Originating in 12th-century France and lasting into the 16th century, Gothic architecture was known during the period as "the French Style" (Opus Francigenum), with the term Gothic first appearing during the latter part of the Renaissance as a stylistic insult. Its characteristic features include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress.
Gothic architecture is most familiar as the architecture of many of the great cathedrals, abbeys and parish 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.
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 appeal to the emotions. 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.
The term "Gothic", when applied to architecture, has nothing to do with the historical Goths. It was a pejorative term that came to be used as early as the 1530s by Giorgio Vasari to describe culture that was considered rude and barbaric. 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 the finite 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.
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 mediæval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with every thing that was barbarous and rude.
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."
Throughout Europe at this time there was a rapid growth in trade and an associated growth in towns. 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 dukes, rather than grand town halls for their burghers.
In Northern Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Baltic countries and northern Poland 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.
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 facades so that this might be achieved at a later date.
The availability of timber also influenced the style of architecture. 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.
In the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi established the Franciscans, or so-called "Grey Friars", a mendicant order. Its off-shoot, the Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic in Toulouse and Bologna, were particularly influential in the building of Italy's Gothic churches.
The widespread introduction of a single feature was to bring about the stylistic change that separates Gothic from Romanesque, and 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. The feature that brought the change is the pointed arch. 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.
The pointed arch had its origins in ancient Assyrian architecture where it occurs in a number of structures as early as 720 BC. It passed into Sassanian-Persian architecture and from the conquest of Persia in 641 AD, became a standard feature of Islamic architecture.
The Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily in 1090, the Crusades which began in 1096 and the Islamic presence in Spain all brought back the knowledge of this significant structural device. It is probable also that decorative carved stone screens and window openings filled with pierced stone also influenced Gothic tracery. In Spain in particular individual decorative motifs occur which are common to both Islamic and Christian architectural mouldings and sculpture.
Concurrent with its introduction and early use as a stylistic feature in French churches, it is believed that the pointed arch evolved naturally in Western Europe as a structural solution to a purely technical problem. (See below: Pointed arch, Origins)
Suger began with the West front, reconstructing the original Carolingian facade 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.
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 (chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims his architects drew on the several new features which evolved or 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 June 11, 1144, in the presence of the King. The Abbey of Saint-Denis thus became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. It is often cited as the first building in the Gothic style. A hundred years later, the old nave of Saint-Denis was rebuilt in the Gothic style, gaining, in its transepts, two spectacular rose windows.
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. (See below: Light)
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.
Most Gothic churches, unless they are entitled chapels, 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 singly, 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 chevette. 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.
However, it appears that there was probably 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.
While, structurally, use of the pointed arch gave a greater flexibility to architectural form, it also gave Gothic architecture a very different visual character to Romanesque, the verticality suggesting an aspiration to Heaven.
In Gothic Architecture the pointed arch is used in every location 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.
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, slightly exceeding that of Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest which was actually completed during the medieval period, at 527 feet (160 m).
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.
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.
Through the Gothic period, due 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.
Central to the facade 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 door jamb or a tremeu, 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 facade.
In the centre of the middle level of the facade, there is a large window, which in countries other than England and Belgium, is generally a rose window like that at Reims Cathedral. The gable above this is usually richly decorated with arcading or sculpture, or in the case of Italy, may be decorated, with the rest of the facade, with polychrome marble and mosaic, as at Orvieto Cathedral
The West Front of a French cathedral and many English, Spanish and German cathedrals generally has two towers, which, particularly in France, express an enormous diversity of form and decoration. However, some German cathedrals have only one tower located in the middle of the facade (such as Freiburg Münster).
The Equilateral Arch gives a wide opening of satisfying proportion useful for doorways, decorative arcades and big 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.
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.
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.
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, and at Milan Cathedral in Italy. In England the most famous examples are the West Window of York Minster with its design based on the Sacred Heart, the extraordinarily rich seven-light East Window at Carlisle Cathedral and the exquisite East window of Selby Abbey.
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.
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 facade 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.
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.
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. However very many simpler buildings, especially churches built during the wool boom in East Anglia, are fine examples of the style.
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 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 decorative schemes usually incorporated Biblical stories, emphasizing visual typological allegories between Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament.
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.
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.
Many examples of secular, non-military structures in Gothic style survive in fairly original condition. The Palais des Papes in Avignon is the best complete large royal palace, with partial survivals in the great hall at the Palace of Westminster, London, an 11th-century hall renovated in the late 1300s with gothic windows and a wooden hammerbeam roof, and the famous Conciergerie, former palace of the kings of France, in Paris. In addition to monumental secular architecture, examples of the Gothic style, can be seen in surviving medieval portions of cities across Europe, above all the distinctive Venetian Gothic. 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. Other cities with a concentration of secular Gothic include Bruges and Sienna. 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.
There are many excellent examples of secular Gothic buildings in brick, notably Malbork, a castle of the Teutonic Knights in Poland. Brick Gothic buildings were associated with the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights. There are over one hundred brick Gothic castles in northern Poland, Baltic states, and western Russia, and many smaller buildings.
Exceptional pieces of gothic architecture are also found in Cyprus, and especially in the walled city of Famagusta.
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 and Cambridge, 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.
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.
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, 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 cathedrals of Cologne and Ulm, left unfinished for 600 years, were brought to completion, while in Italy, Florence Cathedral finally received its polychrome Gothic facade. New churches in the Gothic style were created all over the world, including Japan, Thailand, India, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and South Africa.
As in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand utilised Neo-Gothic for the building of universities, a fine example being Sydney University by Edmund Blacket. In Canada, the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa designed by Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones with its huge centrally-placed tower draws influence from 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 and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York. The Gothic style was also applied to iron-framed city skyscapers such as Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building and Raymond Hood's Tribune Tower.