Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads

Gothic Cathedrals

Gothic Cathedrals

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

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.

Gothic Cathedrals: Background

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.

  • Romanesque generally used the elongated floor plan of a Roman basilica. In Rome, basilicas featured a long central aisle (nave) and were used for secular purposes. In Medieval Europe, the basilica floor plan was adapted to religious functions. The nave was covered with a vault—an interior roof made of arches. The nave was intersected by a shorter transept at a 90-degree angle, making the structure have the shape of a cross. Churches faced eastward to symbolize Jerusalem, the birth of Christianity. As a result, the east end comprised an apse—a semicircular part of the church—with an altar.

Gothic Cathedrals, Fig. 1 - A plan of St Austin's Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England, 1929. The plan shows the main parts of a Medieval church (nave, aisles, apse, transept), Study Smarter.

Fig. 1 - A plan of St. Austin's Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England, 1929. The plan shows the main parts of a Medieval church (nave, aisles, apse, transept).

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 Cathedral Architecture

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:

  • Early
  • High
  • Late Gothic

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.

Labeled Parts of a Gothic Cathedral

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:

  • rose windows
  • stained glass
  • pointed arches

And significant interior and exterior ornamentation, such as:

  • window tracery
  • complex vaults (roof interiors)
  • spires
  • towers

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).

Gothic Cathedrals, Fig. 2 - Quadripartite vault, Hans Hildebrand, 1907, Study Smarter.

Fig. 2 - Quadripartite vault, Hans Hildebrand, 1907.

Gothic Vaults

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.

Gothic Cathedrals, Fig. 3 - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy, 1915, Study Smarter.

Fig. 3 - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy, 1915 (no known copyright restrictions).

Gothic Cathedral Characteristics

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.

Gothic Cathedrals, Fig. 4 - Elements of French Gothic architecture, Banister Fletcher, 1946, Study Smarter.

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.

Gothic Cathedrals, Fig. 5 - Flying buttresses from a cross-section drawing of the Reims Cathedral, Wilhelm Lübke,  Kunstgeschichte, 1908, Study Smarter.

Fig. 5 - Flying buttresses from a cross-section drawing of the Reims Cathedral, Wilhelm Lübke, Kunstgeschichte, 1908.

Examples of Gothic Cathedrals

There are many examples of Gothic cathedrals across Europe.


  • Notre Dame, Paris, France (1163-1177)
  • Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France (1194-1220)
  • Reims Cathedral, Reims, France (1211–1345)
  • Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France (ca. 1238-1248)
  • Amiens Cathedral, Amiens, France (1220-ca. 1270)


  • Maulbronn Abbey, Maulbronn, Germany (founded 1147)
  • Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany (1248–1560, 1842–1880)


  • Westminster Abbey, City of Westminster, London, England (960, 1065, 13th century)
  • Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England (1070-1077, rebuilt 1174)
  • Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England (1089–1499)
  • Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset, England (1176–1445)
  • Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England (1220-1258)
  • King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England (1446-1515)


  • Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy (1265–1268)
  • Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieta, Italy (1290–1591)
  • Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy (1296-1436)
  • Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy (1386-1965)


  • Burgos Cathedral (1221-1567)
  • Segovia Cathedral (1525-1577)


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 - Key Takeaways

  • Gothic was an international style in European architecture between the year 1150 and the 16th century. It primarily appeared in church architecture, but also in secular buildings and even furniture.
  • Gothic architecture grew progressively taller. It 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, spires, and towers.
  • Gothic displayed regional differences, such as the Rayonnant style of France, the Flamboyant style of France and Spain, and the Perpendicular style of England.
  • Gothic was eventually replaced by Renaissance architecture that brought back Roman-style buildings.


  1. Pelfrey, Robert H. and Mary Hall-Pelfrey. Art and Mass Media, Harper & Row, New York, 1985, 52.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gothic Cathedrals

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.

Final Gothic Cathedrals Quiz

Gothic Cathedrals Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When did the Gothic style of architecture dominate Europe?

Show answer


1150-16th century

Show question


What is considered to be the first Gothic building?

Show answer


Saint-Denis, Paris

Show question


Which cleric is considered to be one of the founders of the Gothic style?

Show answer


Abbot Suger

Show question


What is the name of the regional Gothic style in England?

Show answer


Perpendicular style

Show question


What are some of the key features of the Gothic style?

Show answer


Ribbed vaults, pointed arches

Show question


What country was late in adopting the Gothic style?

Show answer



Show question


What Gothic style was from France?

Show answer


Flamboyant style

Show question


What is Gothic tracery?

Show answer


Window decoration

Show question


What building combines the Carolingian and Romanesque styles?

Show answer


Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany

Show question


How did Gothic buildings achieve their weightless appearance?

Show answer


By using external flying buttresses

Show question


of the users don't pass the Gothic Cathedrals quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free