STORIES GOTHIC LIGHT
When entering the Cathedral of Chartres, the eye must first get used to the twilight darkness. But then the eye falls on the artful glass panes, and you dive into another world. The colorful glass transforms the daylight into a radiant blaze of colors that enchants not only believers.
In just 26 years, a completely new architectural style emerged in the region of Île-de-France in northern France, which was to determine the canon of European architecture over the next three centuries: in 1194, the foundation stone of the cathedral was laid in Chartres, a little later the construction of the coronation church of the French kings in Reims began, and in 1220 the construction of the cathedral in Amiens.
The “God’s castles” were enthroned above the cities of the Middle Ages: from afar one could already see the cathedrals, which differed from everything before by their formal language. Not only were they higher than earlier churches, they were also more lavishly decorated. The many individual architectural elements and flourishes, however, had an effect on some viewers as a delusion of taste: Giorgio Vasari, the “father of art history”, described it as absolutely “barbaric” in the 16th century. “It was also the Goths who introduced the pointed arches and filled the whole of Italy with their cursed works. In order to escape their horrors, one avoids [today] every appeal to the Gothic manner.”So the term Gothic was originally a swear word. Goethe initially took such critical judgments at face value and was downright afraid of visiting the Strasbourg Cathedral, he dreaded the sight of a “deformed krausborstigen monster”. The impression on site overwhelmed him all the more: in view of the building, he felt a “heavenly-earthly joy”.
Striving for Higher
The strong, defiant walls of the Romanesque churches had become superfluous due to new technical and craft skills. Pillars and columns took over their supporting function, the cathedrals grew higher and higher. The spatial effect in the interior was twofold: the elongated nave immediately drew the gaze of those entering forward to the choir – but at the same time the strongly vertically accentuated members caused a “pull” upwards. Pointed arches and high rooms should raise people up in the truest sense of the word: a new person should arise, a mature person.
The “dissolution of the wall” makes room for transparency between the supporting elements: the windows, designed in bright colors, developed their own significance and immersed the room in mystical light: with the entrance to the cathedral one entered another world. The light served not only the cult enchantment, but also the transformation of people.
The “Gothic Light”
Stained glass in its perfection was an achievement of the Gothic period. Colored glass was assembled into pictures and patterns, the motifs came from the Old and New Testaments. Red and blue dominated, but green and yellow were also used, while white (black solder) and black (dark lead bars) served as graphically structuring elements. The stained-glass windows of the cathedrals created their own magical mood and became carriers of meaning for the idea of the divine. The stone tracery, which is so typical of the Gothic, stretched over the entire wall and made the windows visually merge with it.
The colorful windows of the Gothic cathedrals were a further development of the design in Romanesque churches: the Obergaden was designed here as a picture carrier and decorated with wall painting. In Gothic cathedrals, however, this zone served for illumination. Window painting thus continued the tradition of the Romanesque with new means – now the images shone out of themselves, were both image and light source: the light per se was increasingly charged with content. The windows were manufactured and mounted window by window, corresponding to the construction progress. As they took up more and more space, they lost their function as individual accents: the walls became backlit transparencies that also had a media function.
Windows as advertising
The art of window painting was perceived as equally “worthy” art as that of sculpture, many wealthy citizens were proud to be able to contribute windows to the cathedral: in Chartres, individual donors can be found by name or figuratively in the lower rows of windows, including the Count of Chartres, Blanche of Castile, King Louis the Saint of France, but also members of the petty nobility, the clergy or individual guilds – spice merchants, bakers and cloth merchants. The high nobility was immortalized in the roses and lancet windows of the transept aisles and the west side, high nave and high choir windows were reserved for the rich guilds.
The colorful windows of the cathedrals corresponded to the painting in the interior – the effect was accurately calculated. Thus, the colors of the north wall were usually less radiant than those of the south wall, since the light incident from the south really made them shine. Depending on the tinting of the glass panes, there were magical plays of color on the wall of the chapels. This effect can still be observed today, for example, in cathedrals such as Notre-Dame of Paris or Saint-Denis. The artists in Chartres created a very special tinting of the glass – the special blue colouring of the panes could not be reconstructed, let alone copied, until today.
Never again did the windows achieve such radiance as at the beginning of the 13th century, the Gothic Classicism. “Chartres half-century “is also called the period from 1190 to 1240, in which the cathedral itself becomes a “light room” due to the almost corporeal light. In a dramatic way, the light changes with every change in the weather and the time of day-especially at dusk, a mystical glow pours into the interior. Some researchers claim that the effect was too intense – in its density, the light could not be endured for long, which is why the bright colorful windows began to decrease from the middle of the century. However, financial backgrounds may also have played a role.
The Cathedral of Chartres has another special feature. In the window Saint-Apollinaire in the western wall of the transept there is a small recess: through this hole, exactly on the day of the summer solstice, on June 21, at the height of the sun, a ray of light falls on a brass button in the bottom of the south transept. The light thus also becomes a calendar.
The Gothic era left behind Gesamtkunstwerke, which combined the arts of a new time like a burning glass: architecture, sculpture and stained glass combined in the cathedrals to a new kind of transcendence.
While Vasari only spoke disdainfully about the Gothic, Auguste Rodin or Victor Hugo were simply intoxicated. Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris created a lasting monument to the cathedral and was instrumental in its restoration by Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc. The painter had made a special contribution to the restoration of Gothic buildings in France and was one of the most prominent voices of the Gothic Renaissance in the 19th century.
One does not have to be religious to appreciate and feel the effect of the windows in Gothic cathedrals. However, the original impression is hardly conveyed today: most of the windows have been replaced by white panes or new glazing. The windows are almost completely preserved only in the choir of Bourges – and in Chartres. A visit on 21 June is a very special experience.