Gothic Cathedrals – Appreciating Europe’s Medieval Masterpieces

The Gothic style of architecture, which rose to prominence in the mid-twelfth century, represented a revolutionary new way of building cathedrals. Architects and builders during the High Middle Ages employed new architectural techniques, allowing buildings to be taller, with large stained glass windows, grandiose displays of sunlight and lofty interior spaces to amaze visitors. The result were some of the most monumental buildings of the age, which formed grand centrepieces of European cities.

Gothic architecture first emerged in medieval France during an age of religious freedom, social stability, and economic prosperity. The Gothic style incorporated ideas from Islamic architecture and the style spread through much of medieval Europe. Advancements such as the pointed arch, ribbed vault ceilings and flying buttresses allowed medieval engineers to reimagine the great heights of a cathedral, invoking a newfound sense of wonder, glory and closeness to God. For the next four centuries, architects and builders pushed to maximise this newfound design of space, light and art.

Copic marker urban sketching Haarlem gothic cathedral
Haarlem’s Grote Kerk, Gothic Cathedral in winter

Romanesque Versus Gothic Styles

Before Gothic cathedrals, the predominant style of cathedral across Europe was the Romanesque, named for its use of the Roman arch. Romanesque architecture was characterised by round archways, massive pillars and walls, barrel vault or groin vault ceilings, and stylised arcades. In order to support the outward thrust and bear the weight from the rounded archways, the walls were built very thick. As a result of these strong walls, Romanesque cathedrals tended to have few windows, creating dark interiors, cavernous cloisters, dark recesses, and were often limited in height.

Cremona Cathedral, originally completed in 1170 in the Romanesque style, was renovated with a transept and rose window built in the Gothic style

The Origin Of Gothic Architecture

The Basilica of St Denis in northern Paris, which was renovated from its original Carolingian style by Abbott Suger, is considered to be the first Gothic cathedral. With a vision to create more windows and maximise natural light, Suger renovated and rebuilt the cathedral in 1144, employing a combination of architectural elements which would form the nucleus for the Gothic cathedral.

At the time, Gothic was considered a true modern style, going against classical Greek and Roman influences and features. Originally called ‘French Style’ (Opus Francigenum), the name Gothic was not applied until the 1530s, when Italian Renaissance architecture began to revive classical elements. In his writings, Italian writer Giorgio Vasari commented on the lack of classical sensibilities, likening the style to the architecture of the ‘barbarian’ Gothic tribes centuries earlier.

Gothic Cathedrals And Medieval Society

Gothic cathedrals were grand building projects in medieval European cities, creating city centres where people could congregate for religious and secular events. While these masterpieces were being erected, quality of life in the High Middle Ages in Europe was generally difficult. People lived in a feudal society, with most of the population working as peasants living under kings and nobility. Populations were increasing, and urban centres began to grow, contributing to the rise of common diseases such as dysentery, smallpox and typhoid. By the time the first Gothic cathedrals were built, the high point of the Crusades, the first Crusade, was complete.

But this was also a time of great innovation. Windmills, mechanical clocks, glassmaking and lenses, as well as field rotation and the horse collar were all important advancements of the age. The construction of Gothic cathedrals were extremely complex projects, and attracted expertise from across Europe to help complete a project. The projects were hugely expensive, and were relied heavily on people donating to the church, as lords, financiers and laity all contributing to the high project costs, as well as the employment of countless artisans and builders.

Cathedrals were buildings of great prestige for the places that built them, attracting pilgrims to admire the amazing new houses of God. Many Gothic cathedrals were centres of important pieces of art, as well as statuary, decorative pinnacles, carvings, and most importantly, elaborate stained glass windows that bathed the interior of the building with light. It is this key element of Gothic architecture, the incorporation of coloured light, that closely reflects Christian ideas of the glory of God, truth and illumination.

Catedral de Sevilla urban sketching Spanish Gothic cathedral drawing
Seville Cathedral, completed in 1528, is the world’s largest Gothic church

Features Of Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture is characterised by a number of building innovations which complement each other, giving Gothic its signature look, as well as its structural properties.

Chartres cathedral ceiling

Pointed Arches

Islamic-inspired pointed arches, which replaced the curved Romanesque arch, were fundamental developments which led to a plethora of possibilities. The curved archway comes to a defined stop at a point. Stress was concentrated at the highest tip of the arch, directing thrust downward and placing less load on the walls themselves. By contrast, round Romanesque arches sent thrust in a more horizontal direction, requiring stronger load bearing.

Rib Vaults

Expanding on this idea, the development of the rib vault (pointed arches crossed in an ‘X’ shape) helped support the ceilings by placing thrust on specific focus points such as columns or piers, instead of an entire wall. With load bearing decreased, there was now much more capacity to install windows, and allowed walls to be built higher and thinner.

Flying Buttresses

While appearing to be mostly aesthetic, flying buttresses help offset the lateral thrust even further. Flying buttresses were positioned to redirect the outward stress to outer buttress structures, providing suitable counterthrust and support to these walls. Flying buttresses were often extremely detailed and elegant, such as those in Amiens cathedral.

Gothic Windows

Early windows included the lancet type; tall, slender windows with a pointed arch on top. More elaborate and impressive windows were developed incorporating tracery, the division of sections to create amazing designs. Plate tracery was the first style, with holes for the windows cut in the masonry, and filled with stained glass. Sometime around 1240, this evolved into bar tracery, which used thin stone mullions to create more intricate and elegant designs.

The development of the rayonnant style in France from the 13th to 14th century favoured increasingly large windows. These cathedrals featured round feature windows called rose windows, and more windows in the clerestory (above eye level). Some of the most stunning rose window examples are found in France’s Chartres cathedral.

Chartres cathedral north rose window

Gothic Cathedral Windows And The Significance Of Light

While the Gothic cathedral was designed to be a physical monument, it also served to maximise experiential and spiritual magnificence. With soaring high ceilings made possible by pointed arches and rib vaults supported by flying buttresses, huge areas of space and natural light were possible. A focus on vertical lines and long, pointed lancet windows inevitably drew the viewer’s eye upwards towards the ceiling, emphasizing the grandeur of the interior.

The overwhelming feeling of space and height must have encouraged worshippers in the Gothic period to look up to God and consider the greatness beyond earthly things. To make the experience more spectacular was the use of stained-glass windows, which depicted biblical scenes that shone through to the ground in amazing colours. Light was recognised early in the Gothic building age, with Abbott Suger recognising the importance of light in his cathedral, the Abbey Church of St. Denis. His vision of an illuminated nave became the norm for all Gothic cathedrals. Light was uplifting, representing the good and holy elements of the world, transforming something physical into the divine.

Master artists and skilled glass workers were employed to create these windows, which were stained with metallic oxide powders and set into iron frames. The windows were also put in place to educate, telling biblical stories to inform the illiterate. The medieval theologian Hugh of Saint-Victor describes the light flowing through stained-glass windows as an enlightening effect. The bishop William Durandus notes the ability of the window the block out the elements of the outside world, whilst still allowing the light of God to reach worshippers. It is thought that the brilliance of the stained-glass windows could only be enjoyed whilst inside the cathedral, symbolic of inner light of the soul.

Symbolism And Art Of Gothic Cathedrals

The Gothic cathedral were the house of sacred objects such as religious relics (the remains of saints), statues, paintings and carvings. The cathedral floorplans were often built in a cruciform shape, with harmonic mathematical proportions that invokes a sense of heavenly perfection.

Relics In Gothic Cathedrals

Sacred objects such as relics and incorruptible remains were thought to have diffuse properties by medieval clergy, and a being close to a saintly relic would increase the effect. People visited cathedrals to be close to relics, making a collection of sacred objects encouraging for the Christian ideals of community and congregation. Saintly relics were the most venerated objects in a Gothic cathedral, and great expense was afforded to the reliquaries to house them.

Decorative Gothic Elements

Wooden seat carvings called misericords depicted angelic figures, lions and dragons. Stone carvings were commonplace in Gothic cathedrals, and depicted various biblical and apocryphal themes such as saints, crusaders, and grotesques inside and out. Perhaps the most recognisable Gothic stone carvings are gargoyles, winged demon-like figures which served rainwater gutters, with symbolic protective functions. Gothic cathedrals often featured impressive pipe organs, such as the Müller organ in Haarlem’s St Bavokerk.

Urban sketching seville cathedral Patio de los Naranjos bitter oranges
Patio de los Naranjos Orange trees

Decline Of Gothic Architecture

Building styles changed around the start of the 16th century, with Renaissance styles coming out of Italy. Roman and Greek columns, pilasters and lintels made a resurgence, as well as grand domes, curved arches and symmetrical geometric layouts. It later evolved into Baroque, a more lavish, grand and theatrical style than Renaissance. Despite being suddenly cast out as medieval monstrosities, Gothic styles continued to be built over the centuries, with a large Gothic revival occurring in Victorian times.

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New innovations in architecture, as well as an emphasis on light and interior space, were key elements in creating a heavenly place of worship in line with Christian ideals. The evolution from the dark interiors and thick walls of the Romanesque style of cathedral into a lofty, skeletal frame using pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults brought with it new possibilities. Ceilings reaching higher than previously imagined inspired a sense of awe and greatness tantamount to reaching up to God Himself, whilst the divinity of light was given maximum freedom to enter the cathedral, and bathe Christian worshippers in the colours of the magnificent stained-glass windows which doubled as biblical teaching aids.

The Gothic cathedral invoked a sense of amazement in their age that inspired and taught communities through their grandeur and their religious significance, and even today they are every bit as wondrous and important as when they were first constructed.


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