Western Civilization | Syllabus


Gothic Cathedral: Understanding the Middle Ages Chartres Cathedral




In the early years of the twelfth century, Abbot Suger of St. Denis set out to rebuild the choir of his abbey church near Paris. The design he employed represented the birth of a new style of architecture, the French style, which was later called Gothic. In the century following Suger’s work, dozens of churches in the new style were erected throughout France and in other parts of Europe. The rapid proliferation of this style suggests that it was in some ways a reflection of the medieval world. By studying the structure, the decoration, and the function of the gothic cathedral, we can deepen our understanding of the world of the Middle Ages.


One of the most distinctive features of the gothic cathedral is large stained glass windows. Earlier churches had small windows set in thick walls which made for a dark interior. The architectural innovations of the gothic style were employed to divert the weight of the massive roof away from the walls making the use of large windows possible.

The reading assignment in your textbook mentioned at least three architectural innovations employed in the gothic style. Look at the images below and see if you can identify all three.

Notre DameSt. Denis interior

Although the gothic style was innovative in many ways, some aspects of the design were controlled by the dictates of tradition. For centuries Christian churches had been built with a floor plan that reflected a particular design, a design of symbolic significance. The gothic style continued that tradition.

How would you describe the shape of the cathedral floor plan shown here? What is the significance of its shape?

Tradition not only dictated the floor plan of the church, but also its orientation. It is no accident that most gothic cathedrals were constructed with the head of the church to the east. The orientation then determined the themes for the programs of sculpture that decorated the exterior. The north façade, associated with cold and darkness, is where depictions of Old Testament themes are found. The south, which received the most light, is usually given over to stories from the New Testament. The western façade, which witnesses the setting of the sun, is devoted to depictions of the Last Judgment.

Why do you think the themes were arranged in this way? What might this tell us about the medieval interpretation of the Bible?


The development of the gothic style represents more than an example of remarkable architectural structure. The cathedral was intended to become an integral part of religious observance, to induce awe and inspire worship. The magnificent height of the ceiling was to draw the worshiper’s thoughts toward heaven. This sensory experience was heightened by the decoration that is so essential to the gothic style: stained glass. Suger intended to flood the interior of the church with light. An inscription on the door at St. Denis reads

Rose Window, Chartres


The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.

For Suger, the abundance of light was the most important reason for using the stained glass windows. The light itself demonstrated theological ideas for just as the spirit of God passed through the womb of the virgin, losing nothing of his divinity in the process, so the light passes through the material of the glass and yet maintains its illuminating properties. Thus the stained glass was intended to communicate abstract theological truths, to evoke a sensory experience in which the invisible becomes visible.

Stained Glass, Chartres

The windows not only illuminated the interior and bathed the altar in mystical light; they also served a more concrete purpose. Each window told a story in pictures. Some of them were given over to the lives of the saints and others told stories from the Bible. This window from Chartres depicts the Virgin Mary and holding Christ child on her lap. Notice that the heads of both mother and child are surrounded by the nimbus.

The circle that appears around the head of the Virgin is called a nimbus. What is different about the nimbus around the head of the Christ child? What do you think this indicates?

Another striking aspect of decoration in the gothic cathedral is the sculpture. As worshipers stood in the light filtering through the jewel tones of the stained glass, they were surrounded by images of angels and saints. Like the stained glass, these sculptures also depicted Biblical scenes. In addition, they also included figures of kings, churchment and peasants, figures that illustrated the hierarchy of the ordered society. Some of the sculptures depicted scenes from the harvest year and corresponding signs of the zodiac, both illustrating the chronological order of the calendar year. And frequently there were figures representing the virtues and vices, which illustrated the moral order of the medieval world.

Both the glass and the sculpture of the gothic cathedral were important forms of medieval art. As with the floor plan, the design of the sculptures were in many ways constrained by tradition, a set of conventions that were not simply decorative, but also theological. Together these conventions are like a code. A single image is used to represent multiple meanings. Moreover, the code is applied with startling consistency. A particular image may be employed at different places and different times and even in different forms, but the symbolic representation remains the same. This consistency further demonstrates the importance of tradition and order in the medieval world.

The image on the right is from Chartres cathedral. An illustration of Christ reigning in majesty, it shows Christ seated on a throne and surrounded by four creatures. Can you guess what these creatures might represent?

In the figure on the left, notice that the same arrangement is used to represent Christ on the throne. How is this image from an eleventh-century manuscript illumination similar to the sculpture from Chartres?


PilgrimAnother important aspect of the gothic cathedral is its function. Of course, the most important function of the cathedral was for religious observance. Not only was the cathedral meant to focus on the central act of worship, the mass, but also to house relics of the saints. These relics attracted pilgrims, like the one pictured here, from all over Christendom who traveled to the great cathedrals to view them. Thus, the cathedral was turned to a more practical purpose by providing housing for the pilgrims.

St. Denis, interiorIn addition to its various religious functions, the gothic cathedral was also used for non-religious purposes. Usually the church was not only the the largest building within miles, but it also provided an unprecedented amount of open interior space, seen in this photograph from St. Denis. This feature made the church an ideal location for the celebration of feast days as well as for hosting markets and fairs. And it was not unusual to find legal proceedings conducted there as well.

Consider the variety of activities that took place in the cathedral. What might this indicate about medieval piety? What might it tell us about the medieval view of the relationship between the secular and the sacred?


This brief look at the structure, the decoration, and function of the gothic cathedral, just begins to tell us something about the world of medieval Europe. It is clear that tradition and order were important concepts in the Middle Ages. We also see that visual representations were important means of encouraging worship and teaching theological concepts. And although the primary function of the church centered on religious worship, it was also used to meet the non-religious needs of the community. For many medieval Europeans, the gothic cathedral occupied, not only the physical center of the community, but the social and spiritual center as well.