All About Gothic Architecture

Aerial view of Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom.

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The Gothic architecture style found in churches, synagogues, and cathedrals built between approximately 1100 to 1450 CE, stirred the imagination of painters, poets, and religious thinkers in Europe and Great Britain.

From the remarkable great abbey of Saint-Denis in France to the Altneuschul ("Old-New") Synagogue in Prague, Gothic churches were designed to humble man and glorify God. Yet, with its innovative engineering, the Gothic style really was a testament to human ingenuity.

Gothic Beginnings: Medieval Churches and Synagogues

The Basilica of Saint Denis
The Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris, Gothic ambulatory designed by Abbott Suger.

Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Lonely Planet Images Collection / Getty Images

The earliest Gothic structure is often said to be the ambulatory of the abbey of Saint-Denis in France, constructed under the direction of Abbot Suger (1081–1151). The ambulatory became a continuation of the side aisles, providing open access to surround the main altar. How did Suger do it and why? This revolutionary design is fully explained in the Khan Academy video Birth of the Gothic: Abbot Suger and the ambulatory at St. Denis.

Built between 1140 and 1144, St. Denis became a model for most of the late 12th-century French cathedrals, including those at Chartres and Senlis. However, features of the Gothic style are found in earlier buildings in Normandy and elsewhere.

Gothic Engineering

"All of the great Gothic churches of France have certain things in common," wrote American architect and art historian Talbot Hamlin (1889–1956), "—a great love of height, of large windows, and an almost universal use of monumental west fronts with twin towers and great doors between and below them...The whole history of Gothic architecture in France is also characterized by a spirit of perfect structural clarity...to allow all of the structural members to be controlling elements in the actual visual impression."

Gothic architecture does not hide the beauty of its structural elements. Centuries later, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) praised the "organic character" of Gothic buildings: their soaring artistry grows organically from the honesty of visual construction.

Gothic Synagogues

Back view of Old-New Synagogue
Back view of Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul), gothic style, steep roof, old Jewish quarter of Prague.

Lukas Koster / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Jews were not permitted to design buildings in Medieval times. Jewish places of worship were designed by Christians who incorporated the same Gothic details used for churches and cathedrals.

The Old-New Synagogue in Prague was an early example of Gothic design in a Jewish building. Constructed in 1279, more than a century after the Gothic Saint-Denis in France, the modest building has a pointed arch façade, a steep roof, and walls fortified by simple buttresses. Two small dormer-like "eyelid" windows provide light and ventilation to the interior space—a vaulted ceiling and octagonal pillars.

Also known by the names Staronova and Altneuschul, the Old-New Synagogue has survived wars and other catastrophes to become the oldest synagogue in Europe still used as a place of worship.

By the 1400s, the Gothic style was so predominant that builders routinely used Gothic details for all types of structures. Secular buildings such as town halls, royal palaces, courthouses, hospitals, castles, bridges, and fortresses reflected Gothic ideas.

Builders Discover Pointed Arches

pointed arches at Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims.

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Gothic architecture is not merely about ornamentation. The Gothic style brought innovative new construction techniques that allowed churches and other buildings to reach great heights.

One important innovation was the experimental use of pointed arches, although the structural device was not new. Early pointed arches can be found in Syria and Mesopotamia, and Western builders probably stole the idea from Muslim structures, such as the 8th century Palace of Ukhaidir in Iraq. Earlier Romanesque churches had pointed arches, too, but builders didn't capitalize on the shape.

The Point of Pointed Arches

During the Gothic era, builders discovered that pointed arches would give structures amazing strength and stability. They experimented with varying steepness, and "experience had shown them that pointed arches thrust out less than circular arches," wrote Italian architect and engineer Mario Salvadori (1907–1997). "The main difference between Romanesque and Gothic arches lies in the pointed shape of the latter, which, besides introducing a new aesthetic dimension, has the important consequence of reducing the arch thrusts by as much as fifty percent."

In Gothic buildings, the weight of the roof was supported by the arches rather than the walls. This meant that walls could be thinner.

Ribbed Vaulting and Soaring Ceilings

Ribbed vaulting at Monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaca
Monks' Hall, Monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaca, Portugal.

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Earlier Romanesque churches relied on barrel vaulting, where the ceiling between the barrel arches actually looked like the inside of a barrel or a covered bridge. Gothic builders introduced the dramatic technique of ribbed vaulting, created from a web of rib arches at various angles.

While barrel vaulting carried weight on continuous solid walls, ribbed vaulting used columns to support the weight. The ribs also delineated the vaults and gave a sense of unity to the structure.

Flying Buttresses and High Walls

flying buttress on Notre Dame de Paris cathedral
The flying buttress on the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral.

Julian Elliott Photography / Digital Vision / Getty Images

In order to prevent the outward collapse of the arches, Gothic architects began using a revolutionary flying buttress system. So-called "flying buttresses" are freestanding brick or stone supports attached to the exterior walls by an arch or a half-arch, giving the buildings an impression of potential winged flight in addition to a vital source of support. One of the most popular examples is found on the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral.

Stained Glass Windows Bring Color and Light

Stained glass panel
Stained glass panel, characteristic of Gothic storytelling, at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France.

Daniele Schneider / Photononstop / Getty Images

Because of the advanced use of pointed arches in construction, the walls of Medieval churches and synagogues throughout Europe were no longer used as primary supports—the walls could not alone hold up the building. This engineering advancement enabled artistic statements to be displayed in the wall areas of glass. The huge stained glass windows and a profusion of smaller windows throughout Gothic buildings created the effect of interior lightness and space and exterior color and grandeur.

Gothic Era Stained Glass Art and Craft

"What enabled the craftsmen to contrive the large stained glass windows of the later Middle Ages," pointed out Hamlin, "was the fact that iron frameworks, called armatures, could be built into the stone, and the stained glass fastened to them by wiring where necessary. In the best Gothic work, the design of these armatures had an important bearing on the stained-glass pattern, and its outline furnished the basic design for the stained-glass decoration. It is thus that the so-called medallion window was developed."

"Later," Hamlin continued, "the solid iron armature was sometimes replaced by saddle bars running straight across the window, and the change from the elaborate armature to saddle bar coincided with the change from rather set and small-scale designs to large, free compositions occupying the entire window area."

One of the Best Examples

The stained glass window shown here is from the 12th century Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Construction on Notre Dame lasted between 1163–1345 and spanned the Gothic era.

Gargoyles Guard and Protect the Cathedrals

Gargoyles on Notre Dame
Gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

John Harper / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Cathedrals in the High Gothic style became increasingly elaborate. Over several centuries, builders added towers, pinnacles, and hundreds of sculptures.

In addition to religious figures, many Gothic cathedrals are heavily ornamented with strange, leering creatures. These gargoyles are not merely decorative. Originally, the sculptures were waterspouts to remove rain from the roofs and extended away from the walls, protecting the foundation. Since most people in Medieval days could not read, the carvings also took on the important role of illustrating lessons from the scriptures.

In the late 1700s, architects took a disliking to gargoyles and other grotesque statues. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and many other Gothic buildings were stripped of devils, dragons, griffins, and other grotesqueries. The ornaments were restored to their perches during a careful restoration in the 1800s.

Floor Plans For Medieval Buildings

Floor plan of the Salisbury cathedral
Floor plan of the Salisbury cathedral in Wiltshire, England.

Encyclopaedia Britannica / UIG Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Gothic buildings were based on the traditional plan used by basilicas, like the Basilique Saint-Denis in France. However, as the French Gothic rose to great heights, English architects built grandeur in larger horizontal floor plans, rather than height.

Shown here is the floor plan for the 13th century Salisbury Cathedral and Cloisters in Wiltshire, England.

"Early English work has the quiet charm of an English spring day," wrote architecture scholar Hamlin. "It's most characteristic monument is Salisbury Cathedral, built at almost identically the same time as Amiens, and the difference between the English and the French Gothic can nowhere more dramatically be seen than in the contrast between the bold height and daring construction of the one and the length and delightful simplicity of the other."

Diagram of a Medieval Cathedral: Gothic Engineering

drawing of isolated supports and buttressing

The Florida Center for Instructional Technology

Medieval man considered himself an imperfect reflection of the divine light of God, and Gothic architecture was the ideal expression of this view.

New techniques of construction, such as pointed arches and flying buttresses, permitted buildings to soar to amazing new heights, dwarfing anyone who stepped inside. Moreover, the concept of divine light was suggested by the airy quality of Gothic interiors illuminated by walls of stained glass windows. The complicated simplicity of ribbed vaulting added another Gothic detail to the engineering and artistic mix. The overall effect is that Gothic structures are much lighter in structure and spirit than sacred places built in the earlier Romanesque style.

Medieval Architecture Reborn: Victorian Gothic Styles

Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York
19th-century Gothic revival architecture at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York.

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Gothic architecture reigned for 400 years. It spread from northern France, swept throughout England and Western Europe, crept into Scandinavia and Central Europe, then south into the Iberian Peninsula, and even found its way into the Near East. However, the 14th century brought a devastating plague and extreme poverty. Building slowed, and by the end of the 1400s, Gothic-style architecture was replaced by other styles.

Scornful of exuberant, excessive ornamentation, artisans in Renaissance Italy compared medieval builders to German "Goth" barbarians from earlier times. Thus, after the style had faded from popularity, the term Gothic style was coined to refer to it.

But, Medieval building traditions never completely vanished. During the nineteenth century, builders in Europe, England, and the United States borrowed Gothic ideas to create an eclectic Victorian style: Gothic Revival. Even small private homes were given arched windows, lacy pinnacles, and an occasional leering gargoyle.

Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York is a grand 19th century Gothic Revival mansion designed by Victorian architect Alexander Jackson Davis.

Sources

  • Gutheim, Frederick (ed.). "Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894–1940)." New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1941. 
  • Hamlin, Talbot. "Architecture through the Ages." New York: Putnam and Sons, 1953.
  • Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. "Birth of the Gothic: Abbot Suger and the Ambulatory at St. Denis." Medieval World—Gothic. Khan Academy, 2012. Video / Transcript.
  • Salvadori, Mario. "Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture." New York: WW Norton and Company, 1980.