Gothic Architecture

 The late Medieval period witnessed a transformation in not only architecture, but in spirituality as well. Getting away from the dark, massiveness of Romanesque architecture, the new Gothic style opened and lifted up interior spaces, filling them with colored light from stained glass windows. The human spirit seemed to blossom with hope as Gothic cathedrals pushed upward to the heavens, and as new economic opportunities became more available in growing urban centers. The Gothic period was indeed the light showing at the end of the Medieval tunnel.

The term "Gothic" was first used to describe this new trend in architecture, and then later used to classify both sculpture and painting. Before I present the four Gothic cathedrals that I would like you to know, let's compare the architectural elements that make the Gothic style so different from the Romanesque. Click here for a crash course on Gothic architectural design.


The facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, left, (c. 1163 - 1250) Paris. (Click on the image for detailed views.)

Gothic Architectural Elements

 You know, trying to teach Gothic cathedral construction on a computer screen is sort of like trying to teach the game of basketball on a chalk board. . . . . . you really have to go and experience it in person to appreciate it. Nevertheless, the following characteristics are considered innovations of Gothic cathedral construction:

The single most obvious, quick-and-dirty way to distinguish Gothic style cathedral from any other design is to look at the windows and portals......if the arches come to a "point" on top, chances are it's Gothic construction.

The interior spaces are taller, lighter, and more spacious than Romanesque cathedrals. Using buttresses on the outside of the cathedral opens up the inside and creates a feeling of weightlessness.

Exterior decorations (sculptures, spires, pinnacles, buttresses, etc.) become much more elaborate.

Clerestory windows become taller and wider.....fenestration (window design) becomes an important part of Gothic cathedral design.

At this point, let's review some to the architectural elements common in Gothic construction by referring to the diagram on the left:

(1.)BAY (a segment of the nave). (2)NAVE. (3) SIDE AISLE. (4) ARCADE. (5) TRIFORIUM. (6) CLERESTORY WINDOWS. (7-8) PIERS. (9) RIBBED-VAULTING. (10)BUTTRESS. (11) FLYING BUTTRESS. (12) FLYING ARCH. (13) ROOF.

Pictured below is a comparison between a typical Romanesque portal and a Gothic portal. Notice how the Gothic design seems to pull the viewer's eyes upward with a more vertically oriented layout. Also, notice the extreme decorative embellishments on the facade of the Gothic design.

Five Gothic Cathedrals You Should Know:

 The remainder of this page will take you through the five (and believe me, it was not easy narrowing it down to just five) Gothic Cathedrals I'd like to you know from facade to apse. They are, as shown below in a height comparison, (1) Notre-Dame in Paris, (2) Chartres Cathedral, (3) Reims Cathedral, (4) Amiens Cathedral and (not shown in comparison below) Salisbury Cathedral, England.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris

 Here we see (once again) the facade of the Notre-Dame cathedral built from 1163 - 1250. So what is it that makes this one of the most celebrated of all Gothic cathedrals? First, notice the simple harmonic balance created by the four buttresses.........they divide the facade up into thirds. (Actually, the number three is important in Christianity, as it stands for the trinity.) The rose window stands directly in the middle of the facade, which keeps the eye focused in the center. The Gothic arched portals are beautifully adorned with jam figures and detailed timpanums. Looking around to the back of the cathedral, flying buttresses and arches give the structure a weightless feeling that is also felt in the interior, where a tall, slender nave lifts our eyes upward. Huge clerestory windows allow light to flood the floor of the nave, adding to the weightless atmosphere. Although Notre-Dame took a beating during the French Revolution, one can still enjoy the sculptural additions, the gargoyles and the remarkable fenistration of this classic cathedral. (To see more of Notre-Dame, click on the thumbnail below:)

Chartres Cathedral

 Probably the #2 most celebrated Gothic structure, Chartres Cathedral (c. 1194 - 1400) takes on a more "evolutionary" look than that of Notre-Dame. What one notices first are the asymmetrical spires on either side of the facade. The reason for this is that the left spire was completed almost 300 years after the right spire.........showing a natural evolution in building technique. Beyond that, the cathedral is all Gothic: the balanced harmony, the detailed timpanums, the rose window in the center, and the elegant flying buttresses and arches around the circumference of the structure. However, what makes Chartres unique are the hundreds of sculptures that decorate the dozen or so timpanums and door jams that surround the cathedral. (See the Gothic sculpture page.) Sitting on the highest point of the town, Chartres Cathedral can be seen from miles away in the French countryside, which must have been an awesome sight to the peasantry during the time.

However, it is the interior of Chartres that makes it so renowned. The nave towers above the floor, with clerestory windows almost as tall as the nave arcade itself! As a result, colored light floods the vast interior in a way that just cannot be forget buying that car you've been thinking about, and spend a couple weeks in Europe instead. You'll be better off for it, believe me. For more views of Chartres Cathedral, click on the thumbnail below:


Reims Cathedral

 Often confused with Amiens, Reims Cathedral (c. 1225-99) is a masterpiece of High Gothic architecture. The preferred coronation place of many a French king, Reims Cathedral has a couple distinguishing features that remain unique when compared to other Gothic structures. First, the portals jet outwards almost like porches, rather than the recessed ones we've seen up to now. Secondly, windows have replaced the tympanums on the facade. Every single detail has become taller here........a part of the constant push upward so common in late Gothic cathedrals. Architectural embellishments increase in number and extravagance (just look at the number of pinnacles thrusting upward). Inside, the height of the nave is astounding........reaching 18 feet higher than Chartres. (For more detailed views of Reims Cathedral, click on the thumbnail image below;)

Amiens Cathedral

 The full glory of French High Gothic architecture is represented in Amiens Cathedral. Here, there is a clear emphasis on the vertical and the's almost as if the exterior was made of lace, such is the delicacy of the stone work. Like Reims, the tympanums extend outward, but they contain carvings rather than windows. If one is good, two must be better. . . . so with Amiens, we see a double row of sculptural figures above the triple portals on the facade. As a result, the rose window sits high up on the facade, almost like the noon-day sun. A skeleton of flying buttresses and arches support the immense thrusts that the vaulting places on the pillars. Yet, one would never know such weight existed from the looks of the interior. Click on the image below for better views of Amiens:


Salisbury Cathedral

 Here we jump across the English Channel to find a variation on the French Gothic style. The Salisbury Cathedral (c. 1265 - 1310) is typical of the early English Gothic style of architecture in that it emphasizes the horizontal. If you look at the facade, you will see this emphasis placed on strong, horizontal bands of decoration. Except for the tall, central spire (which, by the way, almost collapsed the cathedral when it was added on in 1285), the cathedral seems long and sprawling in comparison to its French counterparts. The interior also emphasized the horizontal by using dark colored marble pillars in contrast to lighter marble elsewhere. The rib vaults extend steeply downward, engulfing the clerestory windows.........another early English characteristic. Click on the image below for more detailed views of this beautiful cathedral:

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