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Architecture - Overview - Middle Ages

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Even around 175 C.E., as Marcus Aurelius was writing his Meditations, Christianity was spreading across the empire. Of the various cults and religions that vied for converts during the early years of what has come to be called the common era, Christianity was the most persuasive for several reasons. Unlike the impersonal state religion of Rome, with its removed and de-personalized rituals to placate Jupiter and the deified emperors, Christianity offered direct communication with a personalized deity, embodied in the crucified Christ. The present world, with all of its shortcomings and disappointments, was seen as only the preparation ground for a subsequent eternal life. The classical focus on the practicalities of the here and now faded in importance. In the West, the old Roman Empire was transformed, through invasion after invasion from the north and east, as well as through the rise of Christianity, whose strong vertical bureaucratic structure took on much of the character of the fading Roman government. The old position of the Roman emperor as chief priest (pontifex maximus) was taken over by the bishop of Rome as head of all bishops, and therefore head of the church.

Although Christianity maintained that all humans are born in original sin, and are destined to persist in this fallen state, doomed to spend eternity in Hell, doctrine held out the hope of Heaven. This consuming aspiration, directed away from the present world in favor of the next, is embodied in the abundant and mutually reinforcing vertical motifs in Gothic architecture, developed in France and other areas of Europe around 1150. Every line of the Gothic cathedral seems to point toward heaven. Moreover, the architecture is covered across its entire Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy (built 298–306 B.C.E.), refurbished as the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (interior). In ancient Rome, the use of modified concrete led to buildings that were large and spacious, as can be seen in this church, which was converted in the mid-sixteenth century from a public bath house. © ELIO CIOL/CORBIS surface with sculpted images drawn from Scripture and the lives of the saints. Influenced by the writings of the abbé Suger of St.-Denis, architects opened up ever larger clerestory windows in the upper ranges of the churches and cathedrals. The windows were filled with highly colorful stained glass, an allegory of divine light, with images amplifying the stories told in the stone carvings. The churches became veritable Bibles in stone and colored glass, inculcating scriptural lessons in the faithful.

The later High Gothic urban cathedrals, for the most part dedicated to the Virgin Mother—Our Lady, or Notre Dame, in French-speaking regions—were not only ecclesiastical buildings commissioned and paid for in part by the church, but also municipal undertakings raised to celebrate the status and power of the cities. Often the naves of these cathedrals were owned by the city, while the transept and crossing area as well as the choir were church property.


The culture of the so-called Middle Ages in Europe, focused on the life of the church, was bolstered by Scholasticism and the infusion of Aristotelian logic through the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274). By the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, Beauvais, France. Constructed 1125–1548. The architecture of cathedrals built during the Gothic period focused on soaring lines and arches. Light was abundant, and facades were decorated with religious imagery. © PAUL ALMASY/CORBIS fourteenth century, with the growth of merchant cities in Italy and the development of banking, wealthy merchants began to underwrite the new scholarly study of Roman and Greek literature and history, not so much to augment religious doctrine but for its own inherent merit and political implications. In fact, in Florence, where the powerful and enormously wealthy Medici family supported scholars and artists, the qualities of humanism were seen as demonstrating how the self-governing Florentines were superior to the autocratic rulers of other Italian states. Thus was set in motion a rebirth of ancient classical learning, a Renaissance.

The challenge of the time was to link humanist study with religious doctrine, to uncover how the knowledge of the ancients paralleled and thus supported church doctrine; the means for this was a reinvigorated Neoplatonism. Just as Scripture maintained that Adam had been made in the physical image of an all-perfect god, so too did the pagan Roman architect Vitruvius (1st cent. B.C.E.) declare that within the form of the human body could be found the modules of the most perfect geometric forms, the circle and the square. His written description was beautifully depicted in the well-known drawing by Renaissance artist/architect Leonardo da Vinci, planned as Santa Maria delle Carceri Church, Prato, Italy. Constructed 1485–1506. In Italy during the Middle Ages, most religious architecture was simple and clean in design, comprised of balanced combinations of circles and squares. © DENNIS MARSICO/ CORBIS an illustration for a new edition of Vitruvius's Ten Books on Architecture: a man with outstretched arms just touches the edges of a circle and square.

The circle and square became the measure of perfect architectural form as well in scores of new churches and chapels built in Italy. Of the many examples, the small church of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, designed by Giuliano da Sangalloin in 1485, shows this modular perfection well. Its basic plan is a square of about 38 feet, extended upward to the top of the main cornice to form a cube. Short half-square arms project on the four sides. Atop the internal cube span four semicircular arches (half the height of the cube), and these define four curved pendentives that carry the topmost dome, circular in plan and nearly a perfect hemisphere in section. Circles and squares, and their three-dimensional counterparts, define the edges and perimeters of this idealized building.

The Renaissance emphasis on the ability of the human mind to grasp the rational structure of the universe led Martin Luther (1483–1546) to analyze the New Testament in search of support of papal practices, particularly the sale of indulgences. Instead, Luther uncovered in the letters of St. Paul the assertion that salvation was God's gift through faith and repentance, not something to be parceled out by, much less purchased from, an established church and clerical hierarchy. Coupled with the desire of numerous German princes to shed the political yoke imposed by the Roman Church, Luther's church reforms led to a splintering of the church universal. Delayed in reacting to this attack, the Roman Church convened the Council of Trent (1545–1563) to draft responses to the Reformation split in the church. Whereas the Reformationists, to varying degrees, shunned the use of sensory aids in worship—and in certain regions of Northern Europe engaged in the wholesale destruction of paintings and statuary—the Council of Trent decreed that, on the contrary, the ordinary worshiper can only grasp the mysteries of faith with difficulty and so highly evocative painted and sculpted imagery were to be emphatically employed. A superb illustration of this dictum can be found in the highly emotive and mysteriously illuminated sculpted figure of St. Theresa found at the end of the right transept arm of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1645–1652. Here in a total work of art, fusing painting, sculpture, and architectural enframement, the ecstatic divine experience of St. Theresa is shown to the common worshiper in terms of seemingly carnal ecstasy, an analogy easily understood. Architecture, merged with painting and sculpture, was to serve as an instrument of propaganda in bringing the strayed faithful back into the protective arms of Mother Church (exactly the image Bernini said he was after in the curved encircling colonnade of his new piazza in front of the huge basilica of St. Peter's in Rome).

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