e) windows, along the top of each side aisle. A "gallery" (gal'/a/re) or balcony surrounded the side walls. The gallery allowed additional people to hear the service about those in the nave. In most cathedrals there were no benches, chairs, or pews. The worshippers had to stand during the lengthy services of as many as three hours. Sometimes the over-worked people would just lie on the cobblestone floor and sleep, until the priest told another person to wake the sleeping parishioner.
At the end of the nave, along the side walls was the "choir." This area is where the singing part of the religious service took place. Behind the choir was the high altar with a passage way or walkway behind the altar.
A semi-circle that usually stuck out from the top of the cruciform was the "apse" (aps). It was behind the choir, and the apse had a passageway or walkway called the "ambulatory."
This "ambulatory" (am'/byu/a/tor/e) allowed members of the Crusades or pilgrims (Surf the Web for more information on the Crusades during this era) to pass by the high altar and proceed to the "radiating chapels." Radiating chapels housed individual altars of different saints. Often the saint was considered the patron saint of the pilgrim, who wanted to pray and light a candle at that saint's altar. From above the cathedral, radiating chapels resembled spokes of a wheel with the high altar itself being the hub.
Outside the massive walls of the cathedral were stone structures that looked like angel's wings. The "flying buttresses" (bu'/tres) were attached to "buttresses" or thick walls of masonry, containing stones or bricks. The buttresses and flying buttresses were needed to support the weight of the outer walls since the cathedrals were so many-storied or high. The buttresses and flying buttresses prevented the outer walls from collapsing.
Inside the cathedral "ribbed vaulting" (looking like a rib cage) in the ceiling and groin vaults (Remember the Roman era?) gave the roof added support.
So how did the builders or masons (workers in stone and brick), carpenters, and others construct the multi-storied cathedrals? In addition to the incline plane and lever, which allowed them to push weighty stones into place, they used the medieval "windlass" (win'/les).
The windlass was a rope-and-pulley system positioned on the top level of scaffolding, a skeleton of wood that builders use today to reach heights.
On the facade, above the main portals was a "rose window." It was so labeled because the "tracery" (tra/sa/re) or leaden designs reminded the viewers of petals of a rose. Multi-colored glass also added to the illusion, particularly inside the cathedral with sunlight shining through the window. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has four rose windows--one at each end of the nave and trancept.
At the lower end of a strong, man-made rope the stones were attached. Several workmen inside the huge wheel, over which the rope was attached at the top of the construction, would move the paddles on the huge wheel by walking on the paddles. In some cases it is believed that oxen were used to move the paddles. How the several-hundred-pound ox was hoisted to the top of the cathedral is a deep, dark secret. Slowly and tediously the stones were moved to the top of the working area of the cathedral. If the rope broke, the heavy stone would crash to the floor, sometimes crushing men underneath.
Along the facade were recessed areas called "niches" (nich/es) or openings in which statues of saints were placed. "Blind arcades" or arches not leading anywhere were also used on the facade to make it more decorative. In the early Gothic era, most cathedrals had some decoration on the facade. As the Gothic age progressed, the cathedrals became more ornate and looked like a wedding cake, caught in a drenching rain!
If the steeple contained the bell, rung to call the worshippers to service, the steeple was obviously the bell tower or "campanile" (kam'pa/ne/le). The campanile was a visible part of the Italian cathedrals.
Of course, as we end the architectural terms for the Gothic period, we should not forget to mention the gargoyles. The mean-looking and sometimes grotesque in-human figures served a practical purpose--that of carrying rainwater off the roof. However, some believe that the gargoyles were used to ward off evil spirits and warn the parishioners that they should repent or they would spend Eternity in Hell! As you have seen in the various architectural terms for building the great Gothic cathedrals, the people of that Age seriously considered religion as a guide to their daily lives. The awesome feats of man to God still can be visited and admired today in France, Spain, Italy, and other European countries.