1996-Sep seminar

10 September 1996

Virginia Jansen

Professor Jansen (Professor of Art History, University of California at Santa Cruz, CA) presented some of her current work-in-progress, which is looking at the forms of medieval buildings to determine what the buildings might have meant to their originators and builders.


Her interest in undercrofts has led her to broaden her work outside of gothic church architecture to encompass secular buildings - much secular building has been neglected because it is in wood. (cf. a quote from Walter Horn: "such a good mind; such a pity he turned to timber"!) Traditional art historical analysis comes up short, because there is not much in the way of decoration to describe.

For example, here are some typical features of undercrofts:

  • relatively thin supports for the building above - the purpose of the building was often bulk storage, so their builders wanted to maximize the usable space;
  • absence of wall shafts - corbels were used instead, to minimize impact on floor space;
  • simple vaulting, simple moldings are normal;
  • seating of the ribs of the vaulting onto the capitals is quite steep, leading to taller arches (because space is tight, or perhaps the entry to the upper levels is restricted to a protected doorway)
  • the elevated first floor is dryer, warmer, and more secure than the ground level; it was thus useful for granaries, dormitories etcetera. It also sets it apart, making the house/building more visible and imposing - indicating status because of the greater (implied) cost;
  • (For example: the huge size of Fountains Abbey undercroft indicates a need for vast amounts of storage, which in turn implies wealth. It would have been used for beer, wine, and perhaps some wool, although most of the wool, as well as the grain, would probably have been stored in external barns.)


These buildings may well best reflect the intentions of medieval monastic life, which makes them particularly interesting. Of course, they had to be constructed early - before the monastery was occupied. The use of stone implied stability and long term presence..

A commonly observed pattern early on is the use of a single, insistent, repeated, regular of windows. Later on, this was extended to 2 rows: the upper one providing communal lighting; the lower one light for individual monks' areas.

Originally, all monks slept in a single large room - the openness providing both a sense of commonality as well as ease of supervision. By the 13th century, rib vaults were being used for such rooms; later still, the large areas were broken up into private areas with partitions. In 1666, individual cells were finally approved for "greater modesty".

Later hall churches adopted some of these design elements: large windows without stained glass; decoration in the vault; window tracery; no columns.

Typological approach to gothic architecture

This is a scheme that eschews the traditional chronological ordering with one based on the different uses to which buildings were put. Although it isn't always the right answer, it can provide another useful approach to help understand what is happening. For example:

  • Sainte Chappelle illustrates the money and power of the king of France - it's use of flamboyant is not just a style issue;
  • Temple Church in London is a hall church, provided to allow its use as a meeting room for a community of knights;
  • Chartres acts as a beacon to the surrounding countryside by virtue of its height and site on a hill; its long nave is designed to allow impressive processions; and the transepts emphasize the presence of the altar in a large building;
  • Vezelay is at pilgrimage site on the top of a hill; it has a large narthex to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims;
  • the west facade of Wells Cathedral was consciously used as a theatrical backdrop.

Selected bibliography

  • Abou-el-Hai, Barbara, "The Urban Setting for Late Medieval Church Building; Reims and its cathedra1 between 1210 and 1240," Art History, XI:11, 1988, 17-41.
  • While mostly on sculpture, paints political picture behind the riots of the 1230s which shut down building for a few years. Her dating, tied to these events, has been contested.
  • -----, "The Audiences for the Medleval Cult of Saints", Geste, XXX:1, l99l, 3-15
  • Coldstream, Nicola, "The Kingdom of Heaven," Age of chivalry: art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, eds. J. Alexander and P. Binski, Landon; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987, 92-97
  • Fergusson, Peter, "The Twelfth Century Refectories at Rievaulx and Byland," Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, eds. C. Norton and D. Park, Cambridge, 1986, 160-80.
  • -----, "Porta Patens Esto': Notes on Early Cistercian Gatehouses in the North of England," Medieval Architecture and its Intellectual Context, eds. E, Ferni. and P. Crossley, London: Hambledon Press, 1990, 47-59
  • Frisch, Teresa G., Gothic Art 1140-c.1450, Englowood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971, rept. Medieva1 Academy and University of Toronto Press
  • Graves, C. Pamela, "Social Space in the English Medieval Parish Church," Economy and Society, XVIII:3, 1989, 297-322
  • Gurevich, Aaron, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Horn, Walter, and Ernest Born, The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the architecture and Economy of, and Life in a Paradiqmatic Carolingian Monastery, 3 vols., Berkeley: University of California Press, l979
  • Jansen, Virginia, "Medieval 'Service' Architecture: Undercrofts,", Medieval Architecture and its intellectual context, eds. E. Fernie and P. Crossley, London: Hambledon Press, 1990, 73-79
  • Kraus, Henry, Gold was the mortar: the economics of cathedral building, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979
  • chapters on eight individual cathedrals; also excellent glossary of various categories of terms
  • Williams, Jane, Bread, wine, and money: the windows of the trades at Chartres Cathedral, Chicago: University of Chicego Press, I993
  • includes much history and social understanding of how building was used by various political groups
  • Wright, Georgia S., direator and producer, video, Light on the Stones: The Medieval Church of Ve'zelay, 1991
  • -----, video, Three English cathedrals [Norwich, Lincoln, and Wells], 1995(?)

Some names

  • Ste-Chapelle in Paris

Cellars of undercrofts

  • Provins
  • Fontenay - cistercian abbey
  • Santes Creus
  • Fontaine-Gue'rard - Cistercian nunnery, Normandy
  • Alsfeld
  • Nu"rnberg (Nuremberg)
  • Noyers, Burgundy; beautiful small medieval town
  • Monpazier - Sw France; a 13th century bastide (new town)
  • Fountains - N. England, Cistercian


  • Fontenay
  • Eberbach
  • Poblet
  • Santes Creun
  • Plan of St. Gall
  • Eberbach
  • Bebenhausen


  • St, Georg, Dinkelsbu"hl; St. Georg, No"rdlingen
  • Ste-Chapelle, Paris
  • Temple Church, London
  • Chartres Cathedre1
  • Aachen Palace Chapel; Trier, Liebfraukirche
  • Ve'zelay, Autun Cathedral of St. Lazare
  • Wells cathedral