Harmonies and Rhythms (Dennis Aubrey)


“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” Thomas Merton

The Romanesque and Gothic churches were built without any machinery other than that powered by muscle, whether animal or human. They were built without benefit of sophisticated measuring devices. Not only were they constructed well enough to stand for a thousand years, but they were built with an eye to the most sophisticated artistic standards, standards that had seldom been achieved before and more seldom since. They were designed with visual balances and harmonies that move us even today, when we have been exposed to the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan designs, designs that vainly attempt to create such a response that the simplest Romanesque church might evoke.

The monastery church of the Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll illustrates this clearly. The barrel vault leads us inexorably down to the apse and the sacred space of the altar. The visual path is supported by the rhythmic repetition of the bay arches and the clerestory windows above.

Nave of the Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll

That these visual elements were crucial to the design of the church is clear from another example, the wonderful Saint Philibert in Tournus. Here, a beautiful church used a superb innovation to solve one of the main technological obstacles facing the medieval builders – how to use a barrel vault to cover a large area like a nave. I am preparing a series of pieces on medieval vaulting, but briefly, here is the issue. A barrel vault like that in Ripoll is a series of arches that connect and span the length of a space, giving it a tunnel-like aspect. It was the earliest form of medieval vaulting and served well except for resulting in a very significant engineering problem. The horizontal thrust from the huge weight of the stone vaulting and the “rubble” filling in the area above the vault created a tremendous stress on the supporting walls. It is as if the blinded Sampson himself were pressing against the columns, the pressure would – and often did – spring the wall and send the vault crashing to the ground.

At Tournus, the builders created a remarkable innovation. Instead of having the barrel vault travel the length of the nave, placing that great strain on the supporting side walls, they laid them across the vault, one after the other. The lateral stresses of the vault therefore pressed one against the other, cancelling each other out. It was a brilliant structural solution.

Transverse barrel vaults, Abbatiale Saint Philibert, Tournus

However, this innovation was never repeated, despite its engineering genius. Why? Because the solution violated the visual flow of the space. Instead of leading the eye along the length of the nave to the key area of the apse, the transverse barrel vaults blocked that flow, interrupted the rhythm. The space no longer created the harmonies that were desired, required, by the builders and the monks who worked with them.

Quadripartite vaulting of the nave of the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny

Instead, they worked for a century to find another type of engineering solution that did not disturb the visual harmonies that were so important to them. The resultant quadripartite vaulting enhanced the flow, tying each vault section with the bay below, repeating one after the other leading to the eye’s object, the chancel beyond. The quadripartite vault also provided engineering solutions that allowed for thinner walls, larger windows, and reduced buttressing, but those would not have mattered had the visual effect been wrong. But the effect was not wrong, these were harmonies designed to reflect those found in Heaven, appropriate for a house of God. These were celestial harmonies, and these medieval builders found a means to reflect that divine perfection in the rudest of materials, stone.

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

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