Cathedral Dreams: Spires

[This post is part of a series that pops up every now and then, envisioning the building of a Gothic cathedral. The first post was almost a year ago, but in the future I should be posting more frequently on this topic.]

In the order of Christendom, cathedrals should be landmarks of their cities, taller than anything around them – it’s an arrogant ruler who, even if his palace must be large, builds the house of his majesty taller than the Lord’s house of prayer. Besides the former practical need, then, for use at arms in the face of Viking raids, soaring towers are suited to monumental needs as well. It’s quite fitting, for the significance of the number seven, to have seven towers with spires:

The west end of Cologne has twin spires, very tall and impressive, but the towers’ mass throws the building out of proportion. Because each tower takes up a space that significantly exceeds the width of the nave, the result is really not graceful:

Cologne Cathedral During WWII. Photograph scanned by Kevin Trotman.

Cologne Cathedral During WWII. Photograph scanned by Kevin Trotman.

It’s natural to want to endow a cathedral with impressive spired towers, that it may soar over the city skyline, but in Cologne’s case the twin towers at the west end are too much of a good thing: this is why I never liked the way Cologne looked, even in primary school. Notre-Dame de Reims, in contrast, does quite well even without spires. Even with spires, a tower need not, as at Cologne, overpower the other parts of a cathedral’s form – especially the length of the nave – with exaggerated dimensions.

France, Beauvais, Cathedral of Saint-Pierre. Drawing showing the tower as it appeared in the 16th century. Source: Columbia University, Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, slide collection.

France, Beauvais, Cathedral of Saint-Pierre. Drawing showing the tower as it appeared in the 16th century. Source: Columbia University, Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, slide collection.

The spire at St-Pierre de Beauvais, though overambitious, was much more elegant, not too broad for the building’s dimensions. Instead, it had about the same proportion to the building as has the spire of Salisbury Cathedral – though of course the Salisbury spire is the tallest in Britain.

Note to future cathedral builders: do not be blinded by hubris. After the 1284 collapse and subsequent repair of some of the choir vaults, with more robust supports, the nave was never built. Instead of building the nave, in order to make this cathedral the St Peter’s of the north, 16c. planners crowned the building with a 153 m central tower. In 1573 the tower came crashing down during an Ascension Day service.

Let the architect be warned by these examples, both aesthetically and morally, and then let him design with his whole heart.

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