The first of the Gothic elements seen at Saint-Denis is the pointed arch. By replacing the semicircular arch
with one that comes to a point, the builders accomplished two important things. First, they were able to
create a taller structure, with the weight of the building pushing more directly downward. Then, they were
able to create more flexible spaces because a pointed arch can be opened wider or made narrower while
still keeping the same height. The height of a rounded arch, in contrast, is determined by the diameter of
the circle that makes the arch.
The second Gothic element seen at Saint-Denis is ribbed vaulting. The heavy stone ribs create a skeleton
for the building; lighter material (usually brick) rests on the ribs and fills the spaces between them, much
like the fabric of an umbrella rests on the metal framework. The ribs also help to direct the weight to
particular points supported by columns or compound piers, allowing the spaces between the supports to
be opened up for windows. Romanesque architecture, in contrast, puts much more weight on the walls
themselves.
The third Gothic element at Saint-Denis is the extensive use of stained glass for the windows. Stained glass
is made from pieces of colored glass held together with strips of lead. Paint can be applied for details. In
spite of the fact that the colored glass actually reduces the amount of light that comes into the space, the
light that does enter Saint-Denis enlivens the space with its color, which changes with the weather
conditions and time of day. Abbot Suger felt that the windows transformed light into something new and
splendid that could then transform faithful Christians by showing them the nature of God. Because the
windows illustrate biblical stories or the lives of the saints, they also helped the faithful churchgoers learn
the stories, even if they could not read them.
THE GOTHIC CATHEDRAL
The great cathedrals of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries are masterpieces of architecture and
sculpture. These city churches required the labor and resources of the entire community, and thus became
the focus of civic pride. Often, cities would try to outdo each other in building the tallest cathedral possible.
Although there are many magnificent examples of Gothic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at
Chartres is a particularly good example because it shows several phases of the Gothic style. All cathedrals
took decades to build, but a fire at Chartres in 1194 made a thorough rebuilding necessary. The lower part
of the west façade is all that survives from the first phase of building in the mid twelfth century. The façade
is divided into three parts: a central area with the portal and a rose window above it, and the two flanking
towers.
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