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18 September 2014
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The Early Church: Towards Gothic Splendour

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Gothic origins

Image of Thomas Becket being murdered by knights
Knights of Henry II murder Thomas Becket as he prays, Canterbury, 1170 ©
Churches were organic buildings, often taking decades to erect and, once built, in almost constant need for repair. Yet over time and with constant practice, construction techniques became more refined.

Experimentation with new ideas about geometry heralded a revolution in ecclesiastical architecture and a new look emerged which we now know as Gothic.

In England, a defining moment came, in 1174, when the early 12th-century choir at Canterbury was gutted by fire. Over the next 11 years it was rebuilt as a suitable setting for the shrine of the recently murdered archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, but the architectural language employed was different from the heavy Romanesque style used in the past.

'No marble columns were there, but here are innumerable ones ...'

The monk and chronicler Gervase of Canterbury described the contrast between the old and new work:

'There the arches and everything else were plain, or sculpted with an axe, not a chisel. But here almost throughout is appropriate sculpture. No marble columns were there, but here are innumerable ones ... There, there was a ceiling of wood decorated with excellent painting, but here is a vault beautifully constructed of stone.'
The Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral by R Willis (London, 1845)

The new work at Canterbury was similar to French architecture of the same period, such as the cathedral of Chartres. The rediscovery of Eastern architectural styles and construction techniques, and indeed Islamic decoration, by Crusaders on their way back from the Holy Land, had made possible the development of a new form of architecture.

'The new choir was designed to accommodate both the monks ... and the ... pilgrims who flocked to Becket's shrine'

The use of rib-vaults and pointed arches permitted larger window spaces, providing greater access to light. Furthermore graceful  columnsreplaced the massive Romanesque piers, with flying buttresses introduced to support the weight of the building.

The division of interior space was an important feature of the cathedral at Canterbury. The new choir was designed to accommodate both the monks (and their constant round of services, beginning at midnight and going on throughout the day) and the vast numbers of pilgrims who flocked to Becket's shrine.

The choir screen was under the eastern bay of the crossing, a conscious decision to provide pilgrims with easy access to the north transept, where Becket's martyrdom had taken place. Yet the whole choir and Trinity chapel were surrounded by an ambulatory, so that pilgrims could move around without disturbing the monks.

During religious festivals, when the congregation participated in the ceremony by joining monks and clergy in processions around the church, the entire building was transformed into a huge 'machine for worship'.

Published: 2005-02-02

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