Architecture · Culture · Technology

The Rose Windows of Gothic Cathedrals

I’ve been reading up on the origins of Gothic aesthetics, and it’s highly interesting to me that the 20th and 21rst century interpretations of gothicism focus on superstition, decay, and archaic savagery, whereas the Gothic architecture style of the 12th and 13th centuries was highly intellectual and technologically advanced. A good example of the technological achievement are the rose windows in Gothic Cathedrals.

This particular rose window is from the 13th century, one of the windows of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. While this one is particularly ornate (Notre-Dame is, of course, one of the Big Deals of French Gothic architecture), many rose windows in cathedrals around the world are similarly impressive. Take, for example, the rose window of the Assisi Cathedral, completed in Italy about a hundred years before Notre-Dame:


These windows strike me particularly not only because of their calm, mandala-like structure but because this sort of intricacy and mathematical preciseness isn’t something that is easily associated with a period some people still call “the Dark Ages.” While that term has fallen out of fashion for modern historians, in terms of 19th and 20th Gothic literature, it still counts–those holdovers from the past that skulk in their spooky mansions are dark, backward, and better at curses than math.

Inherently, this is the contradiction that interests me a lot about gothicism in Western thinking. The pendulum of Western culture constantly swings from valuing intricacy and elaborate ornament as intellectual achievements to valuing minimalism and stoicism. This is what any culture does; values change like the length of skirts going up and down. But Gothicism got stuck as a sort of pet villain in the context of modernist and postmodernist modes of thinking. One could say quite a lot of the elaborateness and archaic savagery of the technological achievements of Baroque architecture, but Vincent Price has never been cackling beneath a brightly painted ceiling fresco of cherubs.

There are reasons for this that I’m going to research and explore throughout this blog, but for now I’ll keep it to a brief meditation on the rose window at Notre-Dame. What a precise, difficult, and intellectual construction those backward Dark Ages kids made.


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