Gothic architecture has long reached where Christian missionaries would go but are not permitted: the minds and hearts of the faithless. The world’s grief over the flames at Notre-Dame de Paris revealed its power as far more than architectural style.
For the great medieval commentator William Durandus (d. 1296), the Gothic church took the shape of Christ’s body: the chancel the head, the transepts the arms, the altar the heart. And if the Gothic church symbolizes the body of Christ, to see Notre Dame burn this Monday was to experience Good Friday early.
It was excruciating to watch its spire fall. But at the risk of saying this too soon, the Gothic style represented by Notre-Dame de Paris cannot be stopped by fire. This style has given the church a theology of glass and stone, a model that has spread to Catholic and Protestant structures across the centuries and around the world.
Fifty miles from Paris, the greatest and most complete of Gothic cathedrals, Chartres, was itself born of fire, built and rebuilt after blazes in 1020, 1134, and 1194. It is no different with the delicate stonework of Reims, France’s great coronation cathedral—the result of a fire in 1208. Gothic architecture, like the art of pottery, does quite well with flames.
The Gothic style first emerged in the mid-12th century at the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis just north of Paris. Abbot Suger’s innovation there was the equivalent, the art historian Erwin Panofsky once commented, of a new president remaking the White House in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. And his bold architectural risk paid off.
The plain evidence for Gothic’s theological and liturgical inspiration is unavoidable. Over the door of Saint-Denis, Abbot Suger carefully inscribed the purpose of the new illumination from the cathedral’s windows: “To brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, To the True Light where Christ is the true door.” The point of the light was not just to dazzle, but to evangelize.
Nor was this an airy mysticism devoid of contact with the earth. For goodness’ sake, even the ingredients of the cement bore theological weight. For Durandus, the lime is love, the sand temporal works of mercy. Neither makes cement without the third ingredient, water, which points to the Holy Spirit, without whom the good works of the believer are in vain.
Following Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame de Paris gave us the first example of everyone’s favorite art historical term: the flying buttress. These addendums to the nave projected more weight outwards, permitting larger windows that let in more light. The buttresses envelop the structure as if a massive spider were resting after delicately weaving the rose windows. The flying buttress innovation was so successful that rival cathedrals (Mantes, Reims, Canterbury, Laon) scrambled to follow.
The Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari, vexed that Italy never rose to such architectural heights, mocked the style—then known as the opus francigenum (French work)—as that of the barbarian Goths. But as with famous insults like “Impressionism” or “Cubism,” the term “Gothic” stuck, but it could not stop a movement.
The emergence of Renaissance art and architecture in continental Europe nearly extinguished the style’s influence, but Gothic embers kept burning in England, where the great medieval experiments at Essex, Westminster, and Wells were too successful to fully suppress. In time, pointed Gothic pavilions crept into quiet 18th-century gardens, pinnacled castles sprung up to distinguish Britain from the Baroque. In the next century, the religious fervor of architect A. W. N. Pugin, the principled and pugnacious undergraduates of Cambridge’s Ecclesiological Society, the optimism of the early Oxford Movement, and the infectious pens of Victor Hugo and John Ruskin all brought the Gothic style back to a roaring flame.
Not all of its new uses were theologically inspired. The Gothic could provide an “inexplicable feeling of oneness” for Goethe, while the great French restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (d. 1879) saw in the style a cool, structural rationality. Perhaps Monday’s collapse of the spire he added to Notre Dame—calamitous as it was—might even be understood as a return to the Gothic’s foundational, religious core. The commercial Gothic of the Woolworth Building in New York and the Tribune Tower in Chicago, after all, have never been entirely convincing. As Michael J. Lewis puts it, Gothic needs far more than “a residue of vapid spiritual associations” to endure.
But the style’s rich connection to Christianity is what enabled it first to thrive in a mostly Protestant America, as rival denominations sought to compete with majestic Catholic buildings, eradicating any lingering Puritan suspicions. These were the years where Manhattan welcomed Richard Upjohn’s Trinity Church and James Renwick Jr.’s Grace Episcopal Church. The New York Ecclesiological Society goaded Gothicists to excellence with stinging criticism. Even denominations traditionally suspicious of high-church culture—Methodists and Baptists—were unable to resist the pull of the pointed arch. And so it was that American Protestants and Catholics, divided by theology, were unified by trefoils, tracery, and transepts.
The result was a national forest of spires built in a few decades. “It was the Gothic going up like a flight of arrows,” wrote Chesterton of Europe’s great 13th century, “it was the waking of the world.” A similar waking happened in America as well in the 19th century and beyond. The entire globe, in fact, has Gothic skin. There are handsomely Gothic structures in China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, each adapted to their own environments. Gothic is to Christian building what the suit and tie is to menswear—functional, appropriate, flexible. A fire at Notre Dame cannot stop this any more than a fire at Men’s Wearhouse corporate headquarters can undo the necktie.
Take these personal anecdotes as illustrations: Two days ago nearly 200 students and staff of Wheaton College walked under a head of an apostle from Notre-Dame de Paris at the Art Institute of Chicago, a city where Notre Dame’s influence—through St. James Chapel, Fourth Presbyterian, or Holy Name Cathedral—affords graceful epaulettes to the city of broad shoulders. And just after my wife called me to tell me the news of Notre Dame’s destruction, I drove into Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I saw several Gothic spires, directly indebted to Notre Dame, guarding this American skyline, as they do in cities throughout the world.
A century ago, Émile Mâle wrote this about Gothic architecture: “Even the modern man receives a deep impression of serenity, little as he is willing to submit himself to its influence. There his doubts and theories may be forgotten for a time.”
The global reaction to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burning yesterday confirmed Mâle’s insight. But as a perennial expression of Christian faith, Gothic never dies; it only rests for a while. And like Christ this coming Sunday, it will rise again.
Matthew J. Milliner is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College. He tweets as @millinerd.