Traveling around Europe over this last year, we often try to find the time to explore each city by foot, learning a little bit about its history, its culture, and its architectural style. I recently realized that whether I am in Paris, Budapest, or a small town in France named Condom, it is the town’s cathedral that I find most awe inspiring. (Yep, we did visit Condom. Here’s the proof.)
During our travels, I have photographed many of these cathedrals, (even featuring them in a blog post – Sainte Chapelle in Paris, for example) with the intention that I would eventually write broadly about the grandeur of the gothic European Cathedral. But I recently realized that attempting to cover the majesty of the architecture and art embodied in European cathedrals was too great a task. So instead, I’ve decided to focus on only one: the Cathedral of Notre Dame Clermont, in Clermont, France.
On our way to Sara and Jan’s wedding in southwest France, we visited a city called Clermont, and took a self-guided tour of its most famous landmark, the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This cathedral, like nearly all gothic European cathedrals, dates back to the 13th century. Its most unique characteristic – as the photo clearly illustrates – is its dark black color. The Cathedral of Notre Dame Clermont is constructed of a very hard, black volcanic stone called andesite, first mined from nearby quarries in 1248. The strength and hardness of andesite allows the construction of highly delicate pillars, which an be seen in the photo below, especially if you enlarge it by clicking on it. And any geologist worth his/her halite will tell you that volcanic andesite is much harder than your run-of-the-mill stone from which most gothic cathedrals are constructed.
A feature that is ubiquitous among the classic gothic cathedrals is the “flying buttress”. According to my research, no one knows who the engineer was who invented the flying buttress, but it serves an essential structural function. Because they wanted the cathedrals to be light and beautiful, not dark and dreary, they wanted the walls to be mostly made from beautiful stained glass. But a glass wall would not be strong enough to support a stone (or andesite) roof, so they had to come up with a way to support a really heavy roof from a support structure that was not physically connected to the wall. Voilà! The flying buttress, which would carry the weight of the roof away from the building and down a column of stone to the ground. It wouldn’t matter what the walls were made of anymore, because they wouldn’t be carrying the weight of the roof. Here is what he flying buttresses look like at the Cathedral of Notre Dame Clermont.
Another feature common to every gothic cathedral is the gargoyles. It is the job of the gargoyle to ward off evil spirits and at the Notre Dame cathedral in Clermont – and probably at all other cathedrals – they stand at the ready, 24/7.
The interior of the cathedral features some magnificent stained glass windows that date back to the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries. It is said that the stained glass windows at Notre Dame Clermont were made at the same workshop that made those at Sainte Chapelle. The picture below shows the blue rose window over the main entrance (all cathedrals have a “rose window, it seems) which was made in the fourteenth century.
As I walk away from each of these beautiful and magnificent structures, I always ponder the same question: How the heck were they able to build these unbelievably awesome structures in the 13th century?? God only knows.