Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (2024)

by Valerie Spanswick

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (1)

East end of Salisbury Cathedral.

Forget the association of the word “Gothic” to dark, haunted houses, Wuthering Heights, or ghostly pale people wearing black nail polish and ripped fishnets. The original Gothic style was actually developed to bring sunshine into people’s lives, and especially into their churches. To get past the accrued definitions of the centuries, it’s best to go back to the very start of the word Gothic, and to the style that bears the name.

The Goths were a so-called barbaric tribe who held power in various regions of Europe, between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (so, from roughly the fifth to the eighth century). They were not renowned for great achievements in architecture. As with many art historical terms, “Gothic” came to be applied to a certain architectural style after the fact.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (2)

Early Gothic arches, Southwell Minster.

The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity and relative peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes. From roughly 1000 to 1400, several significant cathedrals and churches were built, particularly in Britain and France, offering architects and masons a chance to work out ever more complex and daring designs.

The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch, which was likely borrowed from Islamic architecture that would have been seen in Spain at this time. The pointed arch relieved some of the thrust, and therefore, the stress on other structural elements. It then became possible to reduce the size of the columns or piers that supported the arch.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (3)

Nave of Salisbury Cathedral.

So, rather than having massive, drum-like columns as in the Romanesque churches, the new columns could be more slender. This slimness was repeated in the upper levels of the nave, so that the gallery and clerestory would not seemto overpower the lower arcade. In fact, the column basically continued all the way to the roof, and became part of the vault.

In the vault, the pointed arch could be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting met in the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture. However, it should be noted that prototypes for the pointed arches and ribbed vaulting were seen first in late-Romanesque buildings.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (4)

Open tracery at Southwell Minster.

The new understanding of architecture and design led to more fantastic examples of vaulting and ornamentation, and the Early Gothic or Lancet style (from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) developed into the Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (roughly fourteenth century). The ornate stonework that held the windows–called tracery–became more florid, and other stonework even more exuberant.

The ribbed vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierne ribs into complex webs, or the addition of cross ribs, called tierceron. As the decoration developed further, the Perpendicular or International Gothic took over (fifteenth century). Fan vaulting decorated half-conoid shapes extending from the tops of the columnar ribs.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (5)

Lierne vaults Gloucester Cathedral.

The slender columns and lighter systems of thrust allowed for larger windows and more light. The windows, tracery, carvings, and ribs make up a dizzying display of decoration that one encounters in a Gothic church. In late Gothic buildings, almost every surface is decorated. Although such a building as a whole is ordered and coherent, the profusion of shapes and patterns can make a sense of order difficult to discern at first glance.

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (6)

Gothic windows at Gloucester Cathedral.

After the great flowering of Gothic style, tastes again shifted back to the neat, straight lines and rational geometry of the Classical era. It was in the Renaissance that the name Gothic came to be applied to this medieval style that seemed vulgar to Renaissance sensibilities. It is still the term we use today, though hopefully without the implied insult, which negates the amazing leaps of imagination and engineering that were required to build such edifices.

Additional resources:

Gloucester Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Valerie Spanswick, "Gothic architecture, an introduction," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed April 12, 2024,

Smarthistory – Gothic architecture, an introduction (2024)


What is the history of Gothic architecture? ›

The Gothic style of architecture and art originated in the Middle Ages and was prevalent in Europe between the mid-12th century and the 16th century. It was heavily ornate and conceptual, with its architecture characterised by high buildings, intricate aesthetics, cavernous spaces and expansive walls.

What is the main idea of Gothic architecture? ›

In the 12th–13th century, feats of engineering permitted increasingly gigantic buildings. The rib vault, flying buttress, and pointed (Gothic) arch were used as solutions to the problem of building a very tall structure while preserving as much natural light as possible.

What is the introduction to Gothic period? ›

The Gothic style first appeared in the early 12th century in northern France and rapidly spread beyond its origins in architecture to sculpture, textiles and painting, including frescoes, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

What are the 7 characteristics and elements of Gothic architecture? ›

The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture
  • The Light and Airy Interior.
  • The Gargoyles of Gothic Architecture. ...
  • Grand, Tall Designs, Which Swept Upwards With Height and Grandeur.
  • The Vaulted Ceiling.
  • The Flying Buttress.
  • The Pointed Arch.
  • The Emphasis Upon the Decorative Style and the Ornate.

What are some interesting facts about Gothic architecture? ›

Not only were the arched windows tall in proportion, but gothic cathedrals often included lofty pointed steeples. Gothic architects did not strive for symmetry, as is famously seen in the west façade of Chartes Cathedral, where the two steeples do not match.

What country has the most Gothic architecture? ›

What country has the most Gothic architecture? Definitely France. The style originated in France in the Ile de France region around Paris and spread across Western Europe from there.

Why is Gothic architecture so good? ›

As opposed to the rounded arches commonly found in Romanesque buildings, Gothic structures are famous for their pointed arches that proved more adept at bearing weight. These pointed arches were not only used for practical reasons; they were symbolically significant in that they pointed towards heaven.

What is Gothic architecture inspired by? ›

It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. It originated in the Île-de-France and Picardy regions of northern France. The style at the time was sometimes known as opus Francigenum ( lit.

Why is it called Gothic architecture? ›

The term Gothic was coined by classicizing Italian writers of the Renaissance, who attributed the invention (and what to them was the nonclassical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century ce.

What was Gothic originally used to describe? ›

Gothic originally meant "having to do with the Goths or their language," but its meaning eventually came to encompass all the qualities associated with Germanic culture, especially the Germanic culture dominant during the medieval period after the fall of Rome.

Why is Gothic literature so popular? ›

There are many definitions of what gothic literature is, but all state that it is a story of fear and terror with emotional extremes and dark themes. It has regularly been used as a literary device to highlight social issues and injustices, which is possibly one reason for its enduring popularity.

Why did Gothic start? ›

The origin of Gothicism traces back to the Gothic Revival, which stemmed from the fascination people had in the first half of the eighteenth century with the barbarism of the Germanic Goths.

Why did Gothic architecture come about? ›

The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity and relative peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes.

What are the historical influences of Gothic architecture? ›

The architecture that informed the Gothic period drew upon a number of influences, including Romanesque, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern.

How did the Gothic start? ›

The birth of Gothic literature was thought to have been influenced by political upheaval. Researchers linked its birth with the English Civil War, culminating in a Jacobite rebellion (1745) more recent to the first Gothic novel (1764).

Where did the Gothic originate? ›

According to their own legend, reported by the mid-6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, the Goths originated in southern Scandinavia and crossed in three ships under their king Berig to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, where they settled after defeating the Vandals and other Germanic peoples in that area.

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