The Book of Revelation speaks of the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. These last four things can be seen in Gothic architecture which functioned as a reminder of mortality and spiritual imperishability.

View a Graph of the Four Last Things 


The contemplation of decay and death was often met with the extreme opposite, the admiration of physical beauty. Medieval architecture attempted to capture the beauty of earthly possessions (soaring spires, stain glass windows, statues of the blessed Virgin) to build "heaven on earth." Gothic architecture was supposed to remind its observers of the heavenly Jerusalem, or the divine city described in St. Augustineís The City of God. "If the cathedral is supposed to represent the House of the Lord on earth, the cathedral must attain an otherworldly appearanceóin its statuary and stained glass and in its inspired and calculated formal transcendence of earthly limitations. It is medieval humanityís visionary conception of transcendental reality, the ultimate architecture of the Age of Faith." [1] The Gothic cathedral, with its colorful play of light, reminded people of Godís presence in their lives.

Although Suger was a religious churchman, he was extremely fond of physical splendor. He, like many writers of the following centuries, was greatly influenced by Neoplatonic thought. "Neoplatonism offered a reconciliation of this seeming contradiction. It claimed that through the contemplation of objects, of physical beauty we are led anagogically to higher, divine realities. Neoplatonism brought Suger closer to the Christian theme of God as light." [2]

There is a coexistence of opposite forces in medieval literature and art. One the one hand, there is the preoccupation with torture, death, sin, and the unknown after death. The illuminated manuscripts during the reign of King Charles Vth show images of the harrowing of hell, battling with devils, as well as celebratory images of mass which were held inside the sanctuary of the cathedral. On the other hand, there is the preoccupation with heavenly bliss after death (to good Christians) that acted as a comfort to those who were miserable and frustrated with their life on earth. In the visual arts, a drawing that proceeds the mid-fifteenth century depicts a beautiful woman in her coffin, adorned with fashionable clothing and jewels. Underneath her, in her coffin, lies another image of her only as a wretched skeleton infested with worms. This juxtaposition is meant to lead thoughts away from material possession towards the immaterial. It was important for people to be reminded of what awaits them upon death both optimistically and pessimistically.

Literature uses elegant rhetoric to properly describe noble women, material possessions, and, carnal love, to name a few. Focusing on these objects of desire is supposed to lead to thoughts about their demise. Demise and ultimate death are often juxtaposed with beauty and splendor. In literature, the beauty of a woman was equally admired, but in Chaucerís Book of the Duchess Blanche is dead, putting an end to her concerns for worldly possessions. In Troilus and Criseyde material versus the heavenly forces are in conflict. Most of the poem is preoccupied with material possessions and earthly love, but when Troilus loses Criseyde, and consequently dies in battle, he ascends to heaven in the following lines:

Up to the holughnesse of the eighte spere,
In convers letyng everich element;
And ther he saugh, with ful avysement,
The erratik sterres, herkenyng armonye
With sownes ful of hevenyssh melodie.

And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.

And in hymself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so faste;
And dampned al oure werk that foloweth so
The blynde lust, the which that may nat laste,
And shoulden al our herte on heven caste." [3]
The opposing forces of heaven verses earthly preoccupations are seen in the Gothic cathedral as well. The exterior of the cathedral from a distance appears to soar to heaven and magnify all earthly beauty as it reaches towards heaven. At the front door, Christ is seated as the Last and final Judge. Walking down the nave, a person can observe the play of light through the rose windows and stain glass windows that uplift the human spirit and evoke the spirit of God within him or her. Then, that person will hear a sermon on eternal damnation while surrounded by earthly beauty. These opposing forces work together to enhance the fear of death and the joy of heaven.

[1] Otto Von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral,(New York, 1956), p. 24.
[2] Isabelle Hyman and Marvin Trachtenberg,Architecture, (Englewood Cliffs, 1986) p. 227.
[3] Albert Baugh ed., Chaucerís Major Poetry,(Englewood Cliffs, 1963) p. 210.