Gothic Architecture Style Characteristics & Examples

Gothic is an architectural movement which you can see at churches and cathedrals in the middle age of the Europe. It has kept going its influence from middle of the dark era through illuminate times. Gothic architecture style that borned as a reaction to the massive, cold and stabyle characteristics of Romanesque is light and bright. In addition, this style has a constant effort of ascension and use of light insider spaces.

All of these are the manifestation for wish of the reaching to the paradise. That wishing is the main purpose of Gothic architecture style. So, this is the primary reason why architects preferred Gothic style on the middle age’s religious structures.

What is the Gothic Architecture Style?

Gothic movement has been named after Germanic tribes who caused disturbances at the Western Europe in 4th century. Those tribes called as “Goths”. The Europeans had been charging them with looting their civilization.

Vasari, who is an art historian in 16th century, described this type of buildings as a style which is unique to Goths. Then, thanks to the Vasari’s analogy, the puissant buildings of the middle era has starting to known as Gothic. Since the buildings seems barbarous, people named Gothic Art Movement also as the Barbarian Art.

Gothic Architecture vs Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture style has simple facades and bulky masses. Because architects has used many heavy buttress as supporting elements. The carrier function of that thick walls has limited the area on the wall-openings. Therefore, Romanesque buildings looked like sandcastles.

Additionally, Romanesque architecture is a style in which the solid mass of any spaces can be clearly noticed from the outside. Contrary to this, in Gothic Architecture, the entire building used to designed as a whole mass.

In the Gothic period, architects got to the root of the problem. They calculated the force caused by the weight of structural elements. These architects of the Gothic style invented some new structural forms by founding the direction of that forces. In this way, they have accomplished to transfer the vertical force which caused by the roof weight, by taking from the walls to the vertical elements and ribs.

Romanesque architecture of Hildesheim Cathedral
Romanesque View of Hildesheim Cathedral

So, this is the main difference between the Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This innovation of Gothic style of architecture has took architecture further in the meaning of formal freedom. Because, making free the structures was meaning that reducing aesthetic limits.

In short, architects had starting to control the weight of constructions thanks to having a command on the structure. And they has designed buildings with styles of which had never been seen before.

Gothic Architecture in Europe of the Middle Era

As we know, Europeans have backslide in the dark age. Crusades has failed and spoils were collected only in the church. These issues have turned to a major community problem.

For this reason, the church wanted to stop disengagement from the public and build a religious authority over them. However, it would not be that easy. Because, brutal, cold and massive views of Romanesque buildings were not attractive for people anymore.

We know that architecture is so impressive over the human soul and psychology. The church wanted to affect to the society by using this impact through architects. For this purpose, in order to attract people to the religious buildings, they have used the Gothic architecture as a tool.

If we examine this aspiration in the historical context, we’ll saw that the papacy has succeed this case. Because, people of the middle age were showing more interest to cathedrals and churches to see Gothic structures.

Interior of Gothic architecture building Strasbourg Cathedral
Interior of Strasbourg Cathedral (AdrienChd, Flickr)

European Gothic Architecture

The two countries where Gothic architecture emerged and was strongest are Germany and France. It turned into an international great movement within EU in the end of the 14th century. It has almost spread all of the continental from the northern Europe to the south. However, Gothic architecture in Italy and nearby countries had developed late and has fadeout easy.

Italy has more advantage in terms of the sunlight than north countries. Thanks to this advantage, big openings were not preferred on the facades in the Italian Gothic architecture. Who knows, maybe the reason why these buildings could not impact people as much as German or French Gothic was the less usage of the light.

Art and architecture historians divide the history of Gothic architecture into two periods as early and high Gothic. You can see a clear disangagement from the Romanesque style at the high Gothic period of architecture. This stage is ragarded as the top point of the Gothic architecture evolutionarily.

Consequently, the style of Gothic architecture developed after Romanesque has end up with the Renaissance era. After this historical introduction, let’s talk about what are the Gothic architecture features.

Main Characteristic Features of Gothic Architecture Style

The major characteristics of Gothic architecture style are flying buttress, ribbed vaults, lanced windows and towers rising towards the sky by spiring. Besides, the arch, which is an invention of the ancient Roman architecture, has turned to a form which is unique to the Gothic style by becoming pointed.

  • Gothic style had a desire to move away from the human scale and ascend into the sky.
  • The most significant Gothic architecture characteristic is its pointed form.
  • Sharp domes of the Gothic buildings show structures much taller than they really are.
  • A freedom on the facades has been got by lightening the load of walls.
  • There are flying buttresses in Gothic architecture as supporting elements on the exterior facades of the buildings.
  • Structural elements has took the form of bones. Moreover, they were acting as the pioneers of the natural architecture.
  • Gothic period architecture has used the domes inherited from the Rome in a sliced form.
  • The carrier elements of these buildings also function as decorative at the same time.
  • Gothic style in architecture has shown itself mostly on churches and cathedrals.
  • The light with different atmospheric effects was entering inside through vitrails, alias stained glasses. In Gothic architecture, the light was a symbol for spiritual. By this means, the spiritual impact of the light affected people thanks to these windows with stained glasses.
  • The Gothic art has fed the architecture in various fields. Alongside of architects, sculptures, stained glass makers and painters took key roles in designes of the buildings.
  • Architects have used sculptures and paintings intensely to affect people on aims of religious.
  • The art on ornaments are realistic. Gothic buildings don’t manipulate people with optical illusions like Baroque architecture do.
  • Finally, the frescoes used in the buildings have great importances in Gothic architecture.

Key Elements of Gothic Architecture

1. Fyling Buttress

Flying buttresses of Gothic architecture style
Flying Buttresses of a Gothic Building

In Romanesque buildings, walls carrying vaults have required heavy buttresses to be strong. However, architects of Gothic style have removed these heavy buttresses and added thin arches in necessary points. These supporting half arches looking as flying from outside are called flying buttresses. This new kind of buttress has been one of the typical elements of Gothic architecture.

2. Rose Window

Rose windows are the circle shaped glasses where you can see on the center of facades. It’s generally one of the most beautiful components on facades. The number of rose windows in building should be odd. It’s the most distinctive element for Gothic structures together with the flying buttress.

Rose window example of Gothic architecture
Rose Window Example

3. Vitrail

Vitrails are the stained glass in Gothic architecture. They were used before the Gothic architecture era, too. However, with the new architecture, it took much more importance and has become one of the essential elements of religious buildings. Mostly, engraved or plated frames support stained glasses. To make these frames, constructors had to employ experienced masons.

Gothic Vitrail
Gothic Vitrail

4. Ribbed Vault

Barrel vaults in Romanesque architecture is consist of consecutively combined arches in a same direction. Naturally, to transfer the weight into the ground, architects needed to huge and strong buttresses. This means thick walls. It was not easy to open big openings on that bulky walls.

Architects, who wanted to solve this problem, invented the cross vault in the Roman period. The cross vault is formed with joining two barrel vaults perpendicularly. By this way, the load is transferred to piers located in the 4 corners of cross vault instead of to wall-buttresses.

Since these carrier piers reaction to loads, there is no need to a buttress. Another reason for this is that horizontal loads are damping each other at the intersection center of the cross vault. By this means, designing great windows at the facades freed from buttresses has been easier than compared to before.

Ribbed Vault in Gothic Architecture
Ribbed Vault in Gothic Architecture

The ribbed vault in the Gothic architecture has the same logic. But here, nervures, not the corner piers, meet the loads of the roof. In this form of vault, ribs (or nervures) are joining each other diagonally.

To sum up, flying buttresses, rose windows, vitrails, ribbed vaults and pointed arches are the most common Gothic architecture elements.

Examples of Gothic Architecture Buildings

St. Denis Church

It’s the first known example of the Gothic architecture churches. According to many sources, the Gothic architecture movement officially began with the restoration of this building. Originally, St. Denis was a Carolingian church of the 8th century.

Suger, the abbot of this sanctuary, had desired to make a bigger and more magnificent church. For that reason, he began to read religious texts and researches on the Temple of Solomon. Following these searches, he realized the symbolic value and spiritual effects of the light. As long as Suger read, he had been increasingly dreaming about symbolizing the presence of the god through the architecture.

Suger added a portico and a narthex to the west wing of Saint Denis Church. Moreover, he added pointed arches and ribbed vaults to support the nave. Additionally, he combined some supporting elements, which we know as flying buttress afterwards, to the walls.

St. Denis Church, the first example of Gothic architecture
St. Denis Church, the First Example of Gothic architecture

The new Gothic style church gained size in terms of volume and height thanks to all of these changes. In spite of this enlargement, it has ensured an effect which is exact opposite of Romanesque architecture and walls were got thinner.

Transferring the load to the carrier elements provided a great convenience for wall openings. Suger, preferred to use vitrails instead of normal windows for that openings. Because, Suger had wanted to use the light in a different style.

As a result, the public was so impressed with this structure, and copies of Saint Denis were started to be designed in many parts of Europe. Then, the Gothic architectural style have been sprided like wildfire under favour of this building.

The Notre Dame Cathedral

According to most of critics, it is an excellent example of high Gothic architecture period. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been completely in danger of burning in past years. In fact, there were 3 buildings which were built and burnt again at the same where every time. Each time, it was either repaired or rebuilt. The construction of the last Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163. That construction took more than 1.5 centuries.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral

The cathedral in Amiens, which is an example of Gothic architecture in France, was built in 13th century. It was decided to build the Amiens for the reason that the old church with Romanesque style in the same where had burnt.

Reims Cathedral

The construction of Reims Cathedral, the product of the high Gothic style, ended in 1325. The Reims, which is quite magnificient and attractive, has hosted many coronations.

Strasbourg Cathedral

The construction of this Catholic cathedral in France started in 1015 and finished in 1439. It has took around 400 years. However, there is another interesting information here. Strasbourg Cathedral, with its 142 meters of height, was the tallest building in the world until 1834.

Tallest Gothic building, Strasbourg Cathedral
Tallest Gothic building, Strasbourg Cathedral (Jonathan Martzi, Wikimedia)

Canterbury Cathedral

It’s inside of the Gothic buildings located in England. Firstly opened in 597, the Canterbury was exposed to various fires and damages. Then, architects rebuilt it. Unfortunately, this rebuilt structure burned and damaged in the fire broke out in 1174, too. After that, a French architect, called William, restored the building with the Gothic style. However, as a result of the architect’s fall and injury during the construction, an architect known as English William took over and completed the building.

Roskilde Cathedral

Roskilde Cathedral, an example from Denmark, is the first Gothic building in which the core material is brick. The building, a product of the early period Gothic, represents both the characteristics of Gothic and Romanesque style in one body.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury is an English Gothic architecture cathedral example from the 13th century. With a tower height of 123 meters, it is a very high structure for that period.

Milan Cathedral

Cathedral of Milan or with the other name Duomo di Milano is the 4th largest cathedral in the Europe. The construction of the structure, began in 1386, has took almost 5 centuries. Therefore, the building also carries inspirations from the different period styles. For instance, when looking at the front facade, we can see that the extremely pointed windows of the Gothic architecture have turned into softer lines here. For another example, It is possible to see signs of the rational forms of the Renaissance on the window jambs.

Gothic church known as Milano Cathedral
Milan Cathedral

In conclusion, it is possible to say that Milan Cathedral, which has a very rich architecture, is an eclectic structure but mostly has felt under effects of the neo Gothic architecture.

The Palace of the Popes

The Palace of the Popes (alias Papacy Palace), located in France, is one of the greatest and most magnificent Gothic examples. We can say that in the building, which also served as a palace apart from the castle, huge masses come together in a balanced composition.

Read Also: Balance in Architecture: Achieving Harmony

Papacy Palace with Gothic style
Papacy Palace

The Batalha Monastery

Batalha, also known as the Monastery of War, is from the late Gothic architecture buildings of Portugal.

Some Other Gothic Architecture Examples

  • Seville Cathedral, Spain
  • Burgos Cathedral, Spain
  • Achen Cathedral, Germany
  • Antwerp Cathedral, Belgium
  • Frankfurt Cathedral, Germany
  • Siena Cathedral, Italy
  • Cologne Cathedral, Germany
  • Castle of Prag, Czech Republic
  • Matthias Church, Hungary
  • St. Stefan Cathedral, Austria

In this article we talked about the Gothic architecture facts. Please don’t beware to share your knowledges and comments with us.

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