Culture for Dummies: An introduction to Gothic Architecture


“The Gothic cathedral,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Essays, Of History, “is a blossoming in stone subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man.”

Gothic architecture is a style that originated in twelfth century France and lasted into the sixteenth. It was known during the period as “Frankish work”, with the pejorative term “Gothic” first appearing during the latter part of the Renaissance. Indeed, “Gothic architecture” does not imply the architecture of the historical Goths; this term came to be used as early as the 1530s by Giorgio Vasari to describe a barbaric culture. By his time the Renaissance had engulfed Europe, overturning a previous culture dominated by the Church: any artistic movements related to this “ignorance” and “superstition” were considered philistine.

Gothic architecture is the architecture of many castles, universities, town halls, guild halls, and even private dwellings, yet will be familiar to most “dummies” as the architecture of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches of Europe – notably Cologne Cathedral, Notre Dam, Sainte Chapelle, and Reims Cathedral.

These buildings will commonly be of the Latin cross (or “cruciform”) plan, with a towering emphasis on verticality, flooding the building with light. The structural parts of the building ceased to be the solid walls, and became a stone skeleton comprising pointed ribbed vaults, pointed arches, clustered columns and flying buttresses.

These engineering solutions achieved an astounding, and hitherto impossible, height. A Gothic cathedral or abbey was, prior to the twentieth century, the landmark building in its town. As the skyscrapers of their époque they embodied God’s omnipresence and strength. And yet these colossal bodies were adorned in intricate carvings, embellished with infinitesimal detail.

As Emerson went on to write, “The mountain of granite blooms into an eternal flower, with the lightness and delicate finish, as well as the aerial proportions and perspective of vegetable beauty.”

Tess Little