Gothic Treasures of France

Go on this expedition to find out about Gothic Churches of France.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Many of the most important and impressive Gothic churches can be found in France, discover them here.

Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris, 1135-44

The Gothic style dominated architecture for centuries. Parts of the Basilica of Saint Denis (the traditional burial site of the French monarchs), are considered the first examples this new style.

Abbot Suger, head of the church in the early 1100s, began rebuilding the earlier church that was here, and introduced features that would become standard in Gothic architecture.

For Suger it was critical to open the walls to windows, since for him, light was as an expression of the divine.

West facade, Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris, 1135-44

We are looking at the front of the church. Though it’s impossible to see Abbot Suger’s innovations on the interior here, we can still see that he created three doors surrounded by sculpture, and a large central rose window (a circular stained glass window)—features that became typical of French Gothic architecture.

Sculpture, West facade, Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris

On the front we see three portals decorated with sculptures. Once there were sculptures of figures of kings, queens and prophets attached to the columns on either side of the doorways—an innovative feature that would be copied in later churches.

West facade, Chartres Cathedral, c. 1145-55

Chartres develops the Gothic style that began at Saint Denis. By tradition, Chartres houses an important relic—the tunic of the Virgin Mary—which was miraculously spared in the fire of 1194.

This miracle was seen as a sign that an even more magnificent cathedral should be built here—the church we see today. We are fortunate that so much of the original stained glass and sculpture survives.

Looking closer at the west facade

These are the only sculptures to survive the fire of 1194. The tall figures attached to columns on either side of the doorways are called jamb figures (they represent kings and queens). This is the most complete grouping of early Gothic sculpture that has survived.

Rose window, west facade, Chartres, c. 1215

The rose window is almost 40 feet in diameter. It depicts, in beautiful colors, the Last Judgement, when Christ returns to decide who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. The tall windows below are called lancet windows.

South transept, Chartres Cathedral, c. 1220

Chartres has nine doorways - three on each of three sides of the church. These particular doors open into deep porches, filled with sculpture. Above, we see lancet windows and a rose window—reminders of the importance of light in Gothic churches.

Tympanum, central door, South Transept, Chartres

The arched space right above the doors is called the tympanum, and here, once again, we see The Last Judgment. The column that separates the doors is called a trumeau and shows Christ as a teacher, holding a book.

Jamb figures, south transept portal

Look closely at the jamb figures representing the 12 apostles. They are tall and thin, like a column, and the don’t interact with one another. This is typical of early Gothic sculpture, but will change when we get to the High Gothic.

East end, Beauvais Cathedral, begun 1225

We are standing at the back of Beauvais Cathedral, which boasts one of the tallest ceilings of any Gothic church (though the church was never completed). Verticality—reaching up to the heavens—was an important goal of gothic architects. 

It’s important to have a close view of the exterior, since it is the flying buttresses, visible here, that make it possible to build so high (though some of the vaulting collapsed only 12 years after being completed and needed to be rebuilt).

Flying buttresses, Beauvais Cathedral

The flying buttresses resemble delicate arches that help to support the weight of the stone ceiling by carrying the weight outside the church to external piers. Importantly, they allow for the opening up of the walls to allow in more light.

Mont St. Michel, 11th-16th centuries

Mont Saint Michel is a remote medieval abbey (a monastery under the supervision of an abbot) dedicated to the archangel Michael and located on a dramatic granite outcrop 250 feet high and a mile offshore.

It is one of the most visited tourist sites in France, with nearly 3 million visitors each year. Before the creation of the modern roadway more than a hundred years ago, the abbey was only accessible during low tide.  

Sadly, the natural beauty of Mont St Michel is threatened due to development. The roadway blocks tidal currents, and parking lots and overcrowding also make things difficult for this tiny island. Efforts to return the site to its original condition, surrounded by water, are underway.

Reims Cathedral, 13th century

The Cathedral at Reims is a good example of the High Gothic style. Beginning with Saint Denis, Gothic churches evolved to let in more and more light. 

Notice how the tympana (the arched spaces just above the doorways) are now filled with stained glass, instead of sculpture. By tradition, this is where the first king of France, King Clovis was baptized in 511. 

Facade, Reims Cathedral

The facade at Reims appears tall and narrow, as though the very architecture was reaching to the heavens. There are virtually no visible walls, every surface is pierced by windows or niches, or decorated with sculpture.

Jamb sculptures on the west facade, Reims Cathedral

The sculpture on the west facade (front) celebrates the Virgin Mary, who was an increasingly important figure in this period. In the center doorway, the trumeau figure is a sculpture of Mary, crowned as Queen of Heaven, elegantly supporting the Christ child on her left hip. 

The way Mary’s hip swings out to her left to support the Christ child is typical of the High Gothic style and is sometimes referred to as a Gothic sway.

The Annunciation and Visitation, c. 1230-1255

Here are stories from the New Testament. The figures now turn toward one another and interact. Though it’s likely that different sculptors worked on each group, there is a clear interest in the movement of the body—so different from the Early Gothic style.

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