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Orvieto clouds-resized2

Orvieto

In the center of Italy is Umbria, a green land of deep forests and medieval hill towns. One of the most dramatic of these hill towns is the small city of Orvieto which is located atop a volcanic plug of tuff.  Atop the taupe butte, the ancient towers and campaniles of Orvietto rise above the dark green hills.  One building stands out beyond the others, the Duomo di Orvieto which is universally acclaimed for having the consummate masterpiece of Italian Gothic cathedral facades.

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Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the Cathedral of Orvieto was commissioned by Pope Urban IV sometime around 1263 as a suitable place to keep the Corporal of Bolsena, a miraculous uhhh cloth which soaked up the miraculous blood of Jesus which spouted out of a miraculous host (the sacred bread) in the nearby town of Bolsena.  The Cathedral was begun in earnest in 1290 as a classic Romanesque basilica, however progress was fitful.  When Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate as principal architect (project manager?) of the cathedral, the design morphed from Romanesqe to Italian Gothic.  It was an inspired upgrade which incorporated the best of both styles in the breathtaking facade (which is said to have been the creation of the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani).

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Creation of Eve (probably by Maitani)

The Facade is such a masterpiece, with so many things going on, that it is nearly impossible to describe properly.  Wikipedia resolutely approaches the task by breaking down the individual elements as follows:

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310.

The glittering mosaics of Mary’s life which make up such an impressive part of the facade have been redesigned and replaced since the originals were installed in 1390. However the great central rose window is an original by Orcagna.  The widow is surrounded by statues of Apostles within niches in the manner of French Gothic style.

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Naturally I was unable to find any high-resolution photos that really do justice to this supremely complicated book of a building, but here is a link to a clickable high resolution image if you want to examine particular individual elements.

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Actually the interior of the church might really be the feature of greatest interest to artists, featuring exquisite murals by Fra Angelico and crazy violent “Antichrist” mural by Luca Signorelli, but we will address those another day. How much apocalyptic stuff can we handle right now?  Let’s just enjoy the exquisite outside of this Italian Gothic wonder.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

 


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Anybody interested in Gothic art is mourning today, after a fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, one of the luminous cultural treasures of the world.  The devastation is particularly cruel since it took place during Holy Week.  As I write this, the fire has only just been extinguished and a comprehensive reckoning of what was lost in the flames has not yet emerged (and may not for some time).  It seems likely that the giant ancient pipe organ is lost as is the wooden interior (much of it dating back to the 13th century), and a good deal of the large, immovable religious artwork.  Additionally the mid-19th century spire was completely destroyed. Yet the crown of thorns (a medieval relic which may date back to late antiquity) survived, as did the great church itself.  Like the Frauenkirche of Dresden, Notre Dame will be back. It will have some blackened stones and some new plaques about reproduction and restoration. It will be missing some irreplaceable artwork, yet it will be restored to full heart-lifting beauty.

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The Seine and Notre Dame in Paris, (1864, Johann Jongkind) Oil on canvas

The cathedral sits on the site of two previous churches, which themselves were built over the ruins of a temple to Jupiter (which is a reminder that nothing is immutable).  Commissioned in 1163 by King Louis VII, the great cathedral took nearly two centuries to build and it was not completely finished until 1345.  Hopefully reconstruction will not take so long.  940.jpg

 

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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

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This is the great Gothic window of Milan Cathedral. With its sinuous hypnotic grace, It is an exceedingly beautiful design: the window looks almost alive, like a sessile organism of the deep sea. It is ornate and strong and fragile all at one. The design is not really very characteristic of Italian churches. Because of Milanese politics, a French engineer/designer was, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, to build out the church in the late 14th century. Nicolas added flourishes in the style of Rayonnant Gothic—a French architectural style which emphasized elaborate 2 dimensional patterns. I wish I could go to Milan and look at this, but, um I am too busy doing important things in Brooklyn. Milan will have to wait…
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Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)

Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).

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West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)

Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.

800px-St_denis_naveThe nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.

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 The Choir of the Basilica of Saint Denis
 

 
 

 

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate.  To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) .  Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness.  In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art.  There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.

The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

A large Victorian gingerbread house created by the Disney Corporation as a centerpiece

Since the winter solstice is only a few days away, now seems like a good time for a festive holiday post to warm up the long cold nights. Long-time readers know about Ferrebeekeeper’s obsession with all things gothic.  To cheer up the dark season here is a post which combines the beauty of gothic architecture with the sugary appeal of candy!

Like gothic art, gingerbread has a very long tradition which stretches back to late antiquity.  It was introduced in Western Europe by Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar) an Armenian monk and holy man who moved to France in 992 AD.  Whole communities would specialize in gingerbread baking and nearly every European country developed its own intricate traditions and recipes.  In Germany and Scandinavia it became traditional to make two sorts of gingerbread—a soft gingerbread for eating (which was said to aid digestion) and a hard gingerbread which could be stored or used for building.

Here then is a little gallery of some gothic gingerbread constructions which I found around the web.  They really look too good to eat, but if you are interested in making your own version, the cooks/artists who made the gingerbread cathedral immediately below have also put up an instructional webpage.

Seriously, if you follow that link you can make this!

Another Disney Gingerbread House from the "American Adventure" Pavilion

(Image:thoughtdistillery.com/2004/12/13/74)

Even in sugar, icing, and gingerbread, the beauty of gothic architecture shines through! Best wishes for sweet thoughts and happy dreams as the nights grow long and the wind blows outside the door (unless, of course, you are in the tropics or the southern hemisphere, in which case, can I come stay with you?).

A Quincunx

Continuing Q week, we come to the quincunx, a geometric pattern in which five units are arranged in an x shape.  That concept may have sounded complicated because there were too many letter-based phrases in the sentence, but the quincunx will be instantly familiar as the side of a standard six-sided playing die with five spots on it.  The quincunx takes its distinctive name from an ancient coin of the Roman Republic from the second century BC.  The little coin was worth 5/12th of an “as”–the standard bronze Republican coin of the time (which makes me glad I did not have to make change for buyers of that period).

The quincunx shape was popular with the Romans, who were inclined to numerological superstition, and subsequently, during the middle-ages, the shape found its way into many heraldic representations.

Five Fig Leaves in a Quincunx Pattern (known as "Saltire" in Heradlry)

Beyond its use in money, logos, and coats-of-arms, the quincunx shape has long been used for fruit orchards. To quote the Hegarty Webber Partnership, a website created by British garden designers with an eye for history:

Thomas Browne, in his Garden of Cyrus of 1658, claimed that the Persian King Cyrus was the first to plant trees in a quincunx. He also claimed to have discovered that it also appeared in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Seventeenth century diarist and garden guru Sir John Evelyn also thought it was the best way to lay out apple and pear trees.

The classical Persian precedent may be doubtful, but the quincunx is a wonderful way to lay out trees. As can be seen in the illustration below, such a staggered arrangement not only creates regular parallel rows (as would a normal four by four arrangement) but additionally creates regular diagonal rows.  A visitor to such an orchard would see a regular row whichever way she looked.  Such layouts create the illusion of more space (since we are used to rows which are perpendicular to each other) but they make it easy for orchard-goers to mistakenly turn down diagonal rows and become lost.

Finally, and most bafflingly, the quincunx is the underlying concept for a 2 dimensional square projection of a 3 dimensional spherical space.  Since a sphere represents an entire 3 dimensional frame of vision for a viewer in the center, such quincuncial projections show all aspects of a scene: above, below, side-to-side, in-front, and behind. An entire field of vision can thereby be distorted into a square. To better illustrate this concept, here is a quincuncial projections of the unusual octagonal (gothic!) crossing of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England.

Gah! A Full Field Panorama of the Octagonal Crossing at Ely Cathedral (a quincuncial projection)

A stained glass sky-light window is immediately above the viewer and thus at the center of the composition.  The floor is the grey border around the edges.  The entrance door is at the top of the composition (upside down) while the central knave stretches upward from the bottom of the picture.  The north and south trancepts stretch off to the left and right. Finally, since Ely cathedral is octagonal, there are 4 additional doors  running along the diagonals of the composition.  There! I’m glad to have cleared that up, now I’m going to go have a drink and clear my head.  If you are really ready to go on a dimension warping trip into the world of panoramic photography, here is a link to other quincuncial projections.  Good luck on the other side of the looking glass!

By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

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