Medieval Europe 814-1450: Architecture and Design

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Influence of the Carolingians

Building an Image

Medieval architecture, in many ways, was defined during the reign of Charlemagne. Not only was the scale of building enterprises unmatched in Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire four centuries earlier, but Charlemagne also utilized architecture to create the image of his government. In a biography composed around 830, Einhard, the ruler’s friend and advisor, wrote that the emperor

set in hand many projects which aimed at making his kingdom more attractive and at increasing public utility … Outstanding among these, one might claim, are the great church of the Holy Mother of God at Aachen, which is really a remarkable construction, and the bridge over the Rhine at Mainz, which is five hundred feet long. … More important still was the fact that he commanded the bishops and churchmen, in whose care they were, to restore sacred edifices which had fallen into ruin through their very antiquity, wherever he discovered them throughout the whole of his kingdom.

During the reign of Charlemagne, the emperor’s builders strove to articulate the ideas of power, order, and Christian faith through the arrangement of spaces and the abstract vocabulary of architecture—columns, piers, walls, windows, ceilings. Their task was not unlike the one that the new republic of the United States confronted around 1800: how to give meaningful physical form to guiding political principles. And just as Washington, D.C., wages an eloquent argument in its pediments, domes, porticoes, and temple forms that the United States is heir to the democratic tradition of Greece and the might of Rome, Carolingian buildings turned to ancient Roman architecture to embody the vision of an empire guided by Christian values that would bring unity and peace to a fragmented and conflict-ridden Europe.

Aachen and the Emulation of Rome

No project reveals Charlemagne’s architectural goals for his new empire better than the palace complex Aix-la-Chapelle at Aachen, in what is now Nord Rhein-Westfalen in northwestern Germany. As another of his biographers, Notker Balbulus (the Stammerer), wrote, “He [Charlemagne] conceived the idea of constructing on his native soil and according to his own plan a cathedral which should be finer than the ancient buildings of the Romans.” Built during the 790s, Aachen constituted a palace complex that included a monumental gateway, a chapel, and an audience hall in stone supplemented by residential and utilitarian structures in wood. With this set of impressive buildings, Charlemagne established a permanent and symbolic capital that intended to emulate the great imperial cities of Rome and Constantinople. To make his point clear to the populace, he named his palace “The Lateran,” a direct reference to the cathedral and palace, built under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in Rome. The very plan of Aachen, laid out according to a grid of squares, revived Roman methods to embody the ordered regularity that the emperor wished to impose on his vast territories. Further, the long galleries that linked the three stone structures imitated a feature frequently found in Roman palaces.

Roman Models

Moreover, the buildings themselves were based on particular Roman prototypes. The palace’s great hall, for example, where Charlemagne received visitors and presided over court ceremonies while enthroned in the semicircular space of an apse (a rounded projection from the end of a building), resembled that erected by Constantine around 310 C.E. at nearby Trier on the central western border of modern-day Germany. The palace chapel—this is Notker’s “cathedral”—consisting of an outer sixteen-sided polygon enclosing an octagonal central space, looked to a tradition of centralized court chapels found throughout the Mediterranean world from the fourth century on; but it was especially close in form to Justinian’s church of San Vitale in Ravenna in Italy (c. 540-548). Charlemagne himself had passed through Ravenna shortly before construction of Aachen was begun and his direct experience of this beautiful imperial church must have been a decisive factor in its design. Like San Vitale, the interior space at Aachen is disposed on two levels: a chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, occupies the ground floor, while the upper gallery level, sheltering the imperial throne and an altar of the Savior, comprises a second chapel. The sturdy piers, the tiers of arches, the sophisticated combination of vaults, and the finely cut stonework of the building are unprecedented in earlier medieval architecture and, once again, suggest that the revival of Roman forms was accompanied by a comparable renewal of Roman building technology. Finally, the decoration of ancient columns and capitals, marble imported from Ravenna, bronze railings and doors, and mosaics all invest the chapel with a dazzling and thoroughly Roman aura. As a whole, Aachen sends the message of Charlemagne as the legitimate successor to the authority of Christian imperial rulership in the West. It was the architectural “first act” of a political drama whose conclusion was staged on Christmas Day 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Basilica

As the words of Einhard, quoted above, imply, the Carolingian era witnessed a surge of church construction. Although centralized plans were often favored for aristocratic chapels, they were not easily adaptable to the needs of churches that required space for large congregations or housed monastic communities whose liturgy involved processions to altars located throughout the interior. Once again, Carolingian patrons and builders looked back to early Christian Rome for a model that was at once functional—accommodating crowds of worshippers and the processional liturgy of the Mass—as well as historically resonant and symbolically potent. The basilica fit all three requirements. Adapted from large Roman halls that served a variety of functions, including law courts or public assembly, the Christian basilica is characterized by its longitudinal space organized around a central axis and formed by a dominant central area flanked symmetrically by lower aisles. The usual model contained a long hall or nave, an entry portico on the west side, and an apse (usually semicircular in form, but sometimes polygonal or square) in the east, which usually contained the altar area. The entry and altar were almost always on the short sides of the rectangular configuration, with the altar facing the city of Jerusalem. A large open courtyard or atrium, a feature eliminated in the later Middle Ages, and an entry vestibule, called a narthex, frequently fronted the body of the basilica. This axial sequence of spaces lent itself naturally to hierarchical divisions, marked by barriers, curtains, screens, and differences in decoration. The nave served as the congregational space while the apse enclosing the altar was reserved for the clergy.

Symbolic Shape and Number

In Abbot Fulrad’s rebuilding of the abbey of Saint-Denis between around 754 and 775, the Roman inspiration was evident. The church took the shape of a cross through the addition of a transverse space, termed a transept, inserted between the nave and the apse. The transept appeared earlier only at the great martyrs’ basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Rome, presumably to provide a suitably impressive spatial setting around the tomb of the saint, but once revived, this cruciform plan became common in Christian architecture. Used at Saint-Denis, it served the dual purpose of linking the local saint with the prestige of the apostle Peter and of equating the Frankish kings, many of whom were buried there (including Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short), with Constantine, the patron of St. Peter’s. To judge from its plan, a nearly exact replica of the transept and apse of St. Peter’s was also erected over the tomb of St. Boniface, missionary to the Germans, at Fulda in the early ninth century. Another impressive example can be found in the abbey of Saint-Riquier at Centula in northern France, where the cruciform shape of the church combines with an insistent use of three in its plan to emphasize the Trinity. The importance of number in the church’s design is characteristic of medieval architecture. Based on a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, “you have ordered all things in measure and number and weight,” Christian theologians from Augustine, writing in the fifth century C.E., on interpreted numbers symbolically. Numbers revealed the underlying harmonies of the universe and their incorporation into the designs and visual rhythms of medieval architecture intended to convey the beauty of divine creation. In all of these basilicas, the references to early Christian Rome served not only as a political symbol, but also as a representation of the true Christian faith that Charlemagne and his theologians took as their mission to protect and proclaim.

Innovations In Planning

Carolingian church architecture was more than historical and spiritual nostalgia for early Christian Rome. It enriched its borrowings from the past by contributing a greater complexity to spatial planning. In part, this was a response to the promotion among Charlemagne’s ecclesiastical allies of the Roman liturgy, whose worship services featured processions through and around the church. With the rise of the cult of saints as a significant component of medieval Christian worship, auxiliary spaces were required for the exhibition of relics with pathways providing access to the tomb or shrine. The underground corridor that was excavated in the apse of St. Peter’s in Rome around 600 during the reign of Pope Gregory I (the Great) allowing the faithful to circulate around the saint’s burial site was copied at Saint-Denis and San Prassede in Rome (c. 820). An elaborate two-story crypt was added outside the choir of the original church of Saint-Germain, Auxerre, in France in the mid-ninth century. Passages, connecting a series of chapels, including a rotunda dedicated to the Virgin Mary, provided circulation around the sixth-century tomb chamber of Saint-Germain as well as space for six new altars. A similar multiplication of chapel spaces was echoed above ground in the 870s at the abbey church of Corvey in Germany, where an axial cruciform chapel and two lateral chapels were linked by a curving aisle that wrapped around the choir. These experimental schemes anticipated the development of the ambulatory (an aisle surrounding the end of the choir) and chapel arrangement of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. A further modification of the standard basilica was the “double-ended” plan, found at Fulda in Germany and in the Plan of Saint-Gall in Switzerland (a series of blueprint-like drawings), where the saint’s shrine and the main altar were placed in apses at opposite ends of the church, a solution that had a long life in German church design.

Proud Towers

Proclaiming the majesty of the church, towers represent one of the most daring contributions of medieval architecture, for they existed more for the sake of their visual impact and symbolic resonance than they did to fulfill any functional purpose. Concentrated at the “crossing,” that is, the intersection of the nave and choir of the basilica, towers accented the area of the main altar, the focal point of the church. At Saint-Denis, a 30-foot-high tower rose above the crossing while at Saint-Riquier, a multi-stage polygonal lantern (a tower-like structure admitting light) flanked by two slim stair turrets formed a monumental vertical cluster that contrasted dramatically with the 275-foot length of the body of the church. This embellishment of the crossing, often formed by a central tower with taller towers placed at the ends of the transept, continued through the next major architectural period (the Romanesque), as at the third abbey church of Cluny in France or Tournai Cathedral in Belgium, and then into the culminating period of medieval architecture (the Gothic) at the cathedrals of Laon and Chartres in France, and Milan in Italy, where the towers were likened to the “four evangelists surrounding the throne of God.” Towers appeared most commonly as integral elements of the façades of church buildings. Twin towers are mentioned at the Carolingian Saint-Denis, an arrangement repeated in the reconstruction of the abbey’s new entrance block in the 1130s. However, Carolingian architecture is most notable for its invention of the “westwork,” the monumental entry composed of a dominant central element enclosing an upper chapel reached by lateral stair turrets (that is small towers on each side). Described as a castellum (“castle”) or turris (“tower”) by contemporary writers, the westwork of churches such as Saint-Riquier and Corvey served as a virtual vertical church for the staging of important religious services. In addition, because the façade block housed the emperor’s throne at Aachen, it has sometimes been interpreted as an imperial architectural form. Roman city gates, it should be remembered, had included towers and upper chambers used in imperial ceremonies. At the Abbey of Lorsch in Germany, a freestanding triple-arch gateway that probably “copied” the Arch of Constantine in Rome coupled with the church’s westwork behind to create a spectacular entry sequence. The tower, like the inventive mix of Roman and medieval forms of Carolingian architecture in general, resonated on multiple levels as it invested the church with the aura of imperial power, triumphal authority, and transcendental spirituality.

Ottonian and Norman Architecture

Carolingian Quotations

Charlemagne’s vision of a Christian Roman Empire dissolved in the later ninth century, bringing an end to a great period of public construction. Central authority, undermined by the division of territory and royal rivalries among Charlemagne’s grandsons, was shattered by the invasions of Vikings in the north, Magyars in the east, and the Muslims around the Mediterranean. Their attacks devastated hundreds of towns, churches, and monasteries. A new kingdom emerged in central Germany in the mid-tenth century that laid claim to the mantle of the Carolingians, and in 962, Otto I was crowned emperor. In the projects generated by the court and its ecclesiastical allies, architecture reinforced Ottonian political pretensions through a deliberate continuation of Carolingian models. The palace chapel at Aachen was copied repeatedly throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries: in the chapel of St. Nicholas at Nijmegen in the eastern Netherlands, at Bishop Notger’s chapel at Liège in Belgium, and, oddly enough, in nunneries at Essen and S. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne in Germany, and at Ottmarsheim (1049) in eastern France. The interest of these female monastic communities in Charlemagne’s chapel underscored their imperial connections, but may have also been suggested by Aachen’s dedication to the Virgin Mary and its possession of the relic of her shroud. Westworks appeared in major Ottonian cathedrals and monasteries in Germany, including the cathedrals of Speyer and Worms, and the abbey church of St. Michael’s in Hildesheim, suggesting that by this time they were seen as an important component of the imperial architectural image. The cruciform basilica, revived by Carolingians, remained the basis for large-scale church plans. At St. Michael’s, Hildesheim, this basic plan was elaborated with a transept and apse at each end of the building with the western choir raised above a crypt whose ambulatory was visible on the exterior.


The Cathedral of Speyer in western Germany, started in 1030 during the reign of Emperor Conrad II and vaulted (given its stone ceiling) around 1100, was the pre-eminent structure of the period and illustrates what might be called the progressive historicism—the creating of new architectural forms inspired by historical models—typical of so much of medieval architecture. A glance at the exterior of the cathedral with its massive westwork and grouped crossing towers certainly recalls Carolingian precedents, such as Saint-Riquier, but the enormous scale of the cross-shaped plan, 435 feet in length, equals that of Roman imperial churches such as St. Peter’s in Rome. The interior conjures up a similar Roman spirit. Its combination of rectangular piers and attached columns reproduces the structure of the Colosseum (Rome’s massive amphitheater), while the arcade that rises through the entire 90-foot high elevation to frame each window resembles an aqueduct (Rome’s system of raised water channels) or, again, the exterior of Constantine’s audience hall at Trier in Germany. Visually, the new mix of piers and columns created a system that articulated the building as a series of repeating units that reflected the geometry of the plan. It also produced a more emphatically three-dimensional architecture whose walls were organized in distinct planes. In a similar vein, the exterior was embellished by the disciplined formal rhythms created by niches, decorative arches, and wall arcades framed by columns or pilasters (flattened or rectangular columns). A setting of overwhelming monumentality was created at Speyer to demonstrate the Roman and Carolingian origins of the power of the German kings who lay buried in the spacious crypt under the choir.

Imposing Verticality in Norman French Architecture

In a treaty of 911, the Carolingian king Charles the Simple granted the area around Rouen in northwestern France to the Vikings, creating what was to become the duchy of Normandy. Converted to Christianity and expanding their territories, the Normans soon turned to the task of building architecture worthy of a powerful state. The cathedrals and monasteries they erected during the eleventh century reveal a farflung array of sources drawn from southwestern France, Burgundy, and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany. At the Abbey of Jumièges in France, begun in 1037 and completed in 1066, a pair of tall towers flank a projecting porch with an upper chapel to form an impressive frontispiece that is reminiscent of such Carolingian façade blocks as Saint-Denis or Corvey. The interior of the church emphasizes elegant verticality through the use of tall, attached columns that divide the nave wall into a series of regular units or bays. Even more notable, the elevation now contains three levels: above the arcade, a spacious gallery is introduced with a window zone, called a clerestory, at the top of the wall just below the timber ceiling. Appearing in Ottonian church designs, but known in early Christian examples from Jerusalem to Trier, the gallery might have accommodated additional altars or been used by pilgrims. Clearly, it invested the church structure with a lordly height that was a symbol of status. Saint-Etienne at Caen in Normandy, founded around 1060 by William the Conqueror, who was also buried in front of the high altar at his death in 1087, exhibits an even more imposing demeanor. The rigorously ordered façade with its three portals and twin towers offered a scheme that would be repeated until the end of the Middle Ages. Like Jumièges, the interior of Caen contains three stories, including a gallery, but here supported exclusively by piers composed of a bundle of shafts set around a cruciform core that are coordinated with the key structural elements of the arcade, aisle vaults, and original wooden ceiling. Its thick walls, honeycombed by passages, resemble the architecture of contemporary Norman castles—the Tower of London, for example—and capture an image of the church as a Christian fortress as well as a symbol of political might.

Norman Domination in England

Few events so thoroughly remodeled an architectural landscape as the Norman conquest of England in 1066. In the generation following the Battle of Hastings, at which the Norman invaders, led by the future king William I, conquered the Anglo-Saxon king Harold, the Normans rebuilt every major cathedral and monastery in the country, literally obliterating the architecture of the Anglo-Saxons whom they had defeated. Dominating the skylines of English towns, these Norman churches left no doubt as to who was in control. As the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury noted in his Deeds of the English Kings, “You may see everywhere churches … [and] monasteries rising in a new style of architecture; and with new devotion our country flourishes, so that every rich man thinks a day wasted if he does not make it remarkable with some great stroke of generosity.” The ambitions of the new regime were apparent immediately in the projects launched by the conqueror and his ecclesiastical entourage, including Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, and Walkelin, bishop of Winchester. If the recent Norman plans of Rouen Cathedral or Saint-Etienne at Caen guided design at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham, or Lincoln, the conscious desire to evoke Rome and rival the architecture of the Continent lies behind the pursuit of overwhelming scale, and the selection of majestic forms and materials. By William the Conqueror’s death, the kingdom had no fewer than nine churches comparable in scale to St. Peter’s. At Winchester, the columns that rise from floor to ceiling, seen in the surviving late eleventh-century transept or in the vaulted choir, parallel the insistent verticality of Speyer Cathedral in Germany and, combined with a huge western entry block, whose outlines have been recovered in archaeological excavations, create an imperial aura based on a mix of Roman, Carolingian, and Ottonian references. In the case of Durham’s famous spiral columns, a specific link to St. Peter’s is conjured up to reveal the local saint, Cuthbert, as an equal of the apostle. While Durham’s architecture draws on Norman features present at Jumièges and Saint-Etienne at Caen, its most significant aspect is its use of pointed arches together with ribbed groin vaults, an innovation that supported the heavy stone roof in a way that was lighter, higher, and more decorative than the heavy barrel vaults they replaced. Originally planned only over the eastern arm, or choir, of the church, the stone vaults were extended over the entire edifice during the building process. Whatever their structural and aesthetic advantages, they also provided a canopy over sacred space that turns the building into a monumental shrine. This conception of the church as a precious object is reflected at Durham in the lavish decoration of the entire building: the interlacing arches of the aisle walls, the carved patterns on the piers, and the restless chevron (angled stripe) ornament that outlines the arches and ribs.

A Sicilian Blend

An independent band of Normans established a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily during the later eleventh century where they formulated an architecture that was an exotic mixture of Byzantine (Eastern Christian, centered in Constantinople or modern Istanbul), Muslim, and Christian Roman traditions. Best represented by the Palatine Chapel in Palermo or the cathedral of Monreale on the Italian island of Sicily, the Norman buildings of Sicily serve as a reminder that architecture is a language of communication whose vocabulary is often tailored to local circumstances. Thus, rather than erasing all signs of the past, the Palatine Chapel, built and decorated by King Roger II between 1132 and 1189, recasts the traditional basilican structure in forms absorbed from the conquered Byzantines and Muslims. The alternating smooth and fluted columns, the dome that rises over the crossing, as well as the glittering gold-ground mosaics are Byzantine in style; the pointed arches and elaborately faceted stalactite ceiling draw upon Muslim architecture. Like the imagery that showcases Christ in Majesty accompanied by the Roman saints Peter and Paul under a ceiling with paintings of constellations, courtly entertainments, and scenes of daily life, the church in its combination of traditional and alien forms comprises a text in which the impact of rival cultures, divine sanction, and the sophisticated refinement of the Norman kingdom and its rulers can be read. The same point is made by Monreale Cathedral, begun in 1174. An arresting play of interlacing pointed arches over the exterior invests the church with an ornamental luxury comparable to the most elaborate Islamic palaces, while the cruciform basilica with classical columns and mosaics seems a deliberate recollection of early Christian models. Far different in appearance from the projects undertaken in France and England, Norman architecture in Sicily underlines the bewildering variety of styles and the creative interplay of sources encountered in the Romanesque period.

Geometry and Planning

Architecture, Beauty, and Geometry

Modern observers are often filled with awe when they consider the combination of engineering and aesthetic sophistication required to achieve the complex structures that were evolving even in the early Middle Ages. Of the many stages involved in the construction of a medieval building, the first step, the planning phase, remains the most elusive. This was the moment when thoughts and conversations began to take physical form as architects translated functional requirements and a patron’s vision into structure and space. What strategies did they employ to ensure that an edifice was both stable and beautiful? Geometry provided the means by which masons designed and laid out plans, the common language of communication between craftsman and cleric, and the vehicle by which architectural form could be invested with meaning. Medieval thinkers, such as St. Augustine, followed Vitruvius, a Roman architect who wrote On Architecture at the time of Augustus in the late first century B.C.E., by defining beauty as a harmony of parts that arose out of geometrical regularity. Constantly cited by writers from the ninth century on, Vitruvius’s ideas on architectural planning, along with other classical works, were well known in the Middle Ages. In 1321, the monks of the abbey of Saint-Ouen in Rouen wrote, as they planned for the reconstruction of their church, that “we have decided to build in accordance with former learned treatises” by “industrious and accomplished artisans who are recognized to possess proven and wellknown experience in such matters.” Whether or not medieval masons actually read these “treatises,” this document suggests that they were able to put into practice the architectural theories familiar to their scholarly patrons.

Squares, Circles, and Triangles

According to Vitruvius, plans of buildings require geometry that “teaches the use of straight lines and the compass.” The designs of most medieval buildings can be understood in terms of skillful combinations of squares, circles, and triangles. An architect might take a “modular” approach based on the repetition of a standard unit, as illustrated by the layout of Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen which used a 12-foot length, organized into larger squares of 84- and 360-feet, or the plan of Saint-Gall that was governed by a grid of 40-foot squares. However, after the fifth century and the collapse of centralized Roman authority, different regions of Europe and even cities within the same region adopted their own standards of measurement that might vary by as much as four inches per foot. The potential for chaos if an architect designed a building according to one foot-length while the craftsmen constructed it using another standard of measure was great. To avoid such problems, builders turned to ratios generated by the manipulation of basic geometric figures as the means of organizing and coordinating the complex of parts and spaces of the church. One of the most common techniques was based on the ratio of the side of a square to its diagonal, that is, one to the square root of two (or mathematically 1: 1.414). For example, imagine that a person laid out a square then drew its diagonal. Then the person swung the diagonal until it lined up with the side of the square. That person has just designed most of the twelfth-century Cistercian abbey of Jerpoint in Ireland: its cloister is a 100-foot square while the nave, created by the diagonal, is 142 feet long. Swinging the diagonal in the other direction establishes the width of the east range of the cloister buildings. A similar square root of two ratios ran through Norwich Cathedral, begun in the late eleventh century, and controlled the relation of width to length of the papal church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes which was begun in 1262.

Other Ratios

A second ratio that can be found frequently in medieval architecture is the “golden section” (1: 1.618), easily produced from the diagonal of half a square. Used as far back as ancient Egypt and continued by the Romans in such important Christian structures as Old St. Peter’s in the fourth century, the golden section was applied in the designs of Amiens Cathedral, and again at Saint-Urbain in Troyes and Saint-Ouen in Rouen. Despite their differences, each plan reveals a golden section ratio between the wide central space and the flanking aisles. Other ratios detected in medieval monuments include the square root of three (1: 1.732), taken from an equilateral triangle and found at the abbey church of Fontenay, and the square root of five (1: 2.236). All of these ratios involve irrational rather than whole numbers and are derived from working directly from the geometrical figures of the plan. These same ratios were projected upwards into the superstructure. The square root of two controls the composition of the elevation at Durham Cathedral. At Milan, arguments broke out during the 1390s over whether the cathedral should be designed on the basis of a square (ad quadratum) or a triangle (ad triangulatum). Debate raged over which solution would be more beautiful and structurally sound, and advocates of the various solutions supported their positions by citing the Bible as well as Aristotle.


The plan of a building could be laid out at full scale on the ground using ropes and stakes to mark its outlines. But as medieval architecture developed in complexity, drawing became an increasingly important tool in the process of design and construction. Few drawings are known before the twelfth century: the famous plan of Saint-Gall, created in the early ninth century, is less a construction blueprint than a conceptual diagram that sets out the scheme of an ideal monastery. As late as 1178 when William of Sens, architect of the new choir at Canterbury Cathedral, was seriously injured after falling from scaffolding, he attempted to supervise construction by having himself carried to the building site on a stretcher. Although William had supplied templates or patterns for architectural details, there apparently were no drawings that could keep the project on course in his absence. Numerous full-scale drawings survive from the thirteenth century onwards. Incised into floors, on walls, or on plaster surfaces, the extant engravings encompass preliminary sketches and finished representations of building parts such as windows, piers, gables, portals, and flying buttresses. They offered the master mason a chance to refine his formal ideas, to evaluate the merits of a design before it was executed, and to check the accuracy of the cutting before stones were mortared into place. Finally, in the Gothic period, drawings on parchment evolved as structures were composed of precisely coordinated networks of shafts and moldings, and intricate and finely scaled vault and window patterns. Drawings not only became indispensable to construction, but they allowed an architect to supervise multiple projects simultaneously. In 1434, Pierre Robin, a Parisian master, was hired to design the parish church of Saint-Maclou in Rouen. He stayed in the city for five months, delivered a complete set of plans, then left the building entirely to local contractors. Although construction at Saint-Maclou lasted for ninety years, Robin’s plans were followed scrupulously, and the church displays a remarkable unity despite the participation of many hands. The most lavish drawings of the later Middle Ages, embellished by color washes, might be shown to patrons to confirm the genius of the design, sent to potential donors, or exhibited in public to raise funds for construction. An example of such geometrical drawing occurs in the portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt in the 1230s.

Making and Meaning

While medieval architecture was becoming increasingly technological in its methods, it also maintained symbolic and religious significance. The medieval church building was likened by theologians to the Temple of Solomon as well as to the celestial Jerusalem. The Bible describes these sacred edifices in detail, including their dimensions: the temple was 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high; the heavenly city measured 12,000 stadia with a wall of 144 cubits (cubits were measurements of about 17 to 21 inches and stadia were about 607 feet). In addition, Christian theology interpreted numbers in symbolic terms. Four was equated with the gospels, five was the number of divinity, evoking the five wounds of Jesus, and six was the perfect number, according to St. Augustine, because it was both the sum and product of its factors, 1, 2, and 3. Thus although plan designing was a process that involved the mechanical manipulation of geometric shapes by secular craftsmen, it was possible to endow a building with symbolic meaning by basing the design on a resonant module or by encoding a significant number into its geometry. The chapel at Aachen, for example, was based on a twelve-foot module and its total length was 144 feet, both dimensions clearly intended to connect it with the image of heaven. The royal Sainte-Chapelle in Paris quotes the proportions and dimensions of the Palace of Solomon, described in I Kings 7, perhaps as a way to associate the contemporary French monarch with Solomon, the paragon of the wise ruler. And the design of the papal church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes unfolds out of a central square that is 36 feet per side using the square root of two and golden section operations. Six is, of course, a factor of 36, so that the perfect number literally lies at the heart of the plan. Its height, 72 feet, is determined by two of these squares, but is also a factor of the number 144 associated with heaven. In sum, medieval masons used geometry as the practical means to ensure the harmony of their designs while patrons found in number and shape potent symbols that linked the present with the past and connected their earthly projects to divinely inspired models.

Construction Techniques

Building with Masonry

Throughout the Middle Ages, the most prestigious and durable edifices—castles, churches, and palaces—were built of stone. However, the loss of the Roman formula for concrete (a mixture of water, lime, and pozzolanic sand akin to modern Portland cement, to which a coarse aggregate of rubble and broken pottery was added) and its replacement in the Middle Ages by a weak lime mortar made complex masonry ceilings difficult to build. Thus, one of the major achievements of medieval architecture was the recovery of the ability to vault monumental interior spaces to dramatic effect. Medieval masons continued many Roman architectural practices, constructing their buildings with rubble (broken, rather than cut stone) walls faced with cut stone blocks or decorative patterns, as seen in the surviving sections of the late-tenth-century cathedral of Beauvais, Notre-Dame-de-la-Basse-Oeuvre. Yet, there were significant variations from region to region in Europe due to available building materials and established traditions. For example, brick was used in southern France and northern Germany as a substitute for the poor-quality local stone. Ancient Roman architectural elements (remnants of columns, carvings, etc.), called spolia, were often incorporated into medieval Italian structures because of their handy abundance as well as their evocative connection to the glory of the past, while timber forms inspired designs in Anglo-Saxon stone buildings in England.

The Legacy of Rome: Arches and Vaults

By far the most important legacy from Rome was the arch, which constituted the basis of medieval church architecture. An arch is a curved structural form composed of wedge-shaped stones called voussoirs. The uppermost voussoir is the keystone which, when dropped into place, locks the other stones of the entire arch together. Pushing against one another, the stones stay in place, and as long as there is enough material around the arch to resist this outward, pushing force, the arch will remain stable. There were many uses for arches: supported by columns or piers to form an arcade, they span space to create passages; they frame doorways and windows; they act as structural reinforcement; and, in miniature, they decorate walls. Arches were, in turn, the basis of vaults. The continuous barrel vault was constructed by extending an arch across an expanse from pier to pier, creating a ceiling that had a concave or half-cylindrical appearance, as occurs in the main nave space at Saint-Sernin at Toulouse, France. Two barrel vaults intersecting at right angles, the “groins” marking the lines of intersection, formed a groined vault. By focusing supporting forces at the corners of the vault compartment or bay, the groined vault relieved the wall of its structural purpose and made large openings and windows possible. But because the stones of the groins had extremely complex geometric shapes, these vaults were difficult to build and were used most frequently over smaller spaces that included windows, such as those in the side aisles of Saint-Sernin.

The Coming of Gothic Arches

European architecture in the eleventh and early twelfth century, despite its variety, is commonly called “Romanesque” because its massive walls, its rounded arches, the extension of stone vaulting throughout the entire structure, and many of its ornamental forms resemble Roman buildings. Around 1100, new forms appeared that moved away from the heritage of ancient building and began to transform the appearance of architecture. The first major development can be seen in a change in the shape of arches. Builders from the Carolingian to the Romanesque periods employed semicircular arches. To draw one with a compass requires only a single fixed center point to produce an arch whose height is always one-half of its span. However, a different type of arch appeared in Romanesque buildings, such as Durham Cathedral, that became the dominant form in the Gothic period from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries: the pointed arch. In this case, the intersecting arcs are struck from two centers whose location is fluid. This creates an arch that not only can be flexibly tailored to fit almost any spatial need but also is more structurally efficient than the semicircular arch. A second breakthrough came with the invention of the ribbed groin vault. This vault had all the advantages of the groin vault, but added ribs—decorative moldings that masked the groin lines. Ribs facilitated construction, first, because they were assembled from identical pieces and, second, because once built, they offered a scaffolding that was filled in by a light stone membrane or web. An example of vaulting appears in the Chapel of the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital in Lübeck, Germany.

The Flying Buttress

Along with pointed arches and ribbed groin vaults, the flying buttress was introduced as a key structural component in mid-twelfth century buildings such as the Abbey of Saint-Germaindes-Prés and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, both in Paris, and the Cathedral at Chartres, France. Exposed arches “flying” over the aisles of the church act to brace the wall against the outward thrust of the vault and the wind pressure on the roof and to direct these forces to massive slabs of masonry (buttresses). Flying buttresses, coordinated with ribbed groin vaults and pointed arches, composed a completely new system. Rather than a continuous envelope of heavy supporting walls, as was characteristic of the Romanesque style, the structure now resembled the cage of an Erector set, with the flying buttresses appearing both internally and externally. By exploiting the potential of these new features, Gothic church architecture was able to achieve the impossible: unprecedented height combined with walls that were little more than perforated screens whose openings were filled with vast fields of dazzling stained glass.


Most buildings in the Middle Ages—houses, forts, barns, market halls, and even parish churches—were made of timber. Stone construction itself required vast quantities of wood for the temporary scaffolds socketed into walls that served as work platforms in upper levels, for formwork upon which vault stones were laid, and for templates or patterns that guided the cutting of moldings. Cranes and the great wheels that hoisted building materials aloft were made of wood. Timber pilings and lattices were incorporated into the foundations of edifices that rose on marshy ground, a technique still used in the late nineteenth century in Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston. Wooden vaults, imitating the appearance of stone, were erected at York Cathedral in the late thirteenth century, and the fourteenth-century crossing of Ely Cathedral, its stone lantern perched atop a pinwheel of wooden vaults, achieved one of the most spectacular spaces of the age. But, by far, the most significant concern of carpentry was the roof structure.


Tall, steeply pitched roofs were more than practical coverings to shed the rain and snow of northern Europe’s inclement weather; they were status symbols. Hrothgar’s magnificent “mead-hall” of Heorot is described in the early (pre-tenth century) Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf as “high-roofed—and gleaming with gold,” and the slate roofs of the palace of the kings of France in Paris struck one fourteenth-century writer as “glistening bright” to the point that “everyone is gladdened by / The very thought of entering.” Churches, too, were crowned by prominent roofs whose beams were likened by a late thirteenth-century bishop, William of Mende, to “the princes and preachers who defend and fortify the unity of the Church,” while the tiles reminded him of “the soldiers and knights who protect the Church against the attacks of enemies of the faith.” Until the eleventh century, large interior spaces in medieval churches were covered by timber roofs, often open to the space below, devised from a system of members, that included sloping beams called rafters whose ends were connected by horizontal tie beams, to form a triangular truss. Norwegian stave churches, a late example of which is found at Borgund (c. 1250), demonstrate the advanced roofing technology achieved in northern Europe. Trusses, stiffened by curving scissor braces, are supported by tall timber posts or staves to create a bay system that may have influenced the development of a comparably integrated frame in stone architecture.

Stone Vaults, Timber Roofs

With the spread of masonry vaulting in the Romanesque period, carpenters faced a set of problems that tested their ingenuity. The curving crown of the vault that rose into the space of the roof made it impossible to create a structure based on trusses placed every three or four feet as in an un-vaulted building, and they were forced to search for solutions that accommodated the vault but did not sacrifice stability against gravity and wind. The number of tie beams was reduced gradually as supplementary rafters and braces were added to increase the rigidity of the roof frame. In Gothic architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, roofing systems evolved in response to the wide spans of the spaces and the reduction of the thickness of the walls. At Notre-Dame in Paris and Reims Cathedral, trusses were organized into bays consisting of main frames, recognizable by their vertical hangars that support a matrix of beams and rafters that alternate with secondary frames without tie beams. More important, plates that ran along the top of the wall and purlins that supported the additional rafters integrated the system longitudinally. Reaching a pitch of about 60 degrees, these steep roofs emphasized the vertical silhouette of the soaring buildings, making them appear even taller.

The Hall

Timber architecture was not simply a question of money, nor was it indicative of social class. At Aachen, where Charlemagne’s audience hall and chapel were built of stone, the emperor maintained his domestic quarters in a wooden structure. As medieval literature, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1360-1370) makes clear, the hall stood at the center of palace life, serving as the stage for aristocratic festivities. But it was also the basis of other structures of daily life such as hospitals, colleges, and commercial buildings. In stark contrast to the arched form of churches, halls were fashioned of vertical post and horizontal beam construction that created aisled interior spaces. After around 1200, there was a general shift toward aisleless structures that is represented by the remarkable rebuilding of Westminster Hall in the palace of the kings of England. Completed in 1099 by the Norman ruler William Rufus, who is reported to have “spared no expense to manifest the greatness of his liberality,” the original hall was so wide—around 67 feet—that internal supports were required to carry the ceiling. In the 1390s, Richard II engaged his chief carpenter, Hugh Herland, and master mason, Henry Yevele, to refurbish the hall. Herland’s ingenious hammer-beam roof, supported through the use of short cantilevered timbers, covered the enormous space with a single breathtaking span. The hammer beams, projecting from the wall, actually pull in the sloping rafters to keep them from spreading outward. Combined with the heavy vertical hammer posts and horizontal collar beam (tie beam) as well as the great arch, they transmit the weight and thrust of the roof to the stone brackets, or corbels, located about halfway up the wall, that had been added by Yevele. Masonry and carpentry collaborate in a structure that is at once logical and elegant. Despite the fact that some 600 tons (the weight of a modern diesel locomotive) of oak were used in the frames, the roof—enriched by open grilles—appears to float on the backs of the angels that decorate the ends of the hammer beams. Finally, it is important to remember that this great roof structure was assembled from material provided by trees grown in forests that were legally protected and carefully managed. Eliminating the floor posts was not simply a matter of artistic choice, but permitted the use of smaller trees that were easier to cut and transport. The study of medieval structures reveals the complex interrelationship between architectural form, building technology, natural resources, and human institutions.

Monastic Architecture

Monastic Rules for Cloistered Life

From the earliest days of Christianity, there have been men and women who have withdrawn from the world to seek solitude in order to devote themselves to prayer and meditate upon God. For some, this spiritual quest was a solitary endeavor, but in many cases the holy hermit attracted groups of followers who sought to emulate the ascetic lifestyle, and this formation of groups eventually necessitated the development of specialized architecture. Beginning in the fourth century, life in these religious communities was ordered by rules that divided the day into periods of work, prayer, and reading. Basil the Great (c. 330-379) wrote the first set of rules that became the basis of monasticism in the Orthodox church in eastern Mediterranean regions, and this was followed in the West by the Rules of St. Augustine in the late fourth century, and the Rule of St. Benedict, written around 530, which predominated in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. In drawing up the regulations for his “school for the Lord’s service,” Benedict included directions for all facets of a monk’s life. In 73 chapters, he set an abbot in charge of the monastery, offered guidelines for food, drink, and clothing, addressed sleeping arrangements, prescribed punishments for misbehavior and mistakes in religious services, and detailed the reception of guests. The day was structured by seven offices, beginning in the middle of the night, at which the Psalms were sung, but also included six to eight hours of manual labor and periods of study and reading. Although the Rule did not contain specific architectural directions, its requirements for eating and sleeping in common, the importance of the oratory as the hub of liturgical life, and the mention of kitchens, an infirmary, cellars, and guest quarters assume a complex of structures that would compose a self-sufficient community. As Benedict wrote in chapter 66, “The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill, and garden, are contained, and the various crafts are practiced. Then there will be no need for the monks to roam outside, because this is not at all good for their souls.”

The Plan of Saint-Gall and the Cloister

The Carolingians translated the framework for monastic life envisioned by St. Benedict into architectural form in the ninth century. With the same view toward uniformity that guided the reform of imperial administration, the development of a more legible script for copying the Bible, and the planning of architectural monuments, Charlemagne commanded all monasteries in his realm to adopt the Benedictine Rule and convened assemblies in Aachen in 816-817 to consider policies that directly affected the layout of the proposed structures. At about the same time, a large plan, drawn on five sheets of parchment and measuring about 44 by 30 inches, was sent to the abbot of Saint-Gall, apparently portraying an ideal scheme of what buildings a monastery should contain and how to arrange them. A model built from the plan shows the monastery’s appearance. The multiplex, dominated by the large “double-ended” church, is organized in a series of concentric zones like an onion. Animal pens, industrial buildings employing secular artisans, guest quarters, and the school formed an outer ring. At the heart of the plan lay the cloister, the focus of monastic life. With a fountain at its center, the square courtyard was surrounded by covered and arcaded walkways that provided sheltered circulation between the primary spaces of monastic activity: church, dormitory, refectory (dining hall), cellar, and scriptorium (book production center). Chapter rooms, for general meetings, became standard features in Cistercian abbeys and were always located in the east gallery of the cloister under the dormitory. They were the most important structure of a monastery, after the church, and served as places where the monks assembled after morning Mass to receive spiritual advice or discipline from the abbot, read chapters of the Rule of St. Benedict, and discuss the internal affairs of the community. Because the new orders of the Franciscan and Dominican friars established themselves in cities during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and were not cloistered, they did not need the large cellars, barns, animal pens, and industrial buildings required by monks living in remote rural areas. Further, each Franciscan or Dominican friar lived in his own small cell in the convent—as the houses of friars were called—rather than together in a dormitory. Nevertheless, despite these additions and modifications, the scheme created in the ninth century and represented by the Saint-Gall plan remained the essential template for the cloister for the rest of the Middle Ages.

The Dilemma of the Monastic Church

Monastic churches were designed according to the same plans and were assembled from the same architectural forms—columns or piers, arches, masonry vaults or timber ceilings—as other churches. The Rule of Saint Benedict, which all monks followed, left no directions concerning the style or appearance of the church. Thus, there is a noticeable variety in the approaches of the different orders to the physical structure of the church and its decoration, a range of interpretation that reflects a dilemma in the character and purpose of monastic life. On the one hand, monks were constantly urged to embrace humility, to avoid arrogance, to seek moderation, and to be content with poverty in emulation of Christ. On the other hand, the monk spent his life in the task of glorifying God and seeking the vision of his kingdom. And that kingdom, as described in Revelations, chapter 21, was a glittering jeweled structure irradiated by light with streets paved in gold. So what should a monastic church be: a representation of humility and a simple “workshop of prayer,” or an image of heaven and an offering of unsurpassed grandeur to God?

Cluny and the Roman Model

The most important of the monastic churches to represent the argument for opulence was the one begun in 1088 in Cluny. Founded in Burgundy in 910, the abbey of Cluny was not subject to any bishop or secular authority, only to the pope. Other monastic houses, attracted to Cluny’s concept of spiritual improvement through constant prayer and their resulting splendid liturgy, were reformed by the abbey and brought under its rule so that by around 1100, it controlled about 1,450 monasteries throughout western Europe. Cluny’s direct link to Rome and its role as the virtual capital of an international religious empire found expression in one of the most daring and magnificent churches erected during the Middle Ages. Fueled by a donation of 10,000 gold talents from King Alfonso VI of Aragon, the new structure, the third in the history of the abbey, was built between 1088 and about 1130, replacing a mid-tenth-century edifice that had been one of the first fully stone vaulted churches in medieval architecture, but had grown too congested to accommodate the throng of 460 monks who celebrated Mass in the choir. Legend records that a retired monk named Gunzo, who was also a musician, was shown the plan in a dream by saints Peter and Paul. Whether or not this is true, the new design does echo the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome in its inclusion of five aisles that were graded in height and a prominent projecting transept. Further, the interior walls, which rise to a height of about 100 feet, were embellished by fluted pilasters and the piers crowned by luxurious foliate capitals that emulate the forms of Roman architecture.

Depictions of Power and Glory

At the same time that it was emulating the design and forms of Rome, Cluny utterly transformed these traditional features by remounting them in an elaborate setting. The 635-foot long plan, the largest in Christendom, included two transepts as well as an ambulatory ringed by a necklace of chapels. Four mighty towers rose above the transepts and two more stood at the western entrance, creating an impressive silhouette. Inside, the elevation was composed of three levels: a tall arcade; a middle zone, or triforium, decorated with cusped arches that resembled Islamic ornament; and a clerestory. Pointed barrel vaults covered the main spaces, while pointed arches were used in the arcade. Given Cluny’s extreme height and breadth—the nave vault alone spans 35 feet—this precocious decision to use the pointed arch, which was to become such an important component of the Gothic style, was likely based upon structural considerations. Finally, the choir composed an opulently decorated stage where the daily round of monastic offices was sung. Beautifully sculpted capitals topped the tall columns that ringed the apse, depicting figures of the eight tones of plainchant, the four seasons, and the four rivers of paradise, while a monumental painting of Christ in Majesty filled the half dome of the choir above the altar. Taken as a whole, the abbey church of Cluny not only made a compelling statement about the power of the Order but also composed an image of heaven. As the author of the Life of St. Hugh, the abbot under whom the new church was built, wrote, “if it were possible for those who dwell in heaven to take pleasure in a house made by human hands, you would say this was the walk of angels.”

The Cistercians

At the very moment that Cluny was nearing completion, Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, voiced his criticism of contemporary monastic architecture in his famous Apologia written around 1125 to his friend, William of Saint-Thierry: “I say nothing of the immense height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishings, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s attention and impede his devotion. … But I, as a monk, ask of my brother monks, ‘tell me you paupers, what business has gold in the sanctuary?'” The monastic reformers that settled at Cîteaux in 1098 and created the Cistercian Order sought to return to the letter of the Rule of St. Benedict as they rejected the materialism and sensory overload of Cluny. The architectural simplicity of the order’s churches reflected their spiritual ideals and their search for perfection through silence and interior meditation. Although there was neither a set formula for planning nor a clearly defined style shared among the more than 1,100 houses of the order established from Ireland to Greece and from Spain to Sweden, Cistercian architecture can be identified by a common attitude within the variety of its expression. For example, the abbey of Le Thoronet (second half of the twelfth century) strips away all of the grand forms and decorative flourishes so characteristic of Cluny to achieve a structure where every space and stone is directed to function. In a manner typical of Cistercian architecture, the church is laid out on a straightforward cruciform plan, the choir is reduced to a simple square, and the small chapels that open off the main vessels provide additional altars for those monks who were ordained priests to celebrate individual masses. The interior uses piers, pointed arches, and a pointed barrel vault similar to those at Cluny, but it contains only a single story. Sculpture is banished, stained glass is absent, and no towers ennoble the exterior. Indeed, the crisp cubic mass of the church can hardly be distinguished from the adjacent dormitory or nearby forge. This renunciation, however, should not be viewed as evidence that Cistercian monks and builders were crude or unsophisticated. Like Shaker architecture in nineteenth-century America, Cistercian structures were endowed with a profound balance (using harmonious proportions based on the square), careful craftsmanship, and consistently up-to-date building technology. As seen in the new choirs of Rievaulx in England (1220s) or Altenberg abbey near Cologne (c. 1255-1280), thirteenth-century projects incorporated ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and even bar tracery. Yet, despite this architectural evolution, the message of humility endured as the essential expression of Cistercian identity.

Franciscans and Dominicans

In the early thirteenth century, a new wave of religious thought stressed engagement in the world rather than withdrawal from it. This change in purpose led to a new type of religious community whose members were called friars (brothers) or mendicants (from the fact that they begged for their sustenance). The friars were not cloistered or closed off from the world, but rather lived in convents, often on the edges of cities. First the Dominicans, founded in 1216, and soon afterwards the Franciscans, whose rule was approved by the pope in 1223, began to settle in the rapidly growing cities of Europe where they preached to the faithful, performed charitable works, and defended the Christian faith from heretical interpretation. Both orders embraced poverty; indeed, each rejected the ownership of property, and their members sustained themselves by begging and the acceptance of donations. Although Francis of Assisi opposed church building of any kind and asked to be buried in the refuse dump of Assisi, his followers erected a splendid church, San Francesco, in his honor. Built between 1228 and 1253 on two levels with a lower, crypt-like church surmounted by a taller upper church, the architecture of San Francesco, Assisi, reveals the clear impact of such “modern” French forms as finely scaled engaged columns, ribbed vaults, and bar tracery that frame stained glass windows. Yet the broad interior space and the insistence on prominent surfaces of wall, decorated with frescoes of the life of St. Francis, adhere to the local Italian traditions.

Halls for Preaching

Perhaps more emblematic of Franciscan attitudes is the church of Santa Croce in Florence, begun in 1294 and probably designed by the architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio. Like the Cistercians before them, the Franciscans legislated against architectural extravagance. Statutes of 1260 declared that, “any superfluity in length, width, or height above what is fitting to the requirements of the place [should] be more strictly avoided … Churches shall in no wise be vaulted, save for the presbytery [the choir].” The nave of Santa Croce appears as an updated version of an early Christian church with thin brick walls supported by octagonal columns and covered by a timber roof. The vast barn-like space was perfectly suited to the large crowds that came to hear the friars’ sermons. In a similar vein, Dominican churches were also created as preaching halls. The striking church of the Jacobins (Dominicans) in Toulouse that took shape in a series of building phases between 1229 and 1292 adopts an unusual double-nave scheme that resembles a monastic refectory or hospital: a single file of columns marches down the center of the church to the choir, which is covered by a magnificent star-shaped vault. On the other hand, the Dominican churches of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (begun 1246) or Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome (1280) return to a cross-shaped and three-aisled plan with a two-story elevation inspired by Cistercian designs. Once again, their use of current building technology remains restrained. In place of a complex structure composed of a worldly vocabulary of shafts, moldings, and screens that emphasized visual drama, verticality, and framed fields of imagery, Dominican and Franciscan architecture offered functional purity. Purging virtually every sign of evocative resonance and material luxury, these churches worked to embody the spiritual ideals of humility and moral reform, and to provide an answer to the criticism of the decadent superfluity of elite religious architecture.

Pilgrimage Architecture

Symbolic Places

Because medieval Christians believed that holy places bore the mark of divinity, they were drawn to the sites of important historical and spiritual events, such as those in the Holy Land where Jesus had lived and died, the tombs of revered saints, or important collections of their relics. To visit these spots—the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem or the footprints of St. Peter in Rome—not only revealed the truth of the scriptures, but also allowed the Christian worshipper to remember the past through the rituals of the present. In religious journeys or pilgrimages to these special places of spiritual power, relics—the physical remains of bones, skin, hair, and fingernails or objects touched by saints—offered concrete points of contact with Christian martyrs, who, though long dead, provided accessible and inspiring models for behavior. While pilgrimage and the cult of saints and their relics originated in the first centuries of Christian devotion, they became especially important in the Middle Ages. The church, and particularly its monastic orders, fostered pilgrimage as one strategy to refocus the energies of secular society away from destructive fighting toward more peaceful concerns. By 1100, the shrine of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain had become the most popular pilgrimage destination in Western Europe and joined Jerusalem and Rome in importance. Dozens of other churches sheltering the miracle-working relics of saints—Sainte-Foy at Conques, Saint-Trophîme at Arles, Saint-Sernin at Toulouse—rose along the major routes that fanned out through France from the road to Santiago. For local communities, pilgrimage was a lucrative source of income from services provided for the pious travelers and the donations they left behind. Medieval architecture played a critical role in giving form to religious memory and experience, but the cash generated by those encounters with the divine also fueled the burst of building.

The Ambulatory and Chapel Plan

As early as the ninth century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with its circular plan and dome, had been a model for many kinds of religious buildings in Western Europe. Likewise, St. Peter’s in Rome was reproduced repeatedly in the Carolingian period to honor saints, and in Italy its T-shaped plan with a transept and apse inspired other designs, such as that of Bari, where the body of St. Nicholas was placed in 1089, as well as nearby Trani, where the cult of a rival St. Nicholas was promoted. During the eleventh century, however, a new and more complex plan came together that skillfully orchestrated spaces around the multiple functions that a shrine church needed to accommodate. Simply put, the cruciform basilica that maintained the association to the venerable martyrs’ churches of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Rome was joined to the kind of ambulatory and chapel arrangement found in crypts arranged around saints’ tombs and pioneered in Carolingian churches such as Saint-Germain at Auxerre and Corvey. The breakthrough came when the apse of the body of the church was spatially connected with the ambulatory through an open arcade. As a result, like a modern highway system, the ambulatory allowed pilgrims to circulate around the outer edge of the interior, bypassing the liturgical area of the choir and leaving the clergy undisturbed. Visitors might descend into the crypt where they could peer in through arches or windows at the tomb of the saint, or they might make the circuit of the ambulatory above to glimpse the golden and jeweled reliquary boxes displayed on altars in the main choir and chapels. Five of the major churches along the route to Compostela—Saint-Martin in Tours, Sainte-Foy at Conques, Saint-Martial at Limoges, Saint-Sernin at Toulouse, and Santiago—adopted this plan, each with a nearly identical two-story elevation composed of an arcade with a gallery above and crowned by a barrel vault. Although this design is often called the “pilgrimage roads” type, it is by no means typical of pilgrimage churches in general. To cite but one example, Saint-Front at Périgueux in southwestern France, begun in the late eleventh century, turned to St.

Mark’s in Venice for its cross-shaped plan capped by five domes. By quoting St. Mark’s, itself based on the sixth-century church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, Périgueux advertised its saint’s identity as one of the seven apostles of early Christian France.

Church as Guidebook

In addition to the general plan of a pilgrimage church, other architectural features sometimes served to remind visitors of their purpose and impress upon them the scope of their undertaking. A striking example of this phenomenon is the exterior design of the church of Mary Magdalene (La Madeleine) of Vézelay. This church was originally built as a shrine for the relics of Mary Magdalene; once their authenticity had been confirmed by the pope in 1058, the church became a major destination for pilgrims, both because of its own significance and because it lay at the intersection of the roads leading to Compostela and a major route towards Jerusalem. One of the key features of this church is its tympanum, the huge semi-circular carving above the main portal inside the narthex of the church, which was begun in 1124 and sculpted in a style that resembles the choir capitals in Cluny in 1115. This relief carving, which would be one of the first things every visitor would see because of its location at the main entry to the church, depicts the ascension of Christ combined with the mission of the apostles. In this scene of Christ flanked by the apostles, his power both to condemn and to save mankind is clearly revealed to all who walk into the church. The lintel—the horizontal frieze at the bottom of the semi-circle—contains various peoples, including imagined Ethiopians and monstrous races of men with the heads of dogs believed to live in the remote parts of the world, all illustrating Christ’s successes in preaching to and converting non-Christians. Appropriately for a church where the Second Crusade was to be preached, the tympanum showed pilgrims the symbolic liberation of the Holy Land, a subject matter that would be easily recognized by later pilgrims as a sort of prophecy.

The Decorated Church

Church portals were not the sole focus of figural decoration in the medieval church. Gold-ground mosaics that narrated stories of the lives of Christ or the saints, as seen in the Norman churches of Sicily, sometimes covered wall surfaces. Other churches adorned their walls and even the ceilings with extensive cycles of paintings. In the Romanesque period, the capital, the topmost part of a column or pilaster, became a favorite field for sculptural decoration. Often brightly painted, capitals were most frequently carved with figures of animals and fantastic beasts such as griffins, harpies, or sirens. Their appearance on capitals in monastic cloisters prompted Bernard of Clairvaux to condemn them as distractions.

In the cloisters, before the eyes of the brothers while they read what are the filthy apes doing there? The fierce lions? The monstrous centaurs? The creatures part man and part beast? The striped tigers? The fighting soldiers? The hunters blowing horns? You may see many bodies under one head, and conversely many heads under one body? In short, everywhere so plentiful and astonishing a variety of contradictory forms is seen that one would rather read in the marble than in books, and spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them than in meditating on the law of God.

But in addition to this menagerie of imaginative creatures, capitals in such notable churches as La Madeleine in Vézelay or Saint-Lazare at Autun—both in Burgundy, France—were carved with religious and moralizing subjects. As viewers moved through the interior space of the church, they might look on devils tormenting the lustful or leading misers to hell, the temptation of Christ, or the miracles performed by St. Benedict. Complementing the monumental images of the divine in stone and paint at the portals and in the apse, these capitals offered a vivid reminder to the congregation of the paths that led to heaven or hell.

Church as Reliquary

The ambulatory and chapel scheme remained in force during the twelfth century at such magnetic pilgrimage churches as Saint-Denis, Canterbury, and Chartres. The Canterbury itinerary, for example, led from the altar in the north transept where the archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered, down into the crypt, then up and around the ambulatory to the stations where Becket’s relics were displayed, while pilgrims at Saint-Denis circulated around tombs set on the raised stage-like platform of the choir, in a setting enhanced by an innovative use of glass and a more unified sense of space. It was mainly in drawing upon these new possibilities that shrine architecture of the thirteenth century adopted a radically different language. Rather than looking to the past for plans and references, commemorative structures during this later “Gothic” era increasingly replicated the delicate, brittle effects of contemporary metalwork. The most breathtaking example of this new taste is embodied by the Sainte-Chapelle, built by Louis IX between 1241 and 1248 as the repository for the fabulous horde of relics of Christ he had purchased from the emperor in Constantinople and transferred to his palace in Paris. With the summit of the exterior walls embellished by an intricate filigree of bar tracery (a network of slender ornamental shafts), bristling with ornate pinnacles, and crowned by a diadem of pierced gables, the royal chapel appears as a monumental stone and glass version of a reliquary fashioned of gold, silver, enamel, and precious stones. The building literally assumed the form of its function. While the construction cost of the chapel itself was reported at 40,000 pounds (as a gauge, the annual salary of a master mason would have been about 10 pounds), the king spent 100,000 pounds on the relic containers, and 135,000 pounds for the relics themselves. Thus, the meaning of the building was not created through connections to historical models, but by emulating objects closely associated with the veneration of holy figures and their symbolically resonant precious materials. Similarly, Saint-Urbain at Troyes, built between 1262 and around 1285 to commemorate the birthplace of Pope Urban IV and as a shrine to his patron St. Urban, advertises its memorial character in the fretwork of sharp gables and tracery that encase the exterior. And at Notre-Dame in Paris, the two tiers of ornate gables added between 1300 and 1350 transformed the choir into an otherworldly container for the body of Christ and the relics of the saints.

A New Vision: Saint-Denis and French Church Architecture in the Twelfth Century

Old and New at Saint-Denis

As the history of pilgrimage churches suggests, the reconstruction of the monastery church at Saint-Denis, begun in 1135 under the direction of Suger (1081-1151), abbot of Saint-Denis, initiated a new age of French architecture. Now nearly 400 years old, the original Carolingian church was too small for the many pilgrims who came to visit the relics of the saints and for the monks who needed more altars to accommodate an increasing number of worship services. To alleviate the crowding at the abbey, the first phase of work focused on enlarging the entrance and extending the nave of the eighth-century structure. Although echoing the general form of the old Carolingian west block, Suger’s front looked to more recent Norman examples, such as the abbey of Saint-Etienne at Caen, the burial church of William the Conqueror, for a design that included three portals with two soaring towers. Including the first known example of a rose window—a large circular window in the façade of a church, usually decorated with a pattern of radiating tracery that frames stained glass depicting stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints—as well as battlements drawn from military architecture, the twelfth-century façade presented an impressive gateway into the church that was an original blend of old and new, castle and church forms. In the three short accounts that he wrote describing the stages of the construction project and the celebrations upon their completion (held in 1140 for the new west front and in 1144 for the dedication of the choir), Suger declared that his “first thought” was to make sure that the new work harmonized with the old building—believed to have been touched by Jesus himself. To match the interior forms of the eighth-century church, the abbot launched a search for stone to make columns. He considered importing them from Rome, but this proved too expensive and the problems of shipping were too difficult. Finally, a nearby quarry was found where stone for columns could be cut, shaped, and transported by river to Saint-Denis, allowing Suger to realize his architectural plans.

A Return to Columns

Columns were rarely seen in Ottonian and Romanesque church architecture; for example, Speyer Cathedral in Germany and Saint-Sernin in Toulouse in France used complex piers to support their tall, heavy structures. As in the Carolingian abbey, the columns of Suger’s Saint-Denis were intended to recall the churches of Rome, such at St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, or St. John-in-the-Lateran, which had been built at the beginning of the age of Christian art and architecture. The columns not only emphasized the prestige of Saint-Denis by imitating famous models, but they also served as reminders that Denis, the saint buried at the abbey who was the first bishop of Paris and the special protector of French kings, had been sent from Rome, so it was thought, by St. Peter. The capitals atop the Saint-Denis columns turned away from the usual figural sculpture of Romanesque architectural decoration and instead adopted baskets of richly carved foliage that emulated the Corinthian order used in ancient Roman and early Christian architecture. This elimination of narrative and animal subjects from capitals was followed throughout northern France in churches influenced by Saint-Denis.


At the same time, Suger wanted a church that was filled with light. The choir, he wrote, included a “circular string of chapels, by virtue of which the whole [church] would shine with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most luminous windows.” Filling the width of the wall, the windows tell stories of biblical history, such as the birth of Jesus, or illustrate theological ideas. They were composed of richly colored stained glass that made light, interpreted by medieval writers as an image of God and a metaphor for spiritual realities, visible, almost tangible. The intended effect of the jewel-like colors, dominated by deep reds and blues, together with the sacred subjects, was to urge the viewer, in Suger’s words, “onward from the material to the immaterial.” These windows were made by the use of cartoons, large patterns that laid out the stories to be told. Then many pieces of colored glass were cut and fitted together by means of soft flexible channels made of lead (called cames), which held the glass in position; these were soldered to each other to create glass fabric that could endure for many centuries. Often the individual stories had written explanations in the glass that were very carefully crafted, though they were so far above the congregation that they can today be read only by means of binoculars.

The Architecture of the Saint-Denis Choir

By demanding columns along with large stained glass windows, Abbot Suger forced his master mason to devise a strikingly original structure that was light, yet could achieve an impressive height. He described how his master mason had laid out the choir through arithmetic and geometry. The builder turned to new architectural techniques as well as new technology—most importantly, of the pointed arch and the ribbed groin vault. Although these forms had appeared in Romanesque buildings, they remained part of a massive, even overpowering structure. However, set on top of slender cylindrical columns and used to frame expansive window openings at Saint-Denis, they produced a completely different effect. First, because the pointed arch was flexible, it could be adjusted to create a uniform ceiling height and a fluid, integrated interior space. Looking through the twelfth-century ambulatory of Saint-Denis, the eye slides past the smooth, rounded columns and moves to the stained glass windows without interruption. (A wonderful rendition of stained glass and vaulting as seen by the contemporary medieval eye appears in a book of hours by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, Alexander Bening, now in Vienna.) Second, the pointed arch combined with the rib vault to direct weight to the corners of each structural compartment or bay in a system that was both architecturally efficient and conducive to maximum spaciousness. This upper-level structure rested on an overall plan that continued the well-established formula of an ambulatory with a series of radiating chapels, seen in Romanesque pilgrimage churches such as Saint-Sernin at Toulouse, but it achieved a new sense of unity. Instead of a collection of separate blocks that appear to be added to one another (at Saint-Sernin, for example, the semi-circular chapels, the curving ambulatory, and the apse are clearly distinguished from one another), Saint-Denis fused all of the parts of the choir into an integrated composition. The chapels form a continuously undulating exterior wall and, in the interior, their space merges with that of the outer choir aisle or ambulatory.

A Heavenly Vision

Saint-Denis offered a new vision for church architecture. Upon entering the grand west façade and passing through the narthex with its architecture of stout piers and thick walls, visitors to the abbey found themselves in a building in which solid stone walls appeared to dissolve into surfaces of glass, and vaults were transformed into delicate, hovering canopies that framed broad, open spaces shimmering with colored light. Again, as abbot Suger wrote about the choir in his account “On the Consecration of the Church of Saint-Denis,” “we made good progress—and, in the likeness of things divine, there was established to the joy of the whole earth, Mount Zion.” In other words, the church was built as an image of heaven. The twelfth-century abbey of Saint-Denis, and the Gothic churches that followed it during the next three centuries, captured the aura of the celestial city of Jerusalem that would descend to earth at the end of time, described by St. John in Revelations, chapter 21: “And he (the angel) showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.”

Immediate Impact: Notre-Dame and Chartres


Saint-Denis had an immediate impact on major church-building projects throughout northern France. One of the most important appeared in nearby Paris, where the new cathedral of Notre-Dame was begun in the 1150s. The cylindrical columns and other elements in the nave can be recognized immediately as inspired by the architecture of the abbey. But in comparing the two churches, one is struck by the differences. Notre-Dame is enormous. The interior space rises to a height of about 108 feet—the height of a ten-story building. In its original twelfth-century state (remodeled in the thirteenth century and partially restored in the nineteenth) it was composed of four levels: an arcade supported by those monumental columns; a gallery that created a second-story aisle; above that, a series of circular openings in the wall that corresponded to the zone of the pitched roof over the gallery; and, finally, the high windows or clerestory. One views the structure with awe, wondering how such a fragile assemblage of columns, spaghetti-thin colonnettes rising to join with the taut ribs that arc across the vaults, and walls consisting of little more than arched openings can enclose such a vast space. The answer is displayed on the exterior by the cage of flying buttresses that transfer the outward thrust of the walls downward into the ground and thus assure the cathedral’s stability.


Notre-Dame’s monumental scale and the three levels of stained glass windows, in the ground floor aisles, gallery, and clerestory, sought to represent, as at Saint-Denis, the miraculous architecture of heaven. At the same time, the cathedral was more than just a religious symbol. Set in the heart of a rapidly growing city, the great bulk of Notre-Dame towered over the surrounding rooftops and flanking hills to give tangible expression to the prestige of its powerful bishop and clergy. Bishop Maurice de Sully (1120-1196), who spearheaded the construction project, must have aimed to erect the most impressive church in the kingdom of France, outdoing even the new cathedral of his superior, the Archbishop of Sens. This competition among elite churchmen of the time to build larger, higher, and more luxurious churches was critically noted by Peter the Chanter, one of the most powerful members of the Notre-Dame clergy. While he did not mention his cathedral by name, he must have had it mind when he wrote, “If these builders believed that the world would ever come to an end, no such lofty masses would be reared up to the very sky, nor would such foundations be laid into the abysses of the earth. In that they resemble those giants who built the tower of Babel (men sin even in building churches). Today, on the contrary, the choirs of churches are built higher and higher.”


One of the finest examples of twelfth-century church architecture—and the one preserving the largest collection of Gothic stained glass, with 173 windows—is the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres. A fire in 1134 destroyed the façade of the Romanesque church that was replaced by three new portals, with their renowned sculpture influenced by Suger’s west façade of Saint-Denis, and two towers built between c. 1140 and 1165. A second fire swept through the town on 10 June 1194 devastating the body of the cathedral, but sparing the new west front. The church that rose from the ashes of the 1194 blaze reached 118 feet in height, and was briefly the tallest building in Europe. The cathedral, dedicated like the earlier church to the Virgin, was not only the seat of the bishop that made it the administrative headquarters of a large church territory called a diocese, but it was also a popular pilgrimage destination because it sheltered a prized relic, a tunic or garment believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. After the fire in 1194, the bishop and chapter donated part of their large incomes to the new construction and also collected gifts from Christians from as far away as England who wished to honor the Virgin by supporting the rebuilding of her church. Construction proceeded quickly, and in 1221 the clergy moved back into the choir of the nearly completed new edifice.

Simplifying the Design

Rapid construction was possible not only because of the wealth of the Chartres building fund, but also as a result of the design of the cathedral and developments in building techniques. Unlike the large French churches, including the cathedrals of Paris, Arras, Cambrai, Laon, and Noyon, or the abbey of Saint-Remi at Reims, built between 1150 and 1190, Chartres rejected the four-story interior. A three-level elevation re-appeared at Chartres, composed of an arcade, a dark, narrow passage called a triforium about halfway up the wall, and huge clerestory windows. In many ways, Chartres is a version of Suger’s choir at Saint-Denis, except that it is about twice as high. The master mason may have realized that with flying buttresses providing the necessary structural reinforcement, the gallery, seen at Notre-Dame in Paris, became irrelevant. Eliminating the gallery simplified the design and led to the enlargement of both the arcade and the clerestory, which created two equally tall zones of space and light balanced by the dark horizontal belt of the triforium. Verticality was also emphasized: four slim shafts were added to the arcade columns, which alternate subtly between cylinders and octagons, creating continuous lines that rise from floor to vault and join all of the parts and levels into a unified whole. Further simplification of the design reduced the number of components needed for the structure, and at Chartres the individual pieces form extremely regular repeating units. Indeed, the piers, triforium, and window patterns are almost identical in each bay. In addition, Chartres used four-part vaults throughout the entire building, in contrast to the six-part vaults seen in Paris, that were at once consistent in their appearance, made from the same limited group of parts, and easier to build. As with a car in a modern automobile plant, Chartres was assembled from a series of mass-produced parts that promoted speedy, efficient construction even though it was part of a trend to construct buildings of ever-increasing size.

Variations on a Theme

Chartres Cathedral is the most famous example of late twelfth-century developments that established a basic system of construction and a pattern for elite Christian church architecture that continued for the rest of the Middle Ages. To be sure, there were many design variations, such as the Cathedral of Saint-Stephen at Bourges, where tall arcades stressed spatial expansion rather than the vertical concentration of Chartres, but the major monuments of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, Beauvais, and Narbonne in France; Tournai in Belgium; Cologne in Germany; Burgos, Léon, and Toledo in Spain; as well as cathedrals in Prague and Milan—bear witness to the enduring impact of these architectural ideas. It is also important to think about the architectural process that produced these marvelous structures as a complex recipe that was shaped not only by religious ideas and symbols, but also by considerations of money, by available technology, and by strategies of production. The church may have been an image of heaven, but it was also the product of practical reality.

The Gothic in England

Sea Change at Canterbury

Although Gothic architecture developed in the direction of a highly rationalized set of forms responding to a combination of religious, technological, and practical conditions, it was never conceived as a rigid formula or an integrated system that obeyed a set of rules. English architecture during the half century from 1175 to 1230 reveals that it is better understood as a kit of parts, including columns, piers, shafts, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults, that could be selectively combined in endless variations. The rebuilding of the choir of Canterbury Cathedral after a fire in 1174 marked the beginning of this change of direction in English architecture. Designed by the French master mason William of Sens (late twelfth century), and completed by William the Englishman, the extraordinarily long east arm includes two transepts and two choirs that accommodated a community of monks as well as the secular clergy of the archbishop and chapter (the canons charged with administration of the church). With its ambulatory and rotunda on the eastern axis, it also provided a splendid theater for the display of the relics of St. Thomas Becket, who had been murdered in the cathedral in 1170. Although it incorporated portions of the old Norman walls into its fabric, Canterbury is thoroughly French in character. In place of the massive walls of the Romanesque period, the choir rose, as at Saint-Denis, in three tiers of light screen walls carried by slender columns and supported on the exterior by flying buttresses. The constantly varying columns that appear in cylindrical and polygonal shapes, as pairs or enriched with additional shafts, enhance the visual complexity of the building. Complemented by the dark marble shafts and moldings that play over the piers and walls, the polished marble columns of the apse, and the incomparable stained glass and wall paintings, the Canterbury choir emphasizes luxurious variety that was a hallmark of medieval definitions of beauty, intended to achieve an almost literal representation of the Heavenly City.


The importance of Canterbury lay not so much in inspiring a series of copies based on French styles, but in directing English architecture toward new effects of lightness and linearity. This is best illustrated at Lincoln Cathedral, where rebuilding that began in 1192 after the collapse of the crossing tower in the original Romanesque church went on through a series of campaigns and eventually resulted, by 1250, in the replacement of the two transepts, St. Hugh’s (the western) choir, and the nave—indeed, everything except the west block and towers. Although the Canterbury type of elevation formed the starting point, and a Gothic sensibility is apparent in the adoption of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and finely scaled shafts and moldings, the Lincoln design was guided by principles of syncopation and a rich layering of the wall in depth that recalls the powerful three-dimensionality of Norman Romanesque. The dark shafts of the vault are cut off above the level of the arcade and meet the rib at a seemingly arbitrary level in the triforium, effectively severing the relationship between the vault and the piers. Looking upward into the vaults of St. Hugh’s choir only aggravates the visual uncertainty. These so-called “crazy vaults” comprising groups of three ribs that converge on two centers at the crown, marked the appearance of tiercerons, ribs that arc from the wall to an off-center keystone. By multiplying the number of ribs and introducing two keystones tied by a longitudinal ridge rib, the Lincoln vaults broke down the clear definition of the bay unit and intensified the sense of continuous zigzag movement down the length of the interior space. However, the vaults were not the work of an eccentric architect, but rather an ingenious solution that permitted an expansion of the windows in the choir to include three broad lights per bay. In this regard, the importance of light and color that shaped twelfth-century developments in northern France as well as Canterbury remain central concerns for the Lincoln master. But rather than pursuing the visual logic of a rigorously integrated structure, the Lincoln builder may have turned to disjunction and multiplicity as the effective means to capture the un-earthly architecture of heaven. The vaults of St. Hugh’s choir were elaborated into star patterns in the nave in the 1220s and 1230s through the addition of liernes, short ribs within the surface of the vault that tie tiercerons together. The tierceron and lierne vault was to be repeated in ever more intricate variations throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in such buildings as Exeter Cathedral and the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral.

Wells as Modern Architecture

A glance at the interior of the Wells Cathedral nave, begun around 1190, reveals the way in which English architects used Gothic forms as independent bits and pieces. Pointed arches and ribbed vaults do not work together as parts of a unified skeleton, but appear as repeating forms arranged in three distinct horizontal zones stacked on top of one another. Vertical connections are reduced to a fragmentary clasp between the two upper levels, leaving the vault in a tenuous, hovering relationship to the lateral walls. With its brawny piers and thick walls with passages, Wells might be seen as an old Norman structure dressed in fashionable new Gothic clothes, but its mantle of sharp forms, increased luminosity, and restless linearity demonstrate the creation of an architecture that is divorced from the forms and effects of the classical Roman tradition. The singular west front, at once majestic and delicate, rearranges the French type by shrinking the portals and emphasizing the stout mass of the towers. Row upon row of statue niches evoke the “many rooms in my Father’s house” mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of John (14:2) and created more than 500 places for the residents of heaven, prophets, apostles, kings, martyrs, virgins, bishops, and abbots. Choirs hidden in the singing galleries within the thickness of the west wall would have brought these statues to life during liturgical ceremonies throughout the year. Rather than relying on quotations of models and forms from the past to create meaning, Wells is a fully realized example of the Gothic invention of an architecture of persuasive symbolic power drawn from a formal repertory that was both completely original and infinitely flexible.

The Illuminated Church and the Rayonnant Style

Light, Vision, and Architecture

There is an intimate relation between architecture and its decoration. Whereas in early Christian and early medieval churches mosaics and paintings on walls had been the primary medium for the presentation of sacred stories, the elimination of solid mural surfaces and the transformation of the Gothic building into a skeletal frame led to the ascendancy of stained glass during the twelfth century. No doubt, the importance of an aesthetic that emphasized light as a metaphor of the Divine and spiritual experience spurred the creation of an architectural system that made a maximum expanse of stained glass possible. A third factor to consider is the rise of interest, during the twelfth century, in vision and optics. Not only were scholars curious about how physical objects and visual phenomena—rocks or rainbows—were seen, but they also explored the nature of what might be called “spiritual vision.” How was it possible to understand St. John when he wrote in Revelations, chapter 21, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth—And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”? As an explanation, Richard of Saint-Victor (d. 1173), the author of a commentary on Revelations, formulated four categories of vision. The first was the “simple perception of matter”: I see a tree. The second viewed an object’s “outward appearance,” but saw a mystical significance in it: I see a rose that is a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The third level of vision was that of spiritual perception in which one discovered, to quote Richard, “the truth of hidden things by means of forms and figures.” This is the experience described by St. John, who saw heaven in the form of a city. The fourth and highest level was the mystical mode in which the divine was encountered face to face. It is important to keep these notions of vision in mind when thinking about medieval architecture and its figurative decoration. Images, of course, were physical things, but through them Christians gained access to a realm beyond the mundane world. And the architecture of the church composed an elaborate frame for those pictures that could lead the worshipper to that higher, spiritual mode of vision.

Rayonnant Architecture

The course of Gothic architecture can be described in terms of a series of structural innovations, all leading in the direction of greater light and visual space. The combination of the pointed arch, ribbed vault, and flying buttresses led to a new type of structure that was no longer an opaque box punctuated by intermittent window openings but rather a cage-like frame. As the size of windows expanded in the twelfth century, glass surfaces were subdivided into manageable sections. In the Chartres clerestory, the two tall pointed lancets with anoculus (“circular opening”) are partitioned by flat pieces of stone, or plate tracery, that make them appear to be three holes punched through a solid wall. A new solution was proposed at Reims Cathedral in the 1210s, where the window was designed along the same lines as the other elements of the structure—as a taut network of slender ornamental shafts or mullions called “bar tracery.” This invention had an enormous impact on the appearance of buildings, and, ultimately, on the way architecture was experienced. By the mid-thirteenth century, not only had bar tracery been developed into elaborate window patterns—at Amiens Cathedral, four-part windows decorate the clerestory while six-lancet compositions appear in the choir—but grids of delicate shafts began to spread over the remaining solid walls of the interior and exterior. In the interiors of new projects, including the rebuilding of Saint-Denis, the nave of Strasbourg Cathedral, or the choir of Clermont Cathedral, the networks of tracery were coordinated with piers composed of bundles of thin colonnettes to create an overall architecture of consistently delicate scale. On the exterior, the west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral (1275 fl.) in eastern France presents one of the most extravagant expressions of bar tracery, in which a fantastic fretwork of stone completely disguises the load-bearing walls behind. Gothic architecture between around 1240 and 1380 is often called the “Rayonnant,” taking its name from the radiating spokes of the spectacular rose windows that dominate façades, as in the transepts of Notre-Dame in Paris or the west façade at Strasbourg. Although the Rayonnant is usually discussed as a phase in which architects refined forms to achieve an even greater degree of lightness and elegance, its development was a response to the visual experience of the church interior illuminated by stained glass.

The Sainte-Chapelle

In two separate purchases of 1239 and 1241, Louis IX, king of France, acquired the most precious relics in Christendom: objects associated with the Crucifixion of Jesus. After bringing the Crown of Thorns, a large piece of the Cross, nails, the sponge, and the lance to his capital in Paris, he set about erecting an appropriately magnificent chapel to honor them in the heart of his palace. Like Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, the Sainte-Chapelle, built between 1241 and 1248, contained two levels. A low, broad chapel on the ground floor, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, provided a base for the tall upper chapel where the relics of Christ were displayed and the king and his court worshipped. In this remarkable upper chapel, the architecture is reduced to thin clusters of vertical colonnettes, linked by iron chains that support the vault canopies and frame enormous, fifty-foot high stained glass windows. Its design resembles closely the triforium and clerestory of the nave of Amiens Cathedral, built in the 1220s and 1230s, producing the sensation that the visitor has been lifted up into a zone of space and light. Moreover, the architecture is clearly arranged as scaffolding that provided visual cues for apprehending the different ranks represented by the painting, sculpture, and stained glass. For example, closest to eye level and framed in the quatrefoils (four-lobed ornaments) of the wall arcade are paintings (now badly damaged) of local Parisian saints. Sculpted figures of the twelve apostles then appear attached to the columns, their architectural symbols, and lead the gaze up to the windows that present the entire cycle of divine history from Genesis to the Second Coming. Here the architecture creates distinct patterns for each level. The images of the earthly lives of local saints are framed by arcades organized in three units of two, while the stained glass narratives appear in twoand four-lancet windows. Second, as one moves upward across these architectural thresholds, the medium also changes from the more physical substance of opaque paint and three-dimensional sculpture to the jewel-like light of the windows. Although the architecture of the Sainte-Chapelle did not impose a rigid system that dictated the placement of certain images or media in specific locations, its careful organization and relentless subdivision of surfaces into panels, arcades, and niches on multiple levels created a flexible, but structured framework that measured the stages of devotional experience. A measure of the international impact of the Sainte-Chapelle and the French rayonnant style can be seen in the choir of Aachen Cathedral that was added to Charlemagne’s church beginning in 1355. The majestic, solid masonry of Carolingian architecture has been replaced by an armature of shafts and ribs that frame enormous windows. Instead of Roman columns and Corinthian capitals, there are taut screens of tracery, animated sculpted figures of saints, and glowing panels of stained glass that combine in a building whose meaning no longer resides in historical references, but rather is created through the emulation of the dazzling effects of shrines and the evocation of a heavenly edifice.

Clermont Cathedral

Clermont Cathedral, located in the modern city of Clermont-Ferrand in central France, may well have been inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle. The bishop of Clermont, Hugues de la Tour, attended the dedication of the royal chapel on 26 April 1248, and within a few months launched a new structure in his own diocese to replace the old Romanesque church. The thirteenth-century master mason, Jean Deschamps, adopted an up-to-date Rayonnant style that appears tailor-made for its role as a monumental picture frame. Looking into the deep chapels from the ambulatory, one first sees a section of bare, solid wall. Then, moving into the chapel, the eye first encounters a blind tracery pattern, and then is pulled to the expanse of luminous glazed walls. The colonnettes, moldings, and ribs that constitute the architectural structure define a sequence of thresholds through which one looks: from a location in the ambulatory into the chapel which only the clergy could enter; from a world of solid matter into a realm of light that presents the stories of sacred and saintly history. The paintings added to the lower wall beautifully articulate this visionary path. In one chapel, an angel leads a procession of canons forward into the presence of the saint, while in another, a canon kneels in devotion as his celestial guide points to the altar and the glass cycle beyond. As one gazes upward into the main space of the choir, the clerestory windows appear to hover above the dark band of the triforium that creates a gateway to the visionary realm above. In the clerestory, the rich color of the narrative windows of the chapels evaporates into the cool light of fields of grisaille glass (decorated monochromatically in shades of gray) in which figurative panels of Old Testament prophets, apostles, and in the axial lancets, the Assumption of the Virgin, float. This switch from full color to grisaille, a style of glazing that became widespread in the second half of the thirteenth century, offers another metaphor for spiritual ascent: from the almost tangible colored light, characteristic of terrestrial perception and appropriate to the subject of saints’ lives to the brighter, flashing divine light at the highest level of the church.

Different Paths

The Westminster Abbey choir (1245-1272), Cologne Cathedral in Germany (begun 1248), and León Cathedral in Spain (begun around 1254) adopted the Rayonnant style in its entirety along with stained glass as an essential part of the decoration. While this may reflect the prestige that French art and culture acquired during the reign of Louis IX, these royal churches were not trying to be French. Glazing programs were geared to local saints and rulers, suggesting that French architecture was emulated primarily because of its effective representation of the church as an image of heaven, as well as its ability to organize complex ensembles of pictures. Apart from a handful of clearly French-inspired edifices, European architecture between 1300 and 1500 presents an overwhelming variety. For example, the influential church of Saint-Rombout, Mechelen, in the Brabant region of Belgium was rebuilt after a fire in 1342 in the fashionable rayonnant style with wiry patterns of bar tracery that fill the windows and spread over the walls. But its enormous (unfinished) west tower, begun in 1452 and supervised by the architect Andries Keldermans between 1468 and 1500, looked to such contemporary German designs as Ulm Cathedral as well as the great towers of local secular civic structures. Finally, the choir of the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, built 1439-1477, could hardly be more different from Amiens or Clermont in France. A hall church, a type in which the aisles rise to the same height as the central vessel, capped by an intricate net vault and exhibiting a variety of tracery designs, St. Lorenz offered fluid, indeterminate space in place of clear organization. Nevertheless, the ribbed vaults defined interior spatial compartments and the bar tracery created hierarchies of arches, repeated at different scales in which a worshipper was free to plot his own itinerary through stained glass panels, painted altarpieces, and sculpted keystones. Like the Sainte-Chapelle, St. Lorenz’s architecture delineated the thresholds and setting of meditation in which the objects and images encountered as a spatial sequence became the material vehicles for an inward journey.

The Architecture of Security and Power


Although the design of churches was the primary focus of medieval architectural creativity, structures for the daily living and defense of members of the upper level of society also displayed technical ingenuity and an awareness of the importance of image. Just as the monastery assembled different kinds of buildings—church, hall, infirmary, barn—to accommodate all of the activities—prayer, work, eating, sleeping—of the monk’s life, the castle fulfilled an equally varied array of functions in the secular world. With the collapse of the centralized authority and administration of the Carolingian Empire in the later ninth century, power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of local lords. Rather than providing a common defense for the towns under his control, the lord built only for his own security. The great circuits of walls and gateways that had protected cities in the past, such as Rome or Constantinople (modern Istanbul), gave way to fortified independent residences. Castles thus developed as multi-purpose structures at once a dwelling, a governmental headquarters, and fortress. But along with these practical duties, castle architecture projected an image of power and security that aimed to impress both the lord’s subjects and peers. Rather than pursuing the celestial vision of a “walk of angels” as in religious construction such as at Cluny, it spoke a language of form whose vocabulary was assertive gateways, thick walls, and tall towers. Nevertheless, religious structures drew upon castle features, such as battlements, narrow windows, or towers, to enhance their own image of authority. Building techniques, including the use of precisely cut ashlar masonry and engaged columns, that first appeared in castle construction were soon adopted by church builders, suggesting that despite differences in function and appearance there was an interchange of ideas between the two areas of construction.

The Keep

Castles appear to have developed from the union of the motte, a purely defensive wooden tower set upon a conical earth mound, and the hall. Halls, used for feasts and spectacles, official audiences, rendering justice, and administrative business, were complemented by a private chamber for sleeping, a kitchen, and a chapel for worship; these few structures constituted the essential domestic spaces of early castles. Around the year 1000, and apparently beginning in the Loire river valley of France, these separate areas were combined into a single, multi-storied tower called a keep or donjon surrounded by a circuit of protective walls that created an inner courtyard or bailey, where stables or industrial buildings were located. At Loches, one of the earliest examples, the ground floor was probably used for storage while the hall on the first floor, with its fireplace and latrines located in the surrounding wall passages, was entered through an attached rectangular building. A staircase within the massive walls climbed to the private chamber and chapel, distinguished by its apse, on the second floor. A spiral stair on the upper level provided access to another private room. A similar design was used at the Tower of London (White Tower), built by William the Conqueror immediately after his conquest of England in 1066, where the apse of the two-story chapel is visible on the exterior and the great hall was also likely intended to rise through two levels to create a noble festival space. Marked by four towers at the corners of the square block (118 by 107 feet), the enormous tower that dominated the eastern edge of the city ostentatiously advertised the Norman presence and left no doubt as to who was in charge. Even in the fourteenth century at Vincennes to the east of Paris, King Charles V erected a mighty tower in which residential chambers and a chapel were combined with military features that included provisions for the use of new gunpowder weapons.

Walls and Defense

The defensive character of the tower or keep of a castle is clearly indicated by its sheer and solid walls and the reduction in the size of windows to narrow slits or small openings. As the last inner stronghold of the castle, the architecture of the keep and the castle continually incorporated new features designed to repel the advances in weapons and technology of warfare. In Norman castles of the eleventh century, for example, the battlements formed a protective parapet (a wall with both taller areas for defense and openings for deployment of weapons) for the use of defenders. Cantilevering the battlements forward on supporting arches or corbels created machicolations (openings) through which a variety of missiles, rocks, boiling water, pitch, or refuse could be dropped onto attackers below. Inclining or battering the base of the wall then ensured that the volley would bounce or splash onto an enemy unable to flatten himself against the wall. A moat or deep ditch, often filled with water, and one or two rings of walls then surrounded the keep. A fortified gateway and a heavy portcullis (an iron grating that could be lowered from above) further protected access into the castle, which was gained over a drawbridge. Additional towers studded the outer walls of the castle, each floor with narrow slit windows that widened toward the interior, allowing archers within to cover the entire field of fire around the tower. With this description in mind, one might imagine the difficulties of trying to capture Beaumaris castle, built 1295-1323 by King Edward I on England’s western border with Wales. After climbing the steep hill, somehow crossing the bridge and fighting their way through the gate, attackers would find themselves marooned in a courtyard facing another set of walls, another ring of towers. In this case, the inner gateway is not aligned with the outer entry so that troops are forced to change directions and are exposed to fire from a different angle. Each tower formed an independent bastion so that the fortress would have to be taken tower-by-tower and ring-by-ring. Similar ideas of defense were also applied to cities. The thirteenth-century wall systems of the southern French town of Carcassonne offers a particularly well-preserved example of a double ring of walls, fortified gateways, and directional changes, while Aigues-Mortes, begun in the 1240s by Louis IX, joins an intimidating circular keep, the Tour Constance, that protected the port to a towered precinct wall that enclosed the entire city.


In contrast to castles, palaces were non-fortified residences that were more ceremonial and administrative in character. At Aachen, for example, Charlemagne’s palace consisted of a great audience hall and monumental chapel tied together by long galleries in a scheme that emulated Roman luxury villas and imperial palaces. In the ninth century, a poet described Charlemagne’s palace at Ingelheim as “a large palace with a hundred columns, with many different entrances, a multitude of quarters, thousands of gates and entrances, innumerable chambers built by the skill of masters and craftsmen. Temples dedicated to the Lord rise there, joined with metal, with bronze gates and golden doors. There, God’s great deeds and man’s illustrious generations can be reread in splendid paintings.” Ranges of rooms, a great hall, a banqueting hall with three apses, and a chapel were set around two spacious courtyards, one rectangular, the other semicircular, and connected by porticoes. The lobed hall carried particular architectural importance for it denoted “the house of the lord.” Featured in the banqueting structures of the imperial palace of Constantinople, a similar type would have been seen by Charlemagne in the papal palace of the Lateran in Rome. As in church architecture, German emperors of the eleventh century continued Carolingian traditions in palace design, best represented at Goslar (begun around 1050). Unfortified, the palace’s regular organization, double-level hall, and towered chapel composed the ideal expression of heritage and magnitude of the ruler’s authority. Because of political instability, palaces such as that at Westminster in England all but disappeared from European architecture until around 1300 when the nation-states led by powerful monarchs created a climate in which display superseded defense.

Paris and Avignon

In the 1290s, King Philip IV (“the Fair”) of France began to enlarge and transform the motley collection of buildings, ranging from the eleventh-century donjon to the thirteenth-century Sainte-Chapelle, that composed the royal palace in Paris. In the space of about twenty years, his architect, Jean de Cerens, added a huge new hall, the largest in Europe, built a chamber for the Parlement, towers for civil and criminal courts, and offices for the kingdom’s financial departments, and remodeled the royal apartments. All of the branches of government were united in the complex, efficiently grouped around a series of courtyards, and linked by long corridors. Statues of Philip and his royal ancestors decorated the main door into the palace and the piers of the festival hall, the Grand’Salle. Although the king seldom resided in his chambers that looked out onto an extensive garden, its walls encompassed the entire machinery of royal administration and justice, made room for commerce in the galleries, and showcased the Sainte-Chapelle as a religious jewel that signified France’s divine favor. The high walls and clusters of towers that encircled the palace gave the appearance of strength but, in reality, these features were decorative and symbolic.

Jean de Jandun’s description of 1323 eloquently captures the character of the royal palace. Rising in the midst of the capital city, its unusual combination of military features, delicate gables and window tracery from church architecture, and a garden embodied the might, the piety, and the prosperity secured for the realm by a wise monarch’s good government. Much the same can be said about the palace at Avignon built by the popes in the fourteenth century during their exile from Rome. Begun by Benedict XII in 1334, the original palace with its offices, assembly and banqueting halls, chapel, and residential wing arranged around a central court was not unlike a monastery’s plan, perhaps not surprising in light of the fact that Benedict had been a Cistercian monk before his election to the papacy. His successors, Clement VI and Innocent VI, enlarged the papal apartments and added new wings including the west façade with its muscular arches, battlements, archers’ slits, battered walls, and machicolations. Who would guess from this forbidding, even ferocious exterior that the palace enclosed an essentially bureaucratic compound and that the pope wielded little effective political power? The towers, like modern office buildings, contained work spaces, libraries, chapels, and apartments; a small garrison could be deployed on the roof platform in case of attack, but the palace was not designed to withstand a determined or prolonged assault.

The Architecture of Daily Life

College Architecture

One of the most original architectural contributions of the late Middle Ages was collegiate architecture. In the wake of the rise of universities throughout Europe in the late twelfth century, colleges were founded as safe and regulated residences for students who, at the beginning of their liberal arts studies, might be as young as thirteen or fourteen. Initially, colleges in Bologna, Cambridge, Paris, or Oxford were simply established in houses donated or purchased by a benefactor. The famous Sorbonne, founded in 1259 for theology students at the university, was initially located in a series of nondescript houses in the Latin Quarter of Paris. However, in the mid-thirteenth century monastic orders, such as the Cistercians and the Cluniacs, arriving in these centers of learning created enclosed compounds that limited contact with the seductions of the secular world. They adapted the cloister to the new educational requirements, reducing the church to a chapel and lodging students in a building that included a refectory with a dormitory above. The College of Navarre in Paris, established by Philip IV’s queen, Jeanne de Navarre, in her will of 1304, marked a further step as it forged a new blend of building types for its seventy students from the liberal arts, law, and theology faculties. Part urban palace, part monastery, the college was composed of fine stone residential houses and included a chapel and a library arranged around an interior court. In England, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries display various combinations of halls, chapel, residential cells, monumental bell towers, and entrance gates built around open quadrangles, a scheme that has been widely imitated in American universities, such as Yale and Michigan.

The Guild Hall

As Europe made the transition from an economy based on large aristocratic landholdings to a commercial economy with a thriving merchant class, a new kind of architecture emerged to meet the needs of the groups called “guilds.” Guilds began as voluntary associations of individuals to control training, membership, prices and quality in a trade or craft, and grew to have social and political significance as the trades gained economic power. These organizations began to own property from donations and bequests, and real estate provided a steady source of income, so they began to construct their own buildings in cities for meetings, celebrations, and political activity. By 1192, the city of Gloucester, in England, had its own guildhall, and as traders came from various countries their guilds erected halls for their members in the cities in which they did business. By the mid-twelfth century, for example, merchants from Cologne had established a guildhall in London. In the great cloth trading city of Ghent in modern Belgium, a variety of different trades such as bakers, brewers, butchers, carpenters, cheesemongers, shoemakers, and coverlet weavers had their own guildhalls. Perhaps the most elaborate of these structures was the Ghent Cloth Hall where members of other trades in the city obtained their materials and women were even allowed to have stalls to sell cloth and related items. Such guildhalls could even politically and economically dominate a city neighborhood. By the early fifteenth century, there were 1,200 craft associations in London alone, and in 1411 a new guildhall was constructed on a site of one dating back to 1128; the borough called “Guildhall,” surrounding the present building, has been the center of London city government since the Middle Ages. The London Guildhall, which is very large, has stained glass windows, echoing a pattern very common in Belgium, where guildhalls consciously imitated Gothic churches. In these barn-like civic structures the steep roofs and large lancet windows created a sense of spaciousness and importance for the crowds doing business just as a Gothic church accommodated and inspired its congregation. The cloth hall at Ypres, built in the thirteenth century, is generally considered the most impressive of secular Gothic buildings. It had sumptuous decorations and elaborate woodwork, as well as huge front steps from which proclamations could be read. Such buildings expressed not only a belief in the power of commercial enterprise, but a newfound spirit of civic freedom and pride.

Standard Plans for Living

Although non-aristocratic domestic architecture did not go through the number of changes and technical developments that characterized public, religious, and aristocratic architecture, the housing of peasants and working people did reflect an evolution towards multi-room and multi-level architecture. During the earliest period of the Middle Ages, and even as late as 1300, many peasant families lived in single-room buildings called “longhouses,” which they shared with livestock. The bulk of surviving houses, however, had three rooms, usually with a large central room called the “hall” that was heated by an open-hearth fireplace and no real chimney (that is, smoke rose to the rafters and exited through an open hole in the thatched roof). At one end, there would be an entrance passage and service area, screened off to prevent drafts and sometimes subdivided into a pantry and buttery; at the other end of the hall was a private room, which in some plans was on a second or loft level called a solar. As more people moved into cities and land became more valuable, use of vertical space increased. Plans, materials, and styles varied according to local building traditions, physical context, climate, and wealth, yet houses throughout Europe had certain basic features in common. Surviving medieval houses from the eleventh into the fifteenth century tended to include a shop or commercial space on the ground floor (sometimes open to the street by day and shutterable by night), with the living quarters arranged above in the upper stories. A warehouse or manufacturing area might be located towards the rear. Unlike modern houses with rooms that accommodate specific activities and that allow for ample individual private space, medieval dwellings generally were still composed of a few multipurpose rooms, often grouped around an inner courtyard or light well. Surviving twelfth-century houses in the town of Cluny had one large front room connected by a corridor to a smaller back room per floor.

Reflections of Urban Wealth

Nevertheless, later medieval houses, for example the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence of the mid-fourteenth century, could include sophisticated comforts and lavish decoration. Each of the three floors that rise above the street-level loggia (open arcade) is composed of a large room that stretches the entire width of the house together with smaller chambers decorated with carved and painted ceilings and wall frescoes. A well shaft ran through the main rooms at every level and lavatories were provided on each floor, reflecting the high standard of living enjoyed by this wealthy merchant family. The crenellations that topped the house, later replaced by an open loggia, were a mark of social distinction. The monumental city halls, the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence (c. 1300) or the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena (c. 1300), are in effect enlarged versions of these grand urban palaces. Decorative detailing of houses, seen in door frames or window moldings, mirrored contemporary and local architectural fashion: twelfth-century houses sport classicizing pilasters, columns, capitals, and semi-circular arches; thirteenth-century dwellings feature pointed arches and traceried lights.

Half-Timber Construction

But the most widespread and enduring type of town-house construction was the half-timber frame, built with interlocking beams and a wattle and daub filling. With an appearance that is familiar today in homes that imitate Tudor architecture, this new type of house featured an exposed frame of hewn timbers notched and pinned together to form a cage-like structure in such a way that the dark vertical and diagonal beams remained flush with the finished surface of the exterior wall. To create the wall itself, the spaces between the timbers were filled with “wattle”—actually a mixture of interwoven twigs and branches—and then sealed with a thick coating of mud and straw, the predecessor of modern stucco or plaster. The upper stories of these three- or four-floor houses (five or six floors in crowded cities like Paris) were corbeled out over the street on projecting brackets, a technique that increased precious interior space. Houses of this type, with their distinctive high-pitched roofs and dormers, later sheathed by clapboards, were transplanted to America in the seventeenth century by the first settlers who continued construction techniques learned in Europe.