Gothic architecture

Façade of Reims Cathedral, France
The interior of the western end of Reims Cathedral
The choir of Reims Cathedral
Overview of Reims Cathedral from north-east

Gothic architecture is a style of architecture that flourished in Europe during the high and late medieval period. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. Originating in 12th-century France and lasting into the 16th century, Gothic architecture was known during the period as Opus Francigenum ("French work") with the term Gothic first appearing during the later part of the Renaissance. Its characteristics include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault (which evolved from the joint vaulting of romanesque architecture) and the flying buttress. Gothic architecture is most familiar as the architecture of many of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches of Europe. It is also the architecture of many castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, universities and to a less prominent extent, private dwellings, such as dorms and rooms.

It is in the great churches and cathedrals and in a number of civic buildings that the Gothic style was expressed most powerfully, its characteristics lending themselves to appeals to the emotions, whether springing from faith or from civic pride. A great number of ecclesiastical buildings remain from this period, of which even the smallest are often structures of architectural distinction while many of the larger churches are considered priceless works of art and are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. For this reason a study of Gothic architecture is largely a study of cathedrals and churches.

A series of Gothic revivals began in mid-18th-century England, spread through 19th-century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century.


South side of Chartres Cathedral.

The term "Gothic architecture" originated as a pejorative description. Giorgio Vasari used the term "barbarous German style" in his Lives of the Artists to describe what is now considered the Gothic style,[1] and in the introduction to the Lives he attributes various architectural features to "the Goths" whom he holds responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style.[2] At the time in which Vasari was writing, Italy had experienced a century of building in the Classical architectural vocabulary revived in the Renaissance and seen as evidence of a new Golden Age of learning and refinement.

The Renaissance had then overtaken Europe, overturning a system of culture that, prior to the advent of printing, was almost entirely focused on the Church and was perceived, in retrospect, as a period of ignorance and superstition. Hence, François Rabelais, also of the 16th century, imagines an inscription over the door of his utopian Abbey of Thélème, "Here enter no hypocrites, bigots..." slipping in a slighting reference to "Gotz" and "Ostrogotz."[3]

In English 17th-century usage, "Goth" was an equivalent of "vandal", a savage despoiler with a Germanic heritage, and so came to be applied to the architectural styles of northern Europe from before the revival of classical types of architecture.

According to a 19th-century correspondent in the London Journal Notes and Queries:

There can be no doubt that the term 'Gothic' as applied to pointed styles of ecclesiastical architecture was used at first contemptuously, and in derision, by those who were ambitious to imitate and revive the Grecian orders of architecture, after the revival of classical literature. Authorities such as Christopher Wren lent their aid in deprecating the old medieval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with everything that was barbarous and rude.[4][5]

On 21 July 1710, the Académie d'Architecture met in Paris, and among the subjects they discussed, the assembled company noted the new fashions of bowed and cusped arches on chimneypieces being employed "to finish the top of their openings. The Company disapproved of several of these new manners, which are defective and which belong for the most part to the Gothic."[6]

Definition and scope

Gothic architecture is the architecture of the late medieval period, characterised by use of the pointed arch. Other features common to Gothic architecture are the rib vault, buttresses, including flying buttresses; large windows which are often grouped, or have tracery; rose windows, towers, spires and pinnacles; and ornate façades.

As an architectural style, Gothic developed primarily in ecclesiastical architecture, and its principles and characteristic forms were applied to other types of buildings. Buildings of every type were constructed in the Gothic style, with evidence remaining of simple domestic buildings, elegant town houses, grand palaces, commercial premises, civic buildings, castles, city walls, bridges, village churches, abbey churches, abbey complexes and large cathedrals.

The greatest number of surviving Gothic buildings are churches. These range from tiny chapels to large cathedrals, and although many have been extended and altered in different styles, a large number remain either substantially intact or sympathetically restored, demonstrating the form, character and decoration of Gothic architecture. The Gothic style is most particularly associated with the great cathedrals of Northern France, the Low Countries, England and Spain, with other fine examples occurring across Europe.

The scope of Gothic architecture
Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
The Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy
Oudenaarde Town Hall, Oudenaarde, Belgium
Church of San Pablo, Valladolid, Spain



At the end of the 12th century, Europe was divided into a multitude of city states and kingdoms. The area encompassing modern Germany, southern Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and much of northern Italy (excluding Venice and Papal State) was nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but local rulers exercised considerable autonomy. France, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Sicily and Cyprus were independent kingdoms, as was the Angevin Empire, whose Plantagenet kings ruled England and large domains in what was to become modern France.[7] Norway came under the influence of England, while the other Scandinavian countries and Poland were influenced by trading contacts with the Hanseatic League. Angevin kings brought the Gothic tradition from France to Southern Italy, while Lusignan kings introduced French Gothic architecture to Cyprus.

Throughout Europe at this time there was a rapid growth in trade and an associated growth in towns.[8][9] Germany and the Lowlands had large flourishing towns that grew in comparative peace, in trade and competition with each other, or united for mutual weal, as in the Hanseatic League. Civic building was of great importance to these towns as a sign of wealth and pride. England and France remained largely feudal and produced grand domestic architecture for their kings, dukes and bishops, rather than grand town halls for their burghers.


The Catholic Church prevailed across Europe at this time, influencing not only faith but also wealth and power. Bishops were appointed by the feudal lords (kings, dukes and other landowners) and they often ruled as virtual princes over large estates. The early Medieval periods had seen a rapid growth in monasticism, with several different orders being prevalent and spreading their influence widely. Foremost were the Benedictines whose great abbey churches vastly outnumbered any others in France and England. A part of their influence was that towns developed around them and they became centers of culture, learning and commerce. The Cluniac and Cistercian Orders were prevalent in France, the great monastery at Cluny having established a formula for a well planned monastic site which was then to influence all subsequent monastic building for many centuries.

In the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi established the Franciscans, or so-called "Grey Friars", a mendicant order. The Dominicans, another mendicant order founded during the same period but by St. Dominic in Toulouse and Bologna, were particularly influential in the building of Italy's Gothic churches.[8][9]


From the 10th to the 13th century, Romanesque architecture had become a pan-European style and manner of construction, affecting buildings in countries as far apart as Ireland, Croatia, Sweden and Sicily. The same wide geographic area was then affected by the development of Gothic architecture, but the acceptance of the Gothic style and methods of construction differed from place to place, as did the expressions of Gothic taste. The proximity of some regions meant that modern country borders did not define divisions of style. On the other hand, some regions such as England and Spain produced defining characteristics rarely seen elsewhere, except where they have been carried by itinerant craftsmen, or the transfer of bishops. Regional differences that are apparent in the great abbey churches and cathedrals of the Romanesque period often become even more apparent in the Gothic.

The local availability of materials affected both construction and style. In France, limestone was readily available in several grades, the very fine white limestone of Caen being favoured for sculptural decoration. England had coarse limestone and red sandstone as well as dark green Purbeck marble which was often used for architectural features.

In Northern Germany, Netherlands, northern Poland, Denmark, and the Baltic countries local building stone was unavailable but there was a strong tradition of building in brick. The resultant style, Brick Gothic, is called "Backsteingotik" in Germany and Scandinavia and is associated with the Hanseatic League. In Italy, stone was used for fortifications, but brick was preferred for other buildings. Because of the extensive and varied deposits of marble, many buildings were faced in marble, or were left with undecorated façade so that this might be achieved at a later date.

The availability of timber also influenced the style of architecture, with timber buildings prevailing in Scandinavia. Availability of timber affected methods of roof construction across Europe. It is thought that the magnificent hammer-beam roofs of England were devised as a direct response to the lack of long straight seasoned timber by the end of the Medieval period, when forests had been decimated not only for the construction of vast roofs but also for ship building.[8][10]

Architectural background

Gothic architecture grew out of the previous architectural genre, Romanesque. For the most part, there was not a clean break, as there was to be later in Renaissance Florence with the revival of the Classical style by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, and the sudden abandonment in Renaissance Italy of both the style and the structural characteristics of Gothic.

Romanesque tradition

By the 12th century, Romanesque architecture (termed Norman architecture in England because of its association with the Norman invasion), was established throughout Europe and provided the basic architectural forms and units that were to remain in evolution throughout the Medieval period. The important categories of building: the cathedral church, the parish church, the monastery, the castle, the palace, the great hall, the gatehouse, the civic building, had been established in the Romanesque period.

Many architectural features that are associated with Gothic architecture had been developed and used by the architects of Romanesque buildings. These include ribbed vaults, buttresses, clustered columns, ambulatories, wheel windows, spires,stained glass windows, and richly carved door tympana. These were already features of ecclesiastical architecture before the development of the Gothic style, and all were to develop in increasingly elaborate ways.[11]

It was principally the widespread introduction of a single feature, the pointed arch, which was to bring about the change that separates Gothic from Romanesque. The technological change permitted a stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls penetrated by small openings, replacing it with a style where light appears to triumph over substance. With its use came the development of many other architectural devices, previously put to the test in scattered buildings and then called into service to meet the structural, aesthetic and ideological needs of the new style. These include the flying buttresses, pinnacles and traceried windows which typify Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.[8] But while pointed arch is so strongly associated with the Gothic style, it was first used in Western architecture in buildings that were in other ways clearly Romanesque, notably Durham Cathedral in the north of England, Monreale Cathedral and Cathedral of Cefalù in Sicily, Autun Cathedral in France.

Possible Oriental influence

Arches at Al-Raqqah, Syria

The pointed arch, one of the defining attributes of Gothic, was earlier incorporated into Islamic architecture following the Islamic conquests of Roman Syria and the Sassanid Empire in the Seventh Century.[8] The pointed arch and its precursors had been employed in Late Roman and Sassanian architecture; within the Roman context, evidenced in early church building in Syria and occasional secular structures, like the Roman Karamagara Bridge; in Sassanid architecture, in the parabolic and pointed arches employed in palace and sacred construction.[12][13]

Increasing military and cultural contacts with the Muslim world, including the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily in 1090, the Crusades, beginning 1096, and the Islamic presence in Spain, may have influenced Medieval Europe's adoption of the pointed arch, although this hypothesis remains controversial.[14][15] Certainly, in those parts of the Western Mediterranean subject to Islamic control or influence, rich regional variants arose, fusing Romanesque and later Gothic traditions with Islamic decorative forms, as seen, for example, in Monreale and Cefalù Cathedrals, the Alcázar of Seville, and Teruel Cathedral.[16][17]

Architectural development

The south western tower at Ely Cathedral, England
The nave vault with pointed transverse arches at Durham Cathedral
The sexpartite ribbed vault at Saint Etienne, Caen
Interior of the Cathedral of Cefalu.

Transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture

The characteristic forms that were to define Gothic architecture grew out of Romanesque architecture and developed at several different geographic locations, as the result of different influences and structural requirements. While barrel vaults and groin vaults are typical of Romanesque architecture, ribbed vaults were used in the naves of two Romanesque churches in Caen, Abbey of Saint-Étienne and Abbaye aux Dames in 1120. Another early example is the nave and apse area of the Cathedral of Cefalù in 1131. The ribbed vault over the north transept at Durham Cathedral in England, built from 1128 to 1133, is probably earlier still and was the first time pointed arches were used in a high vault.

Other characteristics of early Gothic architecture, such as vertical shafts, clustered columns, compound piers, plate tracery and groups of narrow openings had evolved during the Romanesque period. The west front of Ely Cathedral exemplifies this development. Internally the three tiered arrangement of arcade, gallery and clerestory was established. Interiors had become lighter with the insertion of more and larger windows.

The Basilica of Saint Denis is generally cited as the first truly Gothic building, however the distinction is best reserved for the choir, of which the ambulatory remains intact. Noyon Cathedral, also in France, saw the earliest completion of a rebuilding of an entire cathedral in the new style from 1150 to 1231. While using all those features that came to be known as Gothic, including pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaulting, the builders continued to employ many of the features and much of the character of Romanesque architecture including round-headed arch throughout the building, varying the shape to pointed where it was functionally practical to do so.

At the Abbey Saint-Denis, Noyon Cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris and at the eastern end of Canterbury Cathedral in England, simple cylindrical columns predominate over the Gothic forms of clustered columns and shafted piers. Wells Cathedral in England, commenced at the eastern end in 1175, was the first building in which the designer broke free from Romanesque forms. The architect entirely dispensed with the round arch in favour of the pointed arch and with cylindrical columns in favour of piers composed of clusters of shafts which lead into the mouldings of the arches. The transepts and nave were continued by Adam Locke in the same style and completed in about 1230. The character of the building is entirely Gothic. Wells Cathedral is thus considered the first truly Gothic cathedral.[18]

Abbot Suger

The west front at the Abbey of Saint Denis, with its three deep portals
The ambulatory at the Abbey of Saint-Denis
The west front at Noyon Cathedral, showing transitional characteristics
The interior of Noyon Cathedral

The eastern end of the Basilica Church of Saint-Denis, built by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144, is often cited as the first truly Gothic building, as it draws together many of architectural forms which had evolved from Romanesque and typify the Gothic style.

Suger, friend and confidant of the French Kings, Louis VI and Louis VII, decided in about 1137, to rebuild the great Church of Saint-Denis, attached to an abbey which was also a royal residence. He began with the West Front, reconstructing the original Carolingian façade with its single door. He designed the façade of Saint-Denis to be an echo of the Roman Arch of Constantine with its three-part division and three large portals to ease the problem of congestion. The rose window is the earliest-known example above the West portal in France. The façade combines both round arches and pointed arches of the Gothic style.

At the completion of the west front in 1140, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end, leaving the Carolingian nave in use. He designed a choir that would be suffused with light.[19] To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows.

The new structure was finished and dedicated on 11 June 1144, in the presence of the King. The choir and west front of the Abbey of Saint-Denis both became the prototypes for further building in the royal domain of northern France and in the Duchy of Normandy. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty, the new style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy and Sicily.[7][9]

Characteristics of Gothic cathedrals and great churches

While many secular buildings exist from the Late Middle Ages, it is in the buildings of cathedrals and great churches that Gothic architecture displays its pertinent structures and characteristics to the fullest advantage. A Gothic cathedral or abbey was, prior to the 20th century, generally the landmark building in its town, rising high above all the domestic structures and often surmounted by one or more towers and pinnacles and perhaps tall spires.[8][20] These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of that day and would have been the largest buildings by far that Europeans would ever have seen. It is in the architecture of these Gothic churches that a unique combination of existing technologies established the emergence of a new building style. Those technologies were the ogival or pointed arch, the ribbed vault, and the buttress.

The Gothic style, when applied to an ecclesiastical building, emphasizes verticality and light. This appearance was achieved by the development of certain architectural features, which together provided an engineering solution. The structural parts of the building ceased to be its solid walls, and became a stone skeleton comprising clustered columns, pointed ribbed vaults and flying buttresses.

Cathedrals and great churches in their cityscapes
Church of Our Lady, Czech Rep.


Most large Gothic churches and many smaller parish churches are of the Latin cross (or "cruciform") plan, with a long nave making the body of the church, a transverse arm called the transept and, beyond it, an extension which may be called the choir, chancel or presbytery. There are several regional variations on this plan.

The nave is generally flanked on either side by aisles, usually single, but sometimes double. The nave is generally considerably taller than the aisles, having clerestory windows which light the central space. Gothic churches of the Germanic tradition, like St. Stephen of Vienna, often have nave and aisles of similar height and are called Hallenkirche. In the South of France there is often a single wide nave and no aisles, as at Sainte-Marie in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

In some churches with double aisles, like Notre Dame, Paris, the transept does not project beyond the aisles. In English cathedrals transepts tend to project boldly and there may be two of them, as at Salisbury Cathedral, though this is not the case with lesser churches.

The eastern arm shows considerable diversity. In England it is generally long and may have two distinct sections, both choir and presbytery. It is often square ended or has a projecting Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In France the eastern end is often polygonal and surrounded by a walkway called an ambulatory and sometimes a ring of chapels called a "chevet". While German churches are often similar to those of France, in Italy, the eastern projection beyond the transept is usually just a shallow apsidal chapel containing the sanctuary, as at Florence Cathedral.[8][11][20]

Structure: the pointed arch


One of the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. Arches of a similar type were used in the Near East in pre-Islamic[22] as well as Islamic architecture before they were structurally employed in medieval architecture. It is thought by some architectural historians that this was the inspiration for the use of the pointed arch in France, in otherwise Romanesque buildings, as at Autun Cathedral.[8]

Contrary to the diffusionist theory, it appears that there was simultaneously a structural evolution towards the pointed arch, for the purpose of vaulting spaces of irregular plan, or to bring transverse vaults to the same height as diagonal vaults. This latter occurs at Durham Cathedral in the nave aisles in 1093. Pointed arches also occur extensively in Romanesque decorative blind arcading, where semi-circular arches overlap each other in a simple decorative pattern, and the points are accidental to the design.[23]


The Gothic vault, unlike the semi-circular vault of Roman and Romanesque buildings, can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped plans such as trapezoids. The other structural advantage is that the pointed arch channels the weight onto the bearing piers or columns at a steep angle. This enabled architects to raise vaults much higher than was possible in Romanesque architecture.[8] While, structurally, use of the pointed arch gave a greater flexibility to architectural form, it also gave Gothic architecture a very different and more vertical visual character than Romanesque.

In Gothic architecture the pointed arch is used in nearly all locations where a vaulted shape is called for, both structural and decorative. Gothic openings such as doorways, windows, arcades and galleries have pointed arches. Gothic vaulting above spaces both large and small is usually supported by richly moulded ribs.

Rows of pointed arches upon delicate shafts form a typical wall decoration known as blind arcading. Niches with pointed arches and containing statuary are a major external feature. The pointed arch lent itself to elaborate intersecting shapes which developed within window spaces into complex Gothic tracery forming the structural support of the large windows that are characteristic of the style.[10][11]

Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in England.


A characteristic of Gothic church architecture is its height, both absolute and in proportion to its width, the verticality suggesting an aspiration to Heaven. A section of the main body of a Gothic church usually shows the nave as considerably taller than it is wide. In England the proportion is sometimes greater than 2:1, while the greatest proportional difference achieved is at Cologne Cathedral with a ratio of 3.6:1. The highest internal vault is at Beauvais Cathedral at 48 metres (157 ft).[8]

Externally, towers and spires are characteristic of Gothic churches both great and small, the number and positioning being one of the greatest variables in Gothic architecture. In Italy, the tower, if present, is almost always detached from the building, as at Florence Cathedral, and is often from an earlier structure. In France and Spain, two towers on the front is the norm. In England, Germany and Scandinavia this is often the arrangement, but an English cathedral may also be surmounted by an enormous tower at the crossing. Smaller churches usually have just one tower, but this may also be the case at larger buildings, such as Salisbury Cathedral or Ulm Minster, which has the tallest spire in the world,[24] slightly exceeding that of Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest which was actually completed during the medieval period, at 160 metres (520 ft).

The Gothic east end of Cologne Cathedral represents the extreme of verticality. (choir dating to 13th century, nave dating to the 19th century).

Vertical emphasis

The pointed arch lends itself to a suggestion of height. This appearance is characteristically further enhanced by both the architectural features and the decoration of the building.[20]

On the exterior, the verticality is emphasised in a major way by the towers and spires and in a lesser way by strongly projecting vertical buttresses, by narrow half-columns called attached shafts which often pass through several storeys of the building, by long narrow windows, vertical mouldings around doors and figurative sculpture which emphasises the vertical and is often attenuated. The roofline, gable ends, buttresses and other parts of the building are often terminated by small pinnacles, Milan Cathedral being an extreme example in the use of this form of decoration.

On the interior of the building attached shafts often sweep unbroken from floor to ceiling and meet the ribs of the vault, like a tall tree spreading into branches. The verticals are generally repeated in the treatment of the windows and wall surfaces. In many Gothic churches, particularly in France, and in the Perpendicular period of English Gothic architecture, the treatment of vertical elements in gallery and window tracery creates a strongly unifying feature that counteracts the horizontal divisions of the interior structure.[20]


Expansive interior light has been a feature of Gothic cathedrals since the first structure was opened. The metaphysics of light in the Middle Ages led to clerical belief in its divinity and the importance of its display in holy settings. Much of this belief was based on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth-century mystic whose book, The Celestial Hierarchy, was popular among monks in France. Pseudo-Dionysius held that all light, even light reflected from metals or streamed through windows, was divine. To promote such faith, the abbot in charge of the Saint-Denis church on the north edge of Paris, the Abbot Suger, encouraged architects remodeling the building to make the interior as bright as possible.

Ever since the remodeled Basilica of Saint-Denis opened in 1144, Gothic architecture has featured expansive windows, such as at Sainte Chapelle, York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral. The increase in size between windows of the Romanesque and Gothic periods is related to the use of the ribbed vault, and in particular, the pointed ribbed vault which channeled the weight to a supporting shaft with less outward thrust than a semicircular vault. Walls did not need to be so weighty.[11][20]

A further development was the flying buttress which arched externally from the springing of the vault across the roof of the aisle to a large buttress pier projecting well beyond the line of the external wall. These piers were often surmounted by a pinnacle or statue, further adding to the downward weight, and counteracting the outward thrust of the vault and buttress arch as well as stress from wind loading.

The internal columns of the arcade with their attached shafts, the ribs of the vault and the flying buttresses, with their associated vertical buttresses jutting at right-angles to the building, created a stone skeleton. Between these parts, the walls and the infill of the vaults could be of lighter construction. Between the narrow buttresses, the walls could be opened up into large windows.[8]

Through the Gothic period, thanks to the versatility of the pointed arch, the structure of Gothic windows developed from simple openings to immensely rich and decorative sculptural designs. The windows were very often filled with stained glass which added a dimension of colour to the light within the building, as well as providing a medium for figurative and narrative art.[20]


The façade of a large church or cathedral, often referred to as the West Front, is generally designed to create a powerful impression on the approaching worshipper, demonstrating both the might of God and the might of the institution that it represents. One of the best known and most typical of such façades is that of Notre Dame de Paris.

Central to the façade is the main portal, often flanked by additional doors. In the arch of the door, the tympanum, is often a significant piece of sculpture, most frequently Christ in Majesty and Judgment Day. If there is a central doorjamb or a trumeau, then it frequently bears a statue of the Madonna and Child. There may be much other carving, often of figures in niches set into the mouldings around the portals, or in sculptural screens extending across the façade.

Above the main portal there is generally a large window, like that at York Minster, or a group of windows such as those at Ripon Cathedral. In France there is generally a rose window like that at Reims Cathedral. Rose windows are also often found in the façades of churches of Spain and Italy, but are rarer elsewhere and are not found on the façades of any English Cathedrals. The gable is usually richly decorated with arcading or sculpture or, in the case of Italy, may be decorated with the rest of the façade, with polychrome marble and mosaic, as at Orvieto Cathedral.

The West Front of a French cathedral and many English, Spanish and German cathedrals generally have two towers, which, particularly in France, express an enormous diversity of form and decoration.[8][9] However some German cathedrals have only one tower located in the middle of the façade (such as Freiburg Münster).

The façade of Ripon Cathedral presents a composition in untraceried pointed arches.

Basic shapes of Gothic arches and stylistic character

The way in which the pointed arch was drafted and utilised developed throughout the Gothic period. There were fairly clear stages of development, which did not, however, progress at the same rate, or in the same way in every country. Moreover, the names used to define various periods or styles within Gothic architecture differs from country to country.

Lancet arch

The simplest shape is the long opening with a pointed arch known in England as the lancet. Lancet openings are often grouped, usually as a cluster of three or five. Lancet openings may be very narrow and steeply pointed. Lancet arches are typically defined as two-centered arches whose radii are larger than the arch's span.[25]

Salisbury Cathedral is famous for the beauty and simplicity of its Lancet Gothic, known in England as the Early English Style. York Minster has a group of lancet windows each fifty feet high and still containing ancient glass. They are known as the Five Sisters. These simple undecorated grouped windows are found at Chartres and Laon Cathedrals and are used extensively in Italy.[8][10]

Windows in the Chapter House at York Minster show the equilateral arch with typical circular motifs in the tracery.

Equilateral arch

Equilateral Arch

Many Gothic openings are based upon the equilateral form. In other words, when the arch is drafted, the radius is exactly the width of the opening and the centre of each arch coincides with the point from which the opposite arch springs. This makes the arch higher in relation to its width than a semi-circular arch which is exactly half as high as it is wide.[8]

The Equilateral Arch gives a wide opening of satisfying proportion useful for doorways, decorative arcades and large windows.

The structural beauty of the Gothic arch means, however, that no set proportion had to be rigidly maintained. The Equilateral Arch was employed as a useful tool, not as a principle of design. This meant that narrower or wider arches were introduced into a building plan wherever necessity dictated. In the architecture of some Italian cities, notably Venice, semi-circular arches are interspersed with pointed ones.[26]

The Equilateral Arch lends itself to filling with tracery of simple equilateral, circular and semi-circular forms. The type of tracery that evolved to fill these spaces is known in England as Geometric Decorated Gothic and can be seen to splendid effect at many English and French Cathedrals, notably Lincoln and Notre Dame in Paris. Windows of complex design and of three or more lights or vertical sections, are often designed by overlapping two or more equilateral arches.[10]

Flamboyant arch

The Flamboyant Arch is one that is drafted from four points, the upper part of each main arc turning upwards into a smaller arc and meeting at a sharp, flame-like point. These arches create a rich and lively effect when used for window tracery and surface decoration. The form is structurally weak and has very rarely been used for large openings except when contained within a larger and more stable arch. It is not employed at all for vaulting.[8]

Some of the most beautiful and famous traceried windows of Europe employ this type of tracery. It can be seen at St Stephen's Vienna, Sainte Chapelle in Paris, at the Cathedrals of Limoges and Rouen in France. In England the most famous examples are the West Window of York Minster with its design based on the Sacred Heart, the extraordinarily rich nine-light East Window at Carlisle Cathedral and the exquisite East window of Selby Abbey.[10][11]

Doorways surmounted by Flamboyant mouldings are very common in both ecclesiastical and domestic architecture in France. They are much rarer in England. A notable example is the doorway to the Chapter Room at Rochester Cathedral.[8][10]

The style was much used in England for wall arcading and niches. Prime examples in are in the Lady Chapel at Ely, the Screen at Lincoln and externally on the façade of Exeter Cathedral. In German and Spanish Gothic architecture it often appears as openwork screens on the exterior of buildings. The style was used to rich and sometimes extraordinary effect in both these countries, notably on the famous pulpit in Vienna Cathedral.[9]

The depressed arch supported by fan vaulting at King's College Chapel, England.

Depressed arch

The depressed or four-centred arch is much wider than its height and gives the visual effect of having been flattened under pressure. Its structure is achieved by drafting two arcs which rise steeply from each springing point on a small radius and then turn into two arches with a wide radius and much lower springing point.[8]

This type of arch, when employed as a window opening, lends itself to very wide spaces, provided it is adequately supported by many narrow vertical shafts. These are often further braced by horizontal transoms. The overall effect produces a grid-like appearance of regular, delicate, rectangular forms with an emphasis on the perpendicular. It is also employed as a wall decoration in which arcade and window openings form part of the whole decorative surface.

The style, known as Perpendicular, that evolved from this treatment is specific to England, although very similar to contemporary Spanish style in particular, and was employed to great effect through the 15th century and first half of the 16th as Renaissance styles were much slower to arrive in England than in Italy and France.[8]

It can be seen notably at the East End of Gloucester Cathedral where the East Window is said to be as large as a tennis court. There are three very famous royal chapels and one chapel-like Abbey which show the style at its most elaborate: King's College Chapel, Cambridge; St George's Chapel, Windsor; Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey.[10] However very many simpler buildings, especially churches built during the wool boom in East Anglia, are fine examples of the style.

Symbolism and ornamentation

The Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral.

The Gothic cathedral represented the universe in microcosm and each architectural concept, including the loftiness and huge dimensions of the structure, were intended to convey a theological message: the great glory of God. The building becomes a microcosm in two ways. Firstly, the mathematical and geometrical nature of the construction is an image of the orderly universe, in which an underlying rationality and logic can be perceived.

Secondly, the statues, sculptural decoration, stained glass and murals incorporate the essence of creation in depictions of the Labours of the Months and the Zodiac[27] and sacred history from the Old and New Testaments and Lives of the Saints, as well as reference to the eternal in the Last Judgment and Coronation of the Virgin.

The Devil tempting the Foolish Virgins at Strasbourg.

The decorative schemes usually incorporated Biblical stories, emphasizing visual typological allegories between Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament.[9]

Many churches were very richly decorated, both inside and out. Sculpture and architectural details were often bright with coloured paint of which traces remain at the Cathedral of Chartres. Wooden ceilings and panelling were usually brightly coloured. Sometimes the stone columns of the nave were painted, and the panels in decorative wall arcading contained narratives or figures of saints. These have rarely remained intact, but may be seen at the Chapterhouse of Westminster Abbey.[10]

Some important Gothic churches could be severely simple such as the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Saint-Maximin, Provence where the local traditions of the sober, massive, Romanesque architecture were still strong.

Regional differences

Interior of Amiens Cathedral, France.

Wherever Gothic architecture is found, it is subject to local influences, and frequently the influence of itinerant stonemasons and artisans, carrying ideas between cities and sometimes between countries. Certain characteristics are typical of particular regions and often override the style itself, appearing in buildings hundreds of years apart.


The distinctive characteristic of French cathedrals, and those in Germany and Belgium that were strongly influenced by them, is their height and their impression of verticality. Each French cathedral tends to be stylistically unified in appearance when compared with an English cathedral where there is great diversity in almost every building. They are compact, with slight or no projection of the transepts and subsidiary chapels. The west fronts are highly consistent, having three portals surmounted by a rose window, and two large towers. Sometimes there are additional towers on the transept ends. The east end is polygonal with ambulatory and sometimes a chevette of radiating chapels. In the south of France, many of the major churches are without transepts and some are without aisles.[8]

The longitudinal emphasis in the nave of Wells is typically English.


The distinctive characteristic of English cathedrals is their extreme length, and their internal emphasis upon the horizontal, which may be emphasised visually as much or more than the vertical lines. Each English cathedral (with the exception of Salisbury) has an extraordinary degree of stylistic diversity, when compared with most French, German and Italian cathedrals. It is not unusual for every part of the building to have been built in a different century and in a different style, with no attempt at creating a stylistic unity. Unlike French cathedrals, English cathedrals sprawl across their sites, with double transepts projecting strongly and Lady Chapels tacked on at a later date, such as at Westminster Abbey. In the west front, the doors are not as significant as in France, the usual congregational entrance being through a side porch. The West window is very large and never a rose, which are reserved for the transept gables. The west front may have two towers like a French Cathedral, or none. There is nearly always a tower at the crossing and it may be very large and surmounted by a spire. The distinctive English east end is square, but it may take a completely different form. Both internally and externally, the stonework is often richly decorated with carvings, particularly the capitals.[8][10]

Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic

Interior of the Vladislav Hall at the Prague Castle.

Romanesque architecture in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic (earlier called Bohemia) is characterised by its massive and modular nature. This characteristic is also expressed in the Gothic architecture of Central Europe in the huge size of the towers and spires, often projected, but not always completed.[28] Gothic design in Germany and Czech lands, generally follows the French formula, but the towers are much taller and, if complete, are surmounted by enormous openwork spires that are a regional feature. Because of the size of the towers, the section of the façade between them may appear narrow and compressed. The distinctive character of the interior of German Gothic cathedrals is their breadth and openness. This is the case even when, as at Cologne, they have been modelled upon a French cathedral. German and Czech cathedrals, like the French, tend not to have strongly projecting transepts. There are also many hall churches (Hallenkirchen) without clerestory windows.[8][20] In contrast to the Gothic designs found in German and Czech areas, which followed the French patterns, Brick Gothic was particularly prevalent in Poland. The Polish gothic architecture is characterized by its utilitarian nature, with very limited use of sculpture and heavy exterior design.

Spain and Portugal

Burgos Cathedral in Burgos, Spain.

The distinctive characteristic of Gothic cathedrals of the Iberian Peninsula is their spatial complexity, with many areas of different shapes leading from each other. They are comparatively wide, and often have very tall arcades surmounted by low clerestories, giving a similar spacious appearance to the 'Hallenkirche of Germany, as at the Church of the Batalha Monastery in Portugal. Many of the cathedrals are completely surrounded by chapels. Like English cathedrals, each is often stylistically diverse. This expresses itself both in the addition of chapels and in the application of decorative details drawn from different sources. Among the influences on both decoration and form are Islamic architecture and, towards the end of the period, Renaissance details combined with the Gothic in a distinctive manner. The West front, as at Leon Cathedral, typically resembles a French west front, but wider in proportion to height and often with greater diversity of detail and a combination of intricate ornament with broad plain surfaces. At Burgos Cathedral there are spires of German style. The roofline often has pierced parapets with comparatively few pinnacles. There are often towers and domes of a great variety of shapes and structural invention rising above the roof.[8]


Main article: Catalan Gothic
Barcelona Cathedral has a wide nave with the clerestory windows nestled under the vault.

In Catalonia and the territories under its influence (Northern Catalonia in France, the Balearic Islands, the Valencian Country, among others in the Italian islands), the Gothic style allowed to create very wide spaces, with few ornaments; it is called Catalan Gothic style (different than the Spanish or French style).

The most important samples of Catalan Gothic style are the cathedrals of Girona, Barcelona, Perpignan and Palma (in Mallorca), the basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (in Barcelona), the basilica del Pi (in Barcelona), and the church of Santa Maria de l'Alba in Manresa.


The clear proportions of Florence Cathedral are defined by dark stone against the colour-washed plastered brick.

The distinctive characteristic of Italian Gothic is the use of polychrome decoration, both externally as marble veneer on the brick façade and also internally where the arches are often made of alternating black and white segments, and where the columns may be painted red, the walls decorated with frescoes and the apse with mosaic. The plan is usually regular and symmetrical, Italian cathedrals have few and widely spaced columns. The proportions are generally mathematically equilibrated, based on the square and the concept of "armonìa", and except in Venice where they loved flamboyant arches, the arches are almost always equilateral. Colours and moldings define the architectural units rather than blending them. Italian cathedral façades are often polychrome and may include mosaics in the lunettes over the doors. The façades have projecting open porches and occular or wheel windows rather than roses, and do not usually have a tower. The crossing is usually surmounted by a dome. There is often a free-standing tower and baptistry. The eastern end usually has an apse of comparatively low projection. The windows are not as large as in northern Europe and, although stained glass windows are often found, the favourite narrative medium for the interior is the fresco.[8]

Other Gothic buildings

See also: Castle

Synagogues were commonly built in the Gothic style in Europe during the Medieval period. A surviving example is the Old New Synagogue in Prague built in the 13th century.

The Palais des Papes in Avignon is the best complete large royal palace, alongside the Royal palace of Olite, built during the 13th and 14th centuries for the kings of Navarre. The Malbork Castle built for the master of the Teutonic order is an example of Brick Gothic architecture. Partial survivals of former royal residences include the Doge's Palace of Venice, the Palau de la Generalitat in Barcelona, built in the 15th century for the kings of Aragon, or the famous Conciergerie, former palace of the kings of France, in Paris.

Secular Gothic architecture can also be found in a number of public buildings such as town halls, universities, markets or hospitals. The Gdańsk, Wrocław and Stralsund town halls are remarkable examples of northern Brick Gothic built in the late 14th centuries. The Belfry of Bruges or Brussels Town Hall, built during the 15th century, are associated to the increasing wealth and power of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages; by the 15th century, the traders of the trade cities of Burgundy had acquired such wealth and influence that they could afford to express their power by funding lavishly decorated buildings of vast proportions. This kind of expressions of secular and economic power are also found in other late mediaeval commercial cities, including the Llotja de la Seda of Valencia, Spain, a purpose built silk exchange dating from the 15th century, in the partial remains of Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament in London, or the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy, a 13th-century town hall built to host the offices of the then prosperous republic of Siena. Other Italian cities such as Florence (Palazzo Vecchio), Mantua or Venice also host remarkable examples of secular public architecture.

Courtyard of Collegium Maius in Kraków, Poland.

By the late Middle Ages university towns had grown in wealth and importance as well, and this was reflected in the buildings of some of Europe's ancient universities. Particularly remarkable examples still standing nowadays include the Collegio di Spagna in the University of Bologna, built during the 14th and 15th centuries; the Collegium Carolinum of the University of Prague in Bohemia; the Escuelas mayores of the University of Salamanca in Spain; the chapel of King's College, Cambridge; or the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.

In addition to monumental secular architecture, examples of the Gothic style in private buildings can be seen in surviving medieval portions of cities across Europe, above all the distinctive Venetian Gothic such as the Ca' d'Oro. The house of the wealthy early 15th-century merchant Jacques Coeur in Bourges, is the classic Gothic bourgeois mansion, full of the asymmetry and complicated detail beloved of the Gothic Revival.[29]

Other cities with a concentration of secular Gothic include Bruges and Siena. Most surviving small secular buildings are relatively plain and straightforward; most windows are flat-topped with mullions, with pointed arches and vaulted ceilings often only found at a few focal points. The country-houses of the nobility were slow to abandon the appearance of being a castle, even in parts of Europe, like England, where defence had ceased to be a real concern. The living and working parts of many monastic buildings survive, for example at Mont Saint-Michel.

Exceptional works of Gothic architecture can also be found on the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, in the walled cities of Nicosia and Famagusta. Also, the roofs of the Old Town Hall in Prague and Znojmo Town Hall Tower in the Czech Republic are an excellent example of late Gothic craftsmanship.

Gothic survival and revival

Western façade of Westminster Abbey, London, completed in 1745

In 1663 at the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence, Lambeth Palace, a Gothic hammerbeam roof was built to replace that destroyed when the building was sacked during the English Civil War. Also in the late 17th century, some discrete Gothic details appeared on new construction at Oxford University and Cambridge University, notably on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, by Christopher Wren. It is not easy to decide whether these instances were Gothic survival or early appearances of Gothic revival.

Ireland was a focus for Gothic architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Derry Cathedral (completed 1633), Sligo Cathedral (c. 1730), and Down Cathedral (1790-1818) are notable examples. The term "Planter's Gothic" has been applied to the most typical of these.[30]

In England in the mid-18th century, the Gothic style was more widely revived, first as a decorative, whimsical alternative to Rococo that is still conventionally termed 'Gothick', of which Horace Walpole's Twickenham villa "Strawberry Hill" is the familiar example.

19th- and 20th-century Gothic Revival

Big Ben (completed in 1859) and the Houses of Parliament in London

In England, partly in response to a philosophy propounded by the Oxford Movement and others associated with the emerging revival of 'high church' or Anglo-Catholic ideas during the second quarter of the 19th century, neo-Gothic began to become promoted by influential establishment figures as the preferred style for ecclesiastical, civic and institutional architecture. The appeal of this Gothic revival (which after 1837, in Britain, is sometimes termed Victorian Gothic), gradually widened to encompass "low church" as well as "high church" clients. This period of more universal appeal, spanning 1855–1885, is known in Britain as High Victorian Gothic.

The Houses of Parliament in London by Sir Charles Barry with interiors by a major exponent of the early Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Pugin, is an example of the Gothic revival style from its earlier period in the second quarter of the 19th century. Examples from the High Victorian Gothic period include George Gilbert Scott's design for the Albert Memorial in London, and William Butterfield's chapel at Keble College, Oxford. From the second half of the 19th century onwards it became more common in Britain for neo-Gothic to be used in the design of non-ecclesiastical and non-governmental buildings types. Gothic details even began to appear in working-class housing schemes subsidised by philanthropy, though given the expense, less frequently than in the design of upper and middle-class housing.

Gasson Hall on the campus of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

In France, simultaneously, the towering figure of the Gothic Revival was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who outdid historical Gothic constructions to create a Gothic as it ought to have been, notably at the fortified city of Carcassonne in the south of France and in some richly fortified keeps for industrial magnates. Viollet-le-Duc compiled and coordinated an Encyclopédie médiévale that was a rich repertory his contemporaries mined for architectural details. He effected vigorous restoration of crumbling detail of French cathedrals, including the Abbey of Saint-Denis and famously at Notre Dame de Paris, where many of whose most "Gothic" gargoyles are Viollet-le-Duc's. He taught a generation of reform-Gothic designers and showed how to apply Gothic style to modern structural materials, especially cast iron.

In Germany, the great cathedral of Cologne and the Ulm Minster, left unfinished for 600 years, were brought to completion, while in Italy, Florence Cathedral finally received its polychrome Gothic façade. New churches in the Gothic style were created all over the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Japan, Thailand, India, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and South Africa.

St. Alexander Nevsky Gothic Chapel (Peterhof), completed in 1834

As in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand utilised Neo-Gothic for the building of universities, a fine example being the University of Sydney by Edmund Blacket. In Canada, the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa designed by Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones with its huge centrally placed tower is influenced by Flemish Gothic buildings.

Although falling out of favour for domestic and civic use, Gothic for churches and universities continued into the 20th century with buildings such as Liverpool Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York and São Paulo Cathedral, Brazil. The Gothic style was also applied to iron-framed city skyscrapers such as Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building and Raymond Hood's Tribune Tower.

Post-Modernism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has seen some revival of Gothic forms in individual buildings, such as the Gare do Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal and a finishing of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

21st-century Gothic Revival

See also

About medieval Gothic in particular

About Gothic architecture more generally or in other senses


  1. Vasari, G. The Lives of the Artists. Translated with an introduction and notes by J.C. and P. Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics), 1991, pp. 117 & 527. ISBN 9780199537198
  2. Vasari, Giorgio. (1907) Vasari on technique: being the introduction to the three arts of design, architecture, sculpture and painting, prefixed to the Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects. G. Baldwin Brown Ed. Louisa S. Maclehose Trans. London: Dent, pp. b & 83.
  3. "Gotz" is rendered as "Huns" in Thomas Urquhart's English translation.
  4. Notes and Queries, No. 9. 29 December 1849
  5. Christopher Wren, 17th-century architect of St. Paul's Cathedral.
  6. "pour terminer le haut de leurs ouvertures. La Compagnie a désapprové plusieurs de ces nouvelles manières, qui sont défectueuses et qui tiennent la plupart du gothique." Quoted in Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo, 1943, p 66.
  7. 1 2 "L'art Gothique", section: "L'architecture Gothique en Angleterre" by Ute Engel: L'Angleterre fut l'une des premieres régions à adopter, dans la deuxième moitié du XIIeme siècle, la nouvelle architecture gothique née en France. Les relations historiques entre les deux pays jouèrent un rôle prépondérant: en 1154, Henri II (1154–1189), de la dynastie Française des Plantagenêt, accéda au thrône d'Angleterre." (England was one of the first regions to adopt, during the first half of the 12th century, the new Gothic architecture born in France. Historic relationships between the two countries played a determining role: in 1154, Henry II (1154–1189) became the first of the Anjou Plantagenet kings to ascend to the throne of England).
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 John Harvey, The Gothic World
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture.
  12. Warren, John (1991). "Creswell's Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture". Muqarnas. BRILL. 8: 59–65 (61–63). doi:10.2307/1523154. JSTOR 1523154.
  13. Petersen, Andrew (2002-03-11). Dictionary of Islamic Architecture at pp. 295-296. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-20387-3. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  14. Scott, Robert A.: The Gothic enterprise: a guide to understanding the Medieval cathedral, Berkeley 2003, University of California Press, p. 113 ISBN 0-520-23177-5
  15. Cf. Bony (1983), especially p.17
  16. Le genie architectural des Normands a su s’adapter aux lieux en prenant ce qu’il y a de meilleur dans le savoir-faire des batisseurs arabes et byzantins”, Les Normands en Sicile, pp.14, 53-57.
  17. Harvey, L. P. (1992). "Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500". Chicago : University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31960-1; Boswell, John (1978). Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02090-2.
  18. Cannon, J. 2007. Cathedral: The Great English Cathedrals and the World that Made Them
  19. Erwin Panofsky argued that Suger was inspired to create a physical representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem, although the extent to which Suger had any aims higher than aesthetic pleasure has been called into doubt by more recent art historians on the basis of Suger's own writings.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral
  21. While the engineering and construction of the dome of Florence Cathedral by Brunelleschi is often cited as one of the first works of the Renaissance, the octagonal plan, ribs and pointed silhouette were already determined in the 14th century.
    • Warren, John (1991). "Creswell's Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture". Muqarnas. BRILL. 8: 59–65. doi:10.2307/1523154. JSTOR 1523154.
  22. "Architectural Importance". Durham World Heritage Site. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  23. The open-work spire was completed in 1890 to the original design.
  24. Ching, Francis D.K. (2012). A Visual Dictionary of Architecture (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-470-64885-8.
  25. This does not happen in French or English Gothic and so to the British or French eye, to be a strange disregard for style.
  26. The Zodiac comprises a sequence of twelve constellations which appear overhead in the Northern Hemisphere at fixed times of year. In a rural community with neither clock nor calendar, these signs in the heavens were crucial in knowing when crops were to be planted and certain rural activities performed.
  27. Freiburg, Regensburg, Strasbourg, Vienna, Ulm, Cologne, Antwerp, Gdansk, Wroclaw.
  28. Begun in 1443. "House of Jacques Cœur at Bourges (Begun 1443), aerial sketch". Liam’s Pictures from Old Books. Retrieved 29 September 2007.
  29. -Bob Hunter "Londonderry Cathedtral". BBC.


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