Preconceived ideas

Preconceived ideas

Conventional wisdom has it that the use of light in cathedrals is a characteristic feature of Gothic art and that all bright cathedrals were built in Gothic style. Wrong.

The idea was conveyed by the romantics, amplified by critics of Romanesque art and later dramatized in the cloak-and-dagger films.

Today, however, the joint efforts of experts in art history, archaeology and physics reveal an altogether different reality. Goldsmiths, painters, sculptors, architects, all worked with light as with a material. Masters in mosaic art, for example, systematically varied the inclination of the tesserae to prevent light reflected by the mural mosaic from dazzling spectators (destabilizing dazzle). In so doing they were unknowingly obeying the immutable laws of physics.

It is also commonly said that the cathedral of Autun is very dark because the weight of the vaults made it impossible to open numerous windows. Wrong again! In the 11th century Cluny III was heavily vaulted but it nonetheless had a great number of clerestory windows. Cluny was bright and Autun is dark. Both cases are the result of a deliberate choice, the choice to use light in this or that way.

To put things into perspective the following explanation can be helpful.

Applied physics in visual photometry includes four fundamental quantities: on the one hand, the luminous flux and its intensity, which more or less correspond to the power of light emitted by a source and, on the other hand, illuminance, which is a measure of the total luminous flux incident on a surface, and luminance, which is a measure of the luminous intensity of light travelling in a given direction. The interaction of these four physical quantities with architecture as well as with the various colours used creates what we would call colourful lighting effects. A cathedral’s stained glass windows, its building materials, the wall coverings chosen (paintings, mosaics, gold-ground paintings…)add colours to the light they filter or reflect, as shown by the description of the cathedral of Lyons made by Sidonius Apollinaris (fifth century): “ Inside the building the ambient light sparkles. Sunlight is so cleverly directed on to the gilt-coffered ceiling that it dwells there, making the gilding shine in a unique harmony of colours.” Architects and their sponsors deliberately created coloured lighting effects in Romanesque architecture, in places of worship as well as in palaces, as confirmed by the description of the Great Hall of the Episcopal Palace that Bishop Guillaume Passavant (1145-1167) had rebuilt in Le Mans.

Romanesque architecture modulated light in a great variety of ways, thus creating an extraordinary wealth of aesthetic lighting effects. In Normandy, for example, the lantern-towers above the transept crossing, which appeared very early in Jumièges, create a light well at the centre of the building around which the different levels of brightness are organized (in the apse, the side aisles, the chapels).

The lantern-towers are a very good example of long-term architectural achievement. They were the successors of the turris found in the churches of Gaul in the fifth and sixth century. They created an area where illuminance played a major role, with light being directed on to the same focal point and, as such, they were later adapted to the Gothic buildings of the second half of the 12 th and early 13th century ( as in the cathedral of Laon, of Lausanne or of Notre-Dame in Dijon).

By contrast, the architects who designed churches in Provence and in the Rhone region in the 12th century used light and made it play with architecture in such a way that the atmosphere created is one of twilight.

Scarce windows in buildings full of  dentils, recesses, sharp edges and bare surfaces ( the engaged columns of the blind arcades, for example) give off shafts of light that redraw the edges, shade the surfaces over which they pass and whiten those they hit directly.

Light variations can also be found in the same building, creating genuine lighting effects.

 In Saint-Philibert de Tournus, for example, the lighting effects can even be considered as part of a global dramaturgy. The vaults of the main nave, perpendicular to the east-west axis let in a flood of light reflected by the vault and reinforced by the light coming mainly from the groin-vaulted side aisles, a technique which made it possible to open large windows. The ground floor of the pre-nave remains, by contrast, in semi-darkness, which gives the entrance into the bright nave an entirely dramatic character. On the first floor, in the Chapel of St. Michel, the same contrast can be found between the aisles lit by narrow slits and the much brighter nave.

Quite naturally it is the most sacred place of the building, i.e. the sanctuary, which was given special treatment. In Payerne, in Cerisy-la-Forêt, in la Trinité de Caen, in St. Lazare d’Autun, in Saint Paul de Lyon and many other places, the apse features two levels of windows, an unusual choice which can only be justified by the desire to create a brighter space. Besides, the ambulatories with their radiating chapels had a less heavily weighted circular wall in which large windows could be opened, thus creating other vast areas of light surrounding the apse.

Well before the emergence of Gothic architecture, as early as the beginning of the 11th century, builders endeavoured to let in as much light as possible in the whole building. According to the chronicles of the abbey of St. Bénigne in Dijon, in the cathedral’s chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which was consecrated in 1018, “a flood of light comes in through several windows around the place and through an oculus without glass at the centre of the vault.”

In the hall churches of Western France, in Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, for example, whose main nave has no windows, light comes solely from the windows of the side aisles but literally fills the different naves (which are, admittedly, relatively narrow). In the abbey church of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, whose nave is praised for its brightness, the windows are of the clerestory type. They are both closer to the ground, which reduces light loss, and located in the groin vaults, which ensures reflection. In Cluny the height of the five naves in the third abbey church was skilfully calculated so that each level had its clerestory windows. This device, inspired by the Christian architecture of the fourth century in Rome, was to be taken up in the 13th century in the cathedral of St. Etienne in Bourges. It is another example of long-term architectural achievement.

According to conventional wisdom again “Romanesque architecture is clumsy, small and dark” (see the description of a journey from Paris to Bordeaux by MM. De Saint-Laurent, Gomont, Abraham and Perrault in 1669).

The romantic 19th century is the century that most cultivated the stereotype of the small, dark, damp, clumsily-built church. In fact, the description, however biased, reflects not so much a form of criticism (which was more severe at the time of Huysmans) as an emotional reaction, an emotional vision in front of a form of art considered “human, too human”. Romanesque architectural works, with their formidable diversity, cannot be judged or classified in function of their dimensions. The small local churches could obviously not compete with those sponsored by great institutions but, reflecting feudal hierarchies, their style was part of a relation of dependency on the style of larger monuments. The group of churches with ambulatories in Auvergne, for example, with the smallest of them being half the size of the largest, i.e. Notre-Dame d’Issoire, features such a spectacular homogeneity in style that the differences in size tend to be blurred. Besides, contrary to what the obsolete idea of “linear progress” in arts would suggest, the most gigantic works in the history of art were in fact carried out in the 11th century. The buildings erected by the Normans in England after the conquest, for example, reflect a policy that focuses on the spectacular aspects of architecture, the desire of the builders being to impress people with the size of their buildings.

The following century was characterized by a return to more restraint under the influence of more ascetic religious orders such as the Cistercians, the Chalaisians or the Grandmontains. At the same time, however, another form of gigantism in architecture was developing with the construction of huge buildings in the new Gothic style, as in Beauvais or Cologne in the 13th century. It is worth noting that the Cistercians themselves, stunned as they were by their own success, sometimes yielded to the same temptation.

The trend towards increasing lengths to the point of hypertrophy started early, in the 11th century, with simple structures, i.e. the single-nave buildings inherited from the 10th century. In some churches in Aquitaine the nave sometimes represented up to three quarters of the total structure. The same trend can also be found in the Loire region (in Beaulieu-les-Loches) as well as in Normandy (in Boscherville), in Burgundy (in Paray II, in Saint-Mayeul de Cluny).

However, the sense of size does not come from the real dimensions of the building but from the ratio between its dimensions, putting as great a distance as possible between the place of sacrifice and the area reserved for the faithful.

The first manifestations of sheer monumentality appeared as early as the second quarter of the 11th century with the construction by the Rhine of the Cathedral of Speyer, commissioned by the founder of the Salian dynasty to be the burial site of his family. The cathedral was later expanded and with a length of 134 metres and an immense crypt under its sanctuary and transept it was exceptionally large.

And the trend towards hypertrophy went on elsewhere. Round the middle of the century Winchester Cathedral with a length of 169 metres had been built. As for the Abbey of Bury Saint-Edmunds which has a length of 154 metres it was built at the end of the century at a time when the construction of Cluny III was beginning with its planned 183 metres in length, 74 metres for the great transept, 37 metres in height at the crossing and nearly 42 metres in width for the nave.

Gigantism can also be found in the very structure of the buildings: in five-nave buildings such as Saint John Lateran’s Basilica and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Cathedral of

Sainte Croix in Orléans,  dating back to the end of the 10th century, Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, Saint Rémy in Reims, Sainte-Foix in Conques or Santiago de Compostela. And

Gothic architecture was to follow suit in the 12th and 13th century (in Laon, Soissons, Longpont, Chartres, Reims, Amiens…) not to mention a few rare but spectacular architectural achievements such as the ground-plan with double transept and pre-nave of Cluny III that was adopted in the Cluniac priory of Lewes (England) at the end of the 11th century or the cathedral of Pisa which was rebuilt wholly of marble thanks to the booty seized in Palermo in  1064 and has five naves and a long transept with several aisles and apses (north and south).

However, as happened to the Carolingian abbey of Fulda under Abbot Ratgar, excessively ambitious projects sometimes endangered the institution itself. When Saint-Rémi in Reims was reconstructed in the first third of the 11th century, the new building, started under Abbot Airard, was too vast and had to be drastically reduced and partially demolished by Airard’s successor.

Architectural staging was also a way for builders to express their desire for excessive monumentality. The Carolingian period was particularly inventive in this respect with its westworks or its “augmenta”, i.e. the vast extensions attached to the main apse which, as is the case in St. Germain in Auxerre combine crypts, chapels and rotundas. The multi-levelled sanctuaries with their different corridors and connections were the background of impressive liturgical scenography.

This type of complex structure was last built in the 11th century. In St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva, for example, whose site was excavated by Charles Bonnet, a broad “hollywoodian” flight of stairs led up to the high altar which was elevated several metres above the main nave and occupied the major part of it.

In Saint-Benigne in Dijon, the rotunda dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was a three-level structure extended to the east at each level by a chapel. The rotunda was directly connected to the abbey’s apse through a row of columns announcing the transparent Romanesque ambulatories.

Another Romanesque invention that was certainly better adapted to church building than the Carolingian devices, while being just as spectacular, was the ambulatory with radiating chapels. It is, no doubt, the most important Romanesque invention because it made all sorts of architectural effects possible and also because it transcends all architectural styles and defies time. The technique was born in the last third of the 10th century and first spread thanks to the king’s patronage in the early 11th century. It is best illustrated by the crypts of Evron, the cathedral of Clermont, the cathedrals of Rouen and of Saint-Aignan in Orléans, the chevets of the abbey church La Couture in Le Mans, of Saint-Martial in Limoges, of Saint-Philibert in Tournus…

As early as the second half of the 11th century the invention then spread to the whole kingdom of France. For example in places such as Vignory in Champagne, Saint-Etienne in Nevers, Saint-Hilaire in Poitiers, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, Saint-Sernin in Toulouse…

Its success can be measured by the fact that it was in some cases inappropriately adopted. In Sainte-Foy de Conques, for example, and later in La Charité-sur-Loire the two chapels directly flanking the choir were removed and replaced by an ambulatory that was added to the original chevet with its many apsidal chapels round the apse.

It was also successful enough to spread to the whole of Europe, albeit timidly at times (in England, in Italy, in Spain, under Norman, Cluniac or Cistercian influence.

Last but not least, its perennial character, beyond changing styles, was also a major factor of success, explaining why it was adopted by the builders of Gothic cathedrals in France in the 12th and 13th  century and in the German-speaking regions of Europe (see the cathedrals of Basel, Magdeburg or Cologne)



This text is an excerpt from the particularly interesting work of Nicolas Reveyron, entitled “L’art roman”, published by le Cavalier Bleu in the series “Idées reçues”, 2008.

Our gratitude goes to the publishing house that authorized the translation of this text.