Buttress 4/15/22

Architecture with Richard Bleil

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine moved overseas to be with her husband.  Recently, they’ve been posting some marvelous photos, although I’m not sure where they are.  These are pictures of gothic churches.  Looking at the photos, I can’t help but notice the buttresses, which remind me of the architecture of the day.

See, regardless of your opinion of the church and their policies, they’ve really given us some beautiful cultural advances.  In the time when these were being built, the church wanted ever higher main hall ceilings.  This resulted in churches that were very tall, and very narrow, making them very unstable.  Anybody who has ever tried to build a gingerbread house that is too tall knows that the stress on the walls will make them buckle.  So, the question becomes, how does one satisfy the church by making the walls tall without having them collapse?

The answer were buttresses.  Your most straightforward buttresses were built onto either side of the church, and their function was not hidden.  They were braces to hold the walls up, forming an arch of sorts that were secured to the church just about two-thirds of the way up. 

The photo they shared had two very interesting features.  First, the buttresses were more or less hidden, and walls were built around them, resulting in side-wings for the church.  There were no photos from the inside, so I don’t know if they were used as secondary hallways, to expand the width of the main hallway for additional seating or as rooms for use by the church, but that they were the same basic structure and shape of buttresses was unmistakable.  This church was so large, in fact, that they built additional buttresses to support the buttresses.  Again enclosed, the area of the church must have been enormous.  It was beautiful to see.

Among other cultural advancements the church gave was its music.  The language of the services was in Latin, which was not taught to the common people (the proverbial “peasants”).  In fact, before the then-illegal Gutenberg Bible was mass-produced and distributed to anybody who wanted it, the Bible was not even provided to people.  So how do you entice people into a church, to listen to a sermon that they cannot understand?  Baroque music was largely written to be performed in churches (and designed for buildings with echoes) specifically to catch the attention and draw in the masses.

Back to architecture, gargoyles were another affectation that the church developed.  If you look at gargoyles on medieval structures, they are very evil looking.  This always struck me as odd, to have such evil looking sculptures on churches.  As it turns out, they were specifically designed to look evil, and mean, to frighten away other evil spirits.

It must be remembered that back then, the church and the people very much believed in evil spirits, hauntings, possession, and even believed the devil to be an actual man who roamed the earth.  Funny how nobody ever things the devil is a woman.  Anyway, to this day I find it fascinating to think that they not only believed that demons, evil spirits and the devil actually existed, but apparently, they could also be scared away with mean-looking statues.  Seriously, the evil spirits of the past were wimps!

Another contribution to culture must be art.  Governments have rarely been terribly supportive of them, but the church frequently hired some of the greatest.  For example, Michelangelo was hired to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.  One of the priests learned the hard way, however, that it’s not wise to get into an argument with a great painter.  I do not know the name of the priest or the nature of the disagreement, but Michelangelo decided to “get even” with the priest by painting his face on one of the demons adorning the ceiling.  Curiously, though, I’m not sure if this was good or bad.  Today, I’m told that if you visit the Sistine chapel, tour guides will point out this part of Michelangelo’s work and reveal the priest’s name (and perhaps the disagreement?).  In a strange way, Michelangelo’s revenge has made this priest’s name live on.  Although, always as the demon.

There are many things that the Catholic church advocate and teach that, frankly, I take exception to.  And yet, their contributions to architecture, art, music and other cultural venues is undeniable.  Was it worth the holy wars, the witch trials, the suppression of women?  Well, I guess that’s not up to me to decide.  But I am very grateful for these advances.

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