Development of Gothic Architecture

The development of Gothic architecture introduced new structural techniques and created an aesthetic style whose soaring, light-filled spaces typify late medieval culture.

Summary of Event

“Gothic,” derived from “Goth,” the generic name of the Teutons who invaded Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries, connotes cruelty and barbarity. It was in this opprobrious sense that “Gothic” was used by early art critics and architects such as Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) to describe the dominant architecture of Europe from the twelfth century to the sixteenth. During the nineteenth century, there was a change in sentiment toward the Middle Ages, and “Gothic” ecclesiastical buildings became objects of interest, admiration, and detailed studies. [kw]Development of Gothic Architecture (c. 1150-1200)
[kw]Gothic Architecture, Development of (c. 1150-1200)
France;c. 1150-1200: Development of Gothic Architecture[1940]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1150-1200: Development of Gothic Architecture[1940]
Jean d’Orbais
Robert de Luzarches

This style appears to have originated in northeastern France, especially in the île-de-France around Paris, and from there spread throughout the Continent and across the English Channel to England. It stems out of its immediate predecessor, the Romanesque basilica, which substituted stone vaulting for wooden ceilings and consequently required heavy walls and buttresses.

The Gothic church is distinguished by a masterful combination of ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. Romanesque architects regularly employed “groined” vaults to span the aisles and naves of their churches. One of the first Romanesque churches to have the groined vault in its nave was Sant’s Ambrogio at Milan. These vaults were constructed by arching over the space to be covered in two different directions, the “groin” being formed by the diagonal lines where the masonry met. Though vaults of this type concentrated their vertical thrust upon columns and piers and not along a continuous wall as in the case of “barrel” vaults, they were still heavy and difficult to construct. The introduction of “ogival,” or “ribbed,” vaulting in Romanesque buildings of the eleventh century in northern Italy was, therefore, a significant advance in technique. In vaults of this type, the area was first outlined with diagonal, transverse, and longitudinal ribs of stone that were then filled in with webs of brick or stone. Because this type of vaulting was lighter and stronger, it became one of the distinctive features of Gothic architecture.

The Romans used only the classically proportioned round arch. Builders in Mesopotamia, however, had earlier employed the pointed arch as well. From there, the pointed arch passed to Persia, Armenia, Egypt, and Sicily. Probably the first use made of it on the European continent was in the nave arcades of the Romanesque abbey church of Cluny (1089-1131). The pointed arch proved to have a number of distinct advantages over the round: It generated less of a lateral thrust; more important, the pointed arch was more flexible in that its height was not determined by its width. Consequently, it could easily be adjusted so that the crowns of the transverse and longitudinal ribs of a vault were equal in height to the diagonal ribs, a matter of particular importance for cruciform churches. By pointing the diagonal ribs more sharply, any height commensurate with safety could be effected.

Vaulted construction required heavy buttressing by piers or relieving arches to carry the thrust to piers placed farther out. Roman and Romanesque architects concealed these piers as far as possible behind the outer walls of their buildings. Gothic architects lightened appearances by exposing the framework, the piers, and the “flying” buttresses to open view. Architecture;Romanesque

In comparison to earlier architecture, Gothic was revolutionary. The earlier style of building was practically turned inside out. The new style anticipated modern skyscraper construction, but in a more sophisticated way than post and lintel usage, by erecting a skeleton so that the roof was not supported directly by the walls. Instead, the roof was held aloft by an elaborate framework of piers, arches, and buttresses that at the same time absorbed and carried most of the pressures generated by the vaulting of the nave so that the walls could be filled with stained glass windows to form an airy curtain.

The interior of a Gothic church proved to be even more impressive than its exterior. While length directed attention to the sanctuary at the east end of the nave, the ribbing of piers and vaults together with the great height pulled the beholder’s eyes upward. In the Cathedral of Amiens, the nave ceiling is 140 feet (42.5 meters) above the floor.

The new spirit dominating Gothic architecture was both philosophical and theological. From the Schoolmen (Scholastics), the medieval architects derived a feeling for order and a conviction that all temporal beauty was a reflection of divine beauty. At the same time, a deeper mystical appreciation of the humanity of Christ and his role in salvation is reflected in the many carvings and stained-glass windows that adorned the new churches.

If one individual can be singled out in this new architectural movement, it is perhaps Abbot Suger Suger , who largely rebuilt the west facade and choir of the abbey church of Saint-Denis on the outskirts of Paris between 1130 and 1144. With its ribbed vaults, interlinking spaces, and stained glass as well as the sculptural program of the facade, this building campaign is generally conceded to be the first definitely Gothic structure. Suger fittingly commemorated the event in Libellus alter de consecratione ecclesiae Sancti Dionysii
Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures (Suger) (1144; Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures, 1946), in which he recounted the reasons for the rebuilding and offered the theological basis of the architectural style that transformed the material into the immaterial.


Within a few years, notably at Chartres Cathedral and a number of churches located in the île-de-France, the new aesthetic style developed with increasingly greater sophistication. By the early decades of the thirteenth century, the structural principles of ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses had been refined to the point that mature statements of the Gothic style appeared in the churches of Reims and Amiens begun by the architects Jean d’Orbais Orbais, Jean d’ and Robert de Luzarches Luzarches, Robert de . These cathedrals represent the epitome of the verticality of space from floor to ribbed vault, the lightness of the stained glass, all supported by the exterior flying buttresses, and all representative of a medieval style still evident and copied today.

Further Reading

  • Bony, Jean. French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. A comprehensive survey of the origins and development of Gothic architecture in France.
  • Frankl, Paul, and Paul Crossley. Gothic Architecture. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. From Yale’s Pelican History of Art series. Looks at the history of European gothic architecture. Illustrations, maps, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • Gerson, Paula Lieber, ed. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986. A collection of essays on all aspects of Saint-Denis, Abbot Suger, and the role of this structure in the origins of Gothic architecture.
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Art Treasures. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Includes the Latin text and English translation, together with extended notes, of two of the most important medieval documents on Gothic architecture.
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. 2d ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1957. This text draws a connection between the aims of the Gothic architectural style and its contemporary philosophical system, Scholasticism.
  • Radding, Charles M., and William W. Clark. Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. This work juxtaposes relationships between ideas and architectural style in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic.
  • Simson, Otto von. The Gothic Cathedral. 3d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. A study of the aesthetic impact of Gothic architecture as an expression of theological ideas.
  • Strachan, Gordon. Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris, 2003. A short text presenting the architectural drawings of Oliver Perceval. Discusses the architectural history of the Gothic Chartres Cathedral, including its Islamic influences.