Medieval Architecture

Cathedral church of St Peter, Peterborough, England. West front, completed by 1237.

Cathedral church of Our Lady, Kalundborg, Denmark. Built c.1190.
Left: St Michael’s church, Coxwold, North Yorkshire. early 15th C.
Right: St Mary’s church, Brook, Kent. Wall paintings of late 11th C. and 12th C.
St Mary’s church, Brook, Kent. Wall paintings of late 11th C. and 12th C.
Cloister and garth of the Cathedral Church of St Mary, Salisbury. Completed by 1260.
Left: Nave, Christ Church cathedral, Canterbury, 1379-1405
Right: Nave, St Paul’s cathedral, London. 1681-1702.
St-Michel d’Aiguilhe, Le-Puy-en-Velay. 11th C.

The building achievements (particularly the great churches) of the Middle Ages are still astonishing. They seem to have an integrity which we hardly know about. Again, to do with meaning. Curiously, while the medieval intellectuals wrote treatises on almost everything, the big gap was in visual arts and architecture—they didn’t write about it. Their architects and builders just did it, and knew what they were doing. No self-obsession, no hubris, or obtuse theories. By focussing on churches and cathedrals my PhD thesis was able to make radical connections between the architecture and pertinent statements of theology, and conclude that the integrity of these buildings derives from their being acts of love for God. Then there is an ethic of virtue in them. Style in itself is not what they are about.

The decline of Gothic architecture is instructive (albeit complex), and seems to illustrate salutary lessons which may have to be relearnt. There are big ramifications for what we do today in architecture and all fields of the arts—everything we make—all our work.

Look well at their work

Common experience of medieval churches is usually limited to the more frequently visited, or the most famous, places, or gained from well illustrated sources; and the impression may be that there is a typical form and appearance and that variations are slight. In fact the differences are very wide, as illustrated here by Peterborough and Kalundborg. Even churches and cathedrals conceptually similar are actually remarkably distinctive. It is a reflection of the way they were made, particularly the intense human input of hand, and mind, and heart.

This forum needs, ideally, to not just talk about architecture but to see it. Even to visit the places and buildings remaining in Europe is to gain an appreciation obtainable in no other way. Yet the buildings are, in the main, not now displaying their original qualities.

Still, we can do well to spend time looking at photographs—it can, however, be daunting to know where to begin. In my direct experience of medieval churches, first in England, I began, as it happened, by visiting many small parish churches. They also, in a very fragmentary way, led me to see the importance of the decoration, particlarly interiorly. The works of mural painting, sculpture, carving, glass, etc, are integral with the building, while their subject matter links in theology or religious motivations.

For a 21st century architect to experience a great medieval cathedral is a very demanding process, for even if one’s approach is quite objective there always seems to be some thing, or many things, which elude analysis or tidy description. So the subjective asserts itself in ways difficult to analyse. For instance, one might try to explain the acoustics which enable an unaccompanied solo boy soprano to be heard with crystal clarity throughout the vast space—but cannot explain the lump in one’s throat and tears in the eyes. The nearest truth might be that one is affected by love. The same happened when I first passed from the cathedral into the cloister at Salisbury. It was the sort of thing Dante meant by the phrase, ‘the mind in love.’

One might see these great churches and cathedrals as instances of vernacular building, and, considering the high design skills involved, call it vernacular architecture—in the generic sense. The opposite is probably ‘monumental’ architecture. Accordingly (and among other reasons), a medieval cathedral, such as Canterbury, appeals to, and works on, very different sensibilities than does a Renaissance cathedral, such as St Paul’s, London.

As a piece of architecture the Church of St-Michel d’Aiguilhe at Le-Puy-en-Velay is rather unremarkable (excepting the decorative work around the entrance), yet it has the power to affect one greatly—the extraordinary situation; the experience of the ascent; the strongly enclosing dim interior—and it all seems to be for the sake of the frescoed domed vault conveying symbolic images of heaven and deity. In simple terms, it is a building full of meaning and significance beyond art theory and architectural explanation.

GAPS Arts Lectures


Dr Michael Wright  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 11 November, 2012

There are many impulses behind monasticism; one, perhaps of special importance for the people who endowed monasteries, may have been the desire to sacralize a part of this world, to make an enclave that regained something of the character of the world before the Fall.

This talk considers two passages of text, from Late Antiquity and from the Early Middle Ages, which incorporate non-human creatures in a monastic reclamation of Eden.

Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) was a minister of Theodoric the Great. Unlike his predecessor in office, Boethius, he survived his engagement in politics, and was able to go into retirement. He converted his family estate in the south of Italy into a site for monastic retreat and training. His book, Institutiones (instructions), is a guide to its use for the monks who settle there.


The estate was known as Vivarium, from the fishponds that were a prominent feature, and this talk begins with Cassiodorus’ description of them. The Anglo-Saxon princess Edith, who lived in her mother’s monastery at Wilton, established a menagerie there. Edith was sainted after her early death, and her hagiographer is challenged to make a petting zoo consistent with the saintly life.

  • Michael Wright, M.A., PhD, was a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, where he is currently Honarary Research Fellow


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 17 April, 2011

This forum event focusses on building and visual arts, making connections with intellectual and spiritual activity in the Middle Ages. The extraordinarily beautiful and lasting achievements are an inspiration to examine how such qualities arose. In spite of the medieval work being all hand made, in contrast with modern mechanised methods, there are relevant aspects which we can learn from.


The talk and slides will present church architecture and art of the Middle Ages and draw on the contemporary theology and philosophy.

A number of topics will be considered:

Aiming at perfection – building the fabric – Nature – creativity – pattern and model – meaning – skill – mechanics – works of love

Medieval authors will be appealed to. For example, Thomas Aquinas (1225–74):

The perfection of any effect whatever consists in its likeness to its efficient cause.

The works of a clever artisan appear wondrous because it is not evident to other people how they are produced.

We will not take an historical approach, but through appreciation it may be we can relearn some of the fundamentals of the arts which are perhaps neglected or contradicted in Post-modern thinking.

Background knowledge is not important. There are insights in this relevant to present-day ideas and work, and we particularly invite students and graduates in these fields.

(The talk is based on one previously given on 30 August, 2009, but will use a largely different set of pictorial illustrations.)


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 15 May, 2011

This talk follows on from the topic, Medieval Craftsmanship, of 17th April, (but also stands alone) and lays further groundwork for future topics. It focusses on church architecture and art of the Middle Ages, making connections with the culture and thinking of the time.


Medieval artificers left virtually no written texts, but from contemporary theologians, philosophers, and poets we can gain valid insights into the great works of skill and ingenuity. The modern meaning of ‘artifice’ has shifted away from the earlier emphasis on the nature of the work produced. The talk and slide show develops such themes as:

Truthful art – potency and act – the mind’s eye – instrumentality – integrity – ingenuity – signification – transformation

Artifice, along with the previous thinking about craftsmanship, may be seen to precede, and prepare for, any discussion about design, or beauty aimed at in an artificer’s work. There is more to explore, discuss, and enjoy.

  • (This is substantially a repeat of the talk given on 8 December 2009, with many different pictorial illustrations.)


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm. Sunday, 1 December, 2013

This is the 40th GAPS ARTS session. We will finish the year with a quite informal appreciation of some of the small medieval village and country churches still extant.

Little medieval churches

vernacular building and the architecture of the spirit

GAPS ARTS talks on architecture have often referred to vernacular building – from European cathedrals to New Zealand baches. Small churches ubiquitous in the Middle Ages form a special genre full of rich signification of love and aspiration.

Come and enjoy the visual delight, discussion, supper – and the GAPS ambience.

Swedish Medieval Architecture

Dr Ivo Holmqvist  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 27 April, 2014

In the first of two talks on architecture in Sweden, approximately five hundred years will be covered, from the introduction of Christianity around the year 1000 to the Reformation in the early decades of the 16th Century which left many monasteries in ruin. Different types of profane as well as religious buildings (farms and manor houses, castles, churches, and cloisters), different types of materials (timber, brick and stone) and colour schemes will be discussed.

Visby, Gotland. Historic Cities Research Project (Ozgur Tufekci).

The growth of Swedish cities and the continental influence on their planning will be commented on, like the Old City in Stockholm and the walled-in city of Visby on the Baltic Island of Gotland, with their counterparts in the Hanseatic League in Germany (Bremen, Lübeck and Hamburg), Latvia (Riga), and Estonia (Reval/Tallin).

The romanesque character of Lund cathedral, partly the work of stone masons from Northern Italy (Lombardy), and the gothic character of the cathedrals in Strängnäs and Uppsala will be noted. A survey of the castles (Stockholm, Kalmar, Gripsholm) built during the reign of King Gustav Vasa, a contemporary of Henry VIII, will lead to remarks on changing building traditions in the ensuing Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Dr Ivo Holmqvist is professor emeritus in Scandinavian and North European Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium. He and his wife Ingwor taught Scandinavian Studies at Auckland 1972-1974 and from 1994 to the closure of that section in 2001. Back in New Zealand since 2008, they run the Scandinavian Light B & B in Laingholm. Ivo Holmqvist has written books on the Anglo-Welsh writer Richard Hughes and on the Danish ones Hans Christian Andersen and Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen. Most recently, Ingwor and Ivo have written the textbook Get Started in Swedish, published by Hodder in London and McGraw Hill in New York (2013).


Graham Strez  •   7.00 pm, Sunday, 19 April, 2015

Bath Abbey, England
Bath Abbey, England

Medieval church building was influenced by Roman architecture and the style survived until the Renaissance and beyond. It has many overlays—social, liturgical, architectural, artistic, sculptural, geographical and geological. We will focus instead on the structural aspects of stone roof vaulting.

Few contemporary accounts about the construction of Gothic buildings survive. These illuminated manuscripts provide limited insight into the stone masonry construction process. Modern structural analysis of Gothic stone vaulting has left academics puzzled about the extent of the stone mason’s understanding of structural forces within vaulted structures. Some vaults exhibit similar structural characteristics to those of modern thin-shelled structures and their in-plane contained forces.

This lecture will concentrate on how the stone mason’s craft developed during the Medieval era, with examples from English cathedrals, which were technically more inventive than their Continental and Scandinavian counterparts. Comparative examples of vaulting in Roman, Early Christian, Romanesque and Gothic eras will be illustrated and discussed, together with their reliance upon various supporting trade guilds and their on-site management.

We will look at cathedral plans, and structure, including the pointed arch and roof vaults with their supporting ribs, some of which were pushed to their structural limits and beyond, and we will see contemporary examples of the ancient craft of stone-masonry.

Graham Strez, Dip.Arch., Dip.Urb.Val., FNZIA, is an architect in his own practice. He was a senior lecturer in practice management at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning, 2003-08. He is the claims director and assessor for the N.Z. Architects Cooperative Society, and provides nationwide professional development lectures and seminars on architectural risk management and professional indemnity insurance. None of this has put him off architecture. He also enjoys model and jewellery making and classical piano.


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 21 September, 2014

In the Middle Ages monks and scholars contemplated Nature to understand their place in the whole order of things. Nature was also looked into as a mirror of the mind and purposes of God the Creator. Medieval minds at many levels were in love with ‘things’, things ‘in nature’, and the multitude of real existences.

While the great churches and cathedrals of the 13th and 14th centuries evolved from earlier tradition, the architects, artists, and master-masons derived ideas and images from learning and nature for the form and finished appearance of the buildings.

‘Logic not only reigns over invention and judgement, but is also skilled in division, definition, and argumentation. In short, it produces a master craftsman.’

—John of Salisbury (d. 1190)

‘The measuring line of the mind first lays out the work, and one mentally outlines the successive steps in a definite order. The mind’s hand shapes the entire building before the body’s hand builds it. Its mode of being is archetypal before it is actual.’

—Geoffrey of Vinsauf (1210)

The second part of the talk shows many examples of Gothic vaulting, focussing on the variety of forms and, from evidence still available, the loveliness of much of the decoration.

Eu Normandy,France

Nivelles, Belgium



John Lewis  •  Sunday, 7.00pm . 5 March, 2017

You might say, 'They speak for themselves.' That's if we give them some real attention. When we do we see so much diversity and richness of expression.

Rhetoric was an important skill - it was applied in all arts, not just literary. In a medieval architect's skill in conveying intention and meaning, it also meant a good grammar appropriate to the discipline, and intelligent visual dialectic.

Through the Middle Ages Cicero's identification of five parts of rhetoric were the framework followed in poetics, with illustrations often from architecture.

A poet, Henry of Avranches, wrote around 1230 in praise of Lincoln Cathedral. He described the flashing rhetoric of the living building thus:

  • The insentient stones enclose the mysteries
  • of living stones; the fabric made with hands
  • depicts the fabric of the spirit;
  • just so the appearance of the church
  • flashes out double, adorned in the twofold arrangement.

The slides presented in the talk will be an attempt to convey something of this.

John Lewis John Lewis, B.Arch, M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, has been a practising architect, and now specialises in the theology, architecture and art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and in the poet Dante. He runs the GAPS ARTS programme.




Michael Milojevic  •  Sunday, 1 October, 2017, 7.00 pm

Hilandar Monastery on Mt Athos

Of the twenty ancient Athonite monastic communities which have morphed over more or less a millennium to accommodate a form of modern existence Hilandar is the most recent to have endured a catastrophic fire necessitating a major reconstruction. In the past thirteen years of continuous work there exceptional access has been granted to the site allowing for further research and new representations.

Michael has worked periodically since 2002 on the reconstruction of Hilandar monastery on Mt Athos. He will give an update, with a topographic model, a dynamic building model, and spherical images.

Michael Milovejic Michael Milovejic, has studied and taught in Canada, the US and UK and taught architectural history at the School of Architecture and Planning University of Auckland for last quarter of a century.
He has periodically visited, documented and led architectural study tours to Hilandar Monastery since 1970