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Exploring New Frontiers: Computer Research Points Way to Virtual Environments
--Can a Robot Help You Get into Graduate School?

Found in Space: CEL Spatial Data Server to Inform Students, Faculty, and Administration

Technology Unlocks Medieval Design Mysteries

It Was One Whale of an Internship

Administrative Fellows Learn While They Earn

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SPRING 2002 • VOLUME 6, NUMBER 3

BY BONITA SENNOTT

 
  After taking exhaustive measurements of the church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes, France, professor of art Michael Davis created this geometrical analysis of the cross-section of the church. It shows the structure and interior space.

The mysteries of the Gothic cathedrals have long fascinated both scholars and the general public. Just how were these soaring structures of stone and glass erected in the days before motors, generators, and power tools? Who created and hoisted into place those intricate stained-glass windows and stone sculptures? And what did these buildings—alive with an encyclopedia of images, from gargoyles to the life of Christ—mean to the religious and lay people of the time?

Over the centuries, much has been learned about the cathedrals, and in recent years books like David Macaulay’s Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction have popularized the subject. But mysteries remain. How, for example, did a medieval master mason—the equivalent of today’s architect—develop his design? What processes and guidelines did he follow? Answers to these questions are gradually materializing, thanks to the innovative research of Mount Holyoke Professor of Art Michael Davis, who teaches courses on the art and architecture of the Middle Ages, the history of modern architecture, and the arts of Islam. Along with his colleague Linda Neagley, an associate professor of art and art history at Rice University, Davis has been employing high-tech tools to shed new light on French Gothic architectural design of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Although nothing resembling a blueprint for a Gothic cathedral survives, Davis was curious about references he’d encountered in various historical documents to “learned treatises” on cathedral design. In the absence of these long-lost “learned treatises,” however, any evidence about cathedral design would have to be gathered from the buildings themselves. So he and Neagley began their research project, launched in 1992 and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, by taking exhaustive measurements of two French Gothic structures—the church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes and the abbey of Saint-Ouen in Rouen. Davis and Neagley focused on these buildings because they were constructed quickly and thus were most likely the work of a single master mason. They also aimed to connect their work with other building surveys—Neagley’s study of the Late Gothic parish church of Saint-Maclou in Rouen and the investigation by Stephen Murray of Columbia University of Amiens Cathedral—to create a bank of accurate plans upon which other scholars could draw.

After the mountains of data were compiled into ground plans, Davis then used a sophisticated computer program known as CAD (short for computer-assisted design) to analyze the design of Saint-Urbain, Troyes, a church built by Pope Urban IV on the site of his birthplace between 1262 and 1285. This analysis might have been daunting were it not for the assistance of Peter Zieja and Russell Boudreau in Mount Holyoke’s Office of Facilities Management. Not only did they have the latest CAD programs on hand, says Davis, but “they taught me everything I know about CAD.”

And, though CAD is sometimes scorned by architectural traditionalists as a “mechanical tool with no soul,” Davis says, its “rigor as an analytical tool” allowed him and Neagley to discover previously hidden geometrical relationships in the churches’ designs.

At Saint-Urbain, CAD analysis revealed, the master mason first set the dimensions of the external walls, or the building envelope, within the limits dictated by the physical site. Then, he delineated the central square, from which the building’s plan and elevation unfolded. Further, Davis discovered through CAD’s precision that this central square measured 36 Roman feet per side, a dimension with theological significance (a Roman foot equals approximately 29.5 centimeters or 11.6 inches). According to Saint Augustine, says Davis, “six was the perfect number because the sum and product of its factors—one, two, and three—are the same.” Thus, a thirty-six-foot square, derived from a multiple of the number six, bestowed a kind of divine perfection upon the building, which was understood by contemporaries as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The same geometry defined Saint-Urbain’s elevation, locking plan and structure together in a scheme of elegant simplicity that resonated with celestial meaning.

Traditionally, art history is taught by means of slide lectures in darkened classrooms. But when teaching his students about Gothic architecture, Davis has gone beyond the classroom, taking them outdoors for a hands-on learning component meant to convey “a sense of how a church was designed.” On a bright day last autumn, for example, students in his course Age of the Cathedrals: The Art of Gothic Europe, 1100–1500 took advantage of the open space of Skinner Green to investigate the master mason’s job for themselves. Taking measurements, working out dimensions, and staking string with Davis’s guidance, they experienced firsthand the genesis of a cathedral’s design.

Currently, Davis is writing a book on the work of Jean Deschamps, master mason of the Cathedral of Clermont. His aim, he says, is to “understand Gothic structures as human products, the results of the dynamic interaction of traditional craft training and the inventive decisions of individual masters.” By analyzing the results of his painstaking research with high-tech, “soulless” computer programs like CAD, he continues to reveal the very soul of medieval architecture, bringing to light the intentions and methods of its master masons.

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