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7.7: Gothic Notre Dame (Started 1163 CE)

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  • The Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral (7.29) is located on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, France, and is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture as well as one of the most well-known churches in the world. The cathedral began in 1163 CE after building a unique roadway to transport building supplies, causing the demolition of several houses on the new site.

    7.29 Notre-Dame de Paris

    Gothic cathedrals have large walls of windows displaying colors from streaming sunlight, are encircled by a spider network of flying buttresses, and topped with ornamental gargoyles. Gothic architecture became a familiar feature of many great churches and castles in this period and led to towns competing to build the most significant and grandest cathedrals. Building a cathedral consumed the labor of surrounding towns, and occasionally took over 100 years to complete. Gothic cathedrals began to rise from the ground, stone by stone, to higher and higher heights, throughout the Western European Catholic region.

    The architecture included unique structures, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. The pointed arches (7.30) allowed the height of the church to soar and large spaces for windows in these gothic churches instead of the restrictions found in the thick-walled Romanesque church. Because of the invention and architecture of ribbed vaulting (7.31), the architectural capabilities for taller churches and larger windows were possible. Using the strength of stone close to the roof was conceivable, with the construction of multiple barrel vaults intersecting in the middle.

    Pointed arches
    7.30 Pointed arches
    Ribbed vaults
    7.31 Ribbed vaults

    As Gothic churches ascended in height and they constructed large openings for stained glass, however, with the additional height of the walls, the lateral forces of the wall began to push outward, causing the heavy stone load above to tumble. The design of the flying buttresses (7.32) was to redirect the forces from the pointed arches to the ground. They projected from the walls to a foundation, supporting the weight of the high walls by carrying the pressure of the lateral thrust and stabilizing the walls. The flying buttresses became an architectural part of the structure (7.33).

    Buttress plan
    7.32 Buttress plan
    Flying buttresses
    7.33 Flying buttresses

    The cathedral was a tribute to Gothic architecture, and the layout of the church followed the basilica style. A nave is the central aisle in the building and usually ends in the rounded end to form the apse with additional aisles along each side of the nave separated by colonnades. The transept cuts across the aisle between the nave and apse, which gives the building its cross-like shape, the choir area is located where the nave and the transept intersect.

    Basilica style refers to a very large open communal gathering place.

    The cathedral was built in parts; the choir area from 1163 to 1177 CE, the high altar finished in 1218 CE, the transepts and nave by 1208 CE, and the western façade and finishing details all finally completed by 1240 CE. Over the years, many different architects worked on the design of the building resulting in distinctive styles and heights of different sections and towers. Each architect specialized in distinct aspects of the building; for example, the work of one architect was to oversee the assembly of the rose windows. Other architects focused on the great halls beneath the towers.

    One of the many design modifications occurred while building the transepts, especially the gabled portal on the north transept, a change to replace the ordinary with a spectacular rose (7.34) window. The idea so successful they added a similar window to the southern transept. The two transept portals were decorated with images from different religious stories, images used to teach devotees during weekly religious gatherings.

    7.34 North rose window
    7.36 Chimera

    The cathedral was one of the first buildings to use the flying buttresses with their arched exterior supports designed for the stability of the structure. Initially, the original architectural drawings did not include the flying buttresses; however, after construction began, the thin walls of the Gothic style building began to fracture. At the joining of the pointed arch, the forces of gravity started to push outward, which can lead to the walls collapsing. The architects designed the buttress supports around the building located at exact points of failure; the fracturing stopped. Other tall cathedrals were experiencing fracturing, triggering flying buttresses to become the standard in building during the Gothic era.

    Notre Dame is beyond a church as it is also draped in art. Small statues (7.35) of religious figures and stories used as decoration everywhere, another method of teaching the illiterate population about the tenets of their religion. Initially, the ornate statues were decorated with bright paint and gold gilding. Other figures, the most famous are the chimeras (7.36) and gargoyles designed as waterspouts, were symbols of evil, meant to threaten people, and encourage proper religious adherence. Gargoyles (7.37) were first designed in the 13th century to disperse water from the roof away from the foundations of the building and used extensively across the roofline; they also became the guardians of the building.

    7.35 Statues
    7.37 Gargoyles