Medieval Cathedrals and their Meanings
Excerpted from an essay entitled 'Medieval Thought and its Architectural Expression'; Dec 1999

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The cathedral is arguably the building type that is the clearest and most complete physical expression of the underlying worldview of medieval times. The cathedral was literally an image of heaven, and this is reflected in mystically in its symbolism and in the liturgy. According to St Augustine, true beauty is based on a metaphysical reality. The visible and audible harmonies of the cathedral are in fact imitations of the ultimate harmony that the blessed will enjoy in the world to come. Several quotes help to demonstrate these beliefs.

Abbot Suger, responsible for the reconstruction of St Denis wrote regarding the choir he had built;

The City of the great King which joins one wall to the other; in whom all the building – whether spiritual or material – groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are taught to be builded together for a habitation of God through the Holy Spirit by ourselves in a spiritual way, the more loftily and aptly we strive to build in a material way.

A similar attitude is expressed by St Augustine "how will God reward those who build for Him with so much piety, joy, and devotion? He will build them, as living stones, into his spiritual edifice toward which those direct themselves who are informed by faith, solidified by hope, and united by charity."

The application of geometry underlies the design of medieval cathedrals. The proportions were carefully calculated ratios, and these are pervasive. The importance of the number 6 has been previously discussed. John James in discussing the geometry of Chartres notes that the intersection of the nave and choir (see diagram) is based on the hexagon. The hexagon, with six sides, is a perfect geometrical figure. The intersection forms a rectangle in the ratio of 7:6. The 6 is in the long axis, Christ’s ‘Axis of Understanding’, while the 7 is in the short (transept) axis, Mary’s ‘Axis of Knowledge’. The perfect number six is in Christ’s axis, as Christ is the perfect man, while 7 is in Mary’s axis, as Mary was the patron of the seven Liberal arts.


       
St Denis, west front prior to restoration of 1838-40 (wil01) St Denis, plan of sanctuary (sim01) Chartes. Basic geometry. North to top, typical all diagrams. (jam05). Chartes. Basic geometry (jam08).
       
Chartres. Geometry of intersection (jam07) Chartres. Typical nave bays showing 1:2:4:2:1 ratios (jam06) Chartres. South transept from southwest (hur07). Rouen. Interior (hur09).
 

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