Reaching to Heaven: Similarities between Early French Gothic Cathedrals and Medieval Bagan Temples

By Krista Rodin.

Published by The International Journal of Arts Theory and History

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published Online: January 21, 2016 $US5.00

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a country blessed with a rich heritage of sacred art and architecture. During the medieval period Bagan was the center of power for the Pagan Empire and the site where most major sacred buildings were constructed. Members of the royal family were the primary sponsors of the numerous temples, pagodas, stupas and monasteries. The power of the ruling family’s faith, and its portrayal in sacred art across the country, influenced the development of a unique form of architecture that flourished from the early 11th to the mid-13th centuries. The most famous examples of this style are the gold-gilded stupas that remain the pride of the country and the thousands of temples in Bagan, whose spires reach towards the heavens the same way contemporaneous early Gothic church spires do in Northern France. During this time period, Paris was ruled by kings who believed, or at least acted as if they believed, that God was on their side; they too sponsored the construction of numerous sacred buildings. In both instances the sacred sites were constructed to demonstrate the ruler’s faith to his people and used artistic techniques that explained the teachings of the faith to their subjects. The building projects they sponsored utilized new architectural forms to correspond to a changing worldview, specifically the introduction of light into the formerly dark spaces to symbolize the glory of the divine. In both kingdoms, architects started to use a vaulted arch to achieve this purpose and to create a sense of verticality missing in earlier structures. In order to aid the flow of traffic for pilgrimages, ambulatories were built around sacred relics with open niches for statuary. While there is no known documentation of any direct contact between the kings in France and Burma, nor is there any record of direct trade contact, it is common knowledge that the Crusades in the Middle East brought Eastern ideas to the West and Persian trade influenced design features in the East. In the 11th to 13th centuries the ancient Silk Road continued to be a conduit for an exchange of ideas as well as goods. This paper looks at the similarity in intent on the development of Early French Gothic Cathedrals in Paris and stupas and temples in contemporaneous Bagan, Myanmar as well as the development and use of some common architectural elements.

Keywords: Medieval Religious Art and Imagery, Saint-Denis Cathedral, Bagan, Myanmar

The International Journal of Arts Theory and History, Volume 11, Issue 2, June, 2016, pp.23-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: January 21, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 840.208KB)).

Dr. Krista Rodin

Professor of Humanities, Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, College of Arts & Letters, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, USA