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Light: the Big Tool for Gothic Architects and Artists

July 3, 2011

As we conclude Survey I, it seems most appropriate to finish this Summer Session with the principle beauty intrinsic to Gothic  cathedrals, namely, the element of light.  Professor Jeffrey Hamburger, in his 2001 lecture Material and Immaterial:  The Defense of Artistic Expenditure at St.-Denis, has the following to say about Abbott Suger and the incredible aesthetic expression of light at the Abbey of St.-Denis:  “To Suger, the beauty of the surroundings transports the worshiper to an intermediate realm between heaven and earth:  the “dull mind rises to truth through that which is material” — not by reading an image as a text, but by appreciating it for its own sake — and, “in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion”  (49).  Similarly, the “loveliness of many-colored gems” calls Suger away from external cares and ennobles his mind to reflect on the divine virtues, “transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial.”  As a result, he finds himself “in some strange region of the universe” neither entirely in “the slime of the earth” nor in “the purity of Heaven” — an analogue, perhaps, to the status of Christ as bridging the gap between Heaven and earth — and recognizes that, “by the Grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner”.  What are your thoughts on Professor Hamburger’s description of the incredible sense of the immaterial as one stands inside the chapel of St.-Denis?

Interior, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris


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  1. silvia G permalink

    I have been to a churchlike the one in the picture in Mexico. When I entered the church the first thing that caught my eyes was the light. There was a chours going on so it just gave you that amazing feeling of being close to god. Its an amazing feeling and the light plays a huge part.

    • roberttracyphd permalink

      Did this experience leave a strong impression on you? Do you find yourself thinking about it or do you find events trigger your recollection of this church in Mexico and the sensation of light?

      • Silvia G permalink

        It made me look at churches very different..coming to the states churches are just building but know that I’m here it make mr appreciate out beautiful chapels. I think they are amazing i’n every aspect from the echo to the scary look. Now that I’m here it helps me appreciate the chapel

  2. Kellilyn Monar permalink

    I could only imagine what it would be like to enter a church like this or Sainte Chapelle. The light, especially coming through the stained glass would give a very uplifting, censorial experience. I believe light plays a huge importance in everyday life as well. For me, on sunny days I feel much more alert, energetic, and happier. On dark, rainy days I feel sluggish and tired. This is why most people just want to lay in bed and watch movies on cloudy, rainy days. Fun experiences, or plans are often ruined by the rain and darkness. Dark and dreary artwork usually reflects or foreshadows a bad experience, or time period.

  3. Lindsey Paige permalink

    I absolutely agree with Professor Hamburger’s thoughts. I have entered a Gothic cathedral, much like the one in the picture above, and the feeling of peace and transcendence into a state of clarity above that of the doldrums of everyday life is something that will never leave me. I agree that the lighting has quite a bit to do with this feeling, as well. The lighting transforms a building that could could have been dark and foreboding into a sanctuary for the mind-the likes of which I have never come across before or since.

  4. Danielle Nazareno permalink

    I agree with Hamburger’s description about the chapel of St. Denis. Through pictures, I am inspired and at peace. If pictures don’t do the chapel justice, then I could only imagine what it would be like to see in person. The 50ft glass patterns, the heavenly blue ceiling, everything decorative about it is empowering and uplifting. Such a beautiful place is like a little bit of heaven on earth and exactly how Hamburger explained, it is like the middle ground, the chapel is a place where you can get a little bit closer to heaven and god and experiencing actually being in there must be incredible. I would love to visit one day.

  5. Douglas Falla permalink

    I agree with him, he had the opportunity to go in there and experience that feeling of light pouring thru the glass windows. In the pictures you don’t get the feeling that he is discribing, but I could imagine it and agree with his thoughts. One day I hope to go in there and expirience it myself. Overall this place looks and feels overwhelming and it would be an amazing experience to feel that light coming thru the stained glass and hitting your skin and feeling that warmth.

  6. The inside looks like an intricate lace pattern , and the colored glass filters the light leaving a very soft reverent tone. It probably has the feeling of a HDR photo with all the rich colors. The windows are like many colored gems, and very heavenly.

  7. Chase Menaker permalink

    I can only agree with Hamburger’s opinion. You can understand what he is saying just by looking at photos. I can only imagine what it would be like in real life. I think that their use of stained glass and flying buttresses to support such tall and slender designs was next to genius. They managed to create a religious experience from a building alone. There almost seems to be no need for ceremonies or the like.

  8. Julie Dickinson permalink

    Hamburger is feeling an overpowering abundance of energy, a powerful surrounding coming about from the towering walls of stained glass and vertical architecture. A natural light shines through the perfectly placed colorful glass windows. These Gothic churches can not be revealed from mere images we study, yet the experience standing within these buildings can only be truly felt in person.

  9. Cally Vaurs permalink

    I would absolutely agree wuth Hamburger! There is something unearhtly about the Gothic architecture. The idea of transformation once you cross the threshold of the door is something that is not explainable. Having been to Sainte-Chapelle I have a hard time describing it. No picture or verbal description does it justice. It is impossible to know the beauty that engulfs you once inside the doors. I felt like I was in another world. AMAZING!

  10. Laura Cruz permalink

    I haven’t been inside a cathedral like Sainte-Chapelle and I’m not the religious type but I know if I were to step into Sainte-Chapelle i would feel calm and amazed by the light coming through the stained glass. I would have probably a beautiful religious feeling towards God and especially if a chorus is performing. I wish I get the chance of entering a place like Sainte-Chapelle and maybe get more out of it because picture is one thing but actually being there would give me more of an understading and different feelings.

  11. Maryann Floren permalink

    I would agree with Hamburger, this chapel is absolutely stunning, and like others, I would not even know what feeling this chapel would portray, as I have never been, but by the description of what Hamburger says, I am sure that is not even a little bit of justice that this place deserves, and is, in person. I would love to be able to expierence this chapel first hand and be able to share with others, like Hamburger, my experiences. 🙂

  12. Randee Oh permalink

    I would love to go here someday. it looks so small in the picktures but after comparing it to something that is 70 feet high, that alone is amazing! Then on top of it the 50 feet of glass windows. I totatlly want to go here!

  13. Amanda Knutsen permalink

    There is something very transcendent and self reflecting about stained glass in cathedrals. Its almost as if the narratives on the window soak into you. I have been to the aptly named Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the divinity, serenity, love, and beauty just surround and engulf you. Needless to say goosebumps were present and did not leave until several minutes after leaving the cathedral.

  14. Ngoc Le permalink

    I would like to enter a Gothic Cathedral so I can actually experience the beautifulness of the architecture as well as the room with enormous windows filter the light and fill its interior with a blue, violet atmosphere.

  15. Jason Carrara permalink

    The concept of light and holiness begins engender as the gothic period progresses and the Christian faith develops. As Hamburger states, being in a place of great beauty evokes a sense of humbleness and self reflection. Individuals in these spaces appreciate the effort and timelessness of the space as they would any location with the majesty and overwhelming beauty.

  16. Alex Kereczman permalink

    It’s intriguing that a room of concrete, glass and light can transport a person to another plane of existence. Not having experienced the cathedrals in more than pictures, it’s a strange concept to be completely engulfed by the intricate beauty of Gothic architecture. If being placed in a setting that removes the material of life, and sets a person into a higher region of being, does the architecture represent the religion? Gothic architecture represents the glory of the Christian religion. Being inside the cathedral could only heighten the religious glory within, allowing a person to become more connected to Christianity through the power of beauty and light.

  17. Ed Goodman permalink

    I agree completely with his statement. I have been inside several gothic cathedrals and they all have taken my breath away. With the light coming in through the stained glass windows you can see all of the flecks of color everywhere. It is absolutely amazing. It definitely gives me a sense of peace and tranquility.

  18. Bryan Yim permalink

    I think Professor Hamburger has tried the best he could to tell us how he feels inside a gothic chapel, but I believe it is an entirely different experience to actually step into these architectures. I have not been in a gothic cathedral yet, but I wish to go if I get a chance to do so. The beauty of the flying buttresses was once told to be ugly and barbaric, but such beauty of engineering and the decoration on the exterior of the cathedrals is as hard to describe as the beauty of the interior. I think the experience of going into a gothic cathedral cannot be reproducted by words or photographs or videos. Even though people have seen photographs of the cathedrals they would still be shocked when they step inside them.

  19. Diana Cosio permalink

    Professor Hamburger is very passionate to convey to his readers the experience which Abbott Suger had described so well in his journal entries, and which people today still witness within Gothic cathedrals. The immateriality of the cathedral is established by the surreal illumination of the colored windows. The intense interior glow against the thin stone columns gives the user of the space a new experience, which had not been witnessed before the Gothic period. And due to lack of better words, Gothic was then associated with transporting worshippers to a realm in the universe between Heaven and Earth.

  20. Lucy Glover permalink

    I can’t say that I have experienced a chapel like St. Denis or St. Chapelle yet,
    but by looking at pictures and reading Professor Hamburger’s statement, I immediately
    felt the calm presence it has to offer. As Hamburger described light, he stated “in
    seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” The light appears
    to be the most important feature of the church, aside from the architecture, and
    I can only imagine that it is remarkable absorbing the emulation of light that pours
    out from the windows covered in colored gems.

  21. Mike Bautista permalink

    I’ve been inside a churchlike building once before. While it was nothing of this magnitude, it’s hard not to feel something while inside. It’s hard to describe, though I think Hamburger put it nicely. I can’t explain what emotions I feel, whether it be brooding or enlightening, but I can see that the interiors of these buildings have an otherworldly sense. It’s difficult to be inside these buildings and imagine that outside is the world as you know it. It is surreal. Though lights and colors effect everyone in different ways, there is no denying that it plays an effect on you.

  22. christina lopez permalink

    I agree with the professor, the beauty the light creates is simply beautiful. I have never seen cathedrals that have been made in a manner that light creates and gives its beauty. That it is just amazing and I hope to see something as beautiful as sainte chapelle. That glass Windows and designs on the glass sets the gothic style miles apart from the medieval style. The gothic style is a good transition to the Renaissance.

  23. Cristine Lim permalink

    I can’t say I’ve ever been in any Gothic Cathedrals or any cathedrals at all so I can only judge them from their pictures. I think the beauty does lie a lot in the structure and the light and I can see where Suger gets his idea of bridging that gap between heaven and and earth. It must be humbling to stand in such a beautiful place.

  24. Gothic churches are very hard to capture the essence of in only photographs. Hamburger is absolutely in awe over the power surrounding him within the church. This is something that can only be felt by experiancing it and not just looking at photographs.

  25. Matt Benza permalink

    I agree. I cannot appreciate the glory and beauty of a Gothic church with going inside of on, so I only have pictures to judge them. But with the description above, I feel like i know what to expect if and when I go to one.

  26. The light in an amazing structure like this is absolutely breath taking to see. Once you enter, you feel like you’re in an entirely different world. It makes a huge difference to the people that enter, especially if they are they to heal themselves and be in a happy place, then the presence of light is absolutely necessary. If you have ever walked into someones house who has all the windows closed to reveal no light? It’s like living in a cave, its dark and dreary and that can get to you and give you a not so happy feeling when you enter. A house with open windows and tons of light gives you a much happier and alive feeling. It is the same in a church like this. Many before this time had much less windows and as time had gone on, the openness of Christianity and its places of worship have only gotten lighter and become a happier place to be.

  27. Victoria Brown permalink

    Light acts as an abstract tool. We can see it, however we can not touch it. There’s a sense of intangibility when it comes to interacting with it. Since it is so powerful in its meaning, light can act as a symbolic measure, particularly in a practice, such as religion. The use of light in the Gothic cathedrals is very spiritual and strong. These cathedrals act as accumulation of the light, in a sense controlling the sunlight that seems completely out of reach. Bathing in this lights allows partakers to feel connected to something far greater than a building, or a window, or even manmade light bulbs. There is a great feeling of spiritual transportation when one is in the light. I find the description above as these churches acting as portals very intriguing. I agree so much with that idea. Also, since the experience is not a physical transportation, and one that takes place within someone, the feeling of religion and God can be more susceptible to an individual as their mind wanders around the magnificent jeweled windows and witnessing the awe-inspiring light.

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    • roberttracyphd permalink

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