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Going Goth: Understanding Gothic Architecture

Do you know what Notre Dame de Paris and the Milan Cathedral have in common? They are fine examples of Gothic architecture, a style of architecture that swept Europe during the Late Middle Ages.

First, some history. The Gothic style flourished from around the twelfth century through the sixteenth century. The Gothic style followed the Romanesque style and was succeeded by the Renaissance style. The term “Gothic” is believed to have taken root after the heyday of Gothic architecture in an effort to abase that time period before the revival of classical Greek architecture in the following century. The word “Goth” – reminiscent of barbaric invaders -- was used to the express the ignorance and superstition that was associated with this “unenlightened” period of time in which life centered about the Church.

The Gothic style of architecture is evident in universities, town halls and other large public buildings. It was also exhibited in private dwellings such as castles but only rarely in small homes. It was most powerfully expressed in the great cathedrals and abbeys of Europe. There are several features that distinguish Gothic architecture from other styles. These are: the pointed arch, height, light, majesty and in the case of cathedrals, a specific building plan.

Gothic architecture is characterized by height; not only real height but proportional height as well. For example, not only were the structures tall, they were much taller than they were wide. The use of spires or towers was used to increase and emphasize height. Vertical buttresses and narrow columns also emphasized height. Delicate vertical structures called pinnacles often terminated topmost points of the structure to add height. The result was a soaring structure that swept upward toward the heavens.

The defining feature of Gothic architecture is undoubtedly the pointed arch. Pointed arches were not only decorative and emphasized height but also enabled architects to achieve true lofty heights in the building since a pointed arch could support more weight. Flying buttresses, outside supports that radiated sideways from the structure, were devices that also helped to support the weight of these tall structures. Ribbed vaulting, rounded ceilings reinforced with masonry ribs, was also employed to support the weight of the roof with its many towers and spires.

Another characteristic of gothic architecture is light. Due to the success of weight-bearing devices such as the arch, the flying buttress and the ribbed vault, much larger windows were possible. Clerestorey windows, windows that were situated in the upper stories of the structure, often spanned the entire storey and let in copious amounts of light, resulting in a “heavenly” atmosphere.

Although there were regional differences, Gothic cathedrals were typically constructed in the shape of a Latin cross. The bottom part of the longer arm of the cross was called the nave and the shorter arms, the transepts. Above the nave just beyond where the transepts crossed was the choir, where music and singing took place. The altar was located at the top of the cross, in the apse, which was typically semi-circular in shape.

Many gothic cathedrals were lavishly decorated, not only with sculpture but with painted murals and ceilings. Often, stone columns were painted with decorative patterns. Wall hangings were also popular. Stained glass was used in windows to provide rich color as well as illustration. All of this ornamentation contributed to sense of majesty and splendor.

There is no doubt that gothic architecture is one of the most outstanding examples of an architectural style created for a religious purpose: the glory of God.

To see an image of the Milan Cathedral, click here.

To see an image of Notre Dame de Reims, click here.

You may be surprised to learn that the National Cathedral features gothic architecture and it is located right in Washington, DC. Click here to see an image of the National Cathedral. Click here to learn about visiting the cathedral.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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