A History of Gothic Architecture
Architecture is an art form so powerful that, when done masterfully, can earn a building a spot as a wonder of the world. The structures represent the development of human society—dating as far back as the classical style, architects began shifting their priorities away from simply crafting material-efficient structures to reimagining buildings as a space for artistic expression. Today, the word ‘Gothic’ is used to describe all things dark and moody, but its inception and purpose in mid-12th century architecture were meant to bring in more light to spaces designed for beauty and elegance—the intersection of art and religion working interdependently to erect cathedrals and churches so tall and ornate that they dwarf surrounding structures.
The first building designed in the Gothic style was the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis in Paris, France. This building, previously known as the Abbey of St. Denis, underwent reconstruction between 1135-1144 under the watchful eye of Abbot Suger. Suger, who was trained at the Abbey of St. Denis as a boy, later became the advisor of both King Louis VI and VII. His work on the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis became the model for the Gothic style and has led many to consider him the father of Gothic Architecture. Abbot Suger believed this new style of architecture would lift the soul to God. The ornate sculptural work, large arches, and ribbed vaults that Suger developed in the reconstruction of St. Denis became the prototypical design for future Gothic buildings.
Gothic style in architecture is known for tall, elegant structures with intricate and pointed arches. The building’s details are focused upward toward the ceilings instead of maximizing space within the interior. The purpose is to draw the viewer’s attention outward and up, with the layers of decoration naturally guiding the gaze skyward to take it all in slowly. Pointed arches reach for the clouds as if grasping for the heavens, as the rib vaults garnish the elongated halls and corridors. Stained glass windows refract sunlight, filling the room with colorful cascading beams. Early Gothic artists and architects viewed stained glass as a representation of God’s divine light, so stained glass panes unsurprisingly grace the walls of churches throughout the Christian world. The tinted panes fill the inside of a cathedral with vibrant colors when the sun shines on it from the outside, but their beauty can only be enjoyed at night if a light comes from within.
The elegance of the Gothic style certainly accomplished its goals of capturing the attention of onlookers and optimizing vertical adornment. However, their engineering breakthroughs rivaled their artistic triumphs. Pointed arches acted as a buffer to relieve stress from lower load-bearing areas of the building, while rib vaults supported the ceiling and windows. This freed up space for architects to create taller interiors and add thinner columns for decorative purposes. In addition, flying buttresses reinforced the roof to keep the weight distribution of the building more consistent.
Gothic Architecture lasted from the mid-12th century to the 16th century in Europe. During this time, Gothic styles evolved into three roughly consecutive subsets The first of these styles was High Gothic and was most prominent from 1200 to 1280. Next, the Rayonnant style occurred from 1240 to 1350. Finally, the Flamboyant style extended from 1350 to 1550.
High Gothic expanded on the groundwork laid by Abbot Suger and the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis. It sought taller buildings through pinnacles and spires that had previously been used in Romanesque architecture. Sculptured figures became more naturalistic and smaller, lighter sculptures became more popular. The High Gothic era also saw the first uses of flying buttresses—immortalized in the construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Hugues Libergier first developed the Rayonnant style in his work on the Abbey church of Saint Nicaise. Libergier’s birthdate is unknown, but until his death in 1293, he dedicated his life to crafting tall, ornate churches, in a manner reminiscent of Suger. However, while art historians credit Suger for laying the foundations of the Gothic style, Libergier added elements that have since become synonymous with the movement, incorporating giant circular windows for the first time.
In addition, Libergier focused on detail along exterior spaces by using statues; this is likely where gargoyles debuted. Libergier designed the Old Reims Church, but it was destroyed, and Reims Cathedral took its place. Reims Cathedral, Libergier’s resting place, boasts a world record of 2,303 statues on its grounds. The term Rayonnant derives its meaning from the luminous ‘rays’ of light refracted through countless stained glass windows, the trademark of this style.
William de Ramsey and John Sponlee championed the Flamboyant style. Whereas gothic architects sought ways to build vertically, William de Ramsey looked for ways to extend his designs outward. He approached Gothic architecture with a more perpendicular style, focusing on four-centered arches while prioritizing a mix of horizontal and vertical linework. He oversaw the design and construction of prominent buildings in England, like the Tower of London and the altar space for Lichfield Cathedral.
The Flamboyant style emphasized decorative effects through curved shapes and was often used on the facades of buildings. The decorative curving and undulating lines reflected the flames of a fire, which gave the Flamboyant style its name. Some scholars believe this Gothic architecture style was influenced by the patterns and motifs found in illuminated manuscripts. The Church of St Maclou’s western facade perfectly exemplifies the Flamboyant style’s characteristics, with its intricate and curving lines that race across the building's face.
Gothic architecture sought to create taller, more delicate-looking buildings, a goal that architects achieved through reimagining aspects of their Roman predecessors while incorporating innovative engineering techniques. These innovations like ribbed vaults and pointed arches redistributed the weight of these buildings, which made it possible for architects to create thinner walls and taller structures, revolutionizing the intersection of art, architecture, and engineering even today!
By the 14th century, Gothic architecture would be replaced by the straight lines and classic proportions of the Renaissance. The move to naturalistic figures in Gothic styles influenced this shift back to classically Greek forms. It was during the Renaissance that the term Gothic was applied to the structures built during this time. While the people of the Renaissance meant this term to be an insult, the engineering and artistic achievements that emerged from Gothic architecture are undeniable. Even as the word “gothic” continues to be used as an insult today, it still represents the timeless elegance of 13th-century design. The English language continues to change the meaning of words, but for architectural styles such as this, its history will always be associated with wonders of the world.
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