Symbol - Florence vs. Cologne
Although technically a Gothic cathedral, the Duomo in Florence, Italy harkens back to classical design. Filippo Brunelleschi won the competition to design and orchestrate the construction of the cathedral's massive dome. He had visited Rome to study the architecture there, and was determined to rival the massive dome of the Pantheon. The construction of Brunelleschi's dome, begun in 1420, marked the resurrection of Roman building scale. The cathedral as a whole, in fact, seems to speak not a Gothic language, but the language of antiquity. This bold statement of classical rebirth is made apparent as the dome rises magnificently above surrounding buildings. This statement radiated a new attitude of faith in human endeavor.
The Kolner Dom cathedral in Cologne, Germany speaks a very different language, that is, one of the majesty and mystery of heaven. Seen from above, the cathedral boasts a large, white cross - a clear symbol of the Christian faith. The focus of the cathedral is one of verticality, light, and dematerialization. Tall spires and pointed arches reach toward heaven; giant stained glass windows filter in ethereal light.
Both cathedrals are symbolic messages to the cities in which they were built. The Duomo - with its massive dome, rounded arches, geometric shapes, and light palette - communicated to the citizens of Florence that classicism was rising again. The Kolner Dom - with its emphasis on verticality and light - pointed the citizens of Cologne toward the hope of heaven. No doubt the people of Florence and Cologne recognized these symbols, which were most certainly accompanied by cultural attitudes.
Understanding cultural context and the meanings therein can help us to understand symbols and how they spoke to people of the time.
Impressions - Florence vs. Salisbury
The Duomo cathedral in Florence, Italy and the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Salisbury, England give very different first impressions. The Duomo is quite different from a typical Gothic cathedral. Its palette is comparatively light; it is more geometric and visually solid, with an emphasis on form. Its impressive dome boldly soars above its surroundings, implying not so much a spirit of verticality but one of mass. Atop the dome and other roofed areas are terra cotta tiles. Exterior decoration displays some geometric forms. The structure that supports the two domes (one inside the other) is hidden from view.
The Salisbury cathedral emphasizes verticality with its pointed elements. Compared to the Duomo, it is visually less heavy, although its palette is darker. Large stained glass windows fill the cathedral interior with mystical light. Emphasis is on dematerialization of form. Decoration is delicate and intricate. Structure is externalized, demonstrated especially by the flying buttresses.
Both cathedrals have a colorful language of their own. The Duomo is lighter in palette, with almost a playful tone. Salisbury conveys a more serious attitude, but its stained glass windows create a colorful interior display. Both cathedrals tell stories with colorful imagery.
The choice of palette, form, materials, etc. for both cathedrals directly relates to the messages each one was built to convey. Both cathedrals are soaringly large and required the patronage of an entity as large as the Church.
Language - Florence vs. Amiens
The Duomo cathedral and the Notre Dame cathedral at Amiens in France speak different design languages. Duomo's nearly classical elements speak of the rebirth of antiquity. The cathedral does, however, speak a somewhat mixed language, incorporating Christian Gothic elements as well. The Amiens cathedral, on the other hand, contains a purity in the cohesion of its elements, being a perfect example of unadulterated Gothic styling. As one reflects on context, it seems somewhat appropriate that each cathedral developed in the place it did: Duomo in Italy - where the Renaissance would begin - and the Amiens cathedral in then still heavily Gothic France.
The smoothing of the ornamentation at Duomo does in fact signal changes in the attitude of the Church as it approached the Renaissance. Focus was shifting from the intricate Gothic language of heaven to a more geometric style and humanistic line of thought. Despite being more smoothed-out, the Duomo cathedral does have sculpted figures. The sculpture present in both cathedrals enhances the human experience by telling rich stories of the Christian religion - pages of the Bible carved in stone.
2) Domestic medieval interiors typically had a great hall where many different activities took place. This hall contained a dais, a screen, a centrally located fire pit (or later, a fireplace), and sometimes a minstrels' gallery above the screen. Colors were rich, including saturated green, blue, scarlet, violet, white, brown, and russet. Interior lighting was minimal, supplied by firelight, torches, candles, or lamps. Floors were composed of dirt, stone, clay, or brick; upper floors were composed of wood. Walls were made of wood paneling, stone, and plaster. Windows were small, although later in the period they became larger with the decreasing of outside threats. Glass was not prevalent. Doors were wooden and rectangular, with wrought iron hinges. Textiles were very important in these interiors, adding warmth to rooms yet remaining easily portable decorative features. Wall hangings were very common. Ceilings were vaulted, beamed, or timber-roofed. Furniture was sparse but included chairs, benches, stools, tables, cupboards, buffets, chests, and beds.
Harwood, Buie. Architecture and Interior Design Through the 18th Century, pg. 156. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.