Gothic Architecture Explained Guide

A stroll through the epochs – Gothic architecture (12th – 16th Century)

Welcome to the second article of our series: Architecture – A Stroll Through the Epochs. We continue our series with Gothic architecture as our next subject, because it was the natural evolution of the Romanesque style, bringing together different crucial developments that had been made across Europe to form one of the most recognizable styles in all of architectural history.

Nave of Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais, Beauvais, France

Nave of Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais, Beauvais, France

As was the case with the Romanesque, Gothic was known at its inception under a different name that originated from the first country to produce this style, France. Hence it was known as Opus Francigenum (“French work”) among contemporary builders.

The term Gothic we use today first appeared during the latter half of the Renaissance as part of historian Giorgio Vasari‘s crusade to diminish the style’s artistic achievements in comparison to the golden age of the Antiquity. During his days, gotico was an Italian swear word derived from the Germanic tribe of the Goths, who were synonymous with everything foreign and barbaric. Although his assessments are no longer shared by scholars today, the name stuck and has by now lost its negative connotation.

Selfportrait of Giorgio Vasari

Selfportrait of Giorgio Vasari

1. A new Europe

Widely acknowledged as the formative period of the modern western European national landscape, the High Middle Ages transitioned into the Late Middle Ages that would see an even further strengthening of the royalty-based nation states, most notably England, France and the thriving Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula: Aragon, Castile and Portugal.

These gains in power and influence, though, were achieved by placing considerable strain on the peasantry, which was to remain the largest yet least influential part of European societies. However, in the 14th century, fate was to strike across all social classes in the form of the Black Death, a pandemy that would kill up to 60% of Europe’s population, an estimated 200 million people.

This devastation eventually proved to be a great social equalizer and led to considerable sociological and political changes.

Previously, the kings had profited from warfare and the resulting extension of royal legislation throughout their kingdoms by exploiting the manpower and wealth of their subjects, whereas in the latter stages of the Middle Ages, taxation was bound to obtaining consent from those who were being taxed, which led to the empowerment of representative bodies such as the English Parliament or the French Estates General, bestowing these with ever increasing powers and authority.

2. France: Early Gothic

The pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, the defining elements of Gothic architecture, all originated from preceding Romanesque buildings but never found employment together in a single building. It was their first combination in France in the mid-12th century that represented the start of the style that bound to dominate European architecture for the next 350 years.

Having been developed in different geographic locations all over Europe, these elements were first jointly incorporated in the rebuilding of the eastern end of the Basilica Church of Saint-Denis, a process overseen by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144. With the aid of the pointed arch, increased verticality was achieved, while the ribbed vault and flying buttress would allow for a significant reduction in wall mass and the vastly increased admittance of light through large windows. All these critical improvements would result in a new atmosphere of airiness and light, previously unachieved, and were about to be taken to further and further extremes as the Gothic style developed.

A similar development occurred in sculpture and glazing at the time, which eventually left behind established late-Romanesque forms to establish their own character by the 13th century.  These new styles complemented the newly established Gothic architecture with a rich trimming of decoration.

Exemplary of this evolution is the rose window conceived by Abbot Suger for the west front of Saint-Denis. A precursor to what became the typical Gothic style, it was rather simplistic with an outer ring of semicircular cusped lobes of plate tracery, with the central focal point being a very large ocular space with a glass inset supported by an iron hoop. All in all, it still bore a greater resemblance to the simple wheel windows of the late Norman period still prevailing in England, Germany and Italy. Today’s rose window at Saint-Denis is a  mid-19th century replacement as part of a major restoration effort.

3. France: Rayonnant and Flamboyant

Upper Chapel of Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France

Upper Chapel of Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France

The Early Gothic would eventually give way to two major phases of future stylistic developments, namely the Rayonnant (from the mid-13th century) and the Flamboyant (into the 16th century). Their names originating from their most defining feature — distinctive tracery patterns, in the case of the Rayonnant — radiating, yet flamelike in the Flamboyant.  Though vastly influencing the overall appearance of a building, they would primarily be of decorative rather than structural significance. Nonetheless, the somewhat cleaner and clearer Rayonnant period did see some of the most significant achievements in overall height, like Beauvais Cathedral that stood at an impressive 157ft (48m), and the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, which took the proportion of glass to wall to its feasible limits.

It was not only the ever increasing window area that was characteristic of the transition between High Gothic and the Rayonnant, but even more so the move away from the simple and flat plate tracery towards the three dimensional bar-tracery. Eventually, advances in glazing led to the development of blind tracery and an overall consistent decorative motif that could be repeated throughout an entire building, whether to form windows, arcades or linking elements over an otherwise blank wall face.

All these elements would cummulate in the fantastic exuberance of the Flamboyant, its heyday starting in the late 14th century and lasting well into the early 16th century. Among the most prominent French examples is the trifecta of the Church of Saint Maclou, the Church of St. Ouen and the Palais de Justice, all in Rouen, France.

Although mostly influential on the design of exteriors, the Flamboyant style did also find its way into interior designs, the rood loft of Ste. Madeleine at Troyes, France, being one of the few surviving examples. Yet the relative simplicity of the Rayonnant would remain prevalent as the interior decoration choice throughout the Flamboyant period.

4. France: Domestic and Secular Gothic

As we alluded to in the short introduction to the social and cultural changes of the High and Late Middle Ages, the ever more sophisticated governmental and administrative body of the new Europe led to a sizeable number of newly founded fortified towns and cities, the construction of castles, houses and administrative buildings. France in particular has a rich heritage of structures dating from this period, as preservation efforts had been made early on and many were spared destruction in WWII.

As was already the case with Romanesque buildings, the outward form was dictated by the interior’s floor plan and the function of each room. With function dictating the grand design, decoration and ornamentation were largely relegated to features like entrances, windows and buttresses, with a characteristic reliance on repetition to achieve a unified overall impression. In government buildings, special prominence was given to the exterior staircases, which were not hidden as in church, but protruded from the facade and commonly formed the entrance to a building, in some cases, as in the form of a staircase tower, give access to all floors.

5. England: Early English Gothic – Exteriors

Proto-Gothic elements could be found as early as 1133 in English architecture, namely at Durham Cathedral, yet it would take about another 41 years and the help of the French mason, William of Sens, to finally establish the Early English Gothic with the completion of Canterbury Cathedral‘s east end in 1174.

Although undeniably influenced by the contemporary French styles, the Early English buildings (c. 1170 – c. 1280) liberated themselves through both difference in plan and detail from their continental counterparts. Generally relying more on an overall rectilinear approach in spatial distribution, an emphasize on constituent parts and the resulting lack of spatial unity.

Nonetheless, like its French counterpart, the English Gothic is separated into three distinct phases: Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular, a categorization established by Thomas Rickman, one of the major figures of the Gothic Revival movement of the 19th century and himself an architect and antiquarian.

6. England: Early English Gothic – Interiors

This trend of establishing an English way of dealing with the new possibilities of Gothic was seamlessly employed in the design of interior spaces, which were generally characterized by wider aisle bays and a more balanced ratio of vertical and horizontal lines. Consequently resulting in cathedrals and churches that would draw the eye of the beholder equally to the elongated nave’s east end and skywards.

Nave of Lincoln Cathedral England

Nave of Lincoln Cathedral England

Due to this character of vastness, the interiors could not be treated as a whole, singular space, but had to be separated by plan and decoration into individual parts. To achieve this effect, ornamentation was commonly bold and rich, with a heavy reliance on shafts and deeply cut moldings, mimicking the three dimensional effect of bar-tracery and executed in Purbeck marble or other fine stones. Eventually, this focus on surface texture and the use of ribbed vaults would give way to the English Decorated Gothic.

7.  England: Decorated Gothic – Exteriors

Dominating building projects between c. 1290 – c. 1350, the Decorated Gothic was the natural evolution of the Early Gothic with an even greater love for decoration and decorative structural forms, which could either adorn buildings of great height and large areas of glazing or more restraint examples with proportions more squat and an overall Early Gothic character.

Notable examples include the east ends of Lincoln Cathedral and Carlisle Cathedral and the west fronts of York Minster and Lichfield Cathedral.

As was the case with the French Gothic and its Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, the English Decorated Gothic also created a rich vocabulary of tracery patterns, which included sophisticated geometric, reticulated, and flowing forms, resulting in a marked fragmentation of facades and windows into hundreds of component parts.

8. England: Decorated Gothic – Interiors

Interiors were similarly affected by this profusion of decorative elements. Among them, the S-shaped ogee arch took a particularly prominent role. Although used on exteriors as well, it was mainly found as part of interior designs, either in line with the wall or as was the case with the blind arcading of Ely’s Lady Chapel, bending outwards of the wall’s face to form a three-dimensional protrusion.

Blind arcading of Ely's Lady Chapel, Ely, England

Blind arcading of Ely’s Lady Chapel, Ely, England

This ambition to style every element of a building also did spread to the structural ones, especially the arrangement and decoration of roofs and ceilings was a field of particular achievement in the Decorated Gothic. Introducing subsidiary or lierne ribs, which would form elaborate and complex rib patterns with no particular structural purpose, was common practice for grand building projects, and even lesser ones would see their timbered roofs and ceilings decorated with rich tracery and carvings.

Especially in the field of carving, the start of a new trend has to be noted, namely that of a more naturalistic approach towards floral decorations, like foliage on capitals or blossoms and fruits used to enrich wall and ceiling paneling.

9. England: Perpendicular Gothic – Exteriors

Even though the Decorated Gothic had been employed in some of the greatest building projects of the late 13th and early 14th centuries it was be the shortest of all English Gothic periods. The distinct desire to return to the virtue of stressing the straight line, both vertically and horizontally, as seen in the Early and High Gothic, led to the inception of the Perpendicular style. This style would eventually outlast the beginning of the Renaissance period in Continental Europe and retain a vibrant character of constant development, while elsewhere the Gothic styles had run their course and remained in stagnation until they were finally displaced.

One of the key characteristic of this long lasting style (c. 1340 – c. 1540) was the division of each wall surface and window by rows of tracery running vertically, forming numerous rectangular panels, with the ribs perpendicularly striking the head of the arch without being deflected to either side, giving the style its name.

Exterior of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England

Exterior of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England

This preference for the rectangular was also expressed with the now common square door moldings, which necessitated spandrels to fill the resulting gap between them and the still arched doors.

10.  England: Perpendicular Gothic – Interiors

The first interior to fully employ the principals of the Perpendicular was the chancel of Gloucester Cathedral, with construction starting in 1337. All the wall surfaces and windows exhibited the typical tracery paneling and strongly vertical principal shafts running uninterrupted the entire height of the walls to merge with the intricate rib pattern of the vault.

Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

Though it would not be until the great royal foundations of the 15th and early 16th centuries before the Perpendicular interiors would reach the pinnacle of their splendour. Whether in the grand scale of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge or the more moderately sized Divinity School at Oxford, Perpendicular interiors are among the most impressive of the Gothic period.

11. England: Early Domestic and Secular Gothic

As was commonly the case with new styles, Gothic was also promptly adopted for secular and domestic builds, yet was bound to a stricter set of rules by purpose and political circumstance in the period of the Early Gothic. For example, the Barons’ Wars of the 13th century necessitated that most domestic and secular builds offer a certain degree of defensive capability, therefor rendering a grand display of windows and doors, particularly at ground level, unfeasible. It was a typical case of form following function.

A distinctive feature of the English manor houses in particular was also that the floorplan would set the great hall at the center with the lord’s room and service rooms flanking it to either side. This setup was not to be found anywhere else in Europe.

Naturally, a dedicated architectural language had to be developed to incorporate elements that solely related to domestic and secular buildings, like fireplaces, chimneys, kitchens and living quarters, to complement that of the already established Gothic elements found on ecclesiastical builds.

Unfortunately for us, there are only few surviving examples of this building period today, as the constant process of adaptation to new living and administrative requirements, as well as alteration or total replacement in favour of new styles left few exceptions throughout the past centuries.

12. England: Late Domestic and Secular Gothic

After Edward III overthrew his mother’s consort and succeeded to the English throne, a period of domestic political peace ensued, as he strengthened the royal powers and instigated an economical upturn. Consequently, domestic and secular building projects burgeoned throughout the kingdom, notable among them the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, as well as a substantial number of grand houses and manors. It also saw the rise of purely domestic castles, because even though there still was potential for conflict, like the War of the Roses during the 13th century, these were mainly of sporadic and localized nature.

With domestic tranquility, defense was no longer a crucial part of the design process and the focus shifted towards the display of power and wealth in the form of large openings and rich ornamentation. The aforementioned medieval domestic plan still lay at the heart of the design, which resulted in the typical asymmetrical appearance of domestic and secular Gothic builds. Only some of the great collegiate buildings would aspire to achieve a balanced, if not symmetrical, outward appearance.

13. Spain and Portugal: Gothic on the Iberian peninsula

The arrival of Gothic on the Iberian peninsula was more or less a result of the Moors being finally driven out of their territories and the strengthened Christian kingdoms now being able to redirect their efforts towards building.  As can be expected, most early Gothic cathedrals in Spain show considerable French influence, yet given their diverse cultural background, the Spanish builders were soon about to develop their very own national style. It was characterized by the tension created between an often bulky and severe exterior and a spaciousness and light found in the interior.

Like the English Gothic style, the Spanish Gothic style was a long lasting style that endured well into the 16th century, mostly due to an invigorated adaptation of Islamic elements into an ever more encrusted shell of ornamentation during the Isabelline style period — a trend not unlike that of the Mudéjar-Gothic and late-Gothic Manueline style found in Portugal. Especially the Manueline style was much influenced by the knowledge gained and brought home by the successful Portuguese navigators from their voyages of discovery, leading to the incorporation of influences as diverse as the temples of Eastern India.

14. Central Europe: Gothic in the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was a rather reluctant adopter of the Gothic, as it was particularly attached to the Romanesque. Only in the mid- 13th century would the first true examples of Gothic be found within its borders, but from that time on, the initial reluctance made way for a wholehearted embrace of the style and eventually led to some of the finest examples of late Gothic work in all of Europe.

In its general outlay, Germanic cathedrals shared their west front and east end design with the French form, yet would differ markedly by their much taller towers and the openness and breadth of their nave. The most prominent example of Germanic Gothic, Cologne Cathedral, is also a typical example for how the French Rayonannt style was influential in the field of ornamentation throughout the Gothic in the Holy Roman Empire. The Flamboyant style was not to find similar widespread acceptance elsewhere.

A special position in the development of the Gothic in the Holy Roman Empire was taken by the Sondergotik, a late Gothic style that prevailed in the regions of modern south Germany and  Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). Reluctant to take on the Renaissance style in full, the builders of the Sondergotik pursued the goal of developing ever new forms in the Gothic style, yet would eventually incorporate specific Renaissance elements into their works.

15. Italy: Gothic Light

The Italian Gothic is certainly the most peculiar example of the major European Gothic styles. Not only was it the most short-lived of all, barely lasting 200 years from around the mid-13th century, it was also very conservative in its display of the basic principals of the style. In particular, the striving for verticality, as seen in cathedrals all over Europe, was rarely achieved or even desired by the Italian builders. Italian architects showed a similar attitude toward the flying buttress, resulting in buildings that were stuck halfway between the monolithic rigidity of the Romanesque on one hand and the fragmented airy nature of the Gothic on the other.

Consequently, the exterior design could be said to resemble an artist’s canvas, framed by masonry, rather than a giant carved sculpture. The only noticeable exception to this rule is the Milan Cathedral, which is Germanic in style even though created on a typical Italian floorplan.

Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy

Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy

However much the ecclesiastical builders were hesitant to display the Gothic language, secular and domestic buildings were usually richly decorated in typical tracery patterns, most noticeably balconies and arcades, although the one found facing the yard of Juliet’s alleged home in Verona is merely a modern addition for tourists.

We hope you have enjoyed this enlightening read on the famous Gothic style of architecture. Stay tuned for future articles in this series, A Stroll Through the Epochs.

16. Recommended reading

The Gothic cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order. ISBN 0-691-09959-6

Development & Character of Gothic Architecture. Macmillan and Co. ISBN 1-4102-0763-3

The Gothic Cathedral – Architecture of the Great Church. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0500276815

French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02831-7

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Gothic Architecture Explained
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Gothic Architecture Explained
Learn all about Gothic Architecture in this beginner's guide that is easy to understand & packed with useful information and 30+ pictures.
13 replies
  1. Steven says:

    Fantastic article, very well put together. I personally love architecture, in fact its one of the reasons why I chose my current university (founded 1883). I am not a fan at all of modern style and wish buildings were still made in a more aesthetically pleasing way.

  2. Jason says:

    Very interesting article. Just FYI, If you wish to get up close to Saint Chapelle, go to a concert. I’ve attended twice….to hear the Four Seasons….48 Euros for excellent seats up front and a musical and architectural experience like no other.

    Your article gives me ideas for many more places to visit.

    Thank you.

    • Daniel Gerson says:

      Thank you for the advice. Sounds indeed like the perfect way to enjoy the beauty of Saint Chapelle. I am also pleased to hear that we could inspire you for future journeys.

  3. Nic says:

    One of the most impressive features of the era are there architectural glass applications. They are stunning works of arts featuring stained glass, glass with iron insets, as mentioned, and windows in all shapes and sizes. Simple breathtaking design that will continue to inspire and awe for many years to come. Great post!

  4. Caryl Anne says:

    Great article! For most of these buildings, I love the stained glass windows or the architectural glass that is in place. It helps to make the building or structure stunning, unique, and simply beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Bromley Steele says:

    Two places where Gothic Revival style buildings are still being built are Rhodes College and Washington University in St. Louis. Excellent article! Thank you.
    B. Steele

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