Gothic Architecture

The term Gothic was first used by art critics, during the Renaissance, who were referring negatively to the style of art and architecture that did not conform to the Classicism of Greece and Rome. The critics came up with the term because they thought the Goths had invented the style. They were incorrect in their thinking that it was the Goths who, in their opinion, were responsible for the destruction of the good and true Classical style. The people of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries recognized the originality of the style and referred to it as “opus modernum” (modern work) or “opus francigtenum” (Frankish work). Gothic architecture primarily originated in France during the thirteenth century. The style overlaps the previous art form, Romanesque, and ends with the beginning of the Renaissance.

During this period Paris, France was the microcosm of the culture of Western Christendom just as Constantinople was the microcosm of Eastern Christendom. France had become the foremost center of learning in Europe. France’s power in religion and intellect was growing.

The Gothic era was a time of great innovations such as the flying buttress, rib vault, and pointed arch. These innovations allowed architects to build higher and lighter than ever before.

Essential Gothic Terms:

  • Flying Buttress- the combination of an arch and an inclined bar used to support structural weight
  • Pinnacle- vertical architectural element ending generally with a small spire
  • Vaulting Web (Severy)- the web is located between the ribs of a structure
  • Rib- an arch that divides the entire vaulted space into triangles
  • Springing- the point where the arch rises from its support
  • Clerestory- an outside wall of a room that contains windows and has the primary function of allowing light to enter an interior space
  • Triforium- a gallery forming an upper story to the aisle of a church and typically an arcaded story between the nave arches and clerestory
  • Nave- the main interior of a church or cathedral

Early Gothic (c. 1100 C.E.)

There are two people in France who are considered to be responsible for the majority of the techniques and canonical formations of the Gothic style. These two people are: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Suger, abbot of St.-Denis.

Saint Bernard

Saint Bernard believed that religion was irrational, mystical and intuitive. The architecture of the buildings that were constructed under Saint Bernard reflected these beliefs. The sacred spaces, namely churches and cathedrals, stresses simplicity, purity, lightness, and space conducive to meditation.

Abbot Suger

Saint Bernard suggested that his fellow abbot rebuild his monastery. Abbot Suger accepted this and built his new church in a style that surpassed Romanesque and initiated Gothic. Since Suger was quite young he has dreamed of creating a kingdom that embellished the church that had shaped him, through architectural expression. The church that Suger belonged to was the Church of France. The monastery that was rebuilt by Suger is known as St.-Dennis.


St.-Dennis was this first building to contain the Gothic characteristics that would be copied for many years to come. Only the narthex and the choir contain elements of the Gothic style for they are the remodeled sections of the originally Romanesque church.

There are many characteristics of this church that reflect Suger’s travels and the other churches he had visited. Suger also commissioned builders from several different areas to construct the building bringing to the structure the diversity of the many regions. The main building was originally Romanesque and the choir is the central aspect of Suger’s remodeling efforts. By comparing the old and new sections of the church we can also compare Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The main differences can be seen in the walls and vaults. In the Romanesque crypt of the church the walls are quite thick and create a series of separate volumes. The new choirs there are no walls. This absence of walls, let alone thick Romanesque walls, gives the space a more unified feel. The vaults in the Romanesque crypt are covered in groin vaults while in the choir we see Gothic rib vaults. The major difference of the two types of vaults is the flexibility of the Gothic rib vaults. This new-found flexibility can also be seen if the organization of knowledge during this time. Both builders and intellects during the Gothic period left their solutions with room for experimentation and growth. The choir and narthex of the church also allowed for a flood of light to enter the structure.

See also: Notre Dame

High Gothic (c. 1200 C.E.)

Chartres Cathedral was originally built during the Early Gothic era, but had to be rebuilt due to a fire. The new construction of Chartres Cathedral is considered the first High Gothic building. More information can be found here: Chartres Cathedral.

The style during the first half of the thirteenth century was very grand. The style of the second half of the thirteenth century was known as the Rayonnant style (rayonnant meaning radiant.) This new style was much more refined than the previous.

An example of this new style is the windows of Notre Dame de Paris. Master builder Jean de Chelles is the creator of these windows. The window located in the north transept almost completely takes over the surface area. The detailed window is held in place by an equally intricate bar tracery. Light and color were the essence of this window therefore the creators labored over creating an armature that did not distract from the visual aspects of the window but could also support a window large enough. The Virgin Mary appears at the very center of the multifoliate rose design. The fact that she is centered shows her significance to the people of the church and their attempt to further exalt her. There are three rings that surround the centralized Virgin Mary. The inner most ring depicts the prophets who foretold the Incarnation. The ring encircling the prophets contains thirty-two Old Testament Kings, Christ’s ancestors. The outer most circle depicts thirty-two priests and patriarchs. The light coming from the window is predominately blue, the color of the northern sky, heavens, and most often associated with the Virgin Mary.


The cathedral of Sainte-Chapelle uses the same techniques used in the rose windows of Notre Dame but applied throughout the entire structure. More than three-quarters of the structure is composed solely of stained glass. The supports in the structure have been reduced to hardly more than vertical bars known as mullions. The windows that the mullions separate were the largest of their time reaching approximately 49 feet high and stretching approximately 15 feet wide. There was quite a bit of damage done to the windows during the French Revolution but the majority of the original glass remains. The light that fills the interior of the buildings has a rose-violet hue.

The interior of the building contains colorful mosaics. In addition, there are also multicolored statues of the apostles. These statues are placed on pedestals between the windows.

Secular Architecture

These were turbulent times filled with warfare. This lead to the need of walled in cities located on sites that were difficult to reach. The most famous and largest walled in city is that of Carcassonne. Two walls, containing slits that were used to shoot arrows out of, surround Carcassonne. The city is also located on a hill making it fairly inaccessible to the enemy.

Late Gothic (c. 1300 C.E.)

The style of architecture during this period is known as flamboyant (named for the flame like appearance of its pointed tracery.) The period began during the fourteenth century but did not peak until the fifteenth century. This style is most prevalent in Normandy, which at the time had close ties to England. This connection to England suggests that the architecture of this style may have been greatly influenced by the Anglo-Norman school of “decorated” architecture.

The parish church of St.-Maclou is a fine example of the flamboyant style. The five portals are in an arc shape. Two of the five portals are blind portals and therefore cannot be used to access the interior of the building. The five portals are topped with five gables. The façade is approximately 75 feet high and 180 feet long.

Sources and Images: Gardener’s Art Through The Ages Tenth Edition

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