Mapping Gothic France: Digital Insights Into the Genius of Medieval Cathedrals

October 16, 2011

Art history professor Stephen Murray has been lucky enough to spend months at a time snapping pictures of France’s Gothic cathedrals so others interested in these architectural marvels who may not have the resources to go to Europe won’t have to.

The fruits of the project—some 30,000 high-resolution images and hundreds of 360-degree views of more than 200 cathedrals—can be found on the award-winning website, Mapping Gothic France ( The site was developed by a team including former and current Columbia students led by Murray and Andrew Tallon, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia and now teaches art history at Vassar College.

The project helps bring the study of art history into the 21st century. Gone are the days of showing students art via carousels of slides projected onto a screen in a darkened classroom. Now, the Mapping Gothic France team employs digital imaging, panoramic photography and other technological advances to create new ways to learn about France’s Gothic cathedrals, which date from the 13th century. 

“For students, there’s nothing more frustrating than looking for a picture in a book and finding this fuzzy thing where you can’t see what you really want to see,” says Murray, the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History and chairman of the art history department at Columbia.

The website, which received a 2010 Horizon Interactive Award, uses a variety of high-resolution images that let visitors pan the interiors of cathedrals and zoom in on architectural details and create 3-D pictures of buildings that can be viewed from every angle.

An ordinary digital camera has around 12 megapixels, or 12 million pixels per image. Murray, Tallon and their colleagues achieved far greater clarity and detail by using both a 40 megapixel camera and a gigapixel camera, which packs 1 billion pixels into every frame.

A panoramic view of the nave of a cathedral, for example, conveys the sheer grandeur and towering height of the building. And zooming in on an image taken with the gigapixel camera reveals cracks and bits of color that could never be seen by the naked eye.

Some of the extraordinary special effects are due to point cloud imaging, which uses laser scanners to produce a three-dimensional map of a surface that can be rotated. “It’s a bit like a sonar device in a submarine,” says Murray. “You can combine it with photography so the surfaces are lifelike in the sense that they are actually photographic and illusionistic.”

Tallon (GSAS’07), an assistant professor of art history at Vassar whose research interests include the virtual representation of architectural space, pioneered the use of point cloud imaging. He and Murray were part of a Columbia team that worked on the PBS/Nova documentary Building the Great Cathedrals, which first aired in October 2010 and was nominated for two Emmys.

“The work is intense—we are obliged to move quickly through the buildings,” says Tallon. “So the opportunities for unhurried reflection are few. Nonetheless, there have been many moments—standing beneath the flying buttresses in the choir of the abbey church of Fécamp (a Benedictine abbey in Normandy), for example—when something clicks, and you know that not only will you be bringing back some of the most extraordinary photography of the building ever made, but that you understood something in a completely new way.”

Murray has long used technology to study art history. Before he began work on Mapping Gothic France in 2008, he teamed up with Tallon and another Columbia doctoral candidate, Rory O’Neill, to build imaging databases for the 13th century Amiens Cathedral in northern France, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and France’s 11th and 12th century Romanesque churches. 

It was during their first collaboration in 1994 that Murray founded the Media Center for Art History in the Department of Art History and Archaeology with a prestigious Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center, now directed by Caleb Smith, was designed to create technological platforms for education. Smith also helped build Mapping Gothic France, along with O’Neill and Rob Stenson, a former undergraduate of Murray’s who wrote the website code after joining the project in 2010.

Stenson “loved listening to Beatles music and so do I,” says Murray. “So we used to drive the car around France from building to building listening to loud Beatles music. In the evenings we’d come home and make ourselves a grand meal, and then very often after dinner we’d have a seminar.”

The website, which was funded by a four-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is close to the end of its development phase and is expected to be finished in a month or so. Even in its beta state, however, it provides breathtaking panoramas of France’s most glorious cathedrals.

The team has started working on a new project, which proposes to digitally map the world’s most arresting and important structures. “The new project is called Arch Map and it applies the Mapping Gothic France concept to a global framework of Google Maps databases,” says Murray. “We will obviously proceed in baby steps.”