Gothic Architecture

The Gothic style  was elegant and aesthetic, which became popular throughout Europe in the middle-ages. It was a movement away from the neo-classical style that was prominent in certain areas of Europe at that time.

What are the distinctive characteristics of Gothic architecture?

Gothic Basilica_(architecture)_schematic_section
A cut out of the characteristics of a Gothic cathedral

Flying Buttresses

Gothic architecture, also called Neo-Gothic, Victorian Gothic and Gothic Revival, represents an advancement in engineering, in contrast to the architecture prior to the 11th century that relied on load bearing walls as a means of support for the building.  Large buildings, such as castles were built with these types of walls. This resulted in the walls being thick and consequently, there was no way to insert windows into them, as any break in the wall would diminish the integrity of its load bearing capacity. This also resulted in the buildings having dimly lit rooms.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the monarchies of England were looking to create large churches that would be roomy and be filled with light. a dilemma ensued for the architects and engineers of that time period and led to some creative engineering accomplishments that were the catalyst of Gothic design.

The architects came up with a technique that would circumvent the load bearing wall support to an external beam and column. This would steer much of the building’s weight off the wall and onto the supporting beam and column. The feature became know as the flying buttress.

Gothic Cathedral Notre Dame

Buttresses, as the name implies are supports. Quite noticeable when one views any of the churches designed in Gothic style.

The flying buttresses would brace the building by having some of the building’s weight distributed to it and then to the ground. Thus, walls that were once used to support the building would no longer be the sole supporting factor and could now become curtain walls that would allow windows to be inserted inside them.


Same concept regarding dispersion of loads from the walls, arches are used as a means of support as well. In architecture, they are used to replace beam supports for a structure or building. The science behind using an arch is that each block of the arch ‘pushes’ down on the next block on both sides. The arch then becomes one solid unit to sustain a load that is placed on top of it.

Pointed Arches

Lincoln_cathedral_11_Nave_arcade Pointed Arches

The Romans used curved arches for this purpose, but in the Middle Ages, architects discovered that pointed arches were able to support as much as 50% more weight than curved arches. Subsequently, pointed arches were added as an architectural component in Gothic cathedrals and other Gothic buildings.  In addition, these arches allow the exterior walls to be thinner.

This arch design distributed the weight of the heavy ceilings and was able to support much more weight than the column design often seen in Greek and Roman architecture. One can begin to see how the Gothic trend was becoming more popular than their earlier predecessor designs.

Vaulted Ceilings

As the arches reach the point at the top, they would then curve downward, allowing for some intriguing results in aesthetics. Vaulted ceilings became an integral part of Gothic architecture and helped to enhance the beauty of the building’s interior design.

The Gothic trend was popular in Europe until the 17th century, when Renaissance style began to take over. At that point Gothic was not popular anymore and the more simpler approach of renaissance architecture became the fad. The Renaissance period was were the name ‘Gothic’ was coined, as it was a negative term that was originally associated with the earlier Barbarian culture.

One interesting note is that most people equate cathedrals with Gothic architecture, but cathedrals are only labeled as such  if a bishop resides there; otherwise it is a church. With that said, most of the popular Catholic houses of worship in Europe that contained Gothic architecture did have a bishop residing there, but from a design point of veiw,  European cathedrals that have the Gothic characteristics are considered Gothic in design.

But in the 19th and early 20th century, the Gothic style appeared again, as its appeal was always popular in many architectural circles.

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