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Gothic Architectural Style

Features and Elements of Gothic Building Design.

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Flying buttresses at Notre Dame.
These supports absorbed the thrust
of the vault. As a result, walls ceased
being load-bearing, could contain
much larger windows.

Gothic Architectural Style (c.1120-1500)


Gothic Architectural Design
Features of the Gothic Style
Architectural Sculpture
German Gothic
English Gothic
More Articles on Medieval Christian Art

For more about the general evolution of architectural design,
see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present).

For a brief overview of artistic activity during the Middle Ages,
please see: Medieval Art (c.450-1450).

Choir and altar of Cologne Cathedral.
Note the soaring verticality of the
Rayonnant Gothic style.


For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.


The term "Gothic", applied to the style of the late Middle Ages, was first used by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), half in jest and half disdainfully, since the Italians considered the Goths had destroyed the beauty of Classical Antiquity. In this word was expressed all the aversion which the Renaissance in general, and Renaissance architecture in particular, felt for Medieval artists, as well as the inability of the southern sense of form to understand and sympathize with the northern achievement. For Gothic architecture was a development of northern Romanesque architecture, and there is no sharp dividing line between them. To call Romanesque the style of round arches, and Gothic that of pointed arches, is superficial.

To understand the nature of Gothic art we must remember the gradual stratification of medieval culture. It began in the cloister, and Latin became the language of the educated classes in the West. For a long while the clergy hesitated to defile their parchment with the speech of the common people, although they wrote down the Strasburg oath of Ludwig of Germany in 842, and, after 1000, the first Italian and Spanish clauses appear in title-deeds.

Romanesque art had represented unity in multiplicity, but it could impose this unity on a heterogeneous culture only while it was supported by the two powers which were intimately related to it; namely, the secular power of the Empire, with its spiritual consecration, and the spiritual Papacy, always striving for secular power. In time, the Church became increasingly divided between the monastic orders and the clergy, who had very different aims, while the secular power came into violent conflict with its vassals. While their faith, with its conception of a future life, urged men to fear God and flee the world, in practise they often behaved with the most savage cruelty and unbridled sensuality. In a later century Dante deplored this divergence, which had long been realized by those who renounced the world to enter the cloister, or took refuge in the dream-world of poetry. Heroes, beautiful women, benevolent saints-these were the noble and consoling figures, human in spite of their fantastic trappings, to whom people looked up in admiration. As the world of monkish imaginings became replaced by one of chivalric fancy, the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was constantly increasing, changed too: the homage of courtiers raised the Mother of God to a new position as an adored mistress; she now became Domina, Madonna.

The transformation of form which occurred in Gothic art reflected a change in the whole of Western culture; the isolated Romanesque monasteries and castles were succeeded by cities, in which evolved a society different from that which had gone before, but which was still held together by the conception of Christendom. In crowded towns the Gothic cathedrals arose, packed with all types of art and built by secular hands. Chronicles and charters tell of the religious impulse that inspired, both nobles and common people in the time of the Crusades.

The fact that the whole people participated in it, explains the secular temper of Gothic art. A cheerful and human realism took the place of the old hieratically stylized forms. Instead of the antique acanthus-leaf, thistles, oaks and vines appear as decorative motifs; this is part of the same naturalistic tendency to be found in medieval literature, which presented the legends of the Virgin, and the miracle and mystery plays, in a robust and realistic idiom.

While the greatest achievements of Romanesque art expressed an absolute subjection to authority, Gothic art, at its height, was the synthesis of late medieval thought, the accommodation between spirit and matter, God and the world. When the men of the Age of Enlightenment declared that the scholastic philosophy was nothing but an attempt to drive the camel of faith through the needle's eye of reason, they forgot that the scholastic philosophy flourished, not after mysticism, but at the same time.

The flat-roofed Greek temple, standing serenely content in this world, and the Gothic cathedral, restlessly aspiring to heaven, express two fundamental attitudes of mind, which had quite differing effects on the fine art of the day.

For more, see: Greek Architecture (c.900-27 BCE); for more about medieval arts and crafts, see: Medieval Christian Art (c.600-1200).



Origins of The Gothic Style

The Gothic style, as a pattern for the whole Western world, first originated in France, and only by starting there can we understand it, trace its development, and follow its changes in other countries. In France, the system of chivalry evolved more rapidly and brilliantly than elsewhere; language blossomed in poetry, and scholasticism was taught everywhere, not only in Paris; France stood on the summit of Western culture. Christian art was no longer confined to the courts and the old, aristocratic monastic orders, but became the common possession of the lesser nobility and the merchant class, and also of the new Orders of Franciscan and Dominican friars, who mixed with the people.

In this beginning of a new age the new Gothic style was born, though no one realized this at the time. When Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, in 1140, began the chancel of his Abbey, consecrated on the 11 June, 1144, before a select congregation of secular and spiritual princes, he did not suspect that he was present at the birth of a new style. In a very thorough and detailed account he recorded everything from the quarrying of the stone to the inscriptions on the superb stained-glass windows. Yet there is no reference to the new style. For the men of that age Gothic was the natural expression of their essential selves.

When the Gothic style, after long oblivion, was at last rediscovered, it was some time before its development was thoroughly understood. The statement of Lefevre-Pontalis, at the end of the 19th century, that "Gothic art in its entirety has its origin in the ribbed vault, which, like a grain of corn, contains the germ of a rich harvest", expressed the general opinion of scientific positivism, and was repeated as late as 1922. If this is correct, then a technicality was the origin of a style which was to last for centuries and influence sculpture and painting no less than architecture.

One might go further, and mention the Islamic pointed arch which the Crusaders saw in the East; to say nothing of the influence which Arabic literature and the Arabic humanities had in France about this time. That, in the matter of decoration, Gothic art owes much to the East cannot be denied; but no one who looks at a Gothic cathedral without prejudice will be able to explain it by the ribbed vault, or by the model of Islamic art, which is not functional, but decorative in its intention.

Gothic Architectural Design

It was not until the psychological studies of the present century that a correct approach to the problem of the origin of Gothic architecture became possible. During the last century an enormous wealth of detail was collected, and now, after further research, we have a definite idea of the order of succession of the individual buildings and can to some extent explain the origin of the Gothic style.

There are many churches of the transitional period with groined vaulting or pointed arches, which remain essentially Romanesque in conception; while on the other hand there are Gothic churches which incorporate ancient forms. If we are to draw the dividing line between Romanesque and Gothic, knowledge of the individual parts is less important than an understanding of the architectural conception as a whole.

The Church of Saint-Etienne in Caen, consecrated in 1077, shows, in purely Romanesque terms, an intention that would in itself have been enough to start a new style. The huge west front, built about 1080, rises above an inconsiderable base, and the upward-pointing tendency is unmistakable; but only in places does the building break away from the cubic mass and begin to move. More interesting than the cathedral of Angers and the Cistercian church of Pontigny, which in Anjou and Burgundy embody the early Gothic, is the cathedral of Laon, begun about 1165. Its facade shows clearly that the transition to Gothic could be carried out quite independently of the pointed arch. Here the architectural tendency of the 12th century, the period of the French Early Gothic, is expressed with wonderful completeness. No line, no surface, exists any longer for its own sake, as in the Romanesque building. If one imagines the towers of Laon bearing tall octagonal steeples, each storey loses its obvious delimitation, and seems to grow on to the next. By means of connecting links a sense of lively movement is instilled into the fabric, which thrusts itself vigorously upwards, not in a single rush, but with repeated efforts, while the diagonal corner-pieces give oblique views that catch the eye from every point of view.

By the 12th century, in Chartres Cathedral (1194-1250), and in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris (1163-1345), the next stage of this logical development was reached. The cathedral of Reims, begun in the year 1212, is even freer and bolder in form. (Note: Reims Cathedral was an important influence on American architecture: see, for instance, St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral NYC (1858-88) designed by James Renwick, 1818-95.) Finally, all the earlier tendencies were brought together in Amiens cathedral, built in 1218-88, and the purest embodiment of the Gothic style, which gave an example of the 'high Gothic' from which the whole of Western Europe had much to learn.

Such pure forms are of great importance to the modern observer, who only too easily forgets that whole generations worked at the building of the medieval churches, most of which are Romanesque churches restored or enlarged by Gothic builders. Thus, at Amiens, we see four-centred window-openings high up in the left-hand tower, and the great rose-window in the centre bears the characteristic fish-bladder pattern of the flamboyant style, as late Gothic was called in France from the beginning of the fifteenth century. A fine example of the high Gothic form of the rose-window is in the transept of Notre-Dame. The classic age of 'High Gothic' in France coincides approximately with the reign of Louis IX (1226-70). In a very short time the country was covered with new cathedrals, built of shining white sandstone. In the volatilization of architectural masses this art reached the limits of the possible. For example, Sainte Chapelle, Palais de la Cite, Paris (1241-48), begun under Louis IX in 1243, is a church with a single nave superimposed on a church with three aisles; in its superstructure the wide quadripartite windows have almost entirely replaced the wall. For more information about Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, see: Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (1200-1350) - compare the west facade of Sainte-Chapelle at Vincennes (1379-1480), which exemplifies Flamboyant Gothic Architecture (1375-1500).

By comparison with the magnificent new churches in Normandy and the centre of France, those in the southern part of the country were rather cold and unimpressive. Only in Burgundy did a small group of churches adopt the Gothic style, and pass it on to Geneva, and to Lausanne, where there is the finest Gothic cathedral in Switzerland.

After the Gothic had reached its height in France, and had come to its logical climax, there was a natural pause. In Normandy, the old lucid, but rather sober spirit of the country made itself felt again; less in the construction of the great cathedrals, like that at Rouen, than in the new buildings at Coutance and Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry (c.1075). The Bourges cathedral followed the model of Notre-Dame of Paris; it goes back to the year 1179, but was finished, after many delays, only in the fourteenth century. It has five aisles, and the two inner aisles, as in the chancel of Le Mans cathedral, are higher than the outer ones. This tends, of course, to break up the spatial unity of the interior, but it does not fully express the essential spirit of the Gothic system. This system must now be briefly described, so that it may be seen how the Gothic style, evolved in France, was adopted in the rest of Europe.

Features of the Gothic Style

Something of the old Romanesque plan, survives in the plan of a simple Gothic church; in the classical cathedral it is elaborated and refined to the last degree. Constructional needs brought about the change. The Romanesque round arch required very massive piers to support the weight of the walls, but even so the thrust of the heavy cross-vaulting constantly threatened to push the walls out of plumb. The attempt to relieve them of their load led inevitably to the pointed arch, which made the lines of pressure more nearly vertical. More important was the possibility, given by the pointed arch, of covering spans of unequal size by arches of the same height. This restored the freedom which was lost in the Romanesque 'engaged' system. Now the tyrannical quadrate of the central nave could be divided into two rectangles, each of which harmonized with a square bay of the transept. The difference between the pillars of the arcades and the pillar of the bays was abolished; the rhythm was less insistent, but the orchestration was far richer. The heavy vaulting, which dictated the whole structural system of the Romanesque church, was replaced by light fillings which were spread as panels between the intersecting ribs. The ribs alone, instead of the whole of the heavy vault, carried the load.

In order to prevent the walls from being thrust out of plumb, the Gothic building had strong counter-pillars on its outer walls, from which flying buttresses, like supporting arms, reached over the side aisles. The structure was put on the outside of the building, so that the nave could rise freely upwards. In Romanesque churches the ratio of height to width was 2:1, it now became 3:1 and even more, so that the eye could no longer take it in. The nave had three or five aisles, while the transept usually had three. The side-aisles continued round the polygonal chancel, the elaborate plan of which now offered no difficulty, since the most complicated areas could be covered with vaulting. Pillars take the form of clusters of half- and three-quarter-columns (the so-called vaulting-shafts), so that the cylindrical nucleus almost disappears. The ascending portions of this cluster, which support the longitudinal and transversal ribs, are stronger than the others, while the slighter shafts join the diagonal ribs. From these clustering stems the stone seems to stretch upwards, like a plant, so that one is never conscious of the downward impending load. The capital loses its original significance as a support; now, sparingly employed, it becomes an accent in the rhythmic scheme.

To avoid any look of weight on the outside of the Gothic cathedral, small pinnacles are placed on the flying buttresses. Above the quadrilateral body of the pillar rises the pyramidal spire. On the corners of the masonry little crockets creep upwards, joining, at the summit of the spire, in a finial. Sometimes the ornaments are shaped like living beings, as when the gargoyles take the form of animals. The greatest concentration of ornament is on the facade. Above the doors, which repeat the motive of the roofs, rise pointed gables with their hood-mouldings, the triangular space being filled with Gothic tracery of the kind that fills and frames the pointed windows. It was on the 'royal galleries' which in French Gothic often appear above the doors, and especially on their jamb-stones or casings, that the Gothic sculptors lavished their greatest skill.

Gothic Architectural Sculpture

To understand Gothic sculpture we must first consider it in France. At that time the South of France was still rich in Roman sculpture (itself entirely dependent on Greek sculpture), which the sculptors of Saint Trophime, in Arles, Saint-Pierre, in Moissac, and the abbey Church of Saint-Gilles, took as models. The Roman practice of making the porch a decorative feature was far better adapted to the Gothic than to the Romanesque, where the self-contained, cubical fabric was entered only by doors with shallow frames. In Gothic architecture it was for the first time possible to see imagination let loose in a wealth of Biblical art - in the form of relief sculpture - around the portals and doors.

The group of the Visitation at Reims, in which Mary seems to move with the light step of youth, while Elizabeth has the more austere bearing of an elderly woman, shows, precisely because these figures are represented in classical costume, what the North had made of antique art. Here the Gothic ideal of the human figure is clearly revealed. Throughout Europe, in France, as in Germany, a wise moderation had become the standard of aristocratic life. In spite of differences of style and costume, the prophets of the Strasbourg Minster and the Krumau Virgin, with calm nobility, make the same restrained and solemn gestures. The human body, for the Greeks the expression of the soul, had now to surrender to the idiom of raiment. The body, which Francis of Assisi had called Brother Ass, was for the Gothic artists a nonentity. Even as it vanished for the mystic, so for the sculptor it disappeared within the muffling garments; but the head still rose from it, the eternal expression of the spirit.

From 1250 in France, and from 1300 in Germany, Gothic-style churches were built almost entirely by secular architects and stonemasons. The old corporations of masons were replaced by permanent guilds. Individual masters of stone sculpture, and their pupils, sometimes distinguished their work by their private marks, but they were all inspired by the same ideal, and Gothic sculpture can be regarded as a homogeneous creation. Though the figures on Notre-Dame, in Paris, suffered during the French Revolution, and in the 19th century were restored by Viollet-le-Duc, we can study the comparatively early and austere style, related to the style of these figures, in the statues around the door of Amiens Cathedral, which were made about 1240. The figure of Christ at the main entrance, 'le beau Dieu d'Amiens', bears a suggestive resemblance to the two thousand figures and reliefs, large and small, of Chartres, in most of which the Romanesque stiffness still survives. But it is in the main facade of Reims cathedral, built at the end of the thirteenth century, that French Gothic sculpture reaches its highest level. Compare: Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200).

German Gothic Design Style

'High' Gothic, as it evolved in France, was always an alien form in Germany; there the greatest monument of Gothic art, Cologne Cathedral (1248-1880), whose foundation stone was laid in the year 1248, came to a standstill after the completion of the chancel. The building dragged on into the sixteenth century, but by 1560 both the will and the means to do any more seemed to be exhausted. Work was begun again in 1862 and by 1880 it was finished. Its ground plan was designed in the Middle Ages on the lines of Amiens and Beauvais. The interior, with the light pouring into it, gives a perfect impression of the classical Gothic cathedral.

In 1208, before Cologne cathedral was begun, the chancel of Magdeburg cathedral had been built after the French pattern, and between 1227 and 1243 the Liebfrauenkirche at Trier was built in the form of a circle intersected by a cross, in contrast to the usual French plan. On the Rhine, at Strasbourg or Freiburg, the western influence was still at its strongest, but this was no longer the case farther east, though even there, as the chronicles often record, churches were built by stonemasons brought from France.

By its brick buildings, a material which demanded a simpler form of ornamentation and a different arrangement of the walls, north Germany enriched the Gothic style. The inexpensive material made it possible to plan large buildings, of which the most brilliant example is the Marienburg, which displays in its great banqueting hall the consummmate skill of the late Gothic.

With these, and with such buildings as the Hallenkirchen, or the church of St George, at Dinkelsbuhl, one comes to a point beyond which new architectural forms were created.

In the house-fronts of German medieval cities, in the course of time, the Gothic assurgency gradually - though not without recurrences - settled down into the tranquil rhythm of the Renaissance, while obstinately adhering to Gothic forms. Things were much the same in the Netherlands, where, towards the end of the Gothic period, in the many wealthy commercial centres, richly ornamented town halls and guild halls were erected: long buildings with oriel-windows and high gables. A tall, strongly-built tower, the belfry, rose defiantly above the roofs of Brussels, Bruges, and other cities. The Gothic style had conquered the whole North; in Sweden, in 1287, the cathedral of Upsala had been built by a French architect; while in Norway the cathedrals of Stavanger and Trondheim were derived from the English Early Gothic.

NOTE: Gothic forms in Germany endured longest in German Gothic sculpture, notably in the sublime wood-carving of Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), who made the famous Holy Blood Altar (1499-1504, Rothenburg), Veit Stoss (1445-1533), best known for the High Altar of St Mary's Church, Krakow (1484); and Michael Pacher (1435-98), noted for the St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81).

English Gothic Design Style

To England the new style of architecture came, by way of Normandy, earlier than to Germany; nevertheless, it was in English Gothic architecture that the new style found its widest sphere of expansion. In their comfortable blending of the ecclesiastical buildings with the dwelling houses of the clergy, in their quiet retirement behind protecting walls and gate houses, the English cathedral closes are a charming picture of the Middle Ages. They are not always set down in the middle of the city, like those on the Continent; often the green churchyard surrounds the cathedral and leads sometimes to the open country beyond. Following the old Norman fashion, the body of the cathedral, with its various divisions, is of great length, and in order to receive the processions of pilgrims the choir was often expanded at the eastern extremity.

The complete Gothic system was brought to Canterbury in 1175 by William of Sens, who rebuilt the cathedral. In the Early English style (1175-1250) the pointed arch was victorious, but only where the French influence was commpletely predominant was the English trend toward horizontal lines suppressed. Salisbury cathedral, built and completed in the years 1220-58, must be regarded as the finest example of this style. In Wells cathedral the transept and nave, and the facade, with its unusual wealth of decorative figures, are still Early Gothic, while the choir was not added until the 15th century.

The 'High Gothic' or Decorated style, 1250-1375, appeared almost fifty years later than in France. It is rightly regarded as an English style, for it had not the logical character of French Gothic; it gave full scope to decorative details, and was the first style to make extensive use of flowing lines in its tracery, as well as the graceful fan-vaulting which was so favoured, from the beginning of the 14th century, by the English, Renaisssance-like, Late Gothic, or Perpendicular style. The cloister of Gloucester Cathedral is one of the most perfect creations of this kind, in which English art seems to anticipate the course of evolution, and provide a starting-point for the French Flamboyant style, which, apart from the isolated example of the star-vaulting of Amiens, did not appear until 1375. France, the original home of the Gothic style, had something to learn from the innovations of the English.

While Exeter Cathedral, of which the principal parts were built in the same style, is the purest example of the English High Gothic of 1327-69, the nave of Winchester Cathedral rebuilt after 1393, with its magnificent vaulting, the effective articulation of its piers, and the blind galleries in the place of the Gothic triforium, represents the transition to a new style. The four-centred arch, which was introduced in England after 1290, and was still the predominant form in Winchester Cathedral, was flattened a little at the point from about 1450, becoming the 'Tudor arch' of the following period, of which the finest and most artistic examples are to be seen in Westminster Abbey. We shall return to this later.

Where sculpture is concerned, while England was closely connected with France, English Gothic sculpture did not differ very greatly from Continental. The smaller doors of the English cathedrals made it necessary to place the larger decorative features on the facades. At Wells more than six hundred figures escaped the iconoclastic fury of the Puritans, and these give one a fair notion of the English sculpture of the period.

The Gothic style reappeared in England during the era of late 18th century architecture, as part of the "Gothick taste" and the later Gothic Revivalist movement, which dominated much of Victorian architecture (c.1840-1900).

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