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A Guide to Gothic Architecture

The most iconic style of the Middle Ages, Gothic architecture was used in Western Europe between the 12th and roughly the 15th centuries CE. It originated in France and developed directly out of the Romanesque style that preceded it. It is mostly associated with churches but also appears in non-religious structures like town halls and university buildings. Although Gothic fell out of fashion during the Renaissance, it regained popularity during the Gothic Revival (late-18th through early-20th centuries), when Gothic forms and motifs were adapted for the needs and values of a new era. Key Gothic forms like the pointed arch, lancet, and rose window are still closely associated with both Christianity and academia today.

Gothic’s Main Features

Sainte-Chapelle interior stained glass
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Photo by Bradley Weber via Flickr (CC BY-2.0).

Gothic churches are generally basilicas, and you can read all about what that means here.The rib vault, the pointed arch, and the flying buttress are the three big structural features that make Gothic work. Both can occasionally be found in earlier churches.

A rib vault is essentially a pair of barrel vaults that intersect at right angles, with ribs for added support along the intersection points. Rib vaults need support at four corners rather than two long sides, so they allow for lots more window openings.

Pointed arches (they look like regular arches that are pinched at the top) are stronger and more versatile than rounded arches.

Flying buttresses add support from the outside by connecting hefty piers to key structural areas via partial arches.

Used together, these three features allow for buildings with very tall stone vaults supported on rather thin supports, lots of big windows, and spacious, light-filled interiors. They make a big contrast to the heavy walls and small windows of Romanesque churches.

Gothic Aesthetics and Theology

According to the writings of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis,the man who is credited with dreaming up Gothic, there’s a definite theological component to the style. Suger tells us that the profuse light, especially colored light from stained glass, entering a Gothic church parallels the light of Heaven and makes the church a little taste of Heaven on Earth. In his view, experiencing a Gothic interior had a beneficial spiritual impact on its visitors. Whether all Gothic churches were necessarily built with this view in mind, however, is debatable.

Key Gothic Motifs

Portal sculpture at Chartres Cathedral in France. Photo by Dawn Endico via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Although Gothic buildings are pretty difficult to mistake for anything else, the style had plenty of phases and regional variations, meaning that Gothic doesn’t look the same everywhere. That being said, here are some of the style’s most characteristic motifs.

  • Elaborate and colorful stained glass fills all that window space. Multi-panel stained glass windows often illustrate Biblical scenes and other religious imagery.
  • Tracery is lacy stonework that can contain stained glass or appear on its own. Iconic Gothic tracery patterns include lancets (tall, thin pointed arches), trefoils, and quatrefoils (three and four-lobed designs like clovers).
  • Rose windows are wheel-shaped stained glass windows defined by curving tracery. They are often the centerpieces of church facades, especially in French Gothic.
  • Gargoyles, grotesques, and other carved stone decoration appear all over church exteriors.
  • Profuse sculptural decoration surrounds the portals (arched entry doors), often featuring slim, elegant, gentle-swaying human figures. Gothic sculpture is definitely more naturalistic than its Romanesque predecessors.
  • Fancy vaults may contain complex patterns of extra ribs, exaggerated funnel shapes, and stalactite-like pendants. They were popular in Northern Europe, especially England.

Historical context

Fan vaults in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. Photo by Bs0u10e01 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Gothic is an enduring reminder of a time when Christianity was perhaps the most powerful force – and certainly the most stable institution – in Western Europe. Here are some of the social, historical, and political factors to understand.

  • As monarchs, nobles, and even clergy competed for and asserted power, church building was a great way to show dominance in the political-religious arena. In cities and nations with more democratic rule and mercantile economies, Gothic could also be employed for town halls, guild halls, and other buildings of governance by (some of) the people.
  • The European middle class was starting to become a significant force during the Gothic period, and this middle class often lived in cities. The cathedral (the major church of a religious region called the diocese) was a big point of city pride, like a sports team might be today. Thus, cities competed with each other to have bigger, better, and more beautiful cathedrals), and middle-class patrons often contributed money towards building and improving their local cathedral.
  • Monasteries are places were groups of monks or nuns who live, work, and pray together in campus-like communities. Monasticism was huge in the Middle Ages. Individual monasteries could become very large, wealthy, and politically powerful, and they often built correspondingly impressive churches. In fact, the very first Gothic church originally belonged to the highly-powerful abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris.
  • Pilgrimage is the act of traveling to a holy place, and it was a popular endeavor in the Middle Ages. Churches that owned relics of saints and other holy objects could attract a steady stream of pilgrims who wanted to access and pray in front of relics, hoping for healing or other miracles. Pilgrims usually left offerings these relics, making them lucrative and prestigious business for churches. This made the pilgrimage phenomenon both a reason to build Gothic churches and a means to fund them.
  • Rationalism and scholasticism, two systems of logical thinking that formed an early basis for modern science, popularized ideas about order and reason for the first time (at least in the Christian world) around this time. Also, Europe’s earliest universities came about during the Gothic period and built their first campuses in that style.

Famous Gothic Buildings

Cologne Cathedral towers
The western facade of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Photo by Ed Summers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
  • In France: Notre-Dame de Paris (the number one iconic Gothic building), Chartres, Sainte-Chapelle
  • In England: Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral
  • In Spain: Toledo, Burgos, Seville
  • In Italy: Milan, Siena
  • In Northern Europe: Prague (Czech Republic), Cologne (Germany)

Cover image based on a photo (Westminster Abbey) by Dominika Gregušová.

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