Le Chiese delle Cittá: A Look at Church Architecture

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There is no better self-introduction for an architect to make than to exhibit an especially astounding piece of architecture and then to talk about it. Since this is my first “official” post day (I couldn’t help posting earlier), I thought I would start a series of posts on church architecture the first of which I would use to introduce myself.

My apologies for the Italian. I will be heading to Rome for the year in less than a month and I have to practice. For those of you who care, the Latin would be “Ecclesiae Urbum” (according to my rusty Latin) and “The Churches of the Cities” in English.

Why though, am I going to Rome? The University of Notre Dame Architecture Program sends all of its third year students for a year in Rome to study the great buildings of the Classical Period as well as the Renaissance. It is an amazing opportunity and one of the many reasons why I chose Notre Dame. Architecture has fascinated me since I was thirteen and as a Catholic what better place to go than to a Catholic school that sends its architects to Rome? We’ll be living two minutes from the Pantheon and fifteen minutes from the Vatican.

However, I feel it my duty to inform you all that I am a Gothicist at heart. Italy doesn’t have too much Gothic and Rome has next to none. For all of you that are enthralled by Baroque Churches and/or Roman vestments, I pity you.

Just Kidding.

Most of the Churches I will be looking at over the next year will be Baroque because I will be in Rome. Because of this, you will all have your Roman Church Fix and everyone will be happy. I will however start with the Gothic because my love for the Medieval forms and philosophy will most likely tell you all you need to know about me. For a more complete look at what I think about architecture, follow the link.

The church I will start with (I beg forgiveness in advance) is one that has recently been in the news. It was damaged in an earthquake and could possibly never be the same. A president’s funeral was held there. It is Gothic. It is, unfortunately, Anglican. But don’t worry, what with the Ordinariate and the , we may soon find ourselves in possession of this magnificent church, The National Cathedral.

Approaching from the North...just look at that aedicular stonework.

The National Cathedral is an astounding structure with a kind of skilled stonework that is sadly not practice much today. It is inspired by the Gothic Cathedrals (Catholic) of European cities, especially those in England. Unlike the French Gothic cathedrals, which tended to be built as urban cathedrals in the heart of the city, the English cathedrals were built on parks and large green spaces outside the urban center, usually as part of a monastery complex. The National Cathedral was built in a large wooded park on a hill overlooking the city of Washington, D.C. It has three main towers, all square: two which flank the main entrance on the western end of the church and one over the crossing. It has true transepts each with a porticoed entrance. The whole complex also includes a visitors center, a rectory and numerous chapels some of which are subterranean.

Pure beauty in glass and stone.

The National Cathedral is divided into three horizontal layers, as any good Gothic church is: The Arcade, the Triforium, and the Clerestory. It is actually oriented to the east (ad orientem) and has beautiful stained-glass windows.

Of course, it would take more than a couple visits (which is all I’ve had) to study the church in detail, but anyway, pictures and the experience itself will tell more than I can ever express in words. All of the pictures were taken by me (a trend I hope to continue in future posts), and were from when I was a mere freshman in college (that actually wasn’t that long ago, but sophomore year for arkies is intense).

Most of all, I wish to express how fortunate we are to have pieces of beauty like this in our nation and our world and we would be extremely remiss if we were not to understand why the builders built these cathedrals and churches the way they did and base our own church architecture on the theological truths that we hold to be true concerning creation, art, beauty and the human mind in its path to God.

Nathaniel Gotcher, B.Arch, cand. (ND ’14)

Nathaniel Gotcher

Nathaniel Gotcher

is a 20 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at holyintheworld.blogspot.com and blathers on about important irrelevancies at theamericancommoner.blogspot.com

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14 thoughts on “Le Chiese delle Cittá: A Look at Church Architecture”

  1. Avatar

    I really enjoy the National Cathedral. Having grown up just outside of DC, it’s something I’ve taken for granted – I think the last time I visited was for a field trip in fifth grade! I need to go back and get some pictures.

    Any plans to go see Cologne Cathedral while you’re in Europe? Rumor has it that it is a great display of Gothic architecture (of which I know little about – I just have heard the phrase).

    Looking forward to your photos of the great churches of Rome!

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    Cologne Cathedral is certainly impressive, from what I’ve heard, and of course I’d like to visit as many Gothic cathedrals as I can while I’m there. Unfortunately, England and France are my priorities as I think they have the finest examples. Germany has a wonderfully established baroque tradition and so Gothic wasn’t really their thing. Also, did you know that Cologne cathedral is still under constant construction and/or repair since it was started? Salisbury Cathedral took 20 years to build and Cologne is…well I forget how old it is.

    You should really look into the ins and outs of Gothic architecture (as well as the medieval philosophy and folk religion that helped form it) it’s one of the most fascinating parts of our Church’s history.

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    Oh gosh I’m so jealous you’re at Notre Dame… I tried to get in there. They didn’t like me enough, I guess. Please please post from Rome! I went there last summer and didn’t get to spend enough time there. Oh, and take a day trip to Venice if you get a chance. It’s beautiful and you can check out churches on every corner. Each one is a little different from the others, so it’s really cool!
    ~Ink, BArch cand. ’16

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    Ink, where are you at school? Notre Dame really is a superb architecture school, but I also considered CUA. You’ve got one up on me though, you’ve already been to Rome and Venice. Venice might be my favorite city to visit….after Florence, Rome, Milan….well, no Venice is probably number one. After all, Palladio practiced there. Do you learn much Palladio where you’re at?

  5. Avatar

    No way–I’m at Syracuse. The idea of “beauty” is a little foreign to those who worship Frank Lloyd Wright and stare at me funny when I mention Gaudi. (Also, I move in today so. >_>;)

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    And the funny thing is, Wright himself believed in beauty. I’m not the biggest fan of his, but I know a good interior when I see it (good materials, oh my word). Gaudi I haven’t quite reconciled with yet. Being both a gothicist and a purist, I don’t like his stuff but he is simply brilliant. And Calatrava (Milwaukee’s got an art museum by him) is another one who’s brilliant but is not really my thing. Those spaniards…

    Syracuse looks like a nice campus with nice buildings. It’s always best to do architecture among nice buildings. The program looks a little weird. Although in theory it’s supposed to give you the freedom of direction. Is there study abroad?

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    Not trying to nitpick here, but isn’t the National Cathedral Neogothic instead of Gothic? Our parish church is partly Gothic, but there are a lot of Neogothic buildings around our city and I noticed several differences in style. And they were built in different periods of course.
    One of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, is the cathedral in Amiens. If you get the chance, you should visit it. Simply breath-taking!

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    Technically, I suppose, it would fall under the category of “neo-gothic” being that it was built after the Gothic era. However, I believe that no style is truly “extinct” if people are still willing to build according to the principles and theories behind it. Neogothic churches actually look significantly different from the cathedrals in Europe. The National Cathedral is, in essence, the same thing. For instance, it is made of stone (most neogothic is plaster and wood cause it’s cheaper and the builders were immigrants), it has the form of the Gothic Cathedral (most neogothic don’t have the three levels arcade, triforium, and clerestory). I think it all comes down to the thought behind it. I would call it “Gothic Revival” before I would call it neogothic.

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    It’s interesting that you use the term “Gothic Revival”. We don’t make that distinction in my language, but I believe we should, based on the explanation you made. A lot of buildings in my city are neo-gothic and, even as young children, we were taught these were “fake”, as those were built to attract more (mainly English) tourists to our medieval city.

  10. Avatar

    Is that Dutch or French?

    You see, that’s the difference between Europe and the US. The neogothic here is the european immigrants trying to remember their great churches from back home. And so we have “German neogothic” (my parish church), “english neogothic”, “French neogothic” etc. These are more “fake” in terms of the building material, but completely legitimate expressions of the desires and spirituality of the immigrants, although of course cheaper because they were immigrants.

    Gothic Revival would be an actual architectural movement (by such architects as Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc and others) where the principles of Gothic architecture were either copied or manipulated to create new forms etc.

    Next week will feature a church whose style is even harder to determine. It will be the same distinction, Gothic Revival vs. Neogothic. I would tend to see it as Neogothic. And French, not English.

  11. Avatar

    Super off topic but did you work at Summit this summer, Nathaniel? I worked at the girls Summit! I was looking at the list of contributors and your picture looked familiar to me. My intentions are not to be creepy, I am simply curious. If you did not work there, then just ignore this comment!

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