Gothic Architecture as we understand it today emerged out of, and as a transition, from the earlier Romanesque architecture. The period of this transition was somewhere the 12th century in Europe. This transition brought with it some important architectural changes. The massive, fortified structures of the Romanesque gave way to loftier spires and ribbed vaults of the Gothic architecture. What this piece will seek to highlight among these many changes, is the symbolic value of light as imagined in the Gothic.
It can be questioned whether an investigation into the meaning of light in medieval Gothic architecture is anything more than an academic indulgence. This cynicism of symbols is, after all, what seems to characterise our outlook on them today. The medieval world, however, especially in its theological exposition, thought of the universe as a symbol (Emile Male, 1972). This symbolism was deeply infused within the Christian theology of the time, to the extent that an artist would have to first be schooled in order to understand the theological significance of particular symbols, that were to be adhered to absolutely. An example would be a ‘nimbus behind the head impressed with a cross being a sign of divinity‘, which is always observed in the depiction of any of the three Persons of the Trinity (Ibid). This saturation of meaning, in particular, artistic characterisations, was a fertile field for the growth of the Neo-Platonist sentiment which was to re-emerge in the form of theology.
It was in such a nexus of symbolism that light acquired a rarefied meaning. In the 12th century, a text attributed to Dionysius gained great influence among the clergy. This text was ‘The Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysus the Areopagite’. The core of this treatise was one idea, that God is light. (George Duby, 1976). This treatise affirmed that the universe, born of an irradiance, was a downward-spilling burst of luminosity, and the light emanating from the primal Being established every created being in its immutable place. But it also united all beings, linking them with love, irrigating the entire world, establishing order and coherence within it.
Light, as we can see, was viewed as a perfected form of divine expression. The architecture of this period manifested this poetics of light in its attempt to capture the divinity it saw there. Architectural innovations such as a rose window and ribbed vault facilitated such attempts as the interiors of churches were changed to display stained glass and a concordance of light from the open bays.
Ornamentation and wealth were also essential in this poetics of light. Abbot Suger in the 12th century declared that “everything that is most precious should be used above all to celebrate that holy mass”. The wealth of the church had clearly grown, as seen in its access to such materials, and Suger was merely following his monastic predecessors in his utilisation of gems as embellishment.
This symbolism of light supplemented by the grandeur of wealth was clearly meant to convey something to the Catholic devotee. To instill in him a particular outlook on what it all meant. A clue to this can be found in the words of St. Augustine who said that the key to the mystery of the words of the Bible “was to be sought in reality itself and not only in words”. This hinting at a prefiguration of a subject’s attitude towards a particular space via the architecture of it is in itself a fascinating concept and one which may be explored in some detail.
The emphasis of Augustine’s words, in seeking the truth of the Bible in reality as opposed to words alone, hints at the lived experience of a devotee who arrives at a place of worship. A meaning probably not reducible to the gesture of saying that light was a symbol for God. In spite of Augustine’s lack of ‘words’ on the issue, I am inclined to think that he may be referring to is what it was like for a Christian to be subjected to a symbol, or rather the
Symbol, God. The church (or Suger at least) imagined this symbol being embodied in its rendering of light.
This article was first published here.