I started this post on Christmas morning, surrounded by extreme happiness (easily pleased) and extreme disappointment (never pleased), trying to cocoon myself for a few minutes with Christmas carols by the Cambridge Singers and Orchestra. Listening to this music made me think about Gothic churches. “Gothic” makes me think of flying buttresses, and the concept kind of makes me groan. (Unfinished art history business alert.) Before we go on, here’s an example:
Flying buttresses have been explained to me countless times in excruciating detail, and as a student of medieval art history, I always felt somewhat deficient in my lack of understanding and enthusiasm. But I’ve had a realization. I just don’t care exactly how they work. It’s good enough for me to understand that they helped the walls stay up, and that they allowed for more windows and taller buildings because the walls could be thinner. I don’t need to understand the mathematical calculations and load and resistance lateral thrust. (I’m somewhat gratified that the wikipedia article is quite short, but even so it makes me yawn, because, as I said, I just don’t really care about the details.)
So briefly, flying buttresses were an engineering feat that allowed the walls of a church (or any building, I suppose) to be thinner and more windows could be inserted, allowing light to flood into the church. In the early middle ages, light was equated with the divine. (This has been expounded on and analyzed ad nauseum, in my opinion.) If you think about it, though, letting in more light had to just be good. When church walls are made of stone and the only artificial light that you have is candles, the more natural light, the better!
Check out this 14th century drawing of flying buttresses by Villard De Honnecourt. This is about as technical as I want to get!
Here’s an interior of a Romanesque church, before flying buttresses. You’ll have to use your imagination, though, because you need artificial light to get a photo of the interior.
Here’s another shot of the interior. You can see that there are windows, but they’re up high (clerestory windows) or they don’t open directly into the nave. On the lower level, the light has to go around (or is blocked by) a pier:
And now for a Gothic example. With flying buttresses, light still doesn’t necessarily come in directly to the lower part of the nave, but look at how much more of the wall is window — the clerestory windows, at the top, are huge in comparison:
Here’s another one:
And then I’ve always been fascinated by the cathedral in Beauvais, which was the tallest Gothic Cathedral choir ever built in Europe, but it collapsed and the building was never completed. Fascinating!
You can see in this plan that most of the building was never built (the lighter sections):
This seems to me to be another movie opportunity missed. If you can make a movie about the building of a cathedral, how about a movie about the collapse of one? Can’t you see it? They build higher and higher, and soon after it’s taller than any other building, it collapses. How heartbreaking! Reading several very dry texts contending that the cathedral did not fall because it was too tall, but because, among other reasons, the plan was flawed to begin with, got me to this point: Although I totally get that inquiring minds want to know, and that this is a ripe topic for study, the fact that they never finished it and that a taller choir was never built makes me think that, whatever the reason, people at the time believed that they’d pushed it too far. And that’s interesting. That’s what I would study, not the weight and the load and the thrust. Speaking of engineering, here’s another shot of the cathedral at Beauvais.
Apparently we don’t know when the iron tie rods were added, not even if they were added before or after the collapse. They were removed in the 1960s because they didn’t think they were needed. Turns out that they were. These steel rods were added when the choir started pulling away from the transept. And since steel is less flexible than iron, it is thought that the cracks that subsequently occurred in the building are a consequence. I have to admit that, although technical, that’s interesting! (By the way, the National Cathedral in Washington DC has flying buttresses, so you don’t have to go all the way to Europe to see them for real.)
I don’t want to oversimplify. There are additional reasons, engineering and technical innovations, that allowed Gothic cathedrals to become taller and more light-filled. But the flying buttress was huge. So huge that it inspired a 20th century superhero. Flying Buttress, Away!