Urban Churches

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Urban Churches


Churches and Chapels. Many churches other than monasteries existed, and even monasteries varied widely. A village often had a local church whose priest ministered to that community and sometimes even to neighboring villages. Within towns there could be urban monasteries (generally founded before the town itself), parish churches whose priests acted much like village priests, private chapels, and other ecclesiastical institutions and structures. Like monasteries, most were built of stone, and, like monks, the clergymen who ran them had a higher standard of living and controlled a larger amount of property than most of their neighbors. Like their monastic counterparts, these clergy also had a day that was regulated at least in part by an ecclesiastical calendar and the need to say mass or perform other religious services. Urban churches often had significant differences from their rural counterparts. In particular, the urban church was often identified with the urban community,


In 1308, when Duccio di Buoninsegna, the leading painter in Siena during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, was hired to paint a Maesta (Virgin in Majesty) to replace the old altarpiece in the cathedral of Siena, his contract included the following provisions:

[He agrees] to make the said panel as even he was able … and to work continuously upon it at such times as he was able to work on it, and not to accept or receive any other work to be carried out until the said panel shall have been made and completed. … [Duccio is to be paid] sixteen soldi of Sienese money for each day that the said Duccio shall work with his own hands on the said panel except that if he should lose any part of the day there should be a deduction from the said salary established in proportion to the time lost. …

In like manner, the said Clerk of the Works … promises to supply and to give all those things which shall be necessary for the working of the said panel, so that the said Duccio shall be bound to put nothing into it except his person and his work. … Moreover the said Duccio, for greater precaution, swore voluntarily on the Holy Gospels of God, physically touching the book, that he would observe and implement each and everything in good faith and without fraud.

Source: Paul Binski, Medieval Craftsmen: Painters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 50–51.

and its maintenance and the activities of its residents were seen as reflections on that community. For this reason, among others, urban laity became increasingly involved in the Middle Ages with the administration of their churches and the daily life of their clergy.

Cathedrals and Civic Life. A cathedral was a church that was the seat of a bishop; it was the symbolic center of his authority because it sheltered the episcopal throne that represents his spiritual and temporal authority. The cathedral complex of which it was a part housed the episcopal court and a college of canons, clergymen who assisted the bishop and who administered the cathedral and its properties. Because it was the tallest and largest building, the cathedral came to symbolize the status and aspirations of the city. A city with a cathedral had enormous regional stature and a consistent source of revenue from pilgrims, donors, and other visitors. In addition, the cathedral often provided a dramatic backdrop for key urban events. Not only were religious feast days celebrated most dramatically there, but the square in front of the cathedral and the cathedral cemetery gradually became the largest open spaces in most medieval towns. As such, they were sites for assemblies, elections, marketplaces, and even playing fields. Surrounded by the graves of their ancestors, urban citizens elected their leaders.

Cathedrals and Education. Cathedral schools were one of the few ways a young man could receive a literary education. Although most of the pupils were intended for the priesthood, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries boys of the upper or prosperous classes might receive a year or two of formal schooling from the church or a cathedral school. Some students were admitted on charity. In cathedral schools boys learned to read, write, and add basic figures. Any further education was often dependent on the career a boy’s father or guardian chose for him. Boys who were in training to be churchmen might get further schooling, particularly by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Building Cathedrals. Citizens and clergy often cooperated in building enormous and elaborate cathedrals, developing along the way many of the most innovative building techniques and designs of the Middle Ages. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries, churches were built and rebuilt all over Europe in the Romanesque style. At the same time that the Romanesque style was reaching its height, a new architectural style was developed: Gothic design. Led by Abbot Suger of the monastery of St. Denis outside of Paris, Gothic architects attempted to transcend the height limits imposed by heavy stone construction and to convey the light and mysteriousness of God. In the process they raised medieval churches to unheard-of heights; for example, the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is 107 feet high (approximately ten stories tall) and 493 feet long. Spreading from northern France to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and England by the fourteenth century, Gothic architecture became the style most frequently associated with medieval churches. Towering over the towns that surrounded them, Gothic cathedrals were a dramatic statement of the devotion, determination, and prosperity of both the ecclesiastical and secular community. These qualities often led to competition between towns over which could build the highest or most elaborate cathedrals. Such competitions halted in 1284 when the nave at Beauvais in northern France collapsed.

Builders. The figures responsible for developing the innovations that made Gothic cathedrals possible—such as groin and rib vaults and flying buttresses—were the master masons, who also coordinated the hundreds of workmen and dozens of craftsmen employed in constructing cathedrals. Some masons signed their work. Villard de Honnecort is probably the best known because of the survival of his sketchbook. Like other master masons, Villard was proficient in geometry and algebra. Using sketches and models he guided stonemasons, carpenters, and other craftsmen in working with thousands of tons of lumber, stone, and metal. The first stages in building a cathedral involved laying stone foundations and building a timber framework to support the vaults and arches during construction. Stone was lifted into place using a simple hoist or the “Great Wheel,” a treadmill-powered hoist mounted in the roof beams that looks like a much larger version of the wheels put in hamster cages. Scaffolding was built next to the structure as it was being constructed; and, as passages and stairways were completed, stairways between layers of the building gave access to outside walls and the roof. While some of the workers were highly skilled craftsmen, other individuals provided brute force and were paid minimal salaries.

Sculptors. Among the important contributors to the beauty of cathedrals were the sculptors, most of whom did not sign their work. Sculpture was used extensively in decorating the insides and outsides of Gothic cathedrals. While gargoyles are probably the best-known medieval sculptures, elaborate traceries and life-size statues were more common. On the columns and pillars inside the church were statues of saints and carvings representing key moments in the lives of Jesus and the saints. Later in the Middle Ages gravestones with relief carvings of the dead were set into the floors, and freestanding tombs with effigies and other decorative motifs were placed between pillars or in side chapels. The doorways of Gothic cathedrals commonly included sculptures designed to convey important messages about Christianity and salvation to all who entered the cathedral. For example, the cathedral of Chartres has three doorways on its west front. Above each doorway in a recessed arch is a carved scene depicting the story of Christ and his redemption. The large panel (tympanum) on the right shows Mary giving birth, presenting Jesus at the temple, and sitting on a throne with the baby Jesus. The left door portrays Christ ascending into heaven; a series of signs pointing to the end of the world and the Last Judgment accompany Christ. Above the center entrance the sculptor displayed Christ in Majesty with the Apostles below him and figures from the Book of Revelation surrounding him. Supporting each of these arches and surrounding the entrances to the Church are twenty-four life-size sculptures of kings and prophets from the Old Testament, Christ’s human and spiritual ancestors. The sculptures at the west front of Chartres are representative of the decorative and instructive schemes of Gothic cathedrals.

Other Artisans. Medieval builders and craftsmen decorated Gothic cathedrals using many other techniques besides sculpture. Floors were tiled or inlaid with marble; walls were whitewashed or painted with religious scenes; and architectural features might be highlighted with gilding. The lower tier of windows and the main windows in the front and back of the church were made of stained glass, which set prisms of colors radiating around the church. Parishioners and other devout people presented the cathedral with silver and gold candlesticks, embroidered linens, and devotional paintings. Even poor people could express their piety, leaving little images around altars or other places in the church in remembrance of some favor God had shown them. These images were known as ex votos and could take many shapes: dolls, tiny pictures, no-longer-needed crutches. Another sign of devotion was an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a small wax statue in the shape of a lamb, about three or four inches high. Especially by the late Middle Ages, a Gothic cathedral was an almost riotous mix of color, image, and texture, not the plain and stately structures that remain.

Painters and Patrons. Devotional pictures played a central role in the medieval church. Not only were they testimonies to the faith of the person who ordered them and had them hung, but they served as lessons for illiterate churchgoers. Cathedrals were frequently decorated with wall paintings, frescoes (paint applied to wet plaster), and canvases commissioned by major corporations or powerful clans. The contracts for such work show the important role of the patron in medieval art. The painter was regarded as a skilled craftsman, not as an inspired artist. The client often determined the subject and composition of the painting and specified the materials and colors to be used in creating it. Colors were particularly important because of their symbolic and actual value; certain paints, such as gold and blue, required expensive dyes. The use of such materials testified to the client’s willingness to spend a great deal of money to glorify God or the saints depicted in the painting—and gave earthly glory to the client. Because painting cycles could cover entire church walls, whole workshops could work for years on them; for example, in the Arena Chapel in Padua murals by the Italian master Giotto cover the walls entirely from floor to ceiling, and even the ceiling is painted to look like the heavens. Painters often decorated the altars, the pillars, and various freestanding sculptures in the cathedral.


Paul Binski, Medieval Craftsmen: Painters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

Jean Bony, French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

Nicola Coldstream, Medieval Craftsmen: Masons and Sculptors (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989).

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).

Hans Erich Kubach, Romanesque Architecture (New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1988).

Elizabeth Bradford Smith and Michael Wolfe, eds., Technology and Resource Use in Medieval Europe: Cathedrals, Mills, and Mines (Alder-shot, U.K. &Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997).