~A Better Idea of Early Gothic Architecture~
The Abbey of St-Denis, Abbot Suger
The new architectural style first appeared in the 1140s at the royal abbey church of St-Denis, just north of Paris. The brainchild of a remarkable monk named Suger (1081-1151) , the church was built as a replacement for an earlier one that had become too small for the crowds that flocked to St-Denis on feast days.
Suger began his construction by creating a new narthex or vestibule, and a monumental fašade, dedicated in 1140. The church has now lost a number of its original elements; the illustration here is a nineteenth-century view that preserves more of the appearance of St-Denis in the twelfth century. Unlike the single-portal Romanesque fašade, the fašade of St-Denis has three portals , corresponding to the major longitudinal divisions of the church , the aisles and the nave. Heavy buttresses mark the fašade into three clearly defined sections. The lateral ones, above the side portals, are continued upward into twin towers. Directly above the central portal is a large window that provides light for the narthex. Above this window appears another, a round one of a new type called a rose window.
Originally the portals of the west fašade were decorated with an elaborate programme of sculptures organized by Abbot Suger around the theme of the Last Judgement, but so many of these have been damaged or destroyed that we cannot easily study this aspect of the church today.
The most important feature of the new style is ribbed vaulting. This differs from groin vaulting commonly used in Romanesque arhcitecture in having visible arches, called ribs, that are constructed separately from the webbing or pricipal surface of the vault. The ribs were usually constructed first, using a movable wooden framework called centering. Then the masons inserted thinner stones to form the webbing.
Another form, the pointed arch, was also used consistently in the new church at St-Denis. Like the ribbed vault , the pointed arch over the round arch preferred most in Romanesque buildings. The principal structural gain was the relative ease with which masons could build vaults over rectangular plans. Such bays had previously required arches of two different radii,which then rose to two different heights, creating awkward trnsitions for the masons. Pointed arches, which are constructed on two centres , permit graceful and simple solutions to what had been difficult engineering problems. Another advantage of the pointed arch is that , because it reaches upward, it allows both the reality and the illusion of greater height than the round arch.
Another crucial element of the new Gothic style used in the chevet of St-Denis is the design concept sometimes described as 'point support'. This means the placing of a structure's piers or other supports at well-spaced intervals . The building then no longer needs to rely on solid walls for support as in Romaneque architecture. Here in the chevet of St-Denis, the columns separating one space form another are so slender that the structure appears to be a double ambulatory , rather than an ambulatory with radiating chapels.