History and influences of Gothic architecture

Gothic architecture is an architectural style that flourished in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. Originating in 12th century France and lasting into the 16th century, Gothic architecture was known during the period as Opus Francigenum (“French work”) with the term Gothic first appearing during the later part of the Renaissance. Its characteristics include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault (which evolved from the joint vaulting of Romanesque architecture) and the flying buttress. Gothic architecture is most familiar as the architecture of many of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches of Europe. It is also the architecture of many castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, universities and to a less prominent extent, private dwellings, such as dorms and rooms.

It is in the great churches and cathedrals and in a number of civic buildings that the Gothic style was expressed most powerfully, its characteristics lending themselves to appeals to the emotions, whether springing from faith or from civic pride. A great number of ecclesiastical buildings remain from this period, of which even the smallest are often structures of architectural distinction while many of the larger churches are considered priceless works of art and are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. For this reason a study of Gothic architecture is often largely a study of cathedrals and churches.

A series of Gothic revivals began in mid-18th century England, spread through 19th century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century.

Unlike with past and future styles of art, like the Carolingian style as noted by French art historian Louis Grodecki in his work Gothic Architecture, Gothic’s lack of a definite historical or geographic nexus results in a weak concept of what truly is Gothic. This is further compounded by the fact that the technical, ornamentation, and formal features of Gothic are not entirely unique to it. Though modern historians have invariably accepted the conventional use of “Gothic” as a label, even in formal analysis processes due to a longstanding tradition of doing so, the definition of “Gothic” has historically varied wildly.

The term “Gothic architecture” originated as a pejorative description. Giorgio Vasari used the term “barbarous German style” in his 1550 Lives of the Artists to describe what is now considered the Gothic style, and in the introduction to the Lives he attributes various architectural features to “the Goths” whom he held responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style. Vasari was not alone among 15th and 16th Italian writers, as Filarete and Giannozzo Manetti had also written scathing criticisms of the Gothic style, calling it a “barbaric prelude to the Renaissance.” Vasari and company were writing at a time when many aspects and vocabulary pertaining to Classical architecture had been reasserted with the Renaissance in the late 15th and 16th centuries, and they had the perspective that the “maniera tedesca” or “maniera dei Goti” was the antithesis of this resurgent style leading to the continuation of this negative connotation in the 17th century. François Rabelais, also of the 16th century, imagines an inscription over the door of his utopian Abbey of Thélème, “Here enter no hypocrites, bigots…” slipping in a slighting reference to “Gotz” and “Ostrogotz.” Molière also made this note of the Gothic style in the 1669 poem La Gloire:

“…the insipid taste of Gothic ornamentation, these odious monstrosities of an ignorant age, produced by the torrents of barbarism…”
— Molière, La Gloire

In English 17th century usage, “Goth” was an equivalent of “vandal,” a savage despoiler with a Germanic heritage, and so came to be applied to the architectural styles of northern Europe from before the revival of classical types of architecture. According to a 19th-century correspondent in the London Journal Notes and Queries:

There can be no doubt that the term ‘Gothic’ as applied to pointed styles of ecclesiastical architecture was used at first contemptuously, and in derision, by those who were ambitious to imitate and revive the Grecian orders of architecture, after the revival of classical literature. Authorities such as Christopher Wren lent their aid in deprecating the old medieval style, which they termed Gothic, as synonymous with everything that was barbarous and rude.

The first movements that reevaluated medieval art took place in the 18th century, even when the Académie Royale d’Architecture met in Paris on 21 July 1710 and, amongst other subjects, discussed the new fashions of bowed and cusped arches on chimneypieces being employed to “finish the top of their openings. The Academy disapproved of several of these new manners, which are defective and which belong for the most part to the Gothic.” Despite resistance in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the writings of Wilhelm Worringer, critics like Père Laugier, William Gilpin, August Wilhelm Schlegel and other critics began to give the term a more positive meaning. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Gothic the “deutsche Architektur” and the “embodiment of German genius,” while some French writers like Camille Enlart instead nationalised it for France, dubbing it “architecture français.” This second group made some of their claims using the chronicle of Burchard von Halle that tells of the Church of Bad Wimpfen’s construction “opere francigeno,” or “in the French style.” Today, the term is defined with spatial observations and historical and ideological information.

Definition and scope
Since the studies of the 18th century, many have attempted to define the Gothic style using a list of characteristic features, principally with the pointed arch, the vaulting supported by intersecting arches, and the flying buttress. Eventually, historians composed a fairly large list of those features that were alien to both early medieval and Classical arts that includes piers with groups of colonettes, pinnacles, gables, rose windows, and openings broken into many different lancet-shaped sections. Certain combinations thereof have been singled out for identifying regional or national sub-styles of Gothic or to follow the evolution of the style. From this emerge labels such as Flamboyant, Rayonnant, and the English Perpendicular because of the observation of components like window tracery and pier moldings. This idea, dubbed by Paul Frankl as “componential,” had also occurred to mid 19th century writers such as Arcisse de Caumont, Robert Willis and Franz Mertens.

As an architectural style, Gothic developed primarily in ecclesiastical architecture, and its principles and characteristic forms were applied to other types of buildings. Buildings of every type were constructed in the Gothic style, with evidence remaining of simple domestic buildings, elegant town houses, grand palaces, commercial premises, civic buildings, castles, city walls, bridges, village churches, abbey churches, abbey complexes and large cathedrals.

The greatest number of surviving Gothic buildings are churches. These range from tiny chapels to large cathedrals, and although many have been extended and altered in different styles, a large number remain either substantially intact or sympathetically restored, demonstrating the form, character and decoration of Gothic architecture. The Gothic style is most particularly associated with the great cathedrals of Northern France, the Low Countries, England and Spain, with other fine examples occurring across Europe.


The roots of the Gothic style lie in those towns that, since the 11th century, had been enjoying increased prosperity and growth, began to experience more and more freedom from traditional feudal authority. At the end of the 12th century, Europe was divided into a multitude of city states and kingdoms. The area encompassing modern Germany, southern Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and much of northern Italy (excluding Venice and Papal State) was nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but local rulers exercised considerable autonomy under the system of Feudalism. France, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, Scotland, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Sicily and Cyprus were independent kingdoms, as was the Angevin Empire, whose Plantagenet kings ruled England and large domains in what was to become modern France. Norway came under the influence of England, while the other Scandinavian countries and Poland were influenced by trading contacts with the Hanseatic League. Angevin kings brought the Gothic tradition from France to Southern Italy, while Lusignan kings introduced French Gothic architecture to Cyprus. Gothic art is sometimes viewed as the art of the era of feudalism but also as being connected to change in medieval social structure, as the Gothic style of architecture seemed to parallel the beginning of the decline of feudalism. Nevertheless, the influence of the established feudal elite can be seen in the Chateaux of French lords and in those churches sponsored by feudal lords.

Throughout Europe at this time there was a rapid growth in trade and an associated growth in towns, and they would come to be predominate in Europe by the end of the 13th century. Germany and the Low Countries had large flourishing towns that grew in comparative peace, in trade and competition with each other or united for mutual weal, as in the Hanseatic League. Civic building was of great importance to these towns as a sign of wealth and pride. England and France remained largely feudal and produced grand domestic architecture for their kings, dukes and bishops, rather than grand town halls for their burghers. Viollet-le-Duc contended that the blossoming of the Gothic style came about as a result of growing freedoms in construction professions.

The geographical expanse of the Gothic style is analogous to that of the Catholic Church, which prevailed across Europe at this time and influenced not only faith but also wealth and power. Bishops were appointed by the feudal lords (Kings, Dukes, and other landowners) and they often ruled as virtual princes over large estates. The early Medieval periods had seen a rapid growth in monasticism, with several different orders being prevalent and spreading their influence widely. Foremost were the Benedictines whose great abbey churches vastly outnumbered any others in France and England. A part of their influence was that towns developed around them and they became centers of culture, learning and commerce. The Cluniac and Cistercian Orders were prevalent in France, the great monastery at Cluny having established a formula for a well planned monastic site which was then to influence all subsequent monastic building for many centuries. In the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi established the Franciscans, a mendicant order. The Dominicans, another mendicant order founded during the same period but by St. Dominic in Toulouse and Bologna, were particularly influential in the building of Italy’s Gothic churches.

The primary use of the Gothic style is in religious structures, naturally leading it to an association with the Church and it is considered to be one of the most formal and coordinated forms of the physical church, thought of as being the physical residence of God on Earth. According to Hans Sedlmayr, it was “even the considered the temporal image of Paradise, of the New Jerusalem.” The horizontal and vertical scope of the Gothic church, filled with the light thought of as a symbol of the grace of God admitted into the structure via the style’s iconic windows are among the very best examples of Christian architecture. Grodecki’s Gothic Architecture also notes that the glass pieces of various colors that make up those windows have been compared to “precious stones encrusting the walls of the New Jerusalem,” and that “the numerous towers and pinnacles evoke similar structures that appear in the visions of Saint John.” Another idea, held by Georg Dehio and Erwin Panofsky, is that the designs of Gothic followed the current theological scholastic thought. The PBS show NOVA explored the influence of the Holy Bible in the dimensions and design of some cathedrals.

From the 10th to the 13th century, Romanesque architecture had become a pan-European style and manner of construction, affecting buildings in countries as far apart as Ireland and Croatia, and Sweden and Sicily. The same wide geographic area was then affected by the development of Gothic architecture, but the acceptance of the Gothic style and methods of construction differed from place to place, as did the expressions of Gothic taste. The proximity of some regions meant that modern country borders did not define divisions of style. On the other hand, some regions such as England and Spain produced defining characteristics rarely seen elsewhere, except where they have been carried by itinerant craftsmen, or the transfer of bishops. Many different factors like geographical/geological, economic, social, or political situations caused the regional differences in the great abbey churches and cathedrals of the Romanesque period that would often become even more apparent in the Gothic. For example, studies of the population statistics reveals disparities such as the multitude of churches, abbeys, and cathedrals in northern France while in more urbanised regions construction activity of a similar scale was reserved to a few important cities. Such an example comes from Roberto López, wherein the French city of Amiens was able to fund its architectural projects whereas Cologne could not because of the economic inequality of the two. This wealth, concentrated in rich monasteries and noble families, would eventually spread certain Italian, Catalan, and Hanseatic bankers. This would be amended when the economic hardships of the 13th century were no longer felt, allowing Normandy, Tuscany, Flanders, and the southern Rhineland to enter into competition with France.

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The local availability of materials affected both construction and style. In France, limestone was readily available in several grades, the very fine white limestone of Caen being favoured for sculptural decoration. England had coarse limestone and red sandstone as well as dark green Purbeck marble which was often used for architectural features. In northern Germany, Netherlands, northern Poland, Denmark, and the Baltic countries local building stone was unavailable but there was a strong tradition of building in brick. The resultant style, Brick Gothic, called Gotyk ceglany in Poland and Backsteingotik in Germany and Scandinavia. The style is also associated with the Hanseatic League. In Italy, stone was used for fortifications, so brick was preferred for other buildings. Because of the extensive and varied deposits of marble, many buildings were faced in marble, or were left with undecorated façade so that this might be achieved at a later date. The availability of timber also influenced the style of architecture, with timber buildings prevailing in Scandinavia. Availability of timber affected methods of roof construction across Europe. It is thought that the magnificent hammerbeam roofs of England were devised as a direct response to the lack of long straight seasoned timber by the end of the Medieval period, when forests had been decimated not only for the construction of vast roofs but also for ship building.

Possible Eastern influence
The pointed arch, one of the defining attributes of Gothic, was earlier incorporated into Islamic architecture following the Islamic conquests of Roman Syria and the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century. The pointed arch and its precursors had been employed in Late Roman and Sassanian architecture; within the Roman context, evidenced in early church building in Syria and occasional secular structures, like the Roman Karamagara Bridge; in Sassanid architecture, in the parabolic and pointed arches employed in palace and sacred construction. Use of the pointed arch seems to have taken off dramatically after its incorporation into Islamic architecture. It begins to appear throughout the Islamic world in close succession after its adoption in the late Umayyad or early Abbasid period. Some examples are the Al-Ukhaidir Palace (775 AD), the Abbasid reconstruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque in 780 AD, the Ramlah Cisterns (789 AD), the Great Mosque of Samarra (851 AD), and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (879 AD) in Cairo. It also appears in one of the early reconstructions of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, and the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba in 987 AD. David Talbot Rice points out that, “The pointed arch had already been used in Syria, but in the mosque of Ibn Tulun we have one of the earliest examples of its use on an extensive scale, some centuries before it was exploited in the West by the Gothic architects.”

Increasing military and cultural contacts with the Muslim world, including the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily in 1090, the Crusades (beginning 1096), and the Islamic presence in Spain, may have influenced Medieval Europe’s adoption of the pointed arch, although this hypothesis remains controversial. Certainly, in those parts of the Western Mediterranean subject to Islamic control or influence, rich regional variants arose, fusing Romanesque and later Gothic traditions with Islamic decorative forms, for example in Monreale and Cefalù Cathedrals, the Alcázar of Seville, and Teruel Cathedral.

A number of scholars have cited the Armenian Cathedral of Ani, completed 1001 or 1010, as a possible influence on the Gothic, especially due to its use of pointed arches and cluster piers. However, other scholars such as Sirarpie Der Nersessian, who rejected this notion as she argued that the pointed arches did not serve the same function of supporting the vault. Lucy Der Manuelian contends that some Armenians (historically documented as being in Western Europe in the Middle Ages) could have brought the knowledge and technique employed at Ani to the west.

The view held by the majority of scholars however is that the pointed arch evolved naturally in Western Europe as a structural solution to a technical problem, with evidence for this being its use as a stylistic feature in Romanesque French and English churches.

The Gothic style originated in the Ile-de-France region of France at the Romanesque era in the first half of the 12th century, at the Cathedral of Sens (1130–62) and Abbey of St-Denis (c. 1130–40 and 1140–44), and did not immediately supersede it. An example of this lack clean break is the blossoming of the Late Romanesque (German: Spätromanisch) in the Holy Roman Empire under the Hohenstaufens and Rhineland while the Gothic style spread into England and France in the 12th century.

Romanesque tradition
Main article: Romanesque architecture
By the 12th century, Romanesque architecture, termed Norman Gothic in England, was established throughout Europe and provided the basic architectural forms and units that were to remain in evolution throughout the Medieval period. The important categories of building: the cathedral, parish church, monastery, castle, palace, great hall, gatehouse, and civic building had been established in the Romanesque period.

Many architectural features that are associated with Gothic architecture had been developed and used by the architects of Romanesque buildings, but not fully exploited. These include ribbed vaults, buttresses, clustered columns, ambulatories, wheel windows, spires, stained glass windows, and richly carved door tympana. These features, namely the rib vault and the pointed arch, had been used since the late 11th century in Southern Italy, Durham, and Picardy.

It was principally the widespread introduction of a single feature, the pointed arch, which was to bring about the change that separates Gothic from Romanesque. The technological change permitted a stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls penetrated by small openings, replacing it with a style where light appears to triumph over substance. With its use came the development of many other architectural devices, previously put to the test in scattered buildings and then called into service to meet the structural, aesthetic and ideological needs of the new style. These include the flying buttresses, pinnacles and traceried windows which typify Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.

Transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture
Gothic architecture did not emerge from a dying Romanesque tradition, but from a Romanesque style at the height of its popularity, and it would supplant it for many years. This shift in style beginning in the mid 12th century came about in an environment of much intellectual and political development as the Catholic Church began to grow into a very powerful political entity. Another transition made by Gothic was the move from the rural monasteries of the Romanesque into urban environments with new Gothic churches built in wealthy cities by secular clergy knowing full well the growing unity and power of the Church. The characteristic forms that were to define Gothic architecture grew out of Romanesque architecture and developed at several different geographic locations, as the result of different influences and structural requirements. While barrel vaults and groin vaults are typical of Romanesque architecture, ribbed vaults were used in many later Romanesque churches. The first examples of the ribbed vault, atop the thick walls of the Romanesque church, appeared at the same time in Sicily, Normandy and England at Durham Cathedral (from 1093-before 1110), Winchester, Peterborough and Gloucester, the choir and transept of Lessay Abbey, Duclair and Church of Saint Paul in Rouen. The geometric ornamentation borne by the moldings of some of these vaults attests to the want for more decoration, and this would be answered later by architects working in Ile-de-France, Valois, and Vexin.

Later French projects from 1125 to 1135 show the lightening up of vaults contoured in a single or double convex profile and thinner walls. The Abbey of Notre Dame de Morienval in Valois is one such example, with vaulting covering trapezoidal around an ambulatory, lightened supports and vaulting that would be copied at Sens Cathedral and Suger’s Basilica of Saint-Denis. While Norman architects would also participate in this development, the Romanesque in the Holy Roman Empire and Lombardy would remain the same with only little experimentation with vaulting. Two more features of Norman Romanesque, the wall buttress and the thick “double shell” wall at window height, were to later play a role in the birth of Gothic architecture. This double wall, a convenient way to reach the windows, hosted a passageway of recycled space that first appeared in the transepts of Bernay and Jumièges Abbey around 1040-50. This window-level passageway gave an illusion of weightlessness, inspired Noyon Cathedral, and would affect the entirety of the Gothic form of art.

Other characteristics of early Gothic architecture, such as vertical shafts, clustered columns, compound piers, plate tracery and groups of narrow openings had evolved during the Romanesque period. The west front of Ely Cathedral exemplifies this development. Internally the three tiered arrangement of arcade, gallery and clerestory was established. Interiors had become lighter with the insertion of more and larger windows.

Norman Sicily is an example of social-cultural interaction between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures on the island which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration. The new Norman rulers started to build various constructions in what is called the Arab-Norman style. They incorporated the best practices of Arab and Byzantine architecture into their own art. In this period there are strong relations between Roger II of Sicily and Abbot Suger in France.

All modern historians agree that Suger’s St.-Denis and Henri Sanglier’s Sens Cathedral exemplify the development of Norman Romanesque architectural features into the Gothic through a new ordering of interior space, accented by support from supports freestanding and otherwise, and the shift of emphasis from sheer size to admittance of light. Later additions or remodeling prevent the observation of either structure in the time of their construction, the original plan was nonetheless recreated the plans of each and, as Francis Salet points out, Sens (the older of the two) still uses a Romanesque plan with an ambulatory and no transept and echoes with its supports the old Norman alternations. Its three-story high pointed arcade, openings above the vaulting, and windows are not derived from Burgundy, but rather from the triple division present in Normandy and England. Even the sexpartite vaulting of Sens’s nave is likely of Norman origin, though the presence of wall ribbing belies Burgundian influence in design. Sens would, in spite of its archaic Norman features, exert much influence. From Sens spread the shrinking or omitting of the transept, the sexpartite vault, alternating interior, and the three-story elevation of future churches.

Abbot Suger
The beginning of the Gothic style is held by all modern historians to be in the first half of the 12th century at the Basilica of St Denis in the Ile-de-France, the royal domain of the Capetian kings rich in industry and the wool trade, because of the records he left during reconstruction of what he desired of this renovation, rather than the contemporary churches that explore some of the same ideas used at St. Denis. Suger believed in the spiritual power of light and colour, following in the philosophy of the 3rd century pagan Dionysius the Areopagite, whose identity was fused with that of the patron saint of Paris, and leading him in the end to require large windows of stained glass. This new church also needed to be larger than the previous Carolingian building to allow a greater number of pilgrims to feast inside the church. The solution, Suger found, was to make unprecedented use of the ribbed vault and the pointed arch. St. Denis’s plan possesses some very irregular shapes in its bays, prompting its architect to build the arches first so that arches of different height had keystones at the same height. Next the infill was added, and this method was proven to both provide more visual stimulation and speed up construction.

The choir and west front of the Abbey of Saint-Denis both became the prototypes for further building in the royal domain of northern France and in the Duchy of Normandy. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty, the new style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy and Sicily.

Compared to Sens Cathedral, St.-Denis is more complex and innovative. There is an obvious difference between the enclosing ambulatory around the choir, dedicated 11 June 1144 in the presence of the King, and the pre-Suger narthex, or antenave, (1140) that is derived from pre-Romanesque Ottonian Westwerk, and it shows in the heavily molded cross-ribbing and multiple projecting colonnettes positioned directly under the volutes of the rib’s archivolts. However, in iconographical terms, the three portals display, for the first time, sculpture that is demonstrably no longer Romanesque.

Even as the role of the monastic orders seemed to diminish in the dawn of the Gothic era, the orders still had their own parts to play in the spread of the Gothic style, also disproving the common evaluation of Romanesque as the rural monastic style and Gothic as the urban ecclesiastical style. Chief among early promoters of this style were the Benedictines in England, France, and Normandy. Gothic churches that can be associated with them include Durham Cathedral in England, the Abbey of St Denis, Vézelay Abbey, and Abbey of Saint-Remi in France. Later Benedictine projects (constructions and renovations), made possible by the continued prominence of the Benedictine order throughout the Middle Ages, include Reims’s Abbey of Saint-Nicaise, Rouen’s Abbey of Saint-Ouen, Abbey of St. Robert at La Chaise-Dieu, and the choir of Mont Saint-Michel in France; English examples are Westminster Abbey, and the reconstruction of the Benedictine church at Canterbury. The Cistercians also had a hand in the spread of the Gothic style, first utilizing the Romanesque style for their monasteries since their inception as a reflection of their poverty, they became the total disseminators of the Gothic style as far east and south as Poland and Hungary. Smaller orders, the Carthusians and Premonstratensians, also built some 200 churches (usually near cities), but it was the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who would most affect the change of art from the Romanesque to the Gothic in the 13th and 14th centuries. Of the military orders, the Knights Templar did not much contribute while the Teutonic Order spread Gothic art into Pomerania, East Prussia, and the Baltic region.