Gothic Light and Space

Published by Basilio on

The origin

The conception of Gothic space arises around light and symbolism that this impregnates in the Architecture. Giving a twist to the conception of light, which until then had been treated as a mere physical element. The light and the Gothic space are born as a way of honoring God and the secular power of the king, each time of greater preponderance in medieval society. Giving rise to one of the most radical stylistic breaks that Western architecture has known.

This brings us to the question What is architecture?

Stained glass window of the Royal Abbey of Saint Denís.
Stained glass in Saint Denis Cathedral Source: Wikimedia Commons.

"The noble work shines, but this work that shines with nobility
Enlighten minds so that by following true lights
Come to the true light, where Christ is the True Door (…) ”

Fragment of the inscription on the door of the cathedral of Saint Denis

Faced with this need, the dilemma of how arises, solved for the first time in the Saint Denis royal abbey by Abbot Suger. The latter observed throughout the kingdom the different architectural innovations produced at the time.

 So it was decided to start the reform of the abbey, which would almost completely eliminate the previous one of Merovingian origin and Romanesque style. Giving rise in Saint Denis to something never seen at the time, which would be the model for a new style, "the Gothic".


Although, although the importance of the Neoplatonism in the thought that originated the gothic cathedral. We cannot ignore the influence that the scholasticism of Santo Tomás exerted on the society and architecture of the time. In his endeavor for the use of reason as a method of obtaining knowledge.

A construction that followed these philosophical premises had to be imbued with divinity and light and in turn be directed towards it. Soaring to the skies, to God. Taking this into account, a church of stylized proportions was proposed. With high and imposing walls that will elevate the construction to previously unknown levels. For the house of God must have risen far above the surrounding buildings. However, this height is subordinate to the artifice of light. In the elaboration of the Gothic architectural system, the tension between the materiality of the construction elements that make it up plays a priority role. And the artifice that is invented to achieve the effect of weightlessness.


It should be noted the elimination of the horizontal division of the facade, inherited from the Classical orders. (Which in Saint Denis is not yet shown as an early example of this architecture) Enhancing the stylization and sense of height of the whole. This elevation presented a technical problem: At certain heights the walls had to be very wide at their base to support their weight. And therefore very heavy, too much for the traditional barrel vault, typical of the Romanesque. The walls would open sideways, causing great instability. That the Gothic solved with the ribbed vault, which solved the problem of covering the nave much more efficiently than the old Romanesque vault.

The great Gothic cathedrals shifted the thrust of the ribbed through the flying buttresses to the buttresses. Pillars deep into the ground to dissipate the thrust of the vault. The buttresses were frequently used to evacuate the rainwater from the roof. Channeling it away from the building to avoid Water hammer.

Thanks to the ribbed vault, the walls had ceased to play a fundamental role in supporting the structure. They could be transformed into huge windows, causing colored light to flood the interior of the abbey church.

Once the technical difficulties were resolved, the cathedral was able to focus on creating the ethereal artifice by which it is characterized and whose main tool was light.

Divine light

Creating sparkles, glitters and reflections that like massless materials. They serve to build the most ethereal of architectures. Giving the feeling of being transported to a "heavenly Jerusalem" beyond the earthly. Thanks to the atmosphere created by light. The lighting in Saint Denis, as in the successive Gothic temples, came from different sources. For this reason the church was endowed with rich ornaments with a multitude of precious stones, enamels, gold and all kinds of objects of exquisite taste. That made the light reflect with unusual nuances that turned architecture into the staging of beauty and majesty that the abbot wanted to convey. And this function was amply fulfilled by the most important constructive element of the Gothic cathedral, the stained glass window.

The stained glass window in Gothic Architecture is projected in two ways: As a means for the symbolic configuration of space. And as a "support" for iconographic content representing various biblical scenes. Around the light, two languages with different characteristics are organized. In relation to symbolic values, the stained glass window did not only play a role of simple painting on glass.

To further accentuate the atmosphere in the light of the Gothic space, a multitude of visual and auditory stimuli were added. They had just turned the dates of the liturgy into real events for the people. That they should exalt their religiosity. For this they used all the devices at their disposal: fine furniture, rich liturgical costumes; goldsmiths, tapestries, relics. And especially the melodies of Gregorian chant, which magnificently complemented the work of light in the Gothic cathedral. Elevating the faithful through the deepest and most sacred of atmospheres.

5/5 - (1 vote)


frames · at

Hello, I liked the article. I wanted to ask your opinion. In Spain only specific visits are made to the stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Seville. They take people around the clerestory and explain all these things that you mention in the article.

Since there are so many other important Gothic cathedrals, such as those of Toledo, Burgos or León (whose stained glass windows are an authentic artistic heritage), why are they not exploited / promoted? And since in other European countries and even in the US there are tourist products whose main theme is stained glass, what is happening in Spain?

- Is there no interest on the part of those responsible?
- No interest from the public?
- Lack of promotion?
- Isn't its importance understood?
- Is it being belittled?

All the best.


    Basil · at

    Hi Marcos, thanks for commenting. I suppose it will be a lack of diffusion and value. All the best

Google · at

Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a couple of unrelated information, nevertheless actually worth taking a look, whoa did one find out about Mid East has got much more problems as well.

Shell · at

Thank you for contributing that vision of architecture beyond the stones. The space created by the stones and stained glass represents late medieval thought.

    Basil · at

    Thank you for your comment Concha · at

Great, thanks for sharing this article post. Much obliged. · at

Very good blog.Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.

Edmond barash · at

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