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Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine through the senses.”1
These were the words of the French Abbot Suger (1081-1151), a high-ranking Medieval cleric, who was best known as the patron of the arts in the Middle Ages. In contrast to the monastic vow of poverty, Suger believed that aesthetic opulence may serve as the gateway to the Divine. The abbot was also instrumental in the design of Saint-Denis, a Parisian abbey constructed between 1135 and 1144. This abbey is believed to be the first building that exhibits the newly emergent Gothic style as a single cohesive aesthetic.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Romanesque style dominated Europe. Because of regional differences, Romanesque lingered in some countries, such as Italy, after the emergence of Gothic in the middle of the 12th century.
More complex churches had multiple aisles flanking the nave. They also had an ambulatory—another aisle around the apse in the shape of a semicircle. Occasionally, the ambulatory itself was surrounded by chapels called radiating chapels. Another key aspect of a Romanesque church was the semicircular arches and windows. Churches in this period also displayed sculptures and different types of ornamentation, for instance, carved column capitals (tops).
The growth of different monastic orders was one of the reasons for the expansion of church architecture across Europe. Churches were built bigger to house larger crowds. Because churches were sometimes updated, some buildings featured a fusion of styles.
For example, the late 8th-century Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany, is a combination of the Roman-inspired Carolingian style from the era of Emperor Charlemagne. It also features Romanesque elements, including its basilica floor plan, a simple vault, columns, and arches.
Church architecture also displayed regional differences. For instance, Italy had access to marble, so many Romanesque buildings were faced with it. Romanesque also lasted in Italy longer than in the rest of Europe.
Gothic architecture gradually replaced Romanesque as an international style in Europe approximately between 1150 and the 16th century. The gothic style is best known for cathedrals, but its elements could also be seen in secular architecture and even furniture.
The Gothic style is divided chronologically into:
This style also varied across European countries, for instance, the French Rayonnant style, the Spanish, and French Flamboyant style, as well as the English Perpendicular style.
From the middle of the 12th century, architects began to construct taller and taller buildings, while, at the same time, making them appear weightless, with an abundance of natural light. They were able to achieve this aesthetic by using flying buttresses—exterior supports—that became one of the key aspects of Gothic architecture. Cathedrals built in this style also featured:
And significant interior and exterior ornamentation, such as:
A pointed arch is a key architectural element of the Gothic style, in which the two sides of the arch are joined by a sharp angle. Such arches can be seen on facades, windows, and interior elements of a Gothic cathedral.
A rose window is a key aspect of Gothic architecture. It is a decorative window shaped like a circle, sometimes featuring stained glass.
A spire is a long, thin structure on top of a building, for instance on top of a cathedral tower.
Tracery is used as decoration on windows and other types of open spaces. In Gothic architecture, tracery is shaped like bars (ribs).
Fig. 2 - Quadripartite vault, Hans Hildebrand, 1907.
Architects also paid special attention to vaulting—the interior roof over the nave. Ribbed vaults comprised of intersecting arcs varied in complexity. There were quadripartite (four-part) and sexpartite (six-part) vaults. Their name depended on the number of parts into which each section of the vault was split. England preferred fan vaults that resembled fans.
Fig. 3 - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy, 1915 (no known copyright restrictions).
As with Romanesque, different countries subscribed to the general Gothic style while featuring regional differences. For instance, 13th-century French architecture sometimes used the Rayonnant style. Its name comes from the famous Gothic rose windows. This style focused on ornamentation, including window tracery and moldings. Architects combined the clerestory and triforium into a unified area of the church. The buildings also achieved a weightless look by using larger windows. These windows let in a significant amount of natural light, impacting the church's aesthetics depending on the time of day.
Some best-known examples of this style include the Parisian cathedrals Notre Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle.
Fig. 4 - Elements of French Gothic architecture, Banister Fletcher, 1946.
A clerestory is a church wall that has windows and is used for natural light.
In Gothic architecture, the triforium is located above the nave but below the clerestory.
Another Gothic variant associated with France is the Flamboyant style. This style is also linked to late Gothic architecture. Geographically, it can also be found in Spain. The Flamboyant style is even more decorative than its Rayonnant counterpart. The ornamentation, specifically found in tracery, was so dominant that it overshadowed the architectural elements.
Some examples include the spire on the north end of the French Chartres Cathedral and the Capilla del Condestable of the Spanish Burgos Cathedral.
In England, Late Gothic featured the Perpendicular style. As in France, the Perpendicular style sought to emphasize ornamentation in architecture. However, in this case, it was vertical lines decorating window tracery that became a key element of this aesthetic. Another popular element was fan vaults, in which the ribs of a vault looked like a fan. English churches also combined the different aspects of the building interior to emphasize a cohesive vertical space.
The Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucester and the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge feature the Perpendicular style.
Italy was one of the exceptions to the Gothic style. In general, Romanesque lingered in that part of Europe longer than elsewhere. Moreover, as with Romanesque, Italy represented an unbroken tradition of masonry specifically focused on using marble since the Roman era. Italian cathedrals also opted for brick over stone used elsewhere. At the same time, some Italian buildings did adopt certain elements of the Gothic style.
For example, the Florence Cathedral features a bell tower that is very ornate, not unlike the French Rayonnant style.
Fig. 5 - Flying buttresses from a cross-section drawing of the Reims Cathedral, Wilhelm Lübke, Kunstgeschichte, 1908.
There are many examples of Gothic cathedrals across Europe.
The Gothic style was gradually phased out during the 16th century, as the Renaissance began. Renaissance architecture brought back many elements of Roman buildings that featured a simpler appearance as compared to Medieval Gothic. These elements included using centralized domes, columns, rounded arches, and barrel vaulting. However, certain buildings were upgraded at this time. As a result, they featured a fusion of styles, such as the Florence Cathedral and its mixture of Gothic elements, including the windows above eye level, with a large Renaissance dome designed by the well-known Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
A dome is a hemisphere-shaped roof of a building.
A barrel vault (or a tunnel vault) uses a series of arches as a roof of a building.
Gothic cathedrals were usually very tall. They featured a number of key elements, such as flying buttresses, complex ribbed vaults, pointed arches, large glass windows, window tracery, and other ornamentation, rose windows, stained glass, spiers, and towers.
The largest Gothic cathedral is the one in Seville, Spain. The tallest Gothic cathedral is the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
Gothic cathedrals were built by architects and a crew of skilled craftsmen. Sometimes, high-ranking figures collaborated on the design, as was the case with Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis in Paris.
Saint-Denis in Paris is believed to be the first cathedral to feature a cohesive version of the Gothic style and its elements.
Gothic cathedrals were built of stone and metal for structural purposes. Glass was also an important part of their weightless look. In Italy, architects preferred brick and marble.
When did the Gothic style of architecture dominate Europe?
What is considered to be the first Gothic building?
Which cleric is considered to be one of the founders of the Gothic style?
What is the name of the regional Gothic style in England?
What are some of the key features of the Gothic style?
Ribbed vaults, pointed arches
What country was late in adopting the Gothic style?
What Gothic style was from France?
What is Gothic tracery?
What building combines the Carolingian and Romanesque styles?
Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany
How did Gothic buildings achieve their weightless appearance?
By using external flying buttresses
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