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Gothic ArchitectureEdit

Gothic architecture (or pointed architecture) is an architectural style that flourished in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages.[2] It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. It originated in 12th century northern France and England as a development of Norman architecture.[3] Its popularity lasted into the 16th century, before which the style was known as Latin: opus Francigenum, lit.'French work'; the term Gothic was first applied during the later Renaissance.

The defining element of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. It is the primary engineering innovation and the characteristic design component. The use of the pointed arch in turn led to the development of the pointed ribbed vault, the flying buttress and window tracery.[4] These elements together formed a structurally and aesthetically integrated system, or style, that characterises the Gothic.[5]

At the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, the choir was reconstructed between 1140 and 1144, drawing together for the first time the developing Gothic architectural features. In doing so, a new architectural style emerged that internally emphasised verticality in the structural members, and the effect created by the transmission of light through stained glass windows.[6]

Gothic architecture is most common as Christian ecclesiastical architecture, characterising many mediaeval cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches of Europe. It is also the architecture of many castles, palaces, town halls, guildhalls, universities and less prominently, private dwellings. Many of the finest examples of mediaeval Gothic architecture are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

With the development of Renaissance architecture in Italy during the mid 15th century, the Gothic style was supplanted by the new style, but in some regions, notably England, Gothic continued to flourish and develop into the 16th century. A series of Gothic revivals began in mid-18th century England, spread through 19th century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century.


Gothic architecture is also known as pointed architecture or ogival architecture.[2][7] Mediaeval contemporaries described the style as Latin: opus Francigenum, lit.'French work' or 'Frankish work', as opus modernum, 'modern work', novum opus, 'new work', or as Italian: maniera tedesca, lit.'German style'.[8][9]

The term "Gothic architecture" originated as a pejorative description. Giorgio Vasari used the term "barbarous German style" in his Lives of the Artists to describe what is now considered the Gothic style,[10] and in the introduction to the Lives he attributes various architectural features to the Goths, whom he held responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style.[11] When Vasari wrote, Italy had experienced a century of building in the Vitruvian architectural vocabulary of classical orders revived in the Renaissance and seen as evidence of a new Golden Age of learning and refinement. Vasari was echoed in the 16th century by François Rabelais, who referred to Goths and Ostrogoths (Gotz and Ostrogotz).[12]

According to a 19th-century correspondent in the London journal Notes and Queries, Gothic was a derisive misnomer; the pointed arcs and architecture of the later Middle Ages was quite different to the rounded arches prevalent in late antiquity and the period of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy:

There can be no doubt that the term 'Gothic' as applied to pointed styles of ecclesiastical architecture was used at first contemptuously, and in derision, by those who were ambitious to imitate and revive the Grecian orders of architecture, after the revival of classical literature. But, without citing many authorities, such as Christopher Wren, and others, who lent their aid in depreciating the old mediaeval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with every thing that was barbarous and rude, it may be sufficient to refer to the celebrated Treatise of Sir Henry Wotton, entitled The Elements of Architecture, ... printed in London so early as 1624. ... But it was a strange misapplication of the term to use it for the pointed style, in contradistinction to the circular, formerly called Saxon, now Norman, Romanesque, &c. These latter styles, like Lombardic, Italian, and the Byzantine, of course belong more to the Gothic period than the light and elegant structures of the pointed order which succeeded them.[13]

Description and scopeEdit

Gothic architecture is the architecture of the late mediaeval period, characterised by use of the pointed arch. Other features common to Gothic architecture are the rib vault, buttresses, including flying buttresses; large windows which are often grouped, or have tracery; rose windows, towers, spires and pinnacles; and ornate west fronts.

As an architectural style, Gothic developed primarily in ecclesiastical architecture, and its principles and characteristic forms were applied to other types of buildings. Buildings of every type were constructed in the Gothic style, with evidence remaining of simple domestic buildings, elegant town houses, grand palaces, commercial premises, civic buildings, castles, city walls, bridges, village churches, abbey churches, abbey complexes and large cathedrals.

The greatest number of surviving Gothic buildings are churches. These range from tiny chapels to large cathedrals, and although many have been extended and altered in different styles, a large number remain either substantially intact or sympathetically restored, demonstrating the form, character and decoration of Gothic architecture. The Gothic style is most particularly associated with the great cathedrals of Northern France, the Low Countries, England and Spain, with other fine examples occurring across Europe.

The scope of Gothic architecture
Rheinstein Castle, Trechtingshausen, Germany
The Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy
Oudenaarde Town Hall, Oudenaarde, Belgium
Church of San Pablo, Valladolid, Spain



At the end of the 12th century, Europe was divided into a multitude of city states and kingdoms. The area encompassing modern Germany, southern Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and much of northern Italy (excluding Venice and Papal State) was nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but local rulers exercised considerable autonomy. France, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Sicily and Cyprus were independent kingdoms, as was the Angevin Empire, whose Plantagenet kings ruled England and large domains in what was to become modern France.[14] Norway came under the influence of England, while the other Scandinavian countries and Poland were influenced by trading contacts with the Hanseatic League. Angevin kings brought the Gothic tradition from France to Southern Italy, while Lusignan kings introduced French Gothic architecture to Cyprus.[citation needed]

Throughout Europe at this time there was a rapid growth in trade and an associated growth in towns.[15][16] Germany and the Lowlands had large flourishing towns that grew in comparative peace, in trade and competition with each other, or united for mutual weal, as in the Hanseatic League. Civic building was of great importance to these towns as a sign of wealth and pride. England and France remained largely feudal and produced grand domestic architecture for their kings, dukes and bishops, rather than grand town halls for their burghers.[citation needed]


The Catholic Church prevailed across Western Europe at this time, influencing not only faith but also wealth and power. Bishops were appointed by the feudal lords (kings, dukes and other landowners) and they often ruled as virtual princes over large estates. The early mediaeval periods had seen a rapid growth in monasticism, with several different orders being prevalent and spreading their influence widely. Foremost were the Benedictines whose great abbey churches vastly outnumbered any others in France, Normandy and England. A part of their influence was that towns developed around them and they became centres of culture, learning and commerce. They were the builders of the Abbey of St Denis, and Abbey of Saint-Remi in France. Later Benedictine projects (constructions and renovations) include Rouen's Abbey of Saint-Ouen, the Abbey La Chaise-Dieu, and the choir of Mont Saint-Michel in France. English examples are Westminster Abbey, originally built as a Benedictine order monastic church; and the reconstruction of the Benedictine church at Canterbury.

The Cluniac and Cistercian Orders were prevalent in France, the great monastery at Cluny having established a formula for a well planned monastic site which was then to influence all subsequent monastic building for many centuries.[15][16] The Cistercians spread the style as far east and south as Poland and Hungary.[17] Smaller orders such as the Carthusians and Premonstratensians also built some 200 churches, usually near cities.[18]

In the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi established the Franciscans, or so-called "Grey Friars", a mendicant order. The Dominicans, another mendicant order founded during the same period but by St. Dominic in Toulouse and Bologna, were particularly influential in the building of Italy's Gothic churches.[15][16] The Teutonic Order, a military order, spread Gothic art into Pomerania, East Prussia, and the Baltic region.[19]

Importance of cathedrals and great churchesEdit

While many secular buildings exist from the Late Middle Ages, it is in the buildings of cathedrals and great churches that Gothic architecture displays its pertinent structures and characteristics to the fullest advantage. A Gothic cathedral or abbey was, prior to the 20th century, generally the landmark building in its town, rising high above all the domestic structures and often surmounted by one or more towers and pinnacles and perhaps tall spires.[15][20] Each cathedral served as a regional religious centre for its surrounding diocese, and with the large town churches, was a focus of community and civic pride.[citation needed]

It is in the architecture of these grand Gothic churches that a unique combination of existing technologies established a new building style. Those technologies were the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the buttress.

Cathedrals in their cityscapes


From the 10th to the 13th century, Romanesque architecture had become a pan-European style and manner of construction, affecting buildings in countries as far apart as Ireland, Croatia, Sweden and Sicily. The same wide geographic area was then affected by the development of Gothic architecture, but the acceptance of the Gothic style and methods of construction differed from place to place, as did the expressions of Gothic taste. The proximity of some regions meant that modern country borders do not define divisions of style.[15] On the other hand, some regions such as England and Spain produced defining characteristics rarely seen elsewhere, except where they have been carried by itinerant craftsmen, or the transfer of bishops. Regional differences that are apparent in the great abbey churches and cathedrals of the Romanesque period often become even more apparent in the Gothic.[16]

The local availability of materials affected both construction and style. In France, limestone was readily available in several grades, the very fine white limestone of Caen being favoured for sculptural decoration. England had coarse limestone and red sandstone as well as dark green Purbeck marble which was often used for architectural features.[citation needed]

In Northern Germany, Netherlands, northern Poland, Denmark, and the Baltic countries local building stone was unavailable but there was a strong tradition of building in brick. The resultant style, Brick Gothic, is called "Backsteingotik" in Germany and Scandinavia and is associated with the Hanseatic League. In Italy, stone was used for fortifications, but brick was preferred for other buildings. Because of the extensive and varied deposits of marble, many buildings were faced in marble, or were left with undecorated façade so that this might be achieved at a later date.[citation needed]

The availability of timber also influenced the style of architecture, with timber buildings prevailing in Scandinavia.[citation needed] Availability of timber affected methods of roof construction across Europe. It is thought that the magnificent hammer-beam roofs of England were devised as a direct response to the lack of long straight seasoned timber by the end of the mediaeval period, when forests had been decimated not only for the construction of vast roofs but also for ship building.[15][23]

Romanesque traditionEdit

Gothic architecture grew out of the previous architectural genre, Romanesque. For the most part, there was not a clean break, as there was to be later in Renaissance Florence with the revival of the Classical style in the early 15th century.[citation needed]

By the 12th century, Romanesque architecture (termed Norman architecture in England because of its association with the Norman invasion), was established throughout Europe. The important categories of building: the cathedral church, the parish church, the abbey church, the monastery, the castle, the palace, the great hall, the gatehouse, the civic building and the warehouse, had been established in the Romanesque period.[citation needed]

Many architectural features that are associated with Gothic architecture had been developed and used by the architects of Romanesque buildings, particularly in the building of cathedrals and abbey churches.. These include ribbed vaults, buttresses, clustered columns, ambulatories, wheel windows, spires, stained glass windows, and richly carved door tympana. These were already features of ecclesiastical architecture before the development of the Gothic style, and all were to develop in increasingly elaborate ways.[24]

It was principally the widespread introduction of a single feature, the pointed arch, which was to bring about the change that separates Gothic from Romanesque. This technological change permitted both structural and stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls penetrated by small openings, replacing it with a style where light appears to triumph over substance. With its use came the development of many other architectural devices, previously put to the test in scattered buildings and then called into service to meet the structural, aesthetic and ideological needs of the new style. These include the flying buttresses, pinnacles and traceried windows which typify Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.[15]

Oriental influenceEdit

The pointed arch, one of the defining attributes of Gothic, was employed in Late Roman and Sassanian architecture by the 7th century. In the Roman context it occurred in early church building in Syria and occasional secular structures, like the Karamagara Bridge in Modern Turkey. In the Sassanid architecture of Iran, parabolic and pointed arches were employed in both palace and sacred construction.[25][26] Following the Islamic conquests of Roman Syria and the Sassanid Empire in the Seventh Century, the pointed arch was incorporated into Islamic architecture and widely used.[15]

Increasing military and cultural contacts with the Muslim world, including the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily between 1060 and 1090, the Crusades, beginning 1096, and the Islamic presence in Spain, may have influenced mediaeval Europe's adoption of the pointed arch, although this hypothesis remains controversial.[27][28] Certainly, in those parts of the Western Mediterranean subject to Islamic control or influence, rich regional variants arose, fusing Romanesque and later Gothic traditions with Islamic decorative forms, as seen, for example, in Monreale and Cefalù Cathedrals, the Alcázar of Seville, and Teruel Cathedral.[29][30]

Arches at ar-Raqqa, Syria

Transition from Romanesque to Gothic architectureEdit

Elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture comparedEdit

# Structural element Romanesque Gothic Developments
1 Arches Round Pointed The pointed Gothic arch varied from a very sharp form, to a wide, flattened form.
2 Vaults Barrel or groin Ribbed Ribbed vaults appeared in the Romanesque era and were elaborated in the Gothic era.
3 Walls Thick, with small openings Thinner, with large openings Wall structure diminshed during the Gothic era to a framework of mullions supporting windows.
4 Buttresses Wall buttresses of low projection. Wall buttresses of high projection, and flying buttresses Complex Gothic buttresses supported the high vaults and the walls pierced with windows
5 Windows Round arches, sometimes paired Pointed arches, often with tracery Gothic windows varied from simple lancet form to ornate flamboyant patterns
6 Piers and columns Cylindrical columns, rectangular piers Cylindrical and clustered columns, complex piers Columns and piers developed increasing complexity during the Gothic era
7 Gallery arcades Two openings under an arch, paired. Two pointed openings under a pointed arch The Gothic gallery became increasingly complex and unified with the clerestory


Early development of Gothic architectureEdit

The characteristic forms that were to define Gothic architecture developed in Romanesque buildings at different locations, as the result of structural requirements.

Although the pointed arch is strongly associated with the Gothic style, it was first used in Western architecture in buildings that were in other ways clearly Romanesque, notably Autun Cathedral in France, Durham Cathedral in the north of England, and Cefalù and Monreale Cathedrals in Sicily.

The vaults of most Romanesque churches were barrel vaults or groin vaults. By the early 12th century the ribbed vaults, characteristic of Gothic architecture, were coming into use. They appeared at the naves of two Romanesque churches in Caen, France, the Abbey of Saint-Étienne and the Abbaye aux Dames in 1120. The ribbed vault over the north transept at Durham Cathedral in England, built from 1128 to 1133, was the first time pointed arches were used in a high vault. Pointed ribbed vaults were used in the chancel of Cathedral of Cefalù in 1131.

The three-tiered interior elevation of arcade, gallery and clerestory that is typical of great Gothic churches, was well established in the Norman buildings of England, appearing at Norwich, Ely, Peterborough and Durham Cathedrals as well as the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, Caen, in France.

One of the features that unifies the internal appearance of a great Gothic church is the emphasis on vertical elements, in particular attached shafts that pass from the floor to the vault.[citation needed] These first appeared in France in the early 11th century in churches that have broad ribs reinforcing a barrel vault. They are also seen at Lisbon and Speyer Cathedrals, Santiago de Compostela and la Madeleine Vezelay in conjunction with groin vaults, as well as at the three Norman cathedrals of East Anglia, of which Peterborough and Ely retain wooden ceilings, while Norwich was not vaulted until the 15th century.

The admission of light to the building through a multiplicity of windows was an important element in England. At Peterborough Cathedral, the polygonal Norman apse has remained, as has three tiers of large Norman windows, now filled with Gothic tracery and 19th century stained glass.[citation needed] The transept ends at Peterborough, Ely and Norwich each have three rows of large Norman windows. This grouping of windows prefigures the clusters of Gothic lancet windows that are found in many English churches such Salisbury Cathedral.

Rose windows, which are characteristic of the west fronts and transept ends of the cathedrals of France, were in the Romanesque period, common in architecture of Germany, where they appear in various forms at Worms Cathedral, and in Italy where they are either untraceried ocula or wheel windows such as that at the Basilica of San Zeno, Verona. The first rose window above the west portal in France is said to be that at the Abbaye Saint-Denis 1140.

The south western tower at Ely Cathedral, England
The nave vault with pointed transverse arches at Durham Cathedral
The sexpartite ribbed vault at Saint Etienne, Caen
interior of the Cathedral of Cefalu.

Abbot SugerEdit

The eastern end of the Basilica Church of Saint-Denis, built by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144, is often cited as the first truly Gothic building, as it draws together many of architectural forms which had evolved from the Romanesque and typify the Gothic style.

Suger, friend and confidant of the French Kings, Louis VI and Louis VII, decided in about 1137, to rebuild the great Church of Saint-Denis, attached to an abbey which was also a royal residence. He began with the West Front, reconstructing the original Carolingian façade with its single door. He designed the west front of Saint-Denis to be an echo of the Roman Arch of Constantine with its three-part division and three large portals to ease the problem of congestion. The rose window is the earliest-known example above the West portal in France. The façade combines both round arches and pointed arches of the Gothic style.

At the completion of the west front in 1140, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Carolingian nave in use. He designed a choir that would be suffused with light.[31] To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.

The new structure was finished and dedicated on 11 June 1144, in the presence of the King. The choir and west front of the Abbey of Saint-Denis both became the prototypes for further building in the royal domain of northern France and in the Duchy of Normandy. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty, the new style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy and Sicily.[14][16]

Earliest Gothic buildingsEdit

The Basilica of Saint Denis is generally cited as the first truly Gothic building, however the distinction is best reserved for the choir, of which the ambulatory remains intact. Noyon Cathedral saw the earliest completion of a rebuilding of an entire French cathedral in the new style from 1150 to 1231. While using all those features that came to be known as Gothic, including pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaulting, the builders continued to employ many of the features and much of the character of Romanesque architecture including round-headed arch throughout the building, varying the shape to pointed where it was functionally practical to do so.

The first cathedral in France built entirely in the new style was Sens Cathedral, begun between 1135 and 1140 and consecrated in 1160.[32][33] Sens Cathedral has a Gothic choir, and six-part rib vaults over the nave and collateral aisles, alternating pillars and doubled columns to support the vaults, and buttresses to offset the outward thrust from the vaults. One of the builders who is believed to have worked on Sens Cathedral, William of Sens, later traveled to England and became the architect who, between 1175 and 1180, reconstructed the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in the new Gothic style. [32]

Sens and Saint Denis were quickly followed by Senlis Cathedral (begun 1160), and the most prominent of all, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (begun 1160). Their builders abandoned the traditional plans and introduced the new Gothic elements. The builders of Notre Dame went further by introducing the flying buttress, heavy columns of support outside the walls connected by arches to the walls, which received and counterbalanced the thrust from the rib vaults of the roof. This allowed the builders to construct higher walls and larger windows.[34]

At the Abbey Saint-Denis, Sens Cathedral, Noyon Cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris and at the eastern end of Canterbury Cathedral in England, simple cylindrical columns predominate over the Gothic forms of clustered columns and shafted piers. Wells Cathedral in England, commenced at the eastern end in 1175, was the first building in which the designer broke free from Romanesque forms. The architect entirely dispensed with the round arch in favour of the pointed arch and with cylindrical columns in favour of piers composed of clusters of shafts which lead into the mouldings of the arches. The transepts and nave were continued by Adam Locke in the same style and completed in about 1230. The character of the building is entirely Gothic. Wells Cathedral is thus considered the first truly Gothic cathedral.[35]

The west front at the Abbey of Saint Denis, with its three deep portals
The ambulatory at the Abbey of Saint-Denis
The choir of Sens Cathedral
The nave of Sens Cathedral
The west front at Noyon Cathedral, showing transitional characteristics
The interior of Noyon Cathedral

Structural elementsEdit

Pointed archEdit

Norman blind-arcading at Christchurch Priory, Dorset.
Equilateral Arch

One of the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch. Arches of a similar type were used in the Near East in pre-Islamic as well as Islamic architecture before they were structurally employed in mediaeval architecture.[36] It is thought by some architectural historians that this was the inspiration for the use of the pointed arch in France, in otherwise Romanesque buildings, as at Autun Cathedral.[15]

Contrary to the diffusionist theory, it appears that there was simultaneously a structural evolution towards the pointed arch, for the purpose of vaulting spaces of irregular plan, or to bring transverse vaults to the same height as diagonal vaults. This latter occurs at Durham Cathedral in the nave aisles in 1093.[37] Pointed arches also occur extensively in Romanesque decorative blind arcading, where semi-circular arches overlap each other in a simple decorative pattern, and the points are accidental to the design.

In Gothic architecture the pointed arch is used in every location where an arch is called for, both structural and decorative. Gothic openings such as doorways, windows, arcades and galleries have pointed arches. Gothic vaulting above spaces both large and small is usually supported by ribs forming pointed arches.

While structurally, use of the pointed arch gave a greater flexibility to architectural form, it also gave Gothic architecture a very different and more vertical visual character to Romanesque. Rows of pointed arches upon delicate shafts form a typical wall decoration known as blind arcading. Niches with pointed arches and containing statuary are a major external feature of Gothic cathedrals. The pointed arch also lent itself to elaborate intersecting shapes which developed within window spaces into complex Gothic tracery forming the structural support of the large windows that are characteristic of the style.[23][24]

Many Gothic openings are based upon the equilateral form. In other words, when the arch is drafted, the radius is exactly the width of the opening and the centre of each arch coincides with the point from which the opposite arch springs. (See diagram) This makes the arch higher in relation to its width than a semi-circular arch which is exactly half as high as it is wide.[15] The equilateral arch gives a wide opening of satisfying proportion useful for doorways, decorative arcades and large windows.

The structural beauty of the Gothic arch means that no set proportion had to be rigidly maintained. The equilateral arch was employed as a useful tool, not as a principle of design. This meant that narrower or wider arches were introduced into a building plan wherever necessity dictated. In the architecture of some Italian cities, notably Venice, semi-circular arches are interspersed with pointed ones.[38]

Pointed arches
One of three large arches that screen the front of Peterborough Cathedral.
The North transept of Salisbury Cathedral has grouped lancet openings
LIncoln Cathedral has arades, galleries, clerestory, vault, and blind arcades of pointed arches
At Santa Maria Novella, the wedge-shaped voussoirs that support the pointed vault are emphasised by colour.
The eastern end of Wells Cathedral evolved in three stages to form a harmonious vista of pointed arches.
The west front of Reims Cathedral shows the pointed arches of portals and galleries combined with gables and rose window.
A detail of the windows and galleries of the west front of Strasbourg Cahedral

Ribbed vaultEdit

Sexpartite ribbed vault at Notre Dame de Paris

The Gothic vault of pointed arches, unlike the semi-circular vault of Roman and Romanesque buildings, can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped plans such as trapezoids. The other structural advantage is that the pointed arch channels the weight onto the bearing piers or columns at a steep angle. This enabled architects to raise vaults much higher than was possible in Romanesque architecture.[15]

In Romanesque architecture, the rounded arches of the barrel vaults that covered the nave pressed directly down on the walls with crushing weight. This required massive columns, thick walls and small windows, and naturally limited the height of the building. Gothic architects found a solution through an innovative use of the rib vault.[39][40]

An early kind of rib vault, used at Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (8th century), was found under a cupola or dome, but was different in form and function from the later Gothic rib vault. The cupola itself was supported by pendentives or squinches, a practice used in Byzantine architecture. The ribs were decorative. The vaults in churches in Sicily dated to the 11th century, after Sicily had been conquered by the Normans, and resembled the vaults used at the same time in Normandy and England.[41]

Gothic builders designed a new and lighter kind of rib vault. They divided into compartments by a diagonal crossing of thin stone ribs (ogives), and completed by two additional arcs perpendicular and parallel to the nave (doubleaux and formerets). They also made innovative use of the broken arch or pointed arch. In Islamic and Romanesque architecture, pointed arches had usually been used in doorways and windows. Gothic architects used them at the meeting points of the ribs at the top of the vaults, which distributed the weight of the roof downwards and outwards, not just downwards.[42] These ribs divided the early vaults into six compartments, each as wide as two traverses of the nave. Some of the ribs went downwards as colonettes and were bundled into pillars on the ground floor. Other ribs carried the thrust outwards to the walls, where it was counterbalanced by heavy flying buttresses outside the walls. Since the weight was supported by pillars and buttresses, the walls themselves could be much higher and thinner. This made possible the expanses of stained glass that were a characteristic of Gothic cathedrals.[39][40][42]

The earlier Gothic rib vaults, used at Notre-Dame, Noyon, and Laon, were divided by the ribs into six compartments, were very difficult to build, and could only cross a limited space. In later cathedral construction, the design was simplified, and the rib vaults had only four compartments, and could cover a wider span; a single vault could cross the nave, and fewer pillars were needed. The four-part vaults also made it possible to build the cathedrals even higher. Notre-Dame de Paris, begun in 1163 with four-part vaults, reached a height of 35 meters, remarkable for the time. Amiens Cathedral, begun in 1220 with four-part ribs, reached the height of 42.30 meters (138.8 feet) at the transept.[39][43]


Section of Reims Cathedral with flying buttress over aisles.

Another important feature of Gothic architecture was the flying buttress, designed to support the walls by means of arches connected to counter-supports outside the walls. Flying buttresses had existed in simple forms since Roman times, but the Gothic builders raised their use to a fine art, balancing the thrust from the roof inside against the counter-thrust of the buttresses. The earliest Gothic cathedrals, including Saint-Denis and Notre-Dame in its beginning stages, did not have flying buttresses. Their walls were supported by heavy stone abutments placed directly against the walls. The roof was supported by the ribs of the vaults, which were bundled with the columns below.

In the later 12th and early 13th century, the buttresses became more sophisticated. New arches carried the thrust of the weight entirely outside the walls, where it was met by the counter-thrust of stone columns, with pinnacles placed on top for decoration and for additional weight. Thanks to this system of external buttresses, the walls could be higher and thinner, and could support larger stained glass windows. The buttresses themselves became part of the decoration; the pinnacles became more and more ornate, becoming more and more elaborate, as at Beauvais Cathedral and Reims Cathedral. The arches had an additional practical purpose; they contained lead channels which carried rainwater off the roof; it was expelled from the mouths of stone gargoyles placed in rows on the buttresses.[44]

East end of Lincoln Cathedral, with wall buttress, and chapter house with flying buttresses.
Wall buttresses and simple flying buttresses behind a parapet at Canterbury Cathedral
The complex buttresses of Amiens Cathedral support one of the highest Gothic vaults
The east end of Notre Dame de Paris with flying buttresses supporting the high vault

Plan, elevation and parts of a Gothic CathedralEdit


Plan of a Gothic Cathedral

Most large Gothic churches and many smaller parish churches are of the Latin cross (or "cruciform") plan, with a long nave making the body of the church, a transverse arm called the transept and, beyond it, an extension which may be called the choir, chancel or presbytery. There are several regional variations on this plan. The area where the nave and transept meet is called the crossing, and in England is often surmounted by a stone tower, as at Salisbury Cathedral and York Minster, visible on a groundplan by the sturdy piers that support the tower. (see below)[citation needed]

The nave is generally flanked on either side by aisles, usually single as at York Minster and Florence Cathedral but sometimes double as at Bourges and Cologne Cathedrals. (see plans below). Aisles may extend along the sides of the transepts as well, as at Cologne, Amiens Cathedral and York Minster.(see plans) In the South of France there is often a single wide nave and no aisles, as at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and Albi Cathedrals.[citation needed]

In some churches with double aisles, or additional rows of chapels between the buttresses as at Notre Dame, Paris, the transept does not project beyond the aisles (See plan).[citation needed] In English cathedrals, transepts tend to project boldly and there may be two of them, as at Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. The double transepts are to provide extra chapels, in lieu of the apsidal chapels found in French cathedrals (See Salisbury plan).[citation needed]

The eastern arm shows considerable diversity. In France and Germany, the eastern end is generally polygonal and surrounded by a continuation of the choir aisle called an ambulatory. Surrounding the ambulatory may be a ring of chapels called a "chevet".[citation needed] In England the eastern arm is generally long and may have two distinct sections- choir and presbytery. It is almost always square ended with a cliff-like exterior face. Often there is a projecting Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as at Salisbury.[15][24][20] In Italy, the eastern projection beyond the transept is usually a shallow chapel or sometimes an apse.[citation needed]. See section below

The groundplans of the cathedrals show not only the larger parts of the building, developed for Catholic liturgy- the nave, aisles, transept, choir and chapels - but also reveal that each building contains a pattern of regular divisions called "bays". These bays or compartments are square, rectangular and sometimes trapezoidal, and are defined by the positions of the piers, columns and attached shafts that support the arcades and the overhead vaults. While internally the divisions are created by the locations of the vertical members, externally, the bays can be determined by the positions of the buttresses.[45]

Other elements that are visible on the plans are the locations of towers on the west fronts, porches such as those at Bourges and Salisbury, and the octagonal Chapter House at York Minster.[citation needed]

Bourges Cathedral, France, length 125 m.
Notre Dame de Paris, France, length 128 m.
Amiens Cathedral, France, length 145 m.
Cologne Cathedral, Germany, length 144 m, completed C19th, to dimensions established in C14th
Salisbury Cathedral, England, length 135 m
York Minster, England, length 159 m


Gothic Cathedral, showing nave, aisle, buttresses, arcade, gallery, clerestory and vault

The most common elevation for a Gothic cathedral or large abbey church is that of the architectural form known as the "basilica". This term, used architecturally, does not have any ecclesiastical or spiritual significance such as is associated with Catholic basilicas that have been designated by the pope as a church of great significance, e.g. the Basilica of St Peter, in Rome, or the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary at Lourdes. (see Papal Basilica and Minor Basilica)

Architecturally, a basilica is a church that has a longitudinal nave, with a lower aisle on each side, separated by rows of columns or piers, and generally with windows let into that part of the nave that rises above the outer roof of the aisles. This upper section is called the clerestorey. This architectural form is so named because it was commonly used by ancient Roman builders as the structure for secular basilicas used as halls for meetings, markets and as places of justice. Early Christian churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, and San Apollinare in Classe have this form, which was adopted by Romanesque builders for their great abbeys and cathedrals, across Europe, such as Durham Cathedral, Saint-Etienne, Caen, and Monreale Cathedral.[citation needed]

During the Gothic period, most cathedrals were built with a single aisle on each side of the nave, such as Salisbury Cathedral, but some had double aisles with the outer lower than the inner, such as Bourges Cathedral. In the South of France cathedrals are sometimes just a single high, wide hall, with tall windows but no aisles, and the lower stage giving a robust fortified appearance, such as Albi Cathedral. Gothic churches of the Germanic tradition, like St. Stephen of Vienna, often have nave and aisles of similar height, without clerestory, and are called Hallenkirche.[citation needed]

Internally, the nave and choir are usually divided horizontally into three stages, the arcade, the triforium gallery and the clerestorey. This arrangement is usual in England where it can be seen at Salisbury, Lincoln, and Ely.[citation needed]

In some French Cathedrals, such as Laon and the nave of Rouen, there is a fourth stage, a shallow tribune gallery between the triforium and the clerestory.[citation needed] In the transepts of Notre Dame, the wall above the triforium gallery is pierced with rose windows. In later Gothic cathedrals and abbey churches, the vertical members in the tracery of galleries and clerestorey may merge into a single decorative unit where the stages are present but not clearly defined, as at Saint Ouen at Rouen and the choir of Gloucester Cathedral in England. [citation needed]

In the Gothic cathedrals and abbey churches of Italy, triforium galleries are most often found in churches influenced by the architecture of Normandy, and were used at abbeys of women, as a space for the nuns to attend services.[citation needed] Elsewhere, many churches such as Florence Cathedral and the Abbey Church of Santa Maria Novella, had an interior alavation of two stages, the arcade and clerestorey. [citation needed]

French Gothic elevations
Notre Dame de Paris, showing the nave and double aisles; vault and flying buttresses.
Notre Dame de Paris. Interior elevation of transept shows four stages- arcade, triforium gallery, tribune with rose windows and clerestory. Left- a later stage with larger windows.
Amiens Cathedral. Three stages- tall arcade, small gallery, and tall, traceried clerestory.
Saint Ouen, Rouen, left; Sees Cathedral, right. Saint Ouen shows a highly unified scheme wher the triforium merges visually with the clerestory.
English Gothic elevations
Lincoln Cathedral, elevation of the east end of typically English form with single aisles framing the central choir.
Lincoln Cathedral. The proportions are low and wide compared to Notre Dame, the arcades are high and there are three stages. .
Ely Cathedral choir. Three stages, Decorated Gothic, but with proportions set by the earlier Norman nave. Exterior view shows windows into the high triforium arcade.
Italian Gothic and hall church elevations
Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Nave and aisle. Steep vaults and thick walls reduce the need for large external buttresses,
Santa Maria Novella, Two stage elevation with small round windows.
Poitiers Cathedral, France. Hall church with high aisles and no clerestory. Large aisle windows between large square buttresses.

West frontEdit

The façade of a large church or cathedral, properly referred to as the West Front, is generally designed to create a powerful impression on the approaching worshipper, demonstrating both the might of God and the might of the institution that it represents. One of the best known and most typical of such west fronts is that of Notre Dame de Paris. To emphasise its importance, the west front may be of a powerful design, with towers, imposing portals, jutting buttresses, gables, windows and an array of sculpture. [citation needed]

Central to the west front is the main portal, often flanked by additional doors, after the manner of Suger's west front at the Basilica of Saint Denis. In England, the lateral doors may be present but relatively insignificant. In the arch of the central door, particularly in France, the tympanum, is often a significant piece of sculpture, most frequently Christ in Majesty or the Last Judgment. If there is a central doorjamb or a trumeau, then it frequently bears a statue of Jesus or the Madonna and Child if the dedication is to Mary. Figures in niches set into the mouldings around the portals.

Above the main portal there is a large window which lights the nave. In France and Spain this is generally a rose window as at Notre Dame de Paris and Burgos Cathedral.[citation needed] In Italy there is generally an untraceried ocular window as at Santa Maria Novella.[citation needed] In England, rose windows are rare and the west end is generally dominated by a single very large traceried window as at York Minster and Canterbury, while some Early English fronts retain rows of lancet windows as at Salisbury and Ripon Cathedrals.[citation needed]

The west front of most French cathedrals and many English, Spanish and German cathedrals have two towers, which, particularly in France, express an enormous diversity of form and decoration.[15][16] In Germany and Eastern Europe there may be a single tall tower at the western end as at Freiburg Münster.[citation needed] In England, where the principle tower is usually over the crossing, the west front may be framed by large turrets,[citation needed]

In Italy, with the exception of Milan Cathedral, the form of a Gothic west front is less strongly architectonic and sculptural than in other parts of Europe. The underlying structure may be brick, rather than stone, overlaid with a veneer of polychrome marble, and ornamented with marble sculpture and coloured mosaics as at Siena and Orvieto Cathedrals.[citation needed]

West fronts
Notre Dame de Paris- deep portals, a rose window, balance of horizontal and vertical elements
Burgos Cathedral, Spain- deep portals, rose window, elaborate openwork screen and spire
Salisbury Cathedral- wide sculptured screen, lancet windows, turrets with pinnacles
York Minster, England- shallow portal, very large traceried window, towers with pinnacles, vertical emphasis
Brussels Cathedral- gabled portal, large window, emphasis on vertical elements.
Cologne Cathedral- massive towers with very tall spires, completed C19th.
Orvieto Cathedral, Italy- balance of vertical, horizontal and diagonal, large portals, polychrome

East endEdit

The eastern end of Gothic cathedrals and great churches shows significant regional variation. See groundplans, above.

In France the eastern end is generally polygonal and surrounded by a continuation of the choir aisle called an ambulatory. Surrounding the ambulatory may be a ring of chapels called a "chevet".[citation needed] In many cases the chevet comprises projecting apses, as at the Abbey St Denis and Amiens Cathedral where there are seven. This is also the case at Cologne Cathedral in Germany and Prague Cathedral in the Czech Republic, while Chartres Cathedral has three and the Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, had nine radiating square chapels.

In England the eastern arm is generally long and may have two distinct sections- choir and presbytery. The building usually terminates in a square and a cliff-like exterior face as at York Minster and Lincoln Cathedral. Often there is a projecting Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as at Salisbury, Wells, and Ripon Cathedrals.[15][24][20]

In Italy, the eastern projection beyond the transept is usually a shallow chapel, as at Santa Maria Novella. At Florence Cathedral there is a polygonal apse, identical in size and shape to the transepts, radiating from the dome. Milan Cathedral has a polygonal east end. The Gothic cathedrals at Siena and Orvieto are both constrained by their mountainous sites to have square ends.[citation needed].

East end
The east end at Bourges Cathedral has a double ambulatory and small apses
Ely has a square east end in the Early English style and a Decorated Lady Chapel to the right
At St Albans, the Lady Chapel projects from the east end as is often found in England.
Milan Cathedral- a projecting pentagonal range of chapels at the east end.

Towers and spiresEdit

Great churches, abbeys and cathedrals of the Gothic period generally have towers. The position, construction and height of these towers is as subject to variety as the nature of the west front, and was already well established by the beginning of the Gothic period.

In many parts of Europe, the location of twin towers on the west front of cathedrals and abbey churches was usual in the Romanesque period and may be seen at Abbaye les Hommes, Caen; Southwell Cathedral, England; Lisbon Cathedral, Portugal; Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany; Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily, and Lébény Abbey Church, Hungary.[citation needed] Romanesque churches in the Rhineland often had many towers of different shapes, as did the Abbey Church of Cluny.[citation needed] In mainland Italy, churches generally had one tower and that was freestanding from the building, sometimes at a distance, as at Pisa Cathedral.[citation needed] In Norman England, the crossing of large churches was often marked by a large tower, while abbey churches and cathedrals might have western towers as well.[citation needed] Smaller churches, across Europe often had a single tower at the west.[citation needed] The various configurations of church and tower of the Romanesque period continued into the Gothic, but with a greater emphasis on height.

In France, the plan for the Basilica of Saint-Denis called for two towers of equal height on the west front, and this plan was copied during the Gothic era at [Notre-Dame de Paris]], with towers of 69 meters (226 ft) in height, and at other cathedrals of northern France such as Laon, Reims and Amiens.[46] Some of these churches were given towers over the crossing and transepts as well, with Rouen having three large towers, Laon having five, and the Romanesque Abbaey les Hommes, Caen, receiving additional towers during the Gothic period, until they numbered nine.[citation needed] French Gothic towers are sometimes topped with spires. Chartres Cathedral has two on the western towers, of different dates and very different construction. That on the south is the tallest masonry spire of the 12th century, while that on the north is a highly elaborate Flamboyant design. The irregularity seen at Chartres also occurs at Rouen where there is a central tower in addition to the western towers. This tower displays another distinctly French feature, a delicate openwork flèche made of wood covered with lead.[citation needed]

Openwork spires of stone, sometimes of great height, were popular in the Flamboyant period, occurring singly at Strasbourg Cathedral, Burgos Cathedral, Freiburg Cathedral, Stefansdom, Vienna; and also at Cologne Cathedral and Ulm Minster, both designed in the mediaeval period but not realised until the late 19th century.[citation needed]

In England, during the Gothic era, there was a continuing fashion for three towers, with the largest being that over the crossing. This arrangement is seen at Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln, York, Lichfield. and Durham Cathedrals.[citation needed] In England, wherever the ground was considered stable, the central tower was surmounted by a spire. Like the south spire of Chartres Cathedral, English spires are often constructed of masonry. The earliest is the comparatively small spire at Oxford Cathedral.[citation needed] The tallest mediaeval masonry spire is that built in the 13th century at Salisbury Cathedral (123 m - 404 ft).[citation needed][citation needed] Others exist at Norwich and Chichester Cathedrals, while Lichfield Cathedral has three. Other cathedrals had tall spires of wooden construction sheathed with lead or copper. Two of these, on the central towers of Lincoln Cathedral and Old St Paul's Cathedral surpassed 550 feet in height and were the tallest structures prior to the 19th century.[citation needed]

England's Gothic parish churches and collegiate churches generally have a single western tower.[citation needed] A number of the finest churches have masonry spires, with those of St James Church, Louth; St Wulfram's Church, Grantham; St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, and St Michael's, Coventry, all exceeding 85 metres (280 feet) in height.[47]

In mainland Italy, the tower, if present, is sometimes detached from the building, as at Florence Cathedral, or projects from the side of the building as at the Basilica of Santa Croce. In Italy there is no defined stylistic break between Romanesque and Gothic, as the architects had a seemingly pragmatic approach to the use of round and pointed arches. Towers of apparently Romanesque form often appear in conjunction with otherwise gothic structures. They tend to have graded series of openings in the Romanesque manner like the tower of the Badia Fiorentina. Some, like the tower at Santa Croce, have large openings of Gothic form and are surmounted by spires.[citation needed]

In addition to towers and spires, great mediaeval churches, may have several other architectural forms, rising above the roofline, particularly over the crossing. These include the octagonal tower at Burgos Cathedral, the wooden octagonal tower at Ely Cathedral and the octagonal dome of Florence Cathedral, conceived in the late Gothic period and engineered by the Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi.[citation needed]

Towers and spires
Laon Cathedral- the strongly articulated towers of the west front.
Chartres Cathedral- C12th masonry spire, and Flamboyant spire
Canterbury Cathedral - the large tower over the crossing
Rouen Cathedral- three different towers and a lead-covered fleche
St Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna- openwork stone spire
Lichfield Cathedral- three masonry spires, the central being taller.
Ely Cathedral- the wooden octagon rises from an octagonal stone tower
Badia Fiorentina, Florence- tall campanile with spire

Portals and the tympanumEdit

Early Gothic Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the western end of the church, opposite the choir. Based on the model of the Basilica of Saint Denis and Notre-Dame de Paris, there are usually three doorways with pointed arches. During the Romanesque period cathedral and abbey portals were enriched by sculpture, and a carved figure often occupied the central jamb of the door. The main pictorial representation occupied the tympanum, the panel between the arch and the lintel of the door. The subject was usually the Last Judgement. This arrangement continued into the Gothic era.

One of the earliest portals of the Gothic period was that at Chartres Cathedral, where the three portals of the west front show three different aspects of the LIfe of Christ. At Amiens, the tympanum over the central portal depicted the Last Judgement, the right portal showed the Coronation of the Virgin, and the left portal showed the lives of saints who were important in the diocese. This et a pattern of complex iconography which was followed at other cathedrals. [48]

The iconography of the sculptural decoration on the facade was not left to the artists. An edict of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 had set the rules: "The composition of religious images is not to be left to the inspiration of artists; it is derived from the principles put in place by the Catholic Church and religious tradition. Only the art belongs to the artist; the composition belongs to the Fathers."[49]

In France, the transept fronts were often elaborately treated like the west fronts, having rose windows and significant portals, sometimes, as at Chartres Cathedral, with large porches.

The portals and interiors were much more colourful than they are today. Each sculpture on the tympanum and in the interior was painted by the peintre imagier, or image painter, following a system of colours codified in the 12th century; yellow, called gold, symbolized intelligence, grandeur and virtue; white, called argent, symbolized purity, wisdom, and correctness; black, or sable, meant sadness, but also will; green, or sinople, represented hope, liberty and joy; red or gueules (see gules) meant charity or victory; blue or azure symbolized the sky, faithfulness and perseverance; and violet, or pourpre, was the colour of royalty and sovereignty.[50]

Portals and their sculpture
The Royal Portal at Chartres Cathedral
The central portal at Amiens Cathedral
Detail of Christ in Majesty at Amiens, west front
The "Wise and Foolish Virgins" framing the portal at Strasbourg Cathedral

Architectural characterEdit


A characteristic of Gothic church architecture is its height, both absolute and in proportion to its width, the verticality suggesting an aspiration to Heaven. A section of the main body of a Gothic church usually shows the nave as considerably taller than it is wide. In England the proportion is sometimes greater than 2:1, while the greatest proportional difference achieved is at Cologne Cathedral with a ratio of 3.6:1. The highest internal vault is at Beauvais Cathedral at 48 metres (157 ft).[15]

Externally, towers and spires are characteristic of Gothic churches both great and small, the number and positioning being one of the greatest variables in Gothic architecture. In Italy, the tower, if present, is almost always detached from the building, as at Florence Cathedral, and is often from an earlier structure. In France and Spain, two towers on the front is the norm. In England, Germany and Scandinavia this is often the arrangement, but an English cathedral may also be surmounted by an enormous tower at the crossing. Smaller churches usually have just one tower, but this may also be the case at larger buildings, such as Salisbury Cathedral or Ulm Minster, which has the tallest spire in the world,[51] slightly exceeding that of Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest which was actually completed during the mediaeval period, at 160 metres (520 ft).

Height- external and internal
The tallest wood and copper spires, in the world, Lubeck Cathedral, Germany. rebuilt post WWII
Lincoln Cathedral- the large central tower, carried the tallest spire in the world
The tallest spire of the C13th century, and tallest masonry spire ever built, at Salisbury Cathedral.
The openwork spire of Strasbourg Cathedral, the tallest stone spire of the Gothic era.
The tallest remaining medieval spire in Germany, at Freiburg Minster
The dome of Florence Cathedral, designed c. 1370, engineered by Brunelleschi, C15th
Westminster Abbey, nave- 31 m (102 ft)
The choir of Amiens Cathedral, 42.3 m (139 ft)
Cologne Cathedral, choir 43.35 m (142.2 ft)
Le Seu,Palma, Mallorca, nave, 44 m (144 ft)
The nave of Florence Cathedral, 45 m (148 ft)
The choir of Beauvais Cathedral, 47.5 m (156 ft)

Vertical emphasisEdit

The pointed arch lends itself to a suggestion of height. This appearance is characteristically further enhanced by both the architectural features and the decoration of the building.[20]

On the exterior, the verticality is emphasised in a major way by the towers and spires and in a lesser way by strongly projecting vertical buttresses, by narrow half-columns called attached shafts which often pass through several storeys of the building, by long narrow windows, vertical mouldings around doors and figurative sculpture which emphasises the vertical and is often attenuated. The roofline, gable ends, buttresses and other parts of the building are often terminated by small pinnacles, Milan Cathedral being an extreme example in the use of this form of decoration.

On the interior of the building attached shafts often sweep unbroken from floor to ceiling and meet the ribs of the vault, like a tall tree spreading into branches. The verticals are generally repeated in the treatment of the windows and wall surfaces. In many Gothic churches, particularly in France, and in the Perpendicular period of English Gothic architecture, the treatment of vertical elements in gallery and window tracery creates a strongly unifying feature that counteracts the horizontal divisions of the interior structure.[20]

Vertical elements
West front of Reims Cathedral
The exterior of the choir of Beauvais Cathedral
Figures around the central door of Chartres Cathedral
The Five Sister windows in the north transept at York Minster
A clustered column of the nave at Bourges Cathedral
Vertical elements in the galleries at Cologne Cathedral
The buttresses pinnacles of the choir at Cologne Cathedral


Expansive interior light has been a feature of Gothic cathedrals since the first structure was opened. The metaphysics of light in the Middle Ages led to clerical belief in its divinity and the importance of its display in holy settings. Much of this belief was based on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth-century mystic whose book De Coelesti Hierarchia was popular among monks in France. Pseudo-Dionysius held that all light, even light reflected from metals or streamed through windows, was divine. To promote such faith, the abbot in charge of the Saint-Denis church on the north edge of Paris, the Abbot Suger, encouraged architects remodelling the building to make the interior as bright as possible.

Ever since the remodelled Basilica of Saint-Denis opened in 1144, Gothic architecture has featured expansive windows, such as at Sainte Chapelle, York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral. The increase in size between windows of the Romanesque and Gothic periods is related to the use of the ribbed vault, and in particular, the pointed ribbed vault which channelled the weight to a supporting shaft with less outward thrust than a semi-circular vault. Walls did not need to be so weighty.[24][20]

A further development was the flying buttress which arched externally from the springing of the vault across the roof of the aisle to a large buttress pier projecting well beyond the line of the external wall. These piers were often surmounted by a pinnacle or statue, further adding to the downward weight, and counteracting the outward thrust of the vault and buttress arch as well as stress from wind loading.

The internal columns of the arcade with their attached shafts, the ribs of the vault and the flying buttresses, with their associated vertical buttresses jutting at right-angles to the building, created a stone skeleton. Between these parts, the walls and the infill of the vaults could be of lighter construction. Between the narrow buttresses, the walls could be opened up into large windows.[15]

Through the Gothic period, thanks to the versatility of the pointed arch, the structure of Gothic windows developed from simple openings to immensely rich and decorative sculptural designs. The windows were very often filled with stained glass which added a dimension of colour to the light within the building, as well as providing a medium for figurative and narrative art.[20]

Large clerestory windows between flying buttresses at Strasbourg
Tall windows lighting the vault at Lyon Cathedral, made possible by flying buttresses
Windows in a polygonal arrangement, Lady Chapel, Wells Cathedral
Tall windows in the aisle at Rouen, with additional windows in the triforium
"Heart of Yorkshire" window at York Minster, the scale of most west windows in England.
The array of glass between thin stone mullions, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Evolving stylesEdit

Between the dedication of the choir at the Abbey of St Denis, Paris, in 1144 and the completion of Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster Abbey in 1519, there were nearly 400 years of stylistic development in Gothic architecture. Nowhere was this more manifest that in the building of cathedrals and the great churches of abbeys, colleges and prosperous towns.

While the plan and elevation of the various types of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture remained consistently linked to purpose and to regional preferences, all the other elements developed, generally towards greater complexity, over the decades. The piers, the arcades, the galleries, the vaults and the portals, all evolved. The evolution was largely linked to and dependent upon the structural and ornamental flexibility of the pointed arch.

This development is traditionally divided into periods or styles according to the system of the 19th century French archaeologist Arcisse de Caumont.[52] The periods are generally called Early Gothic (1137-1180), High Gothic (1180-1230), Rayonnant Gothic (1230-1350 and Flamboyant Gothic (1350-1530). These terms apply to the Gothic architecture of France and to those countries where the influence of French Gothic spread. These styles did not, however, progress at the same rate, or in the same way in every country.

In England, the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey and the east end of Canterbury Cathedral were both influenced by French Gothic, with the architect at Canterbury being William of Sens. Wells Cathedral, however, takes a completely different direction to French Gothic, introducing an unprecedented use of fluted mouldings, and other decorative innovations. Salisbury Cathedral and the nave of Lincoln are also very different to the French prototypes. Hence, the styles of English Gothic are referred to as Early English (or Lancet) Gothic (c. 1180–1275), Geometric Decorated and Flamboyant Decorated Gothic, (c. 1275–1380); and Perpendicular Gothic, (c. 1380–1520), after the system proposed by Thomas Rickman[53]

One of the indicators of style is the nature of the windows and doors, and their decorative treatment. This is strongly associated with and affected by the type of arches used within the particular building. The Gothic styles, Lancet, Geometric, Rayonnant, Flamboyant and Perpendicular, affected all the various forms of architectonic decoration within the church- arcading, niches, shrines, wooden panelling, furniture of all sorts, reliquaries, vessels, and vestments.

Gothic styles
Early Gothic at Soissons Cathedral, France
Geometric Gothic at Lincoln Cathedral, England
Rayonnant Gothic at Auxerre Cathedral, France
Flamboyant Gothic at Salamanca Cathedral, Spain
Perpndicular Gothic at Gloucester, England

Arches, windows and traceryEdit

Early or Lancet GothicEdit

The simplest shape of a Gothic window is a long opening with a pointed arch known in England as the lancet. Lancet windows may be used singly, as in the nave of Lincoln Cathedral, or grouped, as in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral where they are in two in the aisles and threes in the clerestory. Because large lancet windows, such as those lighting the aisles of a cathedral, may be wide in comparison to a single light in a traceried window, they often have armatures of wood or iron to support the glass. The arch of a lancet opening is often equilateral, but sometimes is much more acute, and when employed in the arcade of a choir apse, such as at Westminster Abbey, adds to the emphasis of height.

The simple shape of the lancet arch may appear in Early Gothic buildings on openings of all types, doorways, niches, arcades, including galleries; and belfry openings.

The use of lancet windows is found in the Early Gothic architecture of France, at the Abbey of St Denis, Sens and Senlis Cathedrals. At Chartres and Laon Cathedrals lancet windows are grouped beneath the rose windows. Tall narrow lancets are also found in radiating groups in the chancel apses of some cathedrals, such as Chartres. It is common in France for lancet windows to be used in smaller, narrowere spaces, such as the chapels of a chevet, while traceries windows are used in the clerestory.

The style Lancet Gothic is known in England as Early English Gothic, with Salisbury Cathedral being the prime example. York Minster has a group of lancet windows each fifty feet high and still containing ancient glass. They are known as the Five Sisters. [15][23] Wells Cathedral is notable for the continuous rows of lancet openings that make up the triforiun galleries. Lancet windows are used extensively in the Gothic churches of Italy, including Florence Cathedral and in the Brick Gothic churches of Germany and Poland.

Geometric Gothic (England)Edit

The Equilateral Arch lends itself to filling with tracery of simple equilateral, circular and semi-circular forms. In France, windows of clerestorys, and other larger windows were commonly divided into two lights, with some simple Geometric tracery above, a circle or a cinquefoil or sexfoil. This style of window remained popular without great change until after 1300

In England there was a much greater variation in the design of tracery that evolved to fill these spaces. The style is known as Geometric Decorated Gothic and can be seen to splendid effect at many English cathedrals and abbey churches, where both the eastern and the western terminations of the building may be occupied by a single large window such as the east window at Lincoln and the west window at Worcester Cathedral. Windows of complex design and of three or more lights or vertical sections, are often designed by overlapping two or more equilateral arches springing from the vertical mullions.[23]

Rayonnant GothicEdit

Rayonnant Gothic is the term used particularly to described the style that produced the great rose windows of France. These windows deck not only the west fronts of cathedrals, but often, as at Notre Dame de Paris, the transept gables as well. It is common that although the transepts of French Cathedrals do not project strongly, they are given visual importance almsot equal to the west front, including large decorated portals and a rose window. Particularly fine examples are at Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral.

Flamboyant GothicEdit

The Flamboyant Arch is one that is drafted from four points, the upper part of each main arc turning upwards into a smaller arc and meeting at a sharp, flame-like point. These arches create a rich and lively effect when used for window tracery and surface decoration. The form is structurally weak and has very rarely been used for large openings except when contained within a larger and more stable arch. It is not employed at all for vaulting.[15]

Some of the most beautiful and famous traceried windows of Europe employ this type of tracery. It can be seen at St Stephen's Vienna, Sainte Chapelle in Paris, at the Cathedrals of Limoges and Rouen in France. In England the most famous examples are the West Window of York Minster with its design based on the Sacred Heart, the extraordinarily rich nine-light East Window at Carlisle Cathedral and the exquisite East window of Selby Abbey.[23][24]

Doorways surmounted by Flamboyant mouldings are very common in both ecclesiastical and domestic architecture in France. They are much rarer in England. A notable example is the doorway to the Chapter Room at Rochester Cathedral.[15][23]

The style was much used in England for wall arcading and niches. Prime examples in are in the Lady Chapel at Ely, the Screen at Lincoln and externally on the façade of Exeter Cathedral. In German and Spanish Gothic architecture it often appears as openwork screens on the exterior of buildings. The style was used to rich and sometimes extraordinary effect in both these countries, notably on the famous pulpit in Vienna Cathedral.[16]

Perpendicular Gothic (England)Edit

The depressed or four-centred arch is much wider than its height and gives the visual effect of having been flattened under pressure. Its structure is achieved by drafting two arcs which rise steeply from each springing point on a small radius and then turn into two arches with a wide radius and much lower springing point.[15]

This type of arch, when employed as a window opening, lends itself to very wide spaces, provided it is adequately supported by many narrow vertical shafts. These are often further braced by horizontal transoms. The overall effect produces a grid-like appearance of regular, delicate, rectangular forms with an emphasis on the perpendicular. It is also employed as a wall decoration in which arcade and window openings form part of the whole decorative surface.

The style, known as Perpendicular, that evolved from this treatment is specific to England, although very similar to contemporary Spanish style in particular, and was employed to great effect through the 15th century and first half of the 16th as Renaissance styles were much slower to arrive in England than in Italy and France.[15]

It can be seen notably at the East End of Gloucester Cathedral where the East Window is said to be as large as a tennis court. There are three very famous royal chapels and one chapel-like Abbey which show the style at its most elaborate: King's College Chapel, Cambridge; St George's Chapel, Windsor; Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey.[23] However very many simpler buildings, especially churches built during the wool boom in East Anglia, are fine examples of the style.

Styles- Lancet, Early Gothic, Geometric, Rayonnant, Flamboyant and Perpendicular
Lancet Gothic windows,west front, Ripon Cathedral, England
Plate tracery, clerestory window, Chartres Cathedral, France
Geometric Decorated tracery, east window, Ripon Cathedral
Rayonnant Gothic tracery, west rose, Strasbourg Cathedral, France
Flamboyant Gothic tracery, west rose, Amiens Cathedral, France
Flamboyant tracery, nave, Limoges Cathedral, France
Perpendicular Gothic window under 4-centred arch, King's College Chapel, Cambridge

Columns and piersEdit

In France, tall untapered columns were common in the Romanesque period. The use of columns of this type was rare in Norman England, where at Durham, Gloucester and Hereford there were massive circular piers built of masonry, and at Durham, alternating with rectangular piers.

In Early French Gothic architecture, the columns became much more Classical in shape, proportion and the nature of the capital, which was often a modification of the Corinthian capital. Columns of this type were used at the Abbey of St Denis, at Sens, at Notre Dame and at Canterbury in England. In buildings with sexpartite vaults, they sometimes alternated with piers.

In the Brabantine Gothic architecture of the Holland and Belgium, columns remained part of the style into the 15th century, and have capitals of cabbage leaf foliage.

In France, the column developed in complexity by having a cluster of circular shafts grouped around the central circular core. This is seen a Reims, Amiens and Bourges Cathedrals, and also at Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral and in Spain at Burgos Cathedral.

The rectangular piers also developed, with attached shafts and mouldings which continue up the wall to support the vault, or into the decorative mouldings of the chancel arch, in a manner that had previously been utilised to decorate the arches of Romanesque portals. The eastern end of the Abbey of Saint Etienne, Caen, was rebuilt from 1166, with clustered piers. From 1176, Wells Cathedral was constructed with clustered piers throughout. Between the two buildings there is a great difference in the handling of the two. At Caen, the pier remains a decorated rectangular pier, set parallel to the wall surface. The shafts themselves maintain a circular, and classicising form. At Well, the core of the pier appears to have been rotated, and become a lozenge, angle-on to the lie of the arcade. The clusters of shafts are fluting. The capitals are of what is know as "stiff-leaf" foliage, and has a vitality of form different to any other foliage carving of that date.

Complex clustered columns and fluted and shafted piers were subsequently widely adopted, and became part of the vertical visual character of Gothic cathedrals.

Columns and piers
Corinthian columns in the choir at Rouen Cathedral
Tall columns with clusters of shafts, Bourges Cathedral
Columns in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral
Fluted piers with Stiff Leaf capitals at Wells Cathedral
Very tall fluted piers at Seville Cathedral, Spain

Developments in ribbed vaultingEdit

In France the vaults over the high spaces of nave and clerestory, in the Early Gothic period, was sexpartite, spanning two bays of the nave. This resulted in the vaulted space being almost square, and to diagoal ribs being semi-circular. Only the arches of the transverse ribs were pointed. This is the case at Sens, at Notre Dame de Paris and the Nave of Laon Cathedral.

At Chartres Cathedral, and the choir of Laon Cathedral, however, the vault is in four parts, spans a single bay, is rectangular, and all the ribs are pointed. The quadripartite proved much easier to build because it required less centring. It is also stronger as the compartments are smaller. The quadripartite vault is used in the Early English cathedrals of Salisbury and Wells. It became the standard form of vault which leant itself to further development and elaboration.

In the nave of Lincoln Cathedral the vault acquired extra ribs known as "tiercerons" which meet at a central "ridge rib" running the length of the nave. An additional elaboration, to span the wide nave, was the introduction of intermediate ribs which do not reach the centre of the vault, but join two small "lierne" ribs projecting from the ridge. Other cathedrals with tierceron vaulting are Norwich, and Exeter.

Lierne ribs became a feature of later Gothic design, as at Bristol Cathedral and led the way to elaborate patterns within the vault, including net or "reticular" vaulting and "stellar" vaulting. Stellar vaulting was particularly fashionable in Germany, Eastern Europe and Spain. The use of short ribs lent itself to the introduction of curved and ogee shaped ribs, in the Flamboyant style. Flamboynt vaulting is particularly prevalent in Spain.

In England there are a number of chapter house, notably at Wells, Lincoln and Westminster abbey, where the vault is supported by a single central column from which many ribs radiate in every direction like a palm tree. This also occurs at the high vault behind the altar at Jacobins Church, Toulouse, in France.

A further development was many shallow ribs radiating in a fan shape, so that visually, the appearance of the structural ribs is minimised, and the emphasis is upon the curving surfaces. These fan vaults were used successfully for narrower and lower structures such as the cloister at Gloucester Cathedral and the retrochoir at Peterborough, before being employed on the high vaults at the Chapel of Kings College Cambridge, and even even more elaborate form with pendant lanterns attached, at Henry Vii's Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Style- Ribbed vaults
Notre Dame, Paris- square, sexpartite vaults spanning two nave bays
Salisbury Cathedral, England- rectangular quadripartite vault over single bay
Lincoln Cathedral, England- quadripartite form, with tierceron ribs and ridge rib with carved bosses.
Bremer Cathedral, Germany- north aisle, a reticular (net) vault with intersecting ribs.
St Marien's, Wolfsberg, Austria- stellar vault with intersecting lierne ribs.
Salamanca Cathedral, Spain- vault has Flamboyant S-shaped and circular lierne ribs,
Peterborough Cathedral retrochoir- fan vaulting, which further evolved into pemdant vaulting.

Survival, rediscovery and revivalEdit

Gothic architecture, usually churches or university buildings, continued to be built. Ireland was an island of Gothic architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the construction of Derry Cathedral (completed 1633), Sligo Cathedral (c. 1730), and Down Cathedral (1790–1818) are other notable examples.[54] In the 17th and 18th century several important Gothic buildings were constructed at Oxford University and Cambridge University, including Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, by Christopher Wren (1681–82) It also appeared, in a whimsical fashion, in Horace Walpole's Twickenham villa, Strawberry Hill (1749–1776). The two western towers of Westminster Abbey were constructed between 1722 and 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, opening a new period of Gothic Revival. Gothic architecture also survived in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the construction of Derry Cathedral (completed 1633), Sligo Cathedral (c. 1730), and Down Cathedral (1790–1818).[55]

In England, partly in response to a philosophy propounded by the Oxford Movement and others associated with the emerging revival of 'high church' or Anglo-Catholic ideas during the second quarter of the 19th century, neo-Gothic began to become promoted by influential establishment figures as the preferred style for ecclesiastical, civic and institutional architecture. The appeal of this Gothic revival (which after 1837, in Britain, is sometimes termed Victorian Gothic), gradually widened to encompass "low church" as well as "high church" clients. This period of more universal appeal, spanning 1855–1885, is known in Britain as High Victorian Gothic.

The Houses of Parliament in London by Sir Charles Barry with interiors by a major exponent of the early Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Pugin, is an example of the Gothic revival style from its earlier period in the second quarter of the 19th century. Examples from the High Victorian Gothic period include George Gilbert Scott's design for the Albert Memorial in London, and William Butterfield's chapel at Keble College, Oxford. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, it became more common in Britain for neo-Gothic to be used in the design of non-ecclesiastical and non-governmental buildings types. Gothic details even began to appear in working-class housing schemes subsidised by philanthropy, though given the expense, less frequently than in the design of upper and middle-class housing.

The middle of the 19th century was a period marked by the restoration, and in some cases modification, of ancient monuments and the construction of neo-Gothic edifices such as the nave of Cologne Cathedral and the Sainte-Clotilde of Paris as speculation of mediaeval architecture turned to technical consideration.

See alsoEdit




  1. ^ Wells et al. 2005, 666
  2. ^ a b Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan, eds. (2015), "Gothic", A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199674985.001.0001/acref-9780199674985-e-2072, ISBN 978-0-19-967498-5, retrieved 2020-04-09
  3. ^ Schurr, Marc Carel (2010), Bork, Robert E. (ed.), "art and architecture: Gothic", The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780198662624.001.0001/acref-9780198662624-e-0540, ISBN 978-0-19-866262-4, retrieved 2020-04-09
  4. ^ Bannister Fletcher, 17th edition, p.367, p.524
  5. ^ Moffett, Fazio and Wodehouse, p.230
  6. ^ Mignon 2015, pp. 8–9.
  7. ^ Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan, eds. (2015), "ogive", A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199674985.001.0001/acref-9780199674985-e-3177, ISBN 978-0-19-967498-5, retrieved 2020-04-09
  8. ^ Bogdanović, Jelena (2010-01-01), Bjork, Robert E. (ed.), "opus Francigenum", The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780198662624.001.0001/acref-9780198662624-e-4321, ISBN 978-0-19-866262-4, retrieved 2020-04-09
  9. ^ Bannister Fletcher, p.524
  10. ^ Vasari, G. The Lives of the Artists. Translated with an introduction and notes by J.C. and P. Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics), 1991, pp. 117 & 527. ISBN 9780199537198
  11. ^ Vasari, Giorgio. (1907) Vasari on technique: being the introduction to the three arts of design, architecture, sculpture and painting, prefixed to the Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects. G. Baldwin Brown Ed. Louisa S. Maclehose Trans. London: Dent, pp. b & 83.
  12. ^ "Gotz" is rendered as "Huns" in Thomas Urquhart's English translation.
  13. ^ Notes and Queries, No. 9. 29 December 1849
  14. ^ a b "L'art Gothique", section: "L'architecture Gothique en Angleterre" by Ute Engel: L'Angleterre fut l'une des premieres régions à adopter, dans la deuxième moitié du XIIeme siècle, la nouvelle architecture gothique née en France. Les relations historiques entre les deux pays jouèrent un rôle prépondérant: en 1154, Henri II (1154–1189), de la dynastie Française des Plantagenêt, accéda au thrône d'Angleterre." (England was one of the first regions to adopt, during the first half of the 12th century, the new Gothic architecture born in France. Historic relationships between the two countries played a determining role: in 1154, Henry II (1154–1189) became the first of the Anjou Plantagenet kings to ascend to the throne of England).
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g John Harvey, The Gothic World
  17. ^ Grodecki 1977, p. 28.
  18. ^ Grodecki 1977, pp. 29–30.
  19. ^ Grodecki 1977, p. 30.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral
  21. ^ While the engineering and construction of the dome of Florence Cathedral by Brunelleschi is often cited as one of the first works of the Renaissance, the octagonal plan, ribs and pointed silhouette were already determined in the 14th century.
  22. ^ The Gothic south tower is surmounted by a Baroque spire.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England
  24. ^ a b c d e f Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture.
  25. ^ Warren, John (1991). "Creswell's Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture". Muqarnas. BRILL. 8: 59–65 (61–63). doi:10.2307/1523154. JSTOR 1523154.
  26. ^ Petersen, Andrew (2002-03-11). Dictionary of Islamic Architecture at pp. 295-296. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-20387-3. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  27. ^ Scott, Robert A.: The Gothic enterprise: a guide to understanding the Medieval cathedral, Berkeley 2003, University of California Press, p. 113 ISBN 0-520-23177-5
  28. ^ Cf. Bony (1983), especially p.17
  29. ^ Le genie architectural des Normands a su s’adapter aux lieux en prenant ce qu’il y a de meilleur dans le savoir-faire des batisseurs arabes et byzantins”, Les Normands en Sicile, pp.14, 53-57.
  30. ^ Harvey, L. P. (1992). "Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500". Chicago : University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31960-1; Boswell, John (1978). Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02090-2.
  31. ^ Erwin Panofsky argued that Suger was inspired to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, although the extent to which Suger had any aims higher than aesthetic pleasure has been called into doubt by more recent art historians on the basis of Suger's own writings.
  32. ^ a b Mignon (2015 & pp. 10-11.
  33. ^ Le Guide du Patrimoine de France (2002) pg. 53
  34. ^ Renault and Lazé (2006), p. 36
  35. ^ Cannon, J. 2007. Cathedral: The Great English Cathedrals and the World that Made Them
  36. ^ *Warren, John (1991). "Creswell's Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture". Muqarnas. BRILL. 8: 59–65. doi:10.2307/1523154. JSTOR 1523154.
  37. ^ "Architectural Importance". Durham World Heritage Site. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  38. ^ This does not happen in French or English Gothic and so to the British or French eye, appears to be a strange disregard for style.
  39. ^ a b c Ducher 1988, p. 46.
  40. ^ a b Mignon 2015, pp. 10–11.
  41. ^ Bechmann 2017, pp. 188–190.
  42. ^ a b Bechmann 2017, pp. 183–185.
  43. ^ Mignon 2015, pp. 18–28.
  44. ^ Ducher 1988, pp. 50–51.
  45. ^ Grodecki 1977, pp. 14, 17.
  46. ^ Wenzler 2018, pp. 95–98.
  47. ^ Julian Flannery, Fifty English Steeples: The Finest Medieval Parish Church Towers and Spires in England, T&H, 2016, 10-0500343144
  48. ^ Renault & Lazé 2006, p. 35.
  49. ^ Wenzler 2018, p. 79.
  50. ^ Wenzler 2018, p. 54.
  51. ^ The open-work spire was completed in 1890 to the original design.
  52. ^ Banister Fletcher, 17th edition, p. 534
  53. ^ Thomas Rickman, Attempt to Discriminate the Style of Architecture in England (1812–15)
  54. ^ Hunter, Bob (18 September 2014). "Londonderry Cathedtral". Wars & Conflict: The Plantation of Ulster. BBC.
  55. ^ Hunter, Bob (18 September 2014). "Londonderry Cathedtral". Wars & Conflict: The Plantation of Ulster. BBC.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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