Cathedral Development in the Middle Ages


America is known for being a melting pot of cultures, religions, languages, peoples and philosophies. Today, over four centuries later, many religions are practiced in America, and various structures have been built as houses of faith and worship.

Some of these constructions recall earlier religious architectural styles, and this is certainly true concerning Gothic cathedrals. Anyone who has had the chance to facilitate one of these structures constructed in medieval Europe can’t be but help spellbound by the immensity of their size, the strong appearance of their facades, or the stunning beauty of their stained glass windows.

These particular cathedrals are signs of faith, built without the modern construction equipment these days. How did medieval contractors pull it off? How did they get heavy rock hoisted numerous stories up? And how did those huge, heavy stone structures have walls of glass? The purpose these structures had the ability to stand lies in the ingenuity of their design.

Medieval manuscripts show depictions of cathedral construction, and from them we learn that a pulley system was used to get heavy stones up multiple stories. As a person walked inside the wheel, it would put tension on the rope, leveraging the stones higher and higher. Once the stones were put in place, it was essential that each layer of rock was level to create the necessary balance for the overall structure.

In earlier times, the only method to build a tall construction was to build it with thick walls. How were people living in the Middle Ages able to build these towers of stone that had relatively thin walls filled with gorgeous glass? The answer lies in three components of their architectural design: the pointed arch, flying buttresses, and vaulted ceilings which mimic the same engineering behind a Gothic arch.

In a pivoted arch, the weight of the stonework distributes in a more lateral fashion, putting stress on the walls of the structure. The brilliance of the Gothic (pointed) arch, however, is that this engineering development directed the weight down the arch to the ground. With all of the weight being changed to the ground, the walls were then able to be comprised largely of beautifully colored windows.

Furthermore, medieval architects designed flying buttresses, which essentially serve as huge stone arms placed at the greatest stress points in the arches to support the weight of the heavy stone. Vaulted ceilings have the same sharp design of the Gothic arch, driving the weight of the whole structure to the ground, rather than distributing the weight through the walls.

Once they had figured out how to drive the weight to the ground, it created the chance of allowing light to stream into the church by making walls of colorful glass. In medieval times, glass makers would add metals to the liquid glass mixture to create distinctive colors in the glass. Once they had achieved a preferred hue, they would shape that glass into discs and then it could be cut, with other colored glass discs, into the various pieces that would come together to create vibrantly colored windows.

There’s no doubt about it; these establishments present a huge architectural feat, and they’re still astonishing when you walk inside them today. And while the Gothic style cathedrals built on American soil aren’t as old as the ones built in the Middle Ages, they have something in common, beside their design: they were built as sacred structures to house worshippers.

As a motorcoach company, we love teaming up with church groups. Please don’t hesitate to call if we can help transport your cathedral choir to a benefit performance or help in shuttling at a church sponsored event. Motorcoaches are tailored to give transportation on a larger scale. Whether it’s for worship or service, we’re on hand for all of your congregational needs! (And, if you loved reading this and want to find out more about Gothic cathedral construction in the Middle Ages, go to this documentary by PBS that we watched to get the information for this article:

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