Gothic Cathedrals And The Urban Middle Ages: What Is Behind Them?


Anyone who has entered a Gothic cathedral will probably have been struck by its pronounced verticality and, above all, by the play of light that the colored stained glass windows draw throughout its space. This is much more pronounced in the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe, especially in France, since Mediterranean Gothic is much more compact. But, in general, we can affirm that what characterizes religious Gothic architecture is its monumentality and height, as if, from the earth, the faithful tried to reach God.

What is behind Gothic cathedrals? A style or a work of art does not arise just because; It is the result of a time, a mentality and objectives, often quite specific. In the case of Gothic cathedrals, we must frame them in the urban Middle Ages, which emerged around the 12th century and which returned to cities the importance that they had lost during the first centuries of the Middle Ages. Today we talk about the great symbols of medieval cities, the Gothic cathedrals, as well as their artistic and technical innovations.

Gothic cathedrals: symbols of the new urban Middle Ages

Gothic style cathedrals emerge in a very specific context, which is none other than the progressive urbanization of medieval society. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe had experienced strong ruralization, which had already begun to take shape when Rome was dying. As a result, the cities were abandoned and lost all political preponderance in favor of the thriving fiefdoms administered by the lords in the countryside.

From the city to the countryside, from the countryside to the city

Thus, the first medieval centuries are the centuries of the countryside, of small towns, of stately castles and, of course, of abbeys, authentic centers of knowledge. We do not mean by this that cities disappeared, of course, but they were no longer essential centers of power as they had been in Roman times. Many of them were limited to being the bishop’s headquarters; that is, they had a mere religious function.

Towards the 12th century, everything begins to change. The economic boom favors a considerable boom in artisanal and commercial activity, and these budding merchants move to the old towns to carry out their activity. Precisely for this reason they began to be called bourgeois, that is, inhabitants of the burg, to differentiate them from the population that still remained in rural areas.

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These bourgeois will soon constitute an urban social elite whose power is equivalent to that of the nobility in the countryside. The cities then begin their great hierarchization, in which economic capacity begins to take precedence over the class. It is not yet a city of classes, but we are facing the germ of what will later be our current society.


Urban hierarchization and the first conflicts

This strong urban hierarchy, which was consolidated towards the 13th century, resulted in constant conflicts between groups. The bourgeoisie tends to monopolize the institutions of municipal power, which, of course, does not please the nobility at all, who consider themselves the repository of the old estate rights.

On the other hand, the growing exclusion of other groups that do not enter into the game of power leads to numerous disputes, which, in the 14th century, spurred by the Plague and the consequent famines, will erupt resoundingly, only to intensify in the 15th century. The gradual marginalization of the urban population that does not belong to the nobility or the bourgeoisie and that, therefore, remains on the margins of political intrigues, will soon result in a series of uprisings designed to put the focus on this social group that remains , in this way, absolutely removed from power.

Some of the first urban revolts in this sense will be, on the one hand, the one led by Étienne Marcel in the city of Paris (1357-1358) and, on the other, the famous uprising of the so-called Ciompi in Florence (1378), framed in the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The workers in the textile industry rose up, between June and August 1378, to demand before the Signoria their participation in the governing bodies.

Cathedrals as a symbol of urban power

This small outline of the changes that emerged in Europe from the 12th century onwards is essential to understand the impressive rise of cathedrals. Because, unlike what many people believe, the vast majority of these spectacular buildings were not financed by the Church, but by powerful groups of the urban elite who, in addition, took advantage of this “architecture of God” to demonstrate their power and their wealth.

A famous case is that of Santa María del Mar, in Barcelona, ​​built in the Ribera neighborhood on the foundations of the old Santa María de las Arenas, where, by the way, Santa Eulalia is supposed to have been buried. La Ribera was a neighborhood located a few meters from the sea, where sailors, stevedores and prosperous merchants lived.

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This population felt displaced from the political core of the city and, therefore, from its cathedral (symbol of the power of the nobility), so they decided to pay for their own temple. Thus, thanks to the financing of the Ribera elite (and the sweat of many citizens who physically dedicated themselves to the ambitious project), in just fifty-four years, from 1329 to 1383, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city was built. Religious Gothic architecture in the Mediterranean.

Santa María del Mar is, therefore, one of the best examples of the growing rivalry between the ambitious urban bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy, which allows us to get an idea that Gothic cathedrals were not only a tribute to God, but also to wealth. and the power of the elites.


The beginning: Saint-Denis and Abbot Suger

In the year 1122, a character named Suger was chosen abbot of Saint-Denis, who would have great importance in launching the new style with which the urban cathedrals would be built. Suger (c. 1081-1151) came from a peasant family who lived in the vicinity of Saint-Denis, not far from the city of Paris. As soon as he was elected abbot, Suger undertook a series of renovations to the abbey that ushered in Gothic architecture.

Firstly, the abbot remodeled the head of the abbey church, which stood on the old Romanesque crypt. During much of the Middle Ages, the idea of ​​beauty was directly related to God (following the Platonic idea of ​​the Beautiful), so every beautiful object must necessarily be luminous. Suger also believed this, who saw in light and color a direct emanation from God.

For this reason, the renovation program of the abbey promoted by the new abbot involved a pronounced verticality and a necessary opening of the walls to allow light to enter the temple. This is, in fact, the essence of architectural Gothic: the spaces that extend towards the sky, in a constant search for God, and access to a luminosity that was related to the presence of divinity.

Great architectural innovations for a new language

The entire new ideological program of the Gothic necessarily required a series of architectural innovations. If light was God and, therefore, lighting had to be facilitated in his temples, it was necessary to lighten the weight of the walls to be able to open the necessary windows in them. However, this was very dangerous, since, since the walls were pieces that transmitted the pressure of the vaults, they had to be thick enough so that the building did not sink. The openings, therefore, weakened the walls and increased the danger of collapse.

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This is where two of the most important architectural innovations of the Gothic come into play: the ribbed vault and the flying buttress. The first constitutes the “meeting” of two barrel vaults, whose ribs allow the thrust of the vault to be transmitted directly to the pillars, which turns the walls into mere space closure systems. On the other hand, to further lighten the weight of the walls, buttresses are integrated, which carry the pressure outward, a pressure that is contrasted by the exterior buttresses.

All of this prevents the structure from “opening” and, therefore, collapsing, in addition to the fact that, thanks to this new construction system, the walls lose their traditional support function. This allows the relevant gaps to be opened, which will then be filled with beautiful stained glass windows. In this way, inside the Gothic temples, and in conjunction with the constant movement of light, a series of color games will be produced whose main function is to emphasize the idea that God is light and that color is his earthly manifestation.


Starting with Suger and Saint Denis, cathedrals built in this new style will begin to rise throughout Europe. Among them, Reims, Rouen and Chartres in France stand out especially (the latter promoted by its bishop Renaud), and Burgos and León in Hispanic territory. All of them will compete with each other to obtain the most beautiful monument in homage to God (and human beings).

Thus, we can affirm that Gothic cathedrals constitute a true symbol of new times. Restless and dynamic times that will witness the rise of commerce and banking, as well as the strength of the new urban elites, who will begin an endless struggle with the old nobility. But, above all, Gothic cathedrals will be the material testimony of an entire worldview, which has luminosity as an essential part as a reliable manifestation of the existence of God.