Shopping Cathedrals

The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, 
walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger 
openings in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside. Abbot 
Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is one of the 
first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the 
glass and kept a journal of what was done. He truly believed that the 
presence of beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God.

With the advent of the cathedral as a regional seat of power in the early 
Middle Ages, the art of forming mosaics of stained glass in windows 
flourished. Though the art had been in use elsewhere, the extravagant and 
symbolic use of the windows would see their peak with The Church. The works served several purposes aside from the architectural:

First, for a population that was almost wholly illiterate, the depictions of 
bible stories would serve as illustrations and lessons for the priests and 
bishops to point to during mass.

Second, they created a holy ambience that would focus the congregation. The 
stained glass would change the color and quality of the light in the knave, 
giving what to the peasant would seem an ethereal glow. This created an 
atmosphere “primed” for worship, convenient since most of those present 
wouldn’t understand the Latin lessons anyway.

Third, symbolically they represented a membrane between the sacred and the 
profane. Through the window was the real world. Sin, hate, pain, suffering. 
The stained glass was a shield from that into the sanctuary of the church 
and instead made the window a symbolic looking glass into the Heavens.

Quite a lot of structural and functional utility in such a simple concept.  So what does any of this have to do with modern consumerism?  Simply this: the world of shopping has radically changed and a warehouse filled with the latest, greatest things is no longer viable.  Stores need to think about the power of their architecture, from the functional elements to the symbolic.


Gavin J. and Matt C.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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