The Gothic Cathedral: the Building of Light Lecture Series Gothic Cathedrals

The Gothic Cathedral: the Building of Light

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José Luis Corral


After centuries of regression, Europe experienced between 1120 and 1260 a new period in which the population grew, cities developed, commerce and handicraft industry was reactivated, and schools and universities were founded. Some intellectuals believed that a new age of light was possible. This period of the European history corresponds with the time of the Crusades, an initiative of Christianity to recover the Holy Places, but also an effort to open up to new worlds and new markets. This is the time also when the basic drafts of the new European states were drawn, as well as the feudal monarchies that would end up defining the society and concept of territory and nation that, although notably modified, has reached this beginning of the 21st century. In summary, this was a time in which light and hope seemed to permeated everything, a period in which the Europeans where capable of building the most luminous artistic creations of humanity: the Gothic cathedrals.

The new Gothic cathedrals had to meet two requirements: they needed to reflect the humanistic science taught in the new universities, the culture of light, and at the same time they needed to translate into stone and glass the architectural ideal that was based on the new architectural techniques discovered in Paris in the mid 12th century. And so it was done. The cathedrals that were built between the 12th and 13th century represented the the triumph of the Church and bishop, but also, and above all, the triumph of the city and the citizens. That is why they needed to be a collective work, a result of the combined efforts of all urban sectors; thus, it is common that the names of the architects designing these cathedrals are currently unknown.

The light is essential in the Gothic cathedrals. The buildings act as accumulators of light, a light full of a special kind of magic due to the effect of, regardless the luminosity outside, having always the same light coming into the inside. What the builders of Gothic cathedrals did was to emulate the light of the sun, gather it in sort of stone reliquary, and make it accesible to men. The vision of good was comparable to a sun-ray, but the human eye was not prepared to receive this light directly. For those who built these temples, the essence of divinity contained wisdom, good, beauty, virtue, and eternity, and a Gothic Cathedral brings together all these values. From the sun, the good energies are disseminated and collected in the cathedral to make it available to all the Christian faithful.

  1. José Luis CorralJosé Luis CorralEs catedrático acreditado en Historia Medieval y director del Taller de Historia de la Universidad de Zaragoza. Es autor de más de 300 libros y artículos de Historia, entre otros Breve Historia de la Orden del Temple, Una historia de España o El enigma de las catedrales. Mitos y símbolos de las catedrales góticas; y escritor de novelas históricas como El Cid, La prisionera de Roma o El caballero del Templo.