Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (2024)

by Valerie Spanswick

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (1)

East end of Salisbury Cathedral.


Forget the association of the word “Gothic” to dark, haunted houses, Wuthering Heights, or ghostly pale people wearing black nail polish and ripped fishnets. The original Gothic style was actually developed to bring sunshine into people’s lives, and especially into their churches. To get past the accrued definitions of the centuries, it’s best to go back to the very start of the word Gothic, and to the style that bears the name.

The Goths were a so-called barbaric tribe who held power in various regions of Europe, between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (so, from roughly the fifth to the eighth century). They were not renowned for great achievements in architecture. As with many art historical terms, “Gothic” came to be applied to a certain architectural style after the fact.


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 relative peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes. From roughly 1000 to 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 and daring designs.

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.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (3)

Nave of Salisbury Cathedral.


So, rather than having massive, drum-like columns as in the Romanesque churches, the new columns could be more slender. This slimness was repeated in the upper levels of the nave, so that the gallery and clerestory would not seemto overpower the lower arcade. In fact, the column basically continued all the way to the roof, and became part of the vault.

In the vault, the pointed arch could be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting met in the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture. However, it should be noted that prototypes for the pointed arches and ribbed vaulting were seen first in late-Romanesque buildings.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (4)

Open tracery at Southwell Minster.


The new understanding of architecture and design led to more fantastic examples of vaulting and ornamentation, and the Early Gothic or Lancet style (from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) developed into the Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (roughly fourteenth century). The ornate stonework that held the windows–called tracery–became more florid, and other stonework even more exuberant.

The ribbed vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierne ribs into complex webs, or the addition of cross ribs, called tierceron. As the decoration developed further, the Perpendicular or International Gothic took over (fifteenth century). Fan vaulting decorated half-conoid shapes extending from the tops of the columnar ribs.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (5)

Lierne vaults Gloucester Cathedral.


The slender columns and lighter systems of thrust allowed for larger windows and more light. The windows, tracery, carvings, and ribs make up a dizzying display of decoration that one encounters in a Gothic church. In late Gothic buildings, almost every surface is decorated. Although such a building as a whole is ordered and coherent, the profusion of shapes and patterns can make a sense of order difficult to discern at first glance.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (6)

Gothic windows at Gloucester Cathedral.


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.

Additional resources:

Gloucester Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Valerie Spanswick, "Gothic architecture, an introduction," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed April 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gothic-architecture-an-introduction/.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (2024)

FAQs

What is the history of Gothic style architecture? ›

The Gothic style of architecture and art originated in the Middle Ages and was prevalent in Europe between the mid-12th century and the 16th century. It was heavily ornate and conceptual, with its architecture characterised by high buildings, intricate aesthetics, cavernous spaces and expansive walls.

What is the main idea of Gothic architecture? ›

In the 12th–13th century, feats of engineering permitted increasingly gigantic buildings. The rib vault, flying buttress, and pointed (Gothic) arch were used as solutions to the problem of building a very tall structure while preserving as much natural light as possible.

What is the introduction to Gothic period? ›

The Gothic style first appeared in the early 12th century in northern France and rapidly spread beyond its origins in architecture to sculpture, textiles and painting, including frescoes, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

What are the 7 characteristics and elements of Gothic architecture? ›

The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture
  • The Light and Airy Interior.
  • The Gargoyles of Gothic Architecture. ...
  • Grand, Tall Designs, Which Swept Upwards With Height and Grandeur.
  • The Vaulted Ceiling.
  • The Flying Buttress.
  • The Pointed Arch.
  • The Emphasis Upon the Decorative Style and the Ornate.

What makes Gothic architecture unique? ›

Gothic architecture has a set of unique features that set it apart from all other styles. Most importantly, it is characterized by long pointed arches, flying exterior buttresses, stained-glass windows that were longer than before, ribbed vaults, and spires.

What country has the most Gothic architecture? ›

  • The most famous examples of Gothic architecture are found in the Île-de-France and Champagne, but other French regions created their own original versions of the style.
  • Normandy at the end of the 12th century saw the construction of several notable Gothic cathedrals and churches.

Why is Gothic architecture so good? ›

Gothic cathedrals are some of the most recognizable and magnificent architectural feats. With soaring towers and softly filtered light streaming through stained glass windows, everything about the Gothic cathedral is transportive and ethereal, lifting the gaze of the viewer towards the heavens.

Why is it called Gothic architecture? ›

The term Gothic was coined by classicizing Italian writers of the Renaissance, who attributed the invention (and what to them was the nonclassical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century ce.

Is Gothic architecture still used today? ›

This style has influenced architecture for over 700 years and many of its features are still used today, such as large, stained glass windows and high, arched ceilings. In fact, modern-day churches are often constructed in the Gothic style.

When did Gothic architecture begin? ›

Gothic architecture began in the earlier 12th century in northwest France and England and spread throughout Latin Europe in the 13th century; by 1300, a first "international style" of Gothic had developed, with common design features and formal language.

How did Gothic begin? ›

The birth of Gothic literature was thought to have been influenced by political upheaval. Researchers linked its birth with the English Civil War, culminating in a Jacobite rebellion (1745) more recent to the first Gothic novel (1764).

What is Gothic literature summary? ›

In the most general terms, ​Gothic literature can be defined as writing that employs dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of exoticism, mystery, fear, and dread.

What is a Gothic arch called? ›

A pointed arch, ogival arch, or Gothic arch is an arch with a pointed crown meet at an angle at the top of the arch. Also known as a two-centred arch, its form is derived from the intersection of two circles. This architectural element was particularly important in Gothic architecture.

What does Gothic style mean? ›

Gothic fashion is a clothing style marked by dark, mysterious, antiquated, hom*ogeneous, and often genderless features. It is worn by members of the goth subculture. Typical gothic fashion includes dyed black hair, exotic hairstyles, dark lipstick and dark clothing.

What are the historical influences of Gothic architecture? ›

The architecture that informed the Gothic period drew upon a number of influences, including Romanesque, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern.

What is the history of Gothic house? ›

Classical Gothic buildings of the 12th to 16th Centuries were a source of inspiration to 19th-century designers in numerous fields of work. Architectural elements such as pointed arches, steep-sloping roofs and fancy carvings like lace and lattice work were applied to a wide range of Gothic Revival objects.

What is the history of Gothic Revival architecture? ›

The Gothic Revival was a conscious movement that began in England to revive medieval Gothic forms, from the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. The 18th century examples were often domestic, with highly decorative interiors, seen at Strawberry Hill, making the style fashionable.

What is the meaning of Gothic style? ›

designating, of, or related to a style of architecture developed in W Europe between the 12th and 16th cent. and characterized by the use of ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses, pointed arches, steep, high roofs, etc.

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