Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 825:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 825.

Today, spiritual materialism and the invention of Gothic cathedrals. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Gothic cathedral has held our imagination for 850 years now. One question we seldom ask is, "How was such a thing invented?" Oddly enough, that question has a definite answer.

By AD 1100 European life was changing very fast. The new power sources, the horse and water wheels, had freed our hands and lifted us out of a darker age. The weather had begun warming. Civilization was taking root, and with it came new architecture.

Around AD 1050 the buildings of the great French abbey at Cluny began rising. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land were bringing back Eastern ideas about art. Cluny leavened the stern architecture of Rome with oriental exotica.

Enter now two people: The aristocratic St. Bernard left the world to became a monk. He led Church reform. For him, the Byzantine elegance of Cluny was a distraction from God. The other was Suger, born poor and given to a monastery by his father. Monastic life was Suger's path into the world, not away from it.

Bernard became the leading theologian of his time. Suger became the politically powerful Abbot of the St-Denis monastery. Suger made monastic reforms that satisfied Bernard, but the two were far apart in spirit. Artistic and architectural elegance didn't distract Suger from God, it led him to God.

He was quite explicit about that. He said we could come to understand absolute beauty, which is God, only through the effect of beautiful things on our senses. He said, "The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material."

So, late in life, he set in motion the construction of a new kind of church building with ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and exterior buttresses -- with spires, stained glass windows, and interior light. In 1137 his people began reshaping the church of St-Denis into the first full-blown Gothic structure.

It was less flagrantly ornate than Cluny -- less massive in appearance. In the very lightness of its being it summoned up some vestige of the clean austerity Bernard wanted. Yet it was also the grandest single step forward architecture has ever seen.

For Suger it was also a theological statement. Geometrical harmony, he said, is the source of all beauty because it exemplifies the laws by which divine reason made the universe itself.

Suger fit no mold. He was not in the least modest, but neither was he particularly arrogant. He may never actually have designed anything himself. But he was a magnificent arbiter of design. And you need only walk through one of those remarkable Gothic cathedrals to believe, with him, that material beauty really is a glimpse of the face of God.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Clark, K., Civilisation: A Personal View, New York. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969, Chapter 2, The Great Thaw.

Crosby, S.M., and Blum, P.Z., The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis: from Its Beginnings to the Death of Suger. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Gerson. P.L. (ed.), Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a Symposium. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

Panofsky, E. (ed. and tr.), Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Evans, G.R., The Mind of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Merton, T., The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clarivaux and the Encyclical Letter Doctor Mellifluus. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Gardiner, H., Art Through the Ages. 9th ed. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991, pp. 381-385.

Janson, H.W., History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969, Chapter 4, Gothic Art, pp. 300-304.

See also entries on Suger and St. Bernard in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting this topic and providing much of the reference material; and to Rennie Goyert, UH College of Architecture, for his counsel.

For more on Gothic cathedrals see Episodes 97, 228, 528, 942, 958,

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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