Gothic impact of Neoplatonism on the creative processes

Gothic cathedrals were awe inspiring both in their days and
at present as they tower over modern day multiple level architecture in
European cities. These revolutionary structures evolved from the architectural
norms of the Romanesque era to mirror the Neoplatonic ideologies of the Gothic
period, which sought to reflect the likeness of God expressed through light (Honour and Fleming 2002). In his writings,
Oxford University inaugural chancellor, Robert Grosseteste, demonstrates the
impact of Neoplatonism on the creative processes of medieval architecture by
presenting God as the model design to which the craftsman aspired and laboured
to imitate in likeness and form (Hendrix 2013). The ambulatory of the abbey church of
St-Denis, completed in 1144, was the first architectural structure to be
designed with the goal of incorporating maximum light and is believed to have
become the prototype for all other Gothic structures in the world (Honour and Fleming 2002). This essay argues
that Gothic cathedrals were created to incorporate light, believed to be the
essence of God’s nature, in order to orchestrate the oneness of the physical with
the Divine.

Advances in cathedral and abbey church designs which would
come to be known as Gothic architecture had their origins in the Neoplatonic
ideologies of the time. Twelfth and thirteenth century thinkers, regarding
luminosity as the most essential attribute of beauty and influenced by the
philosophical articulations of Plato, developed an entire theory of knowledge
whereby light was conceived as a supernatural phenomenon on which the entire
universe was founded (Von Simson 1962). As observed by Von Simpson (1962),
the uptake of these ideologies by religious philosophers such as St. Augustine
is not surprising given the strong theology of light from Genesis to Saint
John’s Gospel accounts where the Son of God is presented to the world as the
Light which illuminates the darkness and through which all things were created.
Thus began the medieval quest to create luminous worship places in order to
reflect the nature of the God.

The Romanesque architectural design which
preceded the Gothic cathedrals were incongruent with these ideals. They were
characterised by thickened walls, thick pillars, arches and tunnel vaults and
minimal windows (Armi
1975, Honour and Fleming 2002). The Abbey of Saint-Pierre in France (Figure 1) and the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany (Figure 2) are examples of Romanesque monuments displaying
the towers, piers, and heavy construction that characterised the style. Heavy
supportive walls required in this architectural style resulted in bedimmed and
gloomy interiors within Romanesque cathedrals, with some areas almost
completely devoid of light (Robert 2011). Consequently,
medieval architects began to experiment with the pointed arch and the ribbed
vault which allowed for lofty open spaces, thinner walls and large windows (Gilgoff 2003, Honour
and Fleming 2002, Robert 2011).

The Church of St-Denis as shown in Figure
3
was the first building in medieval Europe to feature this breakthrough interplay
between pointed arches, ribbed vaults and slender columns to result in an
interior bathed in unprecedented and uninterrupted light (Honour and Fleming 2002).  The renovation of the Abbey church of
St-Denis has been credited to the influential Abbot and patron, Suger, who
directed the structural work on the ambulatory in 1137 and then the choir in
1141 (Honour and Fleming 2002). Different accounts
have questioned the inspirations and motivations behind Suger’s renovation projects.
Honour and Fleming (2002) observe that while
Suger claimed to design the St-Denis to elucidate the Neoplatonic ideologies of
Saint Dionysius, he had actually played on the confused identity of a
non-relevant theologian. Suger, who was described as pompous and worldly, was
perceived to have undertaken such an ambitious renovation project to further
his interests, which were more political than religious (Honour and Fleming 2002). Notwithstanding
Suger’s true motivations, the renovations of the Abbey church of St-Denis were
a monumental success and he created the first medieval church interior space to
be bathed with unprecedented luminosity (Gilgoff 2003).

Abbot Suger’s successful innovation at the Abbey Church of
St-Denis inspired a string of renovations throughout medieval France and
beyond. Robert (2011) observed that the
newly renovated cathedrals and churches came to be regarded as a reflection of
the pre-eminence of the presiding Bishops and Abbots and therefore resulted in
a competitive flurry of new developments in France. Impressively many of these
new projects, such as at the Nave of Amiens Cathedral, Notre-Dame and Chartres featured
an improved ‘High Gothic’ Style with advancements such as flying buttresses
allowing for heights up to three times the buildings’ widths (Bruzelius 1987, Honour and Fleming 2002). Figure
4
shows the impressive height of the Amiens Cathedral and Figure 5 displays the
flying buttresses in the Notre-Dame. 

Light was also incorporated in the Gothic cathedrals through
the decorations of the altar and the use of figurative stained glass windows.
Abbot Suger initiated the stained windows and the encrusting of the high altar
of St-Denis with precious stones which reflected internal light and became part
of the Gothic style (Honour and Fleming 2002) (refer Figure 6).
The art incorporated on the large stained windows depicted visual Biblical
narratives and juxtaposed with the mystical glowing colourful light that shone
through them created a sacred and mystical ambience within the Gothic
cathedrals (Rudolph 2011). 

It has been adduced that Gothic architecture was the result
of cojoining physical and spiritual ideas to create unprecedented luminosity in
cathedrals. Structural methods were revolutionalised to allow for lofty
interiors that were suffused with light to reflect the very form of God. The
Neoplatonic ideologies of this medieval era not only gave the world impressive
monuments such as the Chartres Cathedral but also blessed the worshippers of
the era because by letting light in, they believed they were letting God into
their very lives.