19 Characteristics of Gothic Architecture
John Spacey, November 22, 2020
Gothic architecture is a dramatic and ornate style of architecture that emerged in the 12th to 16th centuries in Europe that includes many of the largest and most remarkable structures constructed in the medieval period, particularly large churches. The following are the basic characteristics of Gothic architecture.
Medieval StyleThe middle ages are often referred to as the dark ages based on the disputed theory that this was a long period of decline and stagnation after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Indeed, the architecture of the middle ages did little more than emulate Roman architecture with a style known as Romanesque architecture until the emergence of Gothic architecture in the 12th century. Gothic architecture represents the primary technical and expressive achievement of medieval architecture.
GothsThe term Gothic architecture was originally a pejorative term that originated with Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance period Italian historian. The Goths were a Germanic people who played a major role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire such that they were historically viewed as "barbarians" by medieval Italians. In fact, Gothic architecture first emerged in England and France and wasn't invented by the Goths. (Évariste Vital Luminais, Goths Crossing a River)
Pointed ArchThe most important technical achievement of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch and pointed rib vault. A pointed rib vault is a crossed or diagonal structure of arches known as ribs that were heavy structural elements filled with a lighter layer of stone in-between. Pointed arches had been used before Gothic architecture but mostly as windows and other small decorative elements. The pointed rib vault was a structural innovation that allowed for extremely tall structures with relatively thin arches and walls. The first structure to use pointed rib vaults in this way was Durham Cathedral in 1093.(Rib vaults produce a characteristic pattern of crossed arches in the ceiling)
Flying ButtressA flying buttress is another common structural feature of Gothic architecture that uses an external half-arch connected to a pier such as a thick wall or stone column. Small flying buttresses were constructed as early as the 6th century. However, Gothic architecture built these at much greater scale with aggressive approaches such as doubled up configurations with two buttresses and two piers. This was done to support ever taller structures with thin walls and massive windows.
FacadeAs Gothic architecture is designed to impress, it often features a large facade at the main entrance. In churches, the entrance is traditionally in the West and the structure points East. Facades are often supported with columns and piers that may also support towers. The facade may function to hide flying buttresses from the main view of the building.
TraceryTracery is stone work or moulding that separated very large windows into separate segments of glass. This, together with the thinner walls of Gothic structures allowed for extremely large windows.
High GothicHigh Gothic refers to Gothic architecture from the High Middle Ages, the period of European history from 1000 to 1250. These are the earliest Gothic structures. The High Middle Ages were was a time of rapid population growth, economic expansion, relative stability and consolidation whereby regions of Europe began to form national identities. Large churches were constructed in major cities as symbols of the grandeur of kingdoms.
Late Gothic ArchitectureThe vast majority of large Gothic structures stem from the Late Middle Ages from 1250 to 1500. Europe was extremely religious in this period after the Great Famine of 1315-17 and Black Death Pandemic of 1347-51 that wiped out a third of the population. As such, Late Gothic Architecture is an elaborate expression from a desperate age. One could go further to suggest Late Gothic Architecture serves as a symbol of the resilience of life and of culture.
SculptureGothic architecture typically features heavy ornamentation. In the case of churches, this often includes sculptures inside and out designed to convey passages from the Bible to medieval visitors who often couldn't read.
GrotesquesGrotesques are sculptures of monsters that adorned the exterior of many Gothic churches. These were symbols of evil designed to inspire fear and religious commitment. Some of these appear to have been inspired by literature of the day such as Dante's Divine Comedy. It wasn't uncommon for grotesques to offend the sensibilities of later generations such that they were commonly removed in the Renaissance or modern-era.
GargoylesGargoyles are decorative water spouts that are used to expel water from the roof of a structure. Like grotesques, they are shaped like monsters.
LabyrinthsA labyrinth is a maze-like pattern in the floor that was a somewhat common feature of Gothic Cathedrals. These were meant to symbolize the complex path of Christian life. In many cases, these were removed in later renovations such that labyrinths are now relatively rare.
Stained GlassOpaque colored glass was produced in antiquity for small decorative items. Translucent stained glass windows emerged in late Romanesque architecture as small pictorial windows designed to communicate Christianity to the masses who generally couldn't read. Gothic architecture with its tracery produce far larger windows that often included significant detail.
Rayonnant ArchitectureA style of Gothic architecture that emerged in France around 1250 that extended tracery to the external stonework of the building potentially including structure elements such as flying buttresses. In some cases, Rayonnant churches are completely uncolorful with windows designed to look greyish or stonish. This produced stark awe-inspiring structures. Several of the greatest churches ever completed are Rayonnant including the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, York Minster and Strasbourg Cathedral.
Decorated GothicBritish Gothic architecture in the same period as Rayonnant is known as Decorated Gothic. The British introduced new structural innovations such as the fan vault, an incredibly complex type of rib vault.
Perpendicular GothicA late Medieval British variant of Gothic Architecture based on a four-centred arch structure and very large windows with straight lines in the tracery. This style was constructed well into the Renaissance period and was also popular as a revival style in the modern period.
Flamboyant GothicFlamboyant Gothic is an extremely decorative variant of Gothic architecture that emerged in France in the Late Medieval Period. Its name stems from its use of tracery that resembles fire. This is how the word flamboyant came to be associated with exuberance, confidence and stylishness where previously it simply meant "flame-like." Flamboyant Gothic is seen as a reaction against the structured rectangular forms of British Perpendicular Gothic.
Renaissance GothicGothic architecture never really took off in Italy where Romanesque architecture continued to win favor due to its association with local culture. Beginning in the 15th century, Italian architecture once again gained influence across Europe. Florence experienced a golden age in art and academia in the renaissance. According to the traditional narration of history, in the 15th century, the Renaissance begins and Gothic architecture ends. In practice, a large number of Gothic structures continued to be built across Europe throughout the Renaissance.
Gothic RevivalGothic structures experienced a new surge of popularity as a revival style around 1740. This continued throughout the 19th century and encompassed public buildings, churches and university structures. This includes large Gothic buildings outside Europe such as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
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