Gothic Architecture

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Brief Description

Gothic architecture is a form of architecture that came to the forefront in the late Middle Ages. Evolving from Roman architecture and was eventually taken over by Renaissance architecture.

Initially emerging during the 12th century in France and lasting right into the 16th century. During this period, this kind of architecture was known as "French work", with the name Gothic first appearing during the latter part of the Renaissance period. Gothic architecture features Ogive pointed arch, the ribbed vault and flying buttress.

The places you might have seen Gothic architecture the most is in cathedral’s, abbey’s and churches across Europe. It also makes up the appearance of many castle’s, palace’s, town hall’s, guild hall’s, universities and some, private dwellings. We’re sure that if you keep your eyes open while you travel around, you’ll spot some stunning examples of this kind of architecture.

It can be seen in a lot of the great churches and cathedrals as well as, in a lot of the civic and government buildings. These buildings are where the Gothic style of architecture was expressed most prolifically. A 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 in that way. For this reason a study of Gothic architecture tends to become a study of ecclesiastical buildings.

A series of Gothic Revival architecture began in mid-18th century England, spreading through 19th-century Europe and continued, into the 20th century, but mostly for ecclesiastical buildings and for some university structures.

Early uses of the term "Gothic"

Gothic architecture does not imply the architecture of the historical Goths. The term originated as a pejorative description:

16th Century

It came to be used as early as the 1530s by Giorgio Vasari to describe culture that was considered rude and barbaric. Banister Fletcher quotes Vasari as using this term. 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. Proving that the term Gothic can be akin with a form of rebellion for many centuries.

The Renaissance had then overtaken Europe, overthrowing a system that, prior to the advent of printing, was almost entirely driven by an ecclesiastical system and in retrospect, was perceived as a period of ignorance and superstition.

In the 16th century François Rabelais, had an inscription over the door of his Abbey of Thélème, "Here enter no hypocrites, bigots..." slipping a reference to "Gotz" and "Ostrogotz."

17th Century

In England during the 17th-century, the term "Goth" was the same as that of "vandal", the Goths were savage, were destroyers, were defilers 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.

18th Century

On 21 July 1710, the Académie d'Architecture met in Paris, and among the subjects that were discussed, they 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."

19th Century

According to a 19th-century journalist from the London Journal: 29 December 1849

"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."

Gothic Building blocks

Some of the places where Gothic Architecture can trace it's influences from.


Towards the tail end of the 12th century, Europe found itself divided into various city states and kingdoms.

What is now known as modern Germany, also southern Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic and much of northern Italy, but not the Republic of Venice. Local rulers exercised considerable autonomy. The Kingdom of France, Denmark, the Kingdom of Poland (1025–1385), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Portugal, Scotland was a Kingdom, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Sicily and Cyprus were independent kingdoms, as well as the Kingdom of England.

England was among the first of these regions to take on (during the first half of the 12th century) this (at the time) new style of gothic architecture born in France. Historic relationships between these 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. Norway came under the influence of England, while the other Scandinavian countries as well as Poland were influenced by trading contacts with the Hanseatic League. "Capetian House of Anjou Angevin" kings brought the Gothic tradition from France to Southern Italy, while Lusignan kings introduced the "French Gothic" architecture to Cyprus.


Something else that created an influence on Gothic Architecture was the materials available. In France had limestone readily available in many different qualities, this fine white limestone of Caen was favoured for sculptural decorations. England had coarse limestone and red sandstone, plus dark green marble, this was often used for architectural features.

North Germany, the Netherlands, North of Poland, Scandinavia, and Baltic countries didn’t have local building stones, but there was a tradition of building bricks, this resulted in a brick gothic style called "Backsteingotik" in Germany and Scandinavia and is associated with something called “Hanseatic League”. The Italians contribution to all of this was a stone that was used for fortification, with brick being preferred for other buildings. Down to the extensive as well as varied deposits of marble, a number of buildings were faced in marble, or were left undecorated, so the façade could be decorated at a later date.

Timber was widely available and 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 at the end of the Medieval period, forests had been decimated not only for the construction of vast roofs but also for ship building.


During the early times of the Medieval period, there had been a massive increase in monasticism, with several different orders being prevalent and spreading their influence widely.

At the forefront there were the Benedictines, their impressive abbey style churches vastly outnumbered the amount in England. A part of their influence was that they tended to build within towns, unlike the Cistercians, whose ruined abbeys are seen in the remote countryside. The Cluniac and Cistercian Orders were prevalent in France, with 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 1200’s St. Francis of Assisi established the Franciscans, or so-called "Grey Friars". The Dominican Order, another mendicant order was founded during the same period by Basilica di San Domenico in Toulouse and Bologna, they were particularly influential in the building of Italy's Gothic churches.

Who did it first

There is a somewhat patriotic debate over where the style that came to be known as gothic was actually created, or even first used, whether it was within the territories of the Vassals to French King, or within Anglo-Norman areas, or was it within Celtic Brittany, maybe it was from the French speaking eastern duchies, or the counties that evolved from the “Frankish Kingdoms” bordering the Bay of Biscay. There are several that are trying to claim the first major gothic architectural constructs.

The period between the earliest use of the pointed arch (circa 1128) and the first complete Gothic rebuild with purely gothic features (circa 1239) should be termed the "transitional period", as Romanesque features were still being used all across Europe.


Durham Cathedral; this English based cathedral boasts both a rib vaulted and pointed arched roof built between 1128 and 1134. These two features are essential to the style that became known as Gothic, although they are only a small part of a Romanesque building.

Wells Cathedral in England was rebuilt between 1174 and 1239 and was thought to be the very first building of its kind to entirely dispense with round arches and make full use of the pointed arch, thus becoming one of the most likely candidate as the very first truly Gothic cathedral.


The Basilica of St Denis, a French construction built between 1135 and 1140 made use of pointed arches in and amongst round arches and further constructions of a new choir between 1140 and 1144. This was the first use of flying buttresses, pointed arches and a ribbed vault together as one unit. This is also quoted as the first Gothic construction, but this only formed part of a large Romanesque building that wasn't transformed into full gothic until its rebuilding in 1231.

France also saw the first large scale rebuild of a whole cathedral in this “new style”, that was between 1150 and 1231. This made heavy use of all features that went on to be known as Gothic, this building took in pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults, quite possibly, this building should be cited as the first true Gothic Cathedral. Even the Chapter house completed in 1231 saw almost the exclusive use of round arches in its construction.

Some Characteristics

The Gothic style, when applied to an ecclesiastical building, puts an emphasis on verticality and light. This appearance was achieved by the development of certain architectural features, which, when bought together, provided an engineering solution. The structural parts of these buildings went from being its solid walls, and became the stone skeleton comprising clustered columns, pointed ribbed Vaults and flying buttresses.

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. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of that day and would have, by far, been the largest buildings that Europeans would have ever seen.