Spiritual architecture reflects the preoccupations of the communities that commission and design it. At times these preoccupations are well-documented by first-hand sources who provide us with insight into contemporary aspirations, ideals, and challenges. At other times, documentation never existed, or was never intended to be archival and has since been lost. Some reconstruction of society and events can be done from indirect sources; we can study contemporary reports or objects for indications of these same preoccupations, topical themes that were addressed with frequency in the society, and with these studies hope to come closer to an understanding of the motivations behind the formation of some of the most lasting and most inspiring of works.
Thick-walled Romanesque monasteries express austerity with the simplicity of their arches made from brick and local stone. Centuries later we can still sense the rules that governed the days of the inhabitants. Gothic cathedrals raise the eye upward to the skies with their verticality and lightness. The rib vaulting and soaring towers accompany prayers heaven-ward.
With Vitruvius as a guide, Renaissance architects return to the elegance of symmetry and proportion that characterized classical buildings, and used ancient Rome as a model as often as possible. Vitruvius’ relation of the human figure to the fundamental geometry and proportion of architecture serves to affirm the renaissance beliefs that “man is the measure of all things,” as seen Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of Vitruvian Man, and Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria.