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Gothic Architecture

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Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)


Façade of Reims Cathedral, France

Gothic architectureis a style of architecture that flourished 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 latter part of the Renaissance. Its characteristics 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 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 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 ofGothic revivals began in mid-18th-century England, spread through 19th-century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century.

The term "Gothic"

South side of (Notre-Dame de Chartres)

The term "Gothicarchitecture" originated as a pejorativedescription. Giorgio Vasariused the term "barbarous German style" in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architectsto describe what we now consider the Gothic style, 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. At the time in which Vasari was writing, Italy had experienced a century of building in the Classical architectural vocabulary revived in the Renaissanceand seen as evidence of a new Golden Ageof learning and refinement.

The Renaissancehad 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 utopianAbbey 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 medieval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with everything 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."

Definition and scope

Gothic architecture is the architecture of the late medieval period, characterized 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 principals 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 is 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, England and Spain, with other fine examples occurring across Europe.

The scope of Gothic architecture

Rheinstein Castle, Germany

Basilica of the Assumption of Mary, Krakow, Poland

The Parish Church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England

The Parish Church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England

The Cathedral of Saint-Gatian, Tours, France

The Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy

Oudenaarde Town Hall, Belgium



At the end of the 12th century, Europe was divided into a multitude of city statesand kingdoms. The area encompassing modern Germany, southern Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic and much of northern Italy (excluding Veniceand 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, Sicilyand Cypruswere independent kingdoms, as was the Angevin Empire, whose Plantagenet kingsruled Englandand large domains in what was to become modern France. Norway came under the influence of England, while the other Scandinavian countries and Polandwere influenced by trading contacts with the Hanseatic League. Angevinkings brought the Gothic tradition from France to Southern Italy, while Lusignankings introduced French Gothicarchitecture to Cyprus.

Throughout Europe at this time there was a rapid growth in trade and an associated growth in towns.Germanyand 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 Churchprevailed across Europe at this time, influencing not only faith but also wealth and power. Bishops were appointed by the Church and 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 Benedictineswhose great abbey churches vastly outnumbered any others in England. A part of their influence was that they tended to build within towns, unlike the Cistercianswhose ruined abbeys are seen in the remote countryside. The Cluniacand Cistercian Orders were prevalent in France, the great monastery at Clunyhaving 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 Assisiestablished the Franciscans, or so-called "Grey Friars", a mendicant order. The Dominicans, another mendicant order founded during the same period but by St. Dominicin Toulouseand Bologna, were particularly influential in the building of Italy's Gothic churches.


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 do 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, limestonewas readily available in several grades, the very fine white limestone of Caenbeing favoured for sculptural decoration. England had coarse limestone and red sandstoneas well as dark green