Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like an accompanying handout of the entire series along with photos, send me an email.
As I last wrote, when the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, its eastern half, centered in Constantinople, flourished for another 1,000 years. During that time, its Byzantine style produced some of the most impressive buildings in the world, including Hagia Sophia in today’s Istanbul.
The Empire’s western half saw the beginning of the Middle Ages, which also lasted 1000 years. This western half was composed of peoples with names like Celts, Franks, Saxons, Angles, Goths, and Visigoths. And, instead of their lands being ruled by one emperor as in the past, they were ruled by many kings. Because of ongoing threats of invasion, people built with preservation and protection in mind and surrounded themselves with walls and moats.
The two notable architectural styles of the Middle Ages were Romanesque and Gothic. The Romanesque style gets its name from looking very Roman with columns, arches, thick walls, sturdy pillars, large towers, vaults and decorative arcading. They were built in a symmetrical plan with an overall simple exterior. Romanesque architecture introduced the rose window which was circular and divided into segments by stone mullions.
It should be noted, however, that the building skills and ingenuity of Classical Antiquity had largely been lost during early, medieval times.
Romanesque architecture spread throughout Europe and Britain. Today, it can mostly be found in southern France, northern Spain and rural Italy (the leaning Tower of Pisa). This is because these areas were not as prosperous as others where many Romanesque structures were later rebuilt in the Gothic style. The Romanesque style in Britain is referred to as Norman, associated with the Norman Conquest.
Gothic architecture evolved from the Romanesque style and originated in France in the 12th century. It lasted into the 16th century. Its most recognizable features are pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, spires, large stained-glass windows, and ornate façades. Examples are the Milan Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame.
Gothic structures were soaring, spiky and elaborate. They were grand and tall (closer to heaven) and meant to appeal to one’s emotions whether springing from faith or from civic pride. Their extreme height would not be possible without the invention of the flying buttress – an arch-liked stone support that extends from the top of an exterior wall to the ground.
Flying buttresses take weight off walls and transfer its force to the ground. The pointed arch acts as another workhorse as the point distributes the force of heavier ceilings and can support more weight than previous pillars.
The gargoyle, typically a grotesque stone head of an animal or monster, was also multi-purpose. It sometimes acted as a spout to run rainwater from a roof away from the side of a building. A fancy gutter you might say. Its formidable appearance also kept evil spirits from entering the building.
In the 14th century, sculpture became an independent artistic form, separated from architecture. Works reflected human mannerisms and realism. The finest examples are found in cathedrals in Germany. At the end of the 14th century, many Flemish artists went to France where a Franco-Flemish style emerged showing elegance and interest in minute detail.
Big changes are about to happen in the West – and in my next column.