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Gothic Architecture-Definition and Explanations


Gothic architecture (or ) is an architectural style that developed from the second half of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.

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Foreword (Gothic Architecture)

It was the Italians of the Renaissance who named this style “Gothic”, which was initially called francigenum opus “manner of building in the Ile de France”. The term “Gothic” was used a posteriori in a pejorative sense: Gothic art was the art of the Goths, an art of “barbarians” who had forgotten Roman techniques and canons. A number of art historians today refute this judgement and show that, compared to the Romanesque architecture that preceded it, Gothic architecture is not so much a rupture as an evolution.

Gothic architecture appeared in Upper Picardy in the 12th century; it spread rapidly north of the Loire and then throughout Europe until the middle of the 16th century. The Gothic aesthetic remained very present in French architecture until the beginning of the 20th century.

Its very strong identity is as much philosophical as architectural. From both points of view, it probably represents one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.

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History of Gothic Architecture

The Gothic style appeared mainly in Upper Picardy. The style evolved over time: the so-called “primitive” Gothic (12th century) was followed in France by the “classical” Gothic (1190 – 1230 approximately), then the “radiating” Gothic (c.1230 – c.1350), and finally the “flamboyant” Gothic (15th / 16th century). During the Renaissance, the Gothic style evolved, in France, towards a hybrid style of Gothic structure and Renaissance decoration (Saint Étienne du Mont church in Paris).

Its geographical expansion took place mainly in Western Europe and Gothic architecture took on many local variants: Angevin, Norman, perpendicular Gothic, etc.

Before the Gothic

Since the end of the 10th century, churches have been built in the Romanesque style common to much of Western Europe: the naves are often covered with barrel vaults; the walls are thick and supported by massive buttresses on the outside. The number and size of windows are limited and the interiors of the buildings are decorated with brightly coloured frescoes.

Today’s art historians tend to diminish the rupture between the Romanesque and Gothic styles, demonstrating that the ancient heritage was not completely forgotten in the Gothic style. Sculptors and architects often drew inspiration from Roman methods.

Early Gothic or Proto-Gothic

Although technical elements used by the builders of the time had existed for many centuries (ogive), the construction of the Basilica of Saint-Denis and the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Sens are generally considered to be the first major milestones in the genesis of the Gothic aesthetic in architecture.

The first Gothic buildings appeared around 1130-1150 in the Île-de-France and especially in Picardy. At that time, population growth led to an increase in the size of religious buildings. Religion and the cult of relics were an essential part of the life of the faithful. The spread of technical innovations made work more productive. Finally, cities and trade developed, which led to the emergence of a rich bourgeoisie.

Early achievements of Gothic Architecture

The church of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Morienval already shows some Gothic features. It predates the abbey church of Saint-Denis, but the latter is one of the first religious buildings still standing to clearly distinguish itself from the Romanesque style.

The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Denis was a prestigious and wealthy establishment, thanks to the work of Suger, abbot from 1122 to 1151. He wanted to renovate the old Carolingian church in order to showcase the relics of Saint Denis in a new choir: to do this, he wanted a significant elevation and openings that let in light.

Suger decided to complete the construction of his new abbey church, inspired by the new style seen in the cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Sens. In 1140, he had a new western section built, inspired by Norman Romanesque models such as the abbey church of Saint-Etienne in Caen. In 1144, the consecration of the choir of the basilica marked the advent of a new architecture. Taking up the principle of the ambulatory with radiating chapels and doubling it, he innovated by juxtaposing the previously isolated chapels by separating them with a simple buttress. Each of the chapels has vast twin bays fitted with stained glass windows that filter the light. The vaulting adopts the technique of the ribbed crossing, which allows the forces to be better distributed towards the pillars.

The first Gothic art spread during the second part of the 12th century in the north of France. The secular clergy was then tempted by a certain architectural splendour. Saint-Denis is considered to be the prototype: but this very daring approach was not immediately understood and followed (harmonic façade, double ambulatory, rib vaults). The cathedral of Saint-Etienne de Sens is another example of this movement, less daring than Saint-Denis: alternating supports (strong and weak piers), sexpartite vaulting, walls that remain relatively thick – the use of buttresses will not become widespread until the classical period (even if their first attested appearance dates from the 1150s in Saint-Germain-des-Prés). However, innovations such as the absence of a transept, which unifies the space, and more abundant lighting can be seen. The contributions of Sens were understood more quickly than those of Saint-Denis. Sens cathedral was to have more of an impact and many buildings were soon to follow its example, initially north of the Loire. Laon cathedral still has an “archaic” form, with a four-level elevation, including the tribunes. The counter-balance of the nave, despite sexpartite vaults and alternating strong and weak piers, has not yet been fully resolved.

Classical Gothic

The Classical Gothic (in English, High Gothic) corresponds to the phase of maturation and balance of the forms (end of XIIth-1230 approximately). All the largest cathedrals were built: Reims, Bourges, Amiens, etc. The rhythm and decoration became simpler. The vertical thrust is more and more pronounced. The architecture became more uniform: the idea of alternating piers, which was very pronounced in Sens, was abandoned.
It is in the royal domain of the Capetian dynasty that the style finds its most classical expression. During this period, the names of the architects are beginning to be known, notably thanks to the labyrinths (Reims). The work is rationalised. The stone is standardised. The prototype monument is Chartres, an ambitious project with a three-level elevation that was made possible by the perfection of the counterbases. The development of buttresses made it possible to do away with the tribunes that had previously played this role. Other European countries began to show interest in this new architectural form (Canterbury, Salisbury, etc.).

The Radiant Gothic

Once again, this style was born in Saint-Denis with the renovation of the upper parts of the choir of the abbey church in 1231. It really took hold from the 1240s onwards; the buildings under construction at the time immediately took this new “fashion” into account and partially changed their plan. The Radiant Gothic style developed gradually until around 1350, and spread throughout Europe with a certain degree of homogeneity. French architects were employed as far away as Cyprus and Hungary.

Churches became higher and higher. Technically, it was the use of an iron frame (the “reinforced stone” technique) that made such large buildings and large windows possible.

The windows are enlarged to the point where the wall disappears: the pillars form a stone skeleton, the rest being glass, allowing abundant light to penetrate. The illuminated surface is further increased by the presence of an openwork triforium as in Châlons. In Metz, the glazed area reaches 6,496 m2. The windows are also characterised by very fine infills that do not obstruct the light. The rose, already widely used before, became an essential element of the decoration (Notre-Dame de Paris, transept; façade of Strasbourg cathedral).

There is also a certain spatial unity: the pillars are all identical; the multiplication of side chapels also makes it possible to enlarge the cathedral’s space.

The pillar is most often fasciculated, i.e. surrounded by multiple colonnettes gathered in a cluster. In contrast to the fasciculated pillar trend, a whole group of cathedrals and large churches adopted cylindrical pillars in imitation of the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Châlons.

Flamboyant Gothic

Abusively called late Gothic, it was born in the 1350s and developed until the end of the 15th century, and even in certain regions, such as Lorraine, during the first part of the 16th century: see for example the Basilica of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port. In Champagne, it arrived after about 1450 with masons such as Florent Bleuet, active in Troyes and at the Notre-Dame de l’Épine basilica. This so-called “flamboyant” gothic style takes its name from the flame-shaped motifs (bellows and flyswatters) that can be seen in the filling of bays, rosettes or on the gables, for example.

Compared to the previous period, the structure of the buildings remains the same, but their decoration evolves towards an exuberant ornamentation, characterised by a great virtuosity in the stereotomy (cutting of the stone). The “reinforced stone” technique of the Radiant period is giving way to “cut stone”: this explains, for example, why the rose windows are more modest in size, even if they are more aerial, resting on lighter structures, as in the Sainte-Chapelle in Vincennes. The façades also have the characteristic of being worked on several levels. Inside the buildings, the pointed arch becomes more complex, and in some buildings it becomes decorative, as in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The hanging keystone or cul-de-lampe, a real technical feat, became more frequent (Saint-Ouen in Rouen, Marmousets portal).

This period saw distinct styles appear in different regions of Europe. In France, the elevation is somewhat simplified, often with a two-level elevation (Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois), or with a three-level elevation but with a blind triforium. The pillars extend uninterrupted from the floor to the keystone; the multiple colonnettes that flanked them are replaced by ribs.

Examples of flamboyant buildings: the church of Saint-Maclou and the Parliament in Rouen, the chapel of Saint-Louis in the castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the collegiate church of Saint-Thiébaut in Thann, the church of Louviers, the church of Brou, near Bourg-en-Bresse, in the Ain, the façade of the Trinité abbey in Vendôme, the façade of the Notre-Dame de l’Épine basilica, the Saint-Vulfran collegiate church in Abbeville, the cathedral in Auch (except for the façade).

the church of Saint-Maclou

Decline of Gothic art in the Renaissance

Les Humanistes de la Renaissance souhaitaient un retour aux formes classiques hérités de l’Antiquité, considérée comme un modèle de perfection. Le terme « gothique » est employé pour la première fois par Giorgio Vasari en 1550 pour désigner l’art médiéval, avec une connotation péjorative : il est fait référence aux Goths, des barbares, dont les armées avaient notamment envahi l’Italie et pillé Rome en 410.

Le dédain pour cet art fut tel qu’on projeta même de détruire la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris pour la remplacer par un nouvel édifice. Ce projet ne put cependant se concrétiser lorsqu’éclata la Révolution. La vente ou l’abandon des biens de l’Église entraina la disparition de nombreux chefs-d’œuvre de l’architecture gothique, dont la plus grande partie furent des abbayes, mais aussi plusieurs cathédrales comme Arras, Cambrai ou Liège (Belgique).

la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Malgré ce dédain affiché, le gothique connaît encore de beaux succès dans la première moitié du XVIe siècle. Les formes gothiques disparaissent progressivement, se mêlent aux formes Renaissance comme dans l’église Saint-Eustache à Paris où un décor renaissant habille une structure gothique. Certaines églises gothique de la fin du XVIe siècle ont subi des influences de l’art de la Renaissance dans leur architecture, comme par exemple la Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Havre.

Romanticism rehabilitates the Gothic: the Neo-Gothic

When the Romantic movement was born in the 19th century, interest in the whole of the Middle Ages, including Gothic architecture, grew and the word lost its negative connotation. Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) revived interest in the cathedrals of Île-de-France. Inspired by the research work of Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, many buildings, especially religious ones, imitated the medieval style: in Paris a famous example is the church of Sainte-Clotilde. In 1840, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Bonsecours near Rouen inaugurated the era of neo-Gothic churches, followed shortly afterwards in Nantes by the church of Saint-Nicolas. This was followed, among others, by the Sacré-Coeur de Moulins in the Allier, the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (Réformés-Canebière) in Marseille, the church of Saint-Paul in Strasbourg, etc, Technical innovations allowed buildings to free themselves from certain constraints that dictated their form, and a new architecture reinterpreted its historical heritage, and after the neo-classical, the neo-Gothic style made its appearance, particularly in England, followed by the United States in the 1840s. This style was very successful in universities (Harvard), museums (Smithsonian Institution) and of course churches. In New York, James Renwick Jr. designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1858-1888), a synthesis of the cathedrals of Rheims and Cologne. The use of lighter materials than stone made it possible to dispense with buttresses and external buttresses. The success of the Neo-Gothic style continued into the early 20th century in many skyscrapers, notably in Chicago and New York. In Europe, the most famous monument inspired by the Gothic heritage, but with a clear difference in Gaudi’s organic style, is probably the Sagrada Família in Barcelona (Spain).

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Gothic Architecture

Aesthetics of Gothic Architecture

Even if it is common to define Gothic architecture by the use of the semi-circular arch or the ogive, one cannot define a precise architectural style, or any other art, by its technical characteristics. To oppose the Romanesque to the Gothic by the use of the semicircular arch or the ogive is meaningless. The ogive, the pointed arch and the buttress were used long before the first Gothic buildings appeared.

Many other architectural and decorative devices were used. The alternation of strong and weak piers gives rhythm to the nave and thus reinforces the impression of length and horizontality. The height/width ratio of the nave accentuates or diminishes the feeling of height of the vault. The shape of the piers, the decoration of the capitals, the proportion of the levels (large arcades, triforium, high windows), etc. all contribute to the expression of the aesthetics of Gothic architecture:

- the desire for height (Saint-Pierre de Beauvais Cathedral)
- search for verticality (Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens)
- alternation of voids and solids (Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral)
- fusion of space (Saint-Etienne de Bourges Cathedral)
- multiplication of the play of light and colour (Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral).

In this way, the architectural elements were put to use in the service of choices and aesthetic research. They were only tools to obtain the desired effects. To raise the naves ever higher, the technique of the buttress arch had to be improved. To increase the light and to hollow out the walls, the use of the pointed arch was better suited. The fasciculated piers homogenised the space and gave a sense of logic to the volumes.

Techniques used in Gothic architecture

Romanesque architecture replaced the idea of the framed basilica with that of the vaulted basilica, which requires thick supporting walls, usually reinforced by buttresses attached from place to place.

Gothic architecture provides a solution to the problems of strength experienced in Romanesque art. This change made it possible to build much higher, lighter and brighter parts. The pointed arch, the ribbed crossing and the buttressed arch effectively balance the forces while lightening the structure and allowing the opening of large bays. Thus, the thick walls of Romanesque architecture are replaced by much lighter piers and walls in Gothic architecture. A Gothic church is a highly structured and planned, if not calculated, monument. The physical concepts on which Gothic architecture is based were not theorised until the 16th century.

The ogive ( Gothic Architecture )

The flying buttress

The buttress is a masonry arch that counteracts the lateral thrust of cross vaults. It not only takes over the function of the buttresses of Romanesque architecture, but also limits the force of the wind and rain on the high windows. Finally, it is often associated with the rainwater drainage system of the roof.

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Gothic Architecture

The pointed arch

An arch whose lower curve is formed from two symmetrical half-arches resting on each other.
The abutment

Solid masonry buttress supporting the buttresses.

The pinnacle

Pinnacles are small aediculae at the top of the buttresses. Sometimes made of lead and pyramidal in shape with a polygonal base (or simply a spire or point), they are used primarily to increase the mass of the buttresses to improve the balance of forces coming from the walls. They are sometimes openwork and decorated with finials serving as a crown, thus adding a decorative function.

Gothic Architecture


A gallery, often vaulted, open to the interior and arranged laterally above the aisles of a church nave. Like the buttresses, the triforium is one of the elements that counteract the thrust of the vaults. It has no liturgical or circulation function in the building.

Proportions of a Gothic building

While the round arch was satisfactory for the construction of a simple nave with a barrel vault, it was unsuitable for the crossing of the transept and the nave. This resulted in much more fragile flattened elliptical arches at the diagonals of the intersection. The collapse of the dome of the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople illustrated this problem.

The solution was to reserve the strength of the round arches for the diagonals of the crossing, the so-called cross-ribbing. The orthogonal projection of this crossing along the axis of each of the naves then gives a half-ellipse laid out in its height, very strong at its top. Fortunately, there is a good approximation of this arch for this period when, on the building site, in the absence of good means of calculation and precise measurements, it is better to resort to simple tracings: it is a broken arch made up of two arcs of a circle centred respectively at the first and third quarters of the distance to be crossed.

This approximation can often be seen in a slight deformation of the vault of the crossing at the point where it connects to the naves


Contrary to the dominant tendency of the Romanesque style to be sober, the Gothic style is often adorned with a multitude of arches, colonnades, statues, etc.

Stained glass windows

The Romanesque style allowed for limited openings and the play of contrasts between light and shadow.

In the north, this structural bias probably made the buildings very dark. Larger openings had to be considered to let in light. However, the round arch does not allow for openings large enough to provide the light so sought after by Gothic art, without the risk of weakening the walls. The lateral forces applied to the walls are very important and it is impossible to envisage raising the vault without reinforcing the walls to counteract the resulting thrust.

However, the pointed arch and the ribbed crossing make it possible to balance the forces on the piers. The walls no longer have to bear the weight of the structure and can be opened to the outside. The light becomes so abundant that it can be coloured with stained glass windows. These windows do not show anything from the outside. They are edifying for the faithful and often represent biblical scenes, the lives of saints or sometimes even daily life in the Middle Ages. They were real visual aids for the catechism of the faithful, who only had to look up.

But beyond the iconographic representation, it is also for the whole symbolism of light that stained glass windows were used during the Middle Ages, and more particularly during the so-called Gothic period. According to Vitellion, a 13th century intellectual, there are two kinds of light: divine light (God) and physical light (the manifestation of God). Stained-glass windows were therefore responsible for transforming physical light into divine light, in other words, for bringing the divine presence into the cathedral.

Still in the medieval mindset, darkness or the absence of light was associated with the Evil One. So when a worshipper entered the cathedral, he felt protected from evil by God, thanks to the brightness of the stained glass windows. The link between God and light is explained in the Bible.

The historical context in which this theology of light was developed is described in the work of the historian Georges Duby.

"I am the light of the world; he who follows me does not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Gospel according to Saint John, VIII, 12

In addition, the light from the stained glass windows is intended to define a heavenly microcosm in the heart of the church

The different local forms

In France

Angevin Gothic

Angevin Gothic, also known as Plantagenet Gothic, is distinguished by facades that are different from those of Île-de-France, which do not have three portals. The chevet also does not systematically include buttresses, like the cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Poitiers, whose chevet is a simple vertical wall. But it is above all the vaults that characterise the Angevin Gothic style: the Angevin vault has a very rounded profile (keystone significantly higher than the doubleaux and the formets), whereas the Francilian vault is flatter (keystone at the same level as the doubleaux and the formets).

This system, typical of the middle of the 12th century, is a combination of influences from the Gothic revival (rib vaulting) and the Romanesque architecture of western France (churches with rows of domes such as the cathedral of Saint-Front in Périgueux or the cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Angoulême). It is characterised by a single nave, i.e. without side aisles, and very curved vaults which grow little to spill over and which do not require buttresses.

Among the most beautiful examples of Angevin vaulting are the Cathedral of Saint-Maurice in Angers and the former Hôpital Saint-Jean in Angers, now the Musée Jean-Lurçat.

Norman Gothic

Normandy was associated with the Gothic movement very early on. One of the specificities of Norman Gothic is the presence, above the transept, of a central tower which can be a lantern and/or a bell tower, built in many large churches and in almost all the cathedrals of the province (cathedrals of Coutances, Rouen, Évreux, the former cathedral of Lisieux, the abbey of the Trinity of Fécamp, etc.). The cathedral of Sées does not have one, but it was originally planned. This architecture greatly influenced Gothic art in England, where the presence of a central tower is the rule. Exceptionally, they also exist elsewhere (Burgos or Lausanne Cathedral for example).

In England

Unlike the rest of Europe, English Gothic developed in three phases. A distinction is made between Primary Gothic, Curvilinear Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic.
Primary Gothic

Primary Gothic (or Early English Gothic)

developed from the 12th century until 1250.

Curvilinear Gothic

It began around 1250 and lasted for about a century. The curvilinear gothic (or decorated style) is characterized by very elaborate gothic bays. They include mullions that separate the different parts of the window. Inside the building, the columns are finer and more elegant than those of the primary Gothic style.

Some authors divide the decorated style into two periods: first the geometric, characterised by windows with vertical lancet infills, and then the curvilinear, which would correspond to the flamboyant Gothic, with infills in speckles and bellows.

Perpendicular Gothic

Typically British, Perpendicular Gothic was born around 1340, when the choir of Gloucester Cathedral was transformed and its cloister built.

This style is characterised by a redefinition of the interior volumes and exterior masses. Large windows distribute light widely in the halls and naves, following horizontal and vertical lines that give rise to the term perpendicular. Fan vaults also appear, breaking the verticality of the architectural lines, creating a dynamic and highly decorative effect. These vaults are particularly notable in the Henry VII chapels of Westminster Abbey, St George’s in Windsor and King’s College in Cambridge. On the outside, the buttresses are removed.

Abandoned around 1520, Perpendicular Gothic was revived in the second half of the 18th century.

In the Holy Roman Empire

This Gothic style can be divided into three distinct styles:

The “Sondergotik

Hall church
Church of the mendicant orders
Brick Gothic

Many German churches adopted the Gothic style and many of its achievements in German-speaking countries are exceptional works of art (Cologne Cathedral, with a plan adapted from that of Amiens, Ulm Cathedral (the highest stone Gothic spire in the world), Freiburg im Breisgau, Regensburg, Vienna (Austria), Prague etc.), in a style that is not very different from that in France.
In the north of Germany and Poland, stone is replaced by brick, which severely limits sculptural decoration (this is the “Backsteingotik” in Lübeck, Stralsund, Gdańsk, Malbork, Toruń…); in some buildings, the nave and aisles may be the same height, hence the name hall church. This type of church is also frequently found in the far north of France and in Flanders and the Netherlands.

In Spain

In Seville, the monumental minaret of the mosque disused since the Reconquista was flanked by a late Gothic cathedral that will remain the largest in the world. Its impressive dimensions were allowed by the lightening due to the absence of frameworks, which was made possible by low rainfall. The cathedrals of the north of the peninsula (in Burgos, León) are transpositions of French Gothic art. The cathedral of Palma de Mallorca is characterised by its exceptional interior volume and vaults resting on excessively slender pillars

From 1480 to 1520 the plateresque style (plateresco in Spanish) developed. It is an architectural style of transition between Gothic and Renaissance art. The first phase of the Plateresque style is also known as the “Hispano-Flemish Gothic”, or the “Isabeline” or “Catholic Kings” style, as it developed in the countries of the Crown of Castile, during the reign of the “Catholic Kings”, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The forms of the Flamboyant Gothic are still dominant, and the Renaissance elements are still little used or misunderstood (according to the canons of the artistic Renaissance). Heraldic and epigraphic motifs predominate. One of the most striking decorative features is the recurrent use of the symbols of the yoke, the arrows and the pomegranate, which refer directly to the two Spanish monarchs. The motif of balls is also used to decorate the buildings. The Isabelline style is particularly well represented by the works of the architects Enrique de Egas, Juan de Álava and Diego de Riaño.

Honoré de Balzac pays homage to the Spanish Gothic style, especially to the first cathedral of Cadiz, which was originally Gothic. “The church, due to the generosity of a Spanish family, crowns the city. The bold, elegant façade gives a great and beautiful physiognomy to this small maritime city. Is it not a spectacle imbued with all our terrestrial sublimities that the aspect of a city whose pressed roofs, almost all arranged in amphitheatre in front of a pretty port, are surmounted by a magnificent portal with a gothic triglyph, with bell towers, with small towers, with cut out spires?

In the Middle East

Born at the time of the Crusades, Gothic art left some unexpected evidence in the countries of the Levant, such as in Cyprus where the Latin cathedrals of Nicosia and Famagusta were later converted into mosques (see the Lala Mustapha Pacha mosque).

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