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A Guide to Gothic Architecture

Canterbury Cathedral Gothic Architecture
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England. Photo by Hideyuki Kamon via Wikimedia commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The Style is best known for
  • Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
  • Chartres Cathedral in France
  • Westminster Abbey in London
  • Canterbury Cathedral in England.
Where, When, and What?

The Gothic style of architecture began in 12th-century France, but it soon spread to England and then throughout Europe. It became increasingly popular and elaborate over the next few centuries. It is mostly associated with churches but can be seen less frequently in non-religious structures. The style lasted roughly until the Renaissance.

Chartres Cathedral Gothic Architecture
Chartres is an iconic Gothic church. Chartres Cathedral from the front, Eure-et-Loir (France). Photo by Atlant via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5)
How to recognize it
  • Tall stone buildings with even taller towers
  • Pointed arches
  • Ribbed vaulting (thin skeletons supporting the vaulted ceiling)
  • Flying buttresses (arch-like supports on the exterior)
  • Gargoyles and grotesques
  • Stained glass
  • Trefoils and quatrefoils (three and four-lobed designs like clovers)
  • Elaborate sculptural decoration
  • Tracery (fine stone or metal-work used to make lace-like patterns)
  • Orderly geometric features
  • Emphasis on light
  • Typically built on the basilica plan. It has a long, rectangular hall (the “nave”) surrounded by one or two lower side aisles on each long side. Arches connect the nave to the side aisles, with windows above them. At one end is the semi-circular apse, often ringed with small “radiating” chapels. Another rectangular space (the “transept” crosses the nave to make the whole building cross-shape.
Notre Dame in Paris Gothic Architecture
Flying buttresses at Notre Dame de Paris. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.

In the Middle Ages, life was hard and dangerous, and religion was everything. In France’s unstable political system, monarchs and clergy competed for power, which was always tied up in religion. Church building, the most important way to honor God and saints, was a perfect way to show dominance in the political-religious arena. At the same time, an early European middle class lived in cities that competed with each other to create bigger and more beautiful cathedrals. Many people travelled to saints’ shrines to ask for a miracle in front of their relics (parts of a saint’s body or something that touched them). Pilgrims usually left offerings these relics, making them lucrative and prestigious business for churches. 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 in the Christian world.

Notre Dame in Paris Gothic Architecture
A gargoyle on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.
Underlying Ideas
  • Creating magnificent churches to worship God, but also to honor the people who commissioned them. The more expensive and elaborate, the better they served this purpose.
  • Metaphorically representing Heaven on earth.
  • Filling the church interior with as much light as possible. This required making the ceilings higher and higher while using as little stone support as possible and adding colorful stained glass everywhere else.
  • Geometry, regularity, proportion, and order, which were considered beautiful and Holy.
  • Attracting pilgrims (religious travelers) to visit churches to see the relics of important saints.
Sainte Chapelle in Paris Gothic Architecture
Pointed arches, quatrefoil and trefoil tracery, and other decoration at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.
Don’t Confuse It With
  • Romanesque architecture: Romanesque architecture was the style in which Western European churches were built before Gothic. It uses many of the same components as the Gothic, but Romanesque churches were shorter and darker inside.
  • Gothic Revival architecture: The term “Gothic Revival” refers to later buildings designed in a Gothic style. This trend began in late-eighteenth century England and has remained popular around the world. It’s frequently used for churches and higher education buildings. Although some Gothic Revival buildings are clearly modern, others can put on a pretty good show. When in doubt, look up the building’s history and date of construction.

Gothic isn’t just an architectural style. There’s also Gothic art. Many of the same ideas apply, but we’ll talk about it in more detail soon.

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