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The Mystic Age

Apr 25, 2008
The Mystic Age is the birth and development of the Gothic in Europe, 1130-1240. Around 1130 a significant change occurred in the Christian religion. The Virgin Mary was gradually introduced as the intercessor in Church stories of the soul's Judgment, thus bringing an element of feminine sympathy and forgiveness to a prospect that had hitherto been cloaked in terror. People suddenly had hope; they could be saved if they appealed to the Virgin. This seems to have released an enormous reservoir of positive and creative energy and vitality which transformed the architecture history of a very traditional community for ever.

During the next century, mainly in the limestone region of northern France called the Paris Basin, five crucial inventions set the stage for all the architecture of the next three centuries. Firstly, shafts which had once been thick enough to support the load over them were transformed into decoration by being made incredibly thin (as at the Abbey of Braine). Like the rib-vaulted ceiling, the whole wall was now turning into a bundle of energy rather than mass. Secondly, thinness was emphasized by making buildings taller. Separated from their supporting role, these elegant ribs and shafts transformed the upper part of the interior into a suspended canopy. These churches were no longer safe citadels or even symbols of Paradise; the people of the 12th century held to a mystic faith that the church was not just like Heaven, it actually was God's promised world. Thus the vault was suspended from His realm, while the emaciated shafts became the tassels that hung from the corners of this Holy Tabernacle. No wonder the master mason, who was capable of creating this Paradise on earth, was so highly regarded.

The third innovation was stained glass. By replacing the painted wall with glass, previously inert matter became translucent. Although the glass was dark, and the weak light shed little illumination inside, it completely transformed the walls. The light seemed to come from within the very core of the stone, making it glow as though in proof that the church was the Celestial City.

As the mass of the inner wall surfaces was obliterated, the solidity of the outside was also broken up. The buttress, which had given additional support to the wall where it was most needed, was moved away to the perimeter of the building, and arches set between the two to transmit the loads to the outside. By moving the massive stonework needed to support the roof away from the windows, the amount of stone around the thinning shafts that hung from the vaults could be reduced and vast windows installed.

Tracery, first invented at Rheims around 1220, finally turned the window itself into another surface pattern. The combination of the canopied vaults, the thin elements ranging over the surface, the stained glass set in, the traceried windows and the flying buttresses, had the effect of dematerializing the masonry so the entire building appeared to belong to another mystic universe. All these inventions stretched technical expertise to the limits, and compelled masons to improve their skills greatly.
About the Author
Dr John James has published widely in Architecture. He was an Academic Associate Fellow of the University of Melbourne and acted as visiting Professor in the France, US and England.
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