Question from Sarah Kidwell on 4/22/2008:
what is the main body of the church? what are flying buttreses? what are the main differences between romanesque and gothic cathedrals?
Answer by Matthew Bunson on 4/26/2008:
The traditional main part of a cathedral is called a nave. Flying buttresses are the external supporting structures that were used to help carry the load or weight bearing walls of a Gothic cathedral. They were intended to provide the architects with the means of reducing the mass of the load bearing walls by carrying the pressure and weight. This relief of stress then permitted the walls to have windows and other architectural additions for light and airiness within the wider structure itself.
Cathedral building became one of the great achievements in the whole history of the Middle Ages, epitomizing the pervasive influence of the Church in the lives of the people, the degree, financial, political, and social authority it wielded, and the depth of the belief of the people who were willing to sacrifice perhaps as much as a century's labor to complete an edifice of stone and glass. The cathedrals give profound testimony to the name bestowed upon the Middle Ages – the Age of Faith. At the same time, however, cathedrals also represented an economic stake on the part of civil and even royal government for those churches that might be crowned the greatest of the time or house important relics that could attract pilgrims from all over Christendom as well as merchants and tradesman. Cathedral towns thus served as vital commercial centers, sources of power for the entire community, only enhancing the position of the local bishop and clergy, who also profited from the attention.
The first notable period for cathedral building was part of the wider Romanesque, which lasted roughly until 1200 and took as its main inspiration the long-faded art of classical Rome. Among the best known examples of this art form are Pisa in Italy, Tournai and Angloulême in France, Worms and Aachen in Germany, and Durham in England. The golden age of cathedrals was the next major art period, the Gothic, whose ascendancy is said by scholars to have begun with the restoration of the Church of St. Denis (c. 1140) by the famed abbot Suger and to have been furthered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Gothic cathedrals were characterized by open skeletons of stone to support vaulting while diagonal ribs gave added strength to the groined vaults. These made possible the attaining of enormous height in the characteristic pointed arches. Flying buttresses (arches of masonry on the outside of the walls) dispersed the weight of the vaults and added stability. Gothic is divided into three main eras – Early, High, and Late, with fascinating variations being developed throughout Europe. A partial list of the magnificent cathedrals of the period included Notre Dame de Paris, Laon, Chartres, Bourges, Amiens, Beauvais (which was never completed because of the collapse of its vaults), and Ste.-Chapelle in Paris (built by King St. Louis IX, r. 1226-1270), which was considered a masterpiece of the Rayonnant (or radiant) style. Also notable were the English cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, Wells, and York, and, of course Westminster Abbey (c. 1500-1512), begun under King Henry VII; elsewhere could be found sumptuous cathedrals in Vienna, Milan, Cologne, Venice, and Assisi.
For detailed information on the different types of cathedrals and the history of their development, I would suggest the following sites: