Gothic Architecture Learning Resource

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Gothic Architecture
Following the Romanesque style in Europe was the Gothic era, which spanned the twelfth to fourteenth
centuries in Italy and continued into the sixteenth century in northern Europe. The Gothic style included
a return to greater naturalism, as focus shifted back to the natural world in many ways.
Learning Resource
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Saints Martin, Jerome, and Gregory
Author: User “Jedhunsaker.” Source: Wikipedia. License: Public Domain.
Figural forms began to reflect the observation of physical facts, and a phase of artistic evolution began
that would eventually culminate in the intense naturalism of the Renaissance, especially in Italy from the
fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Along the way, however, conventions of representation in Italy
and in northern Europe diverged, producing increasing different cultural styles. For example, the “Court
Style” was prevalent in the royal works of the Late Gothic era (late fourteenth to sixteenth centuries),
particularly in France, and lingered into the early Renaissance of the late fifteenth century in northern
Europe. The approach reflected the prominence of aristocratic tastes and the exaltation of earthly rulers
and the conception of God and the saints (especially the Virgin Mary; see image) as the court in Heaven.
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The Virgin of Paris
Notre-Dame, Paris
While there is a clear change from the Romanesque style, the figures are not yet really naturalistic, with
an emphasis on elegance and aristocratic attitude dominating the figural imaginings. As seen here, there
is often abundant drapery falling in rich and graceful folds, so exaggerated that one cannot discern the
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space for a full figure beneath. The hips and knees, rather than showing the classical contrapposto
positioning that the ancient Greeks developed, are gracefully swayed into an S-curve, connoting
sophistication and refinement.
Perhaps the most familiar basilica or Latin Cross churches are those in the Gothic style in Europe that
began in 1144 (see image).
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Amiens Cathedral Floorplan
Artist: Georg Dehio. Author: User “Mattis.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.
When these structures were being built, they were not called “Gothic.” Instead they were called “opus
francigenum” or “work of the Franks” because of their origination at the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see
image). The term “Gothic” was coined in the sixteenth century, originally meant as an insult, by artist and
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historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574, Italy). He wanted to distinguish the architectural style, based on
forms from ancient Greece and Rome at that time practiced in Italy, from medieval Christianity and its
associations with the destruction of classical learning and culture. The Goths were Germanic tribes that
he believed had invaded and destroyed the refined culture of ancient Rome. His pejorative name has
persisted but without its originally negative connotation.
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Saint Denis Basilica
Author: Andrew and Annmarie. Source: Flickr. License:
CC BY-SA 2.0.
The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had
prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity and peace
allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes. From roughly 1000 to
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1400, several significant cathedrals and churches were built, particularly in Britain and France, offering
architects and masons a chance to work out ever more complex problems and daring designs.
Gothic cathedrals are characterized by the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, flying buttresses, and stained
glass windows. Unlike the Roman circular arch, the Gothic or pointed arch is formed by two arcs with
parallel sides (see image).
Roman and Gothic Arch Comparison
Author: Jeffrey LeMieux. Source: Original Work.
License: CC BY-SA 4.0.
A ribbed vault is formed at the intersection of two barrel vaults, with stone ribs sometimes added to
support the weight of the vaults. The flying buttress is a load-bearing component located outside the
building, connected to the upper portion of the wall in the form of an arch (see images).
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Flying Buttress Diagram
From the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens
Author: User “BuzzWikimedia.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.
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Bourges Cathedral
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Author: User “sybarite48.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY 2.0.
The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch, which was likely
borrowed from Islamic architecture that would have been seen in Spain at this time. The pointed arch
relieved some of the thrust, and therefore, the stress on other structural elements. It then became
possible to reduce the size of the columns or piers that supported the arch.
The combination of the pointed arch, ribbed vault, and flying buttress allowed the height of the interior
spaces to be dramatically increased and the thickness of the outside walls dramatically decreased. This
development led to the widespread use of stained glass throughout the church and the addition of the
rose window, a circular stained glass window dedicated to the Virgin Mary, usually found above the
main portals (see image).
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Reims Cathedral, France
Author: Magnus Manske. Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 1.0.
The much larger number and size of windows allowed natural and multicolored light to flood the interior
of formerly dark churches (see image).
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Basilica of St. Denis Ambulatory
Author: User “Beckstet.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
Gothic churches were built throughout continental Europe and England, with regional variations. They
were usually located in the center of their communities, especially if they were cathedrals or Bishop’s
churches. Whether viewed from a distance approaching a town or from within the cathedrals
themselves, the buildings soared above all others as they reached to the heavens. They were filled with
architectural and sculptural ornamentation to teach the doctrines of the Church, Bible stories, and the
accounts of Mary, the apostles, and the other saints. Portals were especially the focus of sculptural
effort. Standing figures in high relief of prophets, kings, and saints graced the sides of the jambs, or
upright supports to either side of a door (see image).
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Chartres Cathedral Martyrs
Author: User “Ttaylor.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
Many other sacred and secular figures, relief sculptures, often of Jesus and symbols of the Four
Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were included in the tympanum above the doors (see
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Chartres Cathedral Central Tympanum
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From the Royal portal
Author: Guillaume Piolle. Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY 3.0.
The architects, masons, and sculptors responsible for these monumental buildings were highly skilled
and creative, and Gothic cathedrals remained the dominating forms of the Western urban landscape
until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the modern structural steel skyscraper
surpassed them in height and scale.
The overall effect of walking into a Gothic cathedral is to be drawn upward into a vast, light, and airy
space, dislocated from the physical and drawn into the spiritual (see image).
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Salisbury Cathedral Nave
Wiltshire, UK
Author: User “Diliff.” Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.
This effect is the epitome of the Gothic Christian view that the physical and sensual world is to be
ignored or even disdained in favor of chastity, spiritual awareness, and religious devotion.
After the great flowering of Gothic style, tastes again shifted back to the neat, straight lines and rational
geometry of the Classical era. It was in the Renaissance that the name Gothic came to be applied to this
medieval style that seemed vulgar to Renaissance sensibilities. It is still the term we use today, though
hopefully without the implied insult, which negates the amazing leaps of imagination and engineering
that were required to build such edifices.
Licenses and Attributions
Chapter 4: Describing Art ( by Jeffrey
LeMieux, Rita Tekippe, and Pamela J. Sachant from Introduction to Art: Design, Context, and Meaning is
available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International
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( license. UMGC has modified this work and it is
available under the original license.
Chapter 7: Form in Architecture ( by Jeffrey LeMieux, Rita Tekippe, and Pamela J. Sachant from
Introduction to Art: Design, Context, and Meaning is available under a Creative Commons AttributionShareAlike 4.0 International ( license. UMGC has
modified this work and it is available under the original license.
Notre Dame de Paris ( by Sailko is available under
Creative Commons 2.5 Generic ( license. UMGC has
modified this work.
Saint Denis Basilica ( by Andrew
and Annmarie from Flickr is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
( license. UMGC has modified this work and it is
available under the original license.
© 2021 University of Maryland Global Campus
All links to external sites were verified at the time of publication. UMGC is not responsible for the validity or integrity of information located
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