Art students study gothic architecture at regional sites

Students hold a sign that reads "goth rocks" while visiting Virginia Tech's rock quarry

Dr. Carlee Bradbury's class visits the rock quarry at Virginia Tech.

Students in the gothic architecture class pose under cow gargoyles at Virginia Tech
Students in the gothic architecture class pose under cow gargoyles at Virginia Tech.

Students in Dr. Carlee Bradbury’s Gothic Architecture course (ARTH 414) received a special treat this fall semester thanks to funding from a High Impact Practices (HIP) grant. Her students were able to experience gothic architecture up close by traveling to locations in southwest Virginia to study buildings created in the distinctive style. Her students traveled to Blacksburg where they toured the rock quarry at Virginia Tech – a source for the famous Hokie Stone that adorns most buildings on the main campus. They also visited the university’s Drillfield where they examined the military-style gothic architecture of various buildings. The tour also included locating gargoyles on the campus and comparing them to those from the Middle Ages.

On a separate date, the class traveled to St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, Virginia. According to Bradbury, the building’s design is based closely to the famous Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris, France. Her students toured the interior of the building, discussing many of the individual elements of the architecture, from rib vaults to domed ceilings. While ongoing renovations at St. Andrew’s Church limited their access to some parts of the structure, students were able to speak with the conservators working on the brickwork, who explained that there is much more to brick and mortar than meets the eye.

As part of the class, students also visited McConnell Library, where they examined gothic style manuscript folios housed in special collections. Later in the semester graphic design major Colby Cline led a demonstration of how gothic scripts were once written.

Bradbury says the ability to offer field trips to see these locations made a tremendous difference in the students’ understanding of the course materials. “These trips allowed us to experience the physical details and intricacies of a gothic space as well as the materiality behind these elements. From stone to brick to glass, we were able to see how all of these individual parts make a whole cohesive space. Looking at images on a screen is no substitute for seeing the light change through a stained glass window or seeing the quarry dust on our clothes,” says Bradbury.

Karolin J. Howard, an art history major taking Bradbury’s course, felt that the experience greatly enhanced the course. “Being able to visit these locations improved my experience with that class tenfold. It gave me and my classmates a better understanding of the scale of these things rather than just seeing images online or in a textbook,” says Howard.

While visiting various locations, students were able to interact with experts in the field and learn about their respective trades, as well as background information.  Bradbury also arranged for recent art history alums to meet current students at each destination. 

Bradbury says she got the idea to do regional field trips during spring as she was planning the class. When news broke of the fire that gutted the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, it made her think about the importance of being able to admire something in person, as opposed to attempting to appreciate a work or architectural style solely from images and video. “I wanted to devise a way for my students to engage directly with Gothic architecture. The more I looked in the New River Valley and surrounding area, the more Gothic elements I found,” says Bradbury.

Students pose at St. Andrews Catholic Church in Roanoke, Virginia.

Gothic architecture students pose on the steps of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, Virginia.

Nov 11, 2019
Jason S. Hutchens, Ed.D.