Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The architecture of dreams

I am up and out of bed but struggling to feel like I am awake, and therefore struggling to begin writing my essay. I am hoping that an informal post about my ideas might help to navigate me out of my blurry haze and into the realms of essay. Comparing the architecture of dreams to the architecture of Gothic Cathedrals to assert the centrality of contemplative culture to Medieval religion, if I didn't feel so tired I would be very excited about my essay. In other words, the dream vision in the medieval period was not the privileged experience of saints, martyrs and starving mystics but was the universally encouraged experience of the masses. The design of Cathedrals, as George Henderson writes, is a manipulation of our senses which comes to define our religious experience. Incense, hymn, prayer, the taking of the Eucharist; religious practice is rich in sensory material which engages the participant but the space in which scents, sounds and thoughts echo is also important.

‘The mental associations, liaisons, meanderings to and fro, ‘ambivalences’, asides, sprawl of the pattern, if pattern there is- these thought-trains (or, some might reasonably say, trains of distraction and inadvertence) have been as often as not initially set in motion, shunted or buffered in to near sidings or off to far destinations, by some action or word, something seen or heard, during the liturgy.’ David Jones

Notre Dame, Paris

'The ambivalence of late-Gothic architecture is immediately obvious in the silhouette of buildings. Long since conditioned not to commit themselves to any formal accent unless they can balance by its opposite, Gothic architects even attempted a fantastic and ingenious compromise between the two poles of being and non-being. A Gothic building cannot simply stop, it has to fade away. Hence the familiar flurry of curves and spikes, by which the physical presence is gradually withdrawn and the dense material mass is dissolved into the empty air.' George Henderson, Gothic

Contemplating the facades of Gothic cathedrals we have our own sense of fading in to the air, of rising up from our corporeal bodies and receding in to the heavens. The facade guides viewer and dreamer in to the realms of 'non-being'. It introduces us to a sensation, which once inside, will overwhelm us.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

I was recently speaking to an architectural photographer who taught me something that I didn't know. To take photographs of buildings you need a special focusing lens which prevents the strange receding angles that your average digital camera struggling with the enormities of architectural perspectives resorts to. However in the contexts of Henderson's remarks the effect becomes entirely appropriate.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

'the triforium itself is glazed, so that the whole area above the arches of the main arcade and between the shafts which rise uninterrupted from column base to vault springs becomes a shimmering sheet of glass, articulated by the slender vertical mullions , and impregnated with sunlight.' Henderson

Describing a particular cathedral, Henderson captures the effect of combinations of light and highly articulated design to provide revelation. The vaulting of cathedral ceilings leads us upwards in to the heavens of the religious construction. The dream, just like the cathedral, has a complete architecture which encloses us and encompasses us within the meditation. As we enter the portals and arches of Cathedrals we move in to a different level of consciousness. The design of entrances which tell stories Purgatorial, Hellish or Heavenly and are inscribed with warning such as that of Dante's Inferno 'Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch' intrate', facilitate the movement between exterior and interior and the reflexive states.

Stained glass window, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Stained glass 'had to appear to be weightless and shot through with visible energy,' writes Henderson describing the window in terms comparable to the dream vision; a sensation of weightless energy. Looking through the window we are drawn in to an alternative visionary world where things are expressed in image, type and symbols, where tableau are familiar and yet strangely vivid. Countless medieval visions begin with a light through a window, an illumination which opens up a parallel perspective.

Cave church, Budapest- particularly interesting for ideas about mystics and affective piety.

In the Revelation of St. John, Chapter 21 the Holy city of Jerusalem, a vision of heaven, is described:

'and had a great wall and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon [...] and on the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates...and the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth...And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits...And the building of the wall it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones.'

This description of Jerusalem reads like an architectural plan; offering measurements and the construction along an axis. The specificities give the architect an ideal to aim for, so that the emulation of Heavenly Jerusalem in Cathedral plans became a genuine possibility. Paradise, etymologically, is a walled garden and so religious buildings themselves become gestures towards paradise, or at least spaces in which the contemplation of paradise is sensorily encouraged. Each Cathedral becomes a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem brought down to earth.

Anyway there is an outline of a few ideas, time to actually write the essay!


  1. If your essay is as half as lovely as this post you will get top marks! Those photographs are beautiful, I have been to Mass at Notre Dame, and have also visited the Cave Church in Budapest. I haven't been to Prague (yet) but want to go so I can see the Child of Prague in the Church of Our Lady of Victory. Did you go there too or only to St Vitus. What a wonderful topic to write upon: medieval dreams, Gothic architecture and the scents, sounds and prayers in these special Cathedrals built so long ago. Once again, you have me in Jude-like awe Franipan.

  2. I have popped back to reread this wonderful post.