Architecture as a product of culture, history, science, technology, economics, society, religion, and state




A journey through five thousand years of architecture and urban planning in the Western world



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Each generation writes its autobiography in the buildings it creates.

Louis Mumford

Friday, December 3, 2010


The term "Middle Ages", which refers to the 1000 years between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance, was coined in the 15th century by the Italians, who saw this period as barbarian. Until the 18th century, medieval art was seen by historians as an expression of roughness and primitiveness. Only in the 19th century the achievements of this period were appreciated and admired as they are today. However, there are still people today who ignorantly see this period as "dark period" (Dark Ages).
        In the Middle Ages art was regarded as an occupation not necessarily intended to create beautiful things or fun. To the seven free arts have been added since the 13th century, seven sciences called "mechanicae", which were less appreciated. Among these was architecture. Free art related to free people who did not have to make a living from work, leaving them free time for thinking.
          The perception of art did not exist in the sense that we know it today. Art was called "ars" meaning "a technique of making things", a word deriving from the word arete. meaning "excellence" in Greek. French architect Mignot, who helped the Italians in building the Cathedral of Milan, said, as Isidore of Seville (560-636) wrote, that practical work (architecture) without science (geometry), cannot exist (ars sine scientia nihil est)
. Likewise, he said that the architect should be very much familiar with both (practical work and science). In contrast, the Italian architects said, "Theory is one thing and practice is another" (scientia est unum et ars est aliud).
   Architecture, like any other field of life during the Middle Ages, was mostly associated with faith. A central aspect in the life of the inhabitants of medieval Europe, who were mostly Christians, was God's will, and their only way of acquiring knowledge was through faith.
    Saint Augustine (Augustinus) (354-430) wrote that reason is superior to experience, which makes the difference between man and animal. Preference of reason over experience led away from an attempt to discover the natural world. The message in his writings was that the human spirit cannot understand God's plan.
         Apart from the Christian faith, medieval culture combines the Greco-Roman tradition and the German Celtic spirit of the "barbarians", as the Romans called them. A building of architectural importance was generally associated with religious worship. Except for isolated cases, the church building was the most important building in the community. Built of stone, its chances of survival were high. Very little has survived of the public buildings which were not built for religious purpose, which is why the source of our knowledge of medieval architecture is the church.
    Medieval church was very powerful. It controlled every aspect of life and its impact on contemporary life was greater than it has been in any other time. Changes in theological thoughts and religious reforms were an opportunity to build and rebuild. Thus, medieval architecture reflects largely the history of the church. Boosts in construction stood out particularly during the awakening of new religious groups, which were detached from existing religious order.
It is customary to divide the history of medieval architecture into the following periods:
     Early Christian period and Byzantine architecture - since Christianity was recognized as an official religion in the fourth century to the middle of the sixth century.

   In the period between mid-sixth century and the mid-eighth century there was no monumental building, and the art of the period was mainly expressed in writings, hand painting and reliefs.
      Carolingian architecture - from the middle of the eighth century until the tenth century.
      Ottonian Architecture from the mid-tenth century until the mid-eleventh century.
      Romanesque architecture - from the middle of the eleventh century until the middle of the twelfth century.
      Gothic architecture - from the middle of the twelfth century to the fifteenth century, and until the 16th  century in Italy and to the north of the Alps.

A characteristic passing through the entire period of medieval culture is the symbolic approach in all fields of life, including architecture. It would be difficult to understand this architecture without understanding its use of symbols. Therefore, I introduce this concept before discussing the architecture of each period.
          The Symbolic Perception in Medieval Architecture
        The transition from the architecture of antiquity to that of the Middle Ages, presents the progressive abandonment of classical forms in favor of a style based on the principles of Christian faith. Pagan buildings have been altered to suit the requirements of Christian ritual. Medieval architecture, more than architecture of any other time, is the direct result of the spirit of its time. Architectural symbols had a central role in creating a connection between the divine and the human.
      Medieval conception of truth was different from ours today. No studies were carried out to get to the truth. In the medieval spirit, beyond the exterior of everything, there was a hidden symbolic meaning. Architecture, sculpture and decoration come together to perfection, and reflect the worldview of the period.
        Hierarchy on earth represented the heavenly hierarchy. In the structure of the Christian church we can detect horizontal and vertical hierarchy. The horizontal is leading the believer from the entrance of the church located generally in the western side of the church, to the apse (semicircular niche) at the east end, which is the top of the hierarchy. The vertical hierarchy leading up the eyes of the believers  from the floor of the church which represents the earth which is in the bottom of the hierarchy to the ceiling - heaven, the head of the hierarchy.
  The decoration of the church tells the story of Christianity, since the creation of the world until the day of Judgment, directly or symbolically.  

   In Christian iconography, God is the great architect of the world. As the creator of the world, with a compass in his hand, he separates light and darkness, heaven and earth, and continents and oceans.
   In the Middle Ages there was one creator - the Lord. The architect imitates the work of God and is his anonymous tool. Signature on works of art in these circumstances is intended for practical purposes of identification rather than being a statement representing the authority of the individual. Can a Christian consider a work that he had done as his work when Jesus himself said: " I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me…for I always do what pleases him"(New Testament, John 8: 28-29).
 Perceiving God as an architect  is associated with ascribing magical power to numbers and geometric shapes. This originates in the Church Fathers who inherited it from Neo – Platonic schools which revived the spirit of Pythagoras.
   According to St. Augustine who referred to the Creator as an engineer, the divine wisdom is reflected in the numbers and inherent in everything. The perfection of the divine order is reflected, according to Augustine, in the harmonic patterns in nature. The physical and moral world as one is based on timeless numbers.
       Medieval scholars, particularly scholars of the city of Chartres in France, were obsessed with math, especially geometry. Science of numbers was seen by them as the  science of the world and the key to its secret. In the architecture of the  great churches and cathedrals, Christian symbolism was mixed with the revelation of the world's laws of geometry and became a "sacred  geometry".
Numbers expressed divine order of things or of invisible powers, which we know from the Jewish Cabbala. It was an attempt to express theology through geometry.
      Mathematics also expressed the relations between music and architecture. Pythagoras already presented direct relationship between musical notes and mathematical ratios. The basic principle in this context is the vibration of the string length translated into the mathematical ratio of 1:1. If the string will be shortened by half the ratio will be 1:2. Thus, one can create ratios such as 1:3, 1:4 and so on. A building designed according to ideal proportions echoes the harmony of the world and reflects the divine order.
  Medieval scholars saw in Creation a symphony, but God was perceived by them not as a musician but, as mentioned, as an architect. Harmonious proportions represented the principle behind the world, and were conceived of as the secret of the building's beauty and stability. Although the viewer does not immediately notice the deep meaning of the symbolism of numbers, their harmonious presence, as the presence of the divine order, which was their inspiration, can reach him in a way which has no rational explanation.
"Sacred geometry" connects the material world with the spiritual world so that even if we are not aware of it, we are similarly affected by it.
   The practical expression of sacred geometry is simple geometric shapes such as circle, square and triangle resulting from the following, respectively - a ball, cube and pyramid. In medieval times the world was perceived as a mirror reflecting God as the Lord of both nature and history. God created the world in a word and therefore the world is the thought of God fulfilled in a word. The world is a book written by God, and behind every creature there is a word loaded with meaning. The material object is perceived as a symbol of a spiritual fact. Physical human action was seen as a symbol of God's action causing a spiritual change in man. The world is all symbols. Roses symbolize the blood of the martyrs, the growth of nettles symbolize evil, etc.  
       According to Christian mystics like St. Bernard of Clairvaux  (1090-1153), the night represents the devil, and light is associated with eternity. A Guide of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, from 1139, attributed to Aymery Picaud De Partenay the old, compares the human body to the church. The main nave of the church is the the body, and the trancepts  (the short arms in the crossed ground plan of the church) are the hands. The Church was built in human scale.
If we regard the church as a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, the sacred geometry shows the human life as a journey toward one goal. We see the church as a three-dimensional symbol of the human's spiritual journey, which takes place every time one walks through the western gate of the church. In this simple gesture, he turns away from the material world, and focuses on the physical and spiritual look at the altar at the eastern end, which symbolizes the dawn of a new life. The beginning and the end of this journey through the church, are the both ends of the nave of the church where the two main rituals of the church take place: the baptism and Mass - the Eucharist.    
The journey begins in the basin in the western part of the church where the Christians are baptized, as Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, in the presence of the Holy Spirit. .
The journey continues passing through the nave, which leads the believer to the crossing area where a direct connection with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is created. The believer faces the altar, which reminds him of the Last Supper, the sacrifice and the tomb from which Christ rose again. The believer is invited to attend not only Christ's sacrifice, but also his own sacrifice, becoming one with Jesus by eating bread and drinking wine.
      At a time when most of the population could not read and write and literary images were strangers to it, architectural symbolism naturally represented the structure of the world. The cathedral symbolized the world and the cosmic order. Its interior, the dome, the altar and chapels represented the structure of the world. Similarly, the details were filled with symbolic meaning. The believer saw in the cathedral the beauty and harmony of God's creation.
    The orientation of the church echoes the "movement" of the sun in the sky. The apse, the holiest place in the church is located on the east end, since sunrise symbolizes the sun of blessing (Sol Salutis). This is a blessed place from which, at the end of days, will come the sun of justice (Sol Justitiae) to judge the humanity. Thus, the church is a symbol of life after death to which the believers aspire, and the church gate symbolizes the entrance to eternal life. Jesus said: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved …” (New Testament, John, 10: 9).
       The location of the apse in the east is associated with the perception of the sun god in ancient times as representing truth and justice, as he who nothing is hidden from his eyes when he makes his daily journey in the sky.
    Alberti (1404-1472), the architect whom we will meet later in the Renaissance, saw the connection between the basilica as a place of justice in ancient times, and the basilica church as a place where one gets the justice of God through prayer.
       The east had already been sanctified by the ancient Egyptians, and the Persians worshiped the sun and prayed facing east. The word "mizrach" (in Hebrew meaning "east") in the Bible indicates dawn - the appearance of light, while the west indicates the disappearance of light. The mystical meaning of the word "mizrach" is "enlightenment". According to the Bible, the terrestrial paradise is found in the east – "a
nd the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east"  (Genesis, 2:8). The doors of the world of death, Hades, according to Greek mythology, are in the West.      
    Eusebius of Alexandria (who lived probably in the sixth century) wrote that the Christians prayed until the fifth century facing the rising sun.
  Hugue, abbot of St. Victoire in Paris during the years 1133-1141, saw a parallel between the church and Christ. He wrote that the Holy Church was the body of Christ who rose by one spirit united and sanctified by one faith. The believers are members of this body, and they all together form one body. The stones of the walls symbolize the connection between the believers and the priests who create together a Christian community and are two sides of the same body. The stain glass, according to Hugue, lets the rays of the sun of justice, which is the God himself, penetrate the church.
    One of the images that were widely used during the Middle Ages to describe the church, was the image of a ship which appeared in the third century. Images of the ship appeared on Greek, Roman and Egyptian pagan graves as a symbol of immortality. When appearing on rings and stones, it signified a hope of pleasant walk of the soul in its life in this world and the next.
 During  the Middle Ages the image of the church as a ship, appeared in various forms. According to one of them, the body of the church as a whole, is a large ship carrying people from different origins through a storm. Another version shows God as the owner of the ship and Jesus as its captain. The churning waves are the temptations of the world, and the passengers are the various orders of the church.
   Honorius Augustodunesis, commonly known as Honorius of Autun (lived in the first half of the 12th century), authored the book       "De Gemma Animae", where he wrote that architecture is a constant expression of the divine plan. According to him, he who enters the church sees it as an analogy to the harmony of the world dominated by God, and the eternal life waiting for him. The church in his eyes is a symbol of the glory of the New Jerusalem. In the heavenly temple, the church celebrates divinity in an ongoing peace. The material church rests on a foundation of stone as the celestial church rests on the rock of Christ. The material church is carried to heaven on four walls, while the heavenly church grows on the virtues of the four Gospels. The chapel, which is built on solid stone, symbolizes the power generated by faith and rituals in the church.
 The stones connected with cement, are the believers who are connected by love. The transparent windows, which stop storms and let the light through, represent the church scholars who fight heresy and distribute religious studies. The pillars supporting the house of God symbolize the bishops who due to their virtue of honesty, support the building of the church.     
   The beams that ensure the stability of the structure are strong and promising protection to Jesus. Roof tiles that prevent rain from entering the building are the soldiers protecting Jesus from pagan enemies. Precious stones in the church symbolize those who excel in virtues.
  Like Honorius of Autun, his successors in the 12th century built a  theoretical and mystical structure, and dressed it with religious symbolism presenting every detail of  the church as an aspect of the Divine Order.
   The Romanesque church in the form of its Latin cross, and human proportions, represents the human figure, but above all it displays the symbol of the perfect man - Jesus Christ. In Jesus are combined the human and divine. He is a man and a god. As such, he connects heaven and earth.
     The connection between universal harmony and the temple, is very ancient. Architects in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Cabbalists and Neo-Pythagoreans also dealt with it.
  The church, besides being the image of man, is also the image of the world. Microcosm and macrocosm are united in it. The church as a whole represents the divine order in the cosmos.

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