The origins and evolution of Gothic architecture

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The origins and evolution of Gothic architecture

The word “Gothic” often conjures up a description of mysterious homes or a group of modern people who have an affinity for dark aesthetics, but what the Gothic architectural style has historically brought to the built environment couldn’t be more opposite. Gothic designs were actually created to bring more light into spaces, primarily churches, and led to the design and construction of some of the most iconic buildings in the world.

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Basilica of Saint Denis. Image © Felix Benoist (Public domain).

Gothic architecture is named after the Goths, a nomadic Germanic group who fought against Roman rule in the late 300s and early 400s. Their rise is widely believed to have marked the beginning of the medieval period through Europe. In the past, the Goths held power, after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the creation of the new Holy Roman Empire in the 5th to 8th centuries. Although this group is not known for its architectural prowess, the name “Gothic” was applied to the style of churches that emerged as an afterthought, nearly 1,000 years later. The style was first realized in France as a break with the Romanesque style with thick walls at a time when cultural development was accelerating and when architects and masons had the opportunity to explore more complex structural elements. Politically, this era was marked by peaceful and prosperous times, where buildings were carefully designed and took up to a century to construct.

The innovative structural elements that would support these mega-cathedrals would be defining the aesthetics of Gothic architecture. First, the lightness of these structures came from the use of pointed arches, borrowed from Islamic architecture which was built in Spain at the same time. The arch reduction of stresses on other structural elements, thus allowing the columns that support the arch to become thinner and taller, so much so that the columns extend to the roof, becoming part of the vault. Rib vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierne ribs in intricate sculptural webs, or the addition of cross ribs known as tieceron.


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Basilica of Saint Denis. Image © Wikimedia User Diliff under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Due to the lightness of the walls, elaborate stained glass mosaics were designed to allow light to flood the space, even casting colorful patterns throughout the interior. Gothic buildings also feature ornamentation often in the form of gargoyles. At first glance, many Gothic cathedrals can be difficult to discern, but careful reading reveals intentional and very orderly designs.

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Notre-Dame cathedral. Image © Flickr user davehamster licensed under CC BY 2.0

When we think of Gothic architecture, the first building that often comes to mind is Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Its huge rose windows and smaller stained glass windows, flying buttresses that supported the tall roof structure, and decorative gargoyles that tower over visitors are a truly exemplary image of the Gothic style. Its construction began in 1163 and its construction almost immediately influenced other cathedrals built at that time. It was completed almost 100 years later, after additional flying buttresses, or the outer part of an arch that supports the lateral forces that push a wall outward, were added to support the massive roof. In an unfortunate tragedy, part of Notre Dame caught fire in 2019 but is currently undergoing careful restoration efforts. The Paris government has promised it will reopen in time for the Olympics in 2024.

After the construction of many Gothic buildings, design tastes again reverted to the sharper, straight lines that referenced the architecture of the classical era. But, as all styles have their recursive waves through history, fascination with medieval Gothic architecture was rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, when architects in the United States began designing buildings that mimicked cathedrals. found across Europe, giving way to the term “neo-Gothic”.

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