The style of architecture we now call Gothic first emerged in northern France in around 1140. It evolved during the construction of great churches in the Paris region in a move towards greater height, light and volume. Later it was also used for secular buildings such as castles, palaces, bridges, city walls and gates. Key features include the pointed arch, the rib vault, buttresses (especially arched flying buttresses) and window tracery. Over time and across Europe, Gothic developed into a family of related styles.
Enthusiasm for Gothic began to wane in the early 15th century, initially in the city states of central Italy where it had never been entirely popular. However, in northern Europe the style persisted into the 16th century and beyond.
Wood and card model of the west front of Notre Dame Cathedral, Reims, France, possibly by E.C. Hakewill, England, UK, about 1840. Annotated to identify Gothic features. Museum no. MISC.3-1928. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The new Gothic style emerging in France was rapidly taken up in England. It was used in two highly important buildings: Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, where royal coronations took place. English Gothic buildings often include plant decoration, adding to the tree-like effect of the interiors. At York Minster, the stone 'pendants' suspended from the canopies above the seats in the walls of the chapter house are carved with botanically accurate leaves that seem to burst into life.
In the later Middle Ages, creativity in Gothic architecture shifted from cathedrals to parish churches. Many small churches serving local communities were built according to the latest fashion or refurbished in the style. Parish churches across Europe still display the great variety and inventiveness of medieval architects and stonemasons working within a shared family of Gothic styles.
'When … the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares … then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven.'
Abbot Suger, De Administratione (translated by Erwin Panofsky, 1946)
Abbot Suger (about 1081–1151), who is often credited with inventing Gothic architecture, felt art was central to religious experience. In 1140–44 he renovated the eastern end of his church, the abbey of Saint-Denis. The first major building project in the new Gothic style, it would be followed by a series of great Gothic cathedrals, in Paris (Notre-Dame), Soissons, Chartres, Bourges, Reims and Amiens. Much of Saint-Denis was rebuilt in a later style of Gothic during the 1230s. Portions of its early Gothic architecture survive in the walkway around the eastern end (the 'ambulatory') and in the crypt beneath it.
T he Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, completed in 1248, is the only remaining portion of the palace complex built by King Louis IX (reigned 1226–70). With its masonry engineered to support large expanses of glass, the Sainte-Chapelle became the most influential building of the period. Form and decoration were now taking over from height and volume as the main aims of Gothic architecture. Smaller-scale buildings were better able to showcase this new attention to detail and delicacy.
Regional building practices also had an impact on Gothic architecture. In north Germany and the Baltic region, the main building material was brick, resulting in striking exteriors. In central Europe, the ribs of Gothic ceilings evolved into beautiful star and net patterns. The spectacular cantilevered tower at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire reflects the local tradition for timber construction. The pointed arches on the ground floor of the Doge's Palace in Venice are a variation on the arcading typical of buildings in north and central Italy.
Later versions of Gothic exaggerated key features of the style. Buildings decorated with miniature architectural forms by the Parler family of architects were enormously influential in central Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.
In France, the late Gothic style extended its characteristic flame-like window tracery into other parts of the building in the form of stone screens. In England, the move was towards larger rectangular windows and elaborate, fan-shaped vaults. Thick layers of ornament are found in Spain, where Netherlandish and Islamic styles came together in the 15th century, as well as in Portugal, where the decoration was inspired by maritime travel.
Cloister, San Juan de los Reyes, Toldedo, Spain, founded 1476. Photograph by Andy Carson.
West façade of the church of Saint-Maclou, Rouen, France, begun 1437. Photograph © Sandy Parkins
Upper part of the south transept façade, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague, begun around 1371.
King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 1446–1531. Photograph by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P.
The visual characteristics and structural engineering of Gothic architecture were also used to build great castles and fortifications. These monumental buildings were planned for defence and administration, but also for their psychological impact on the local population. Following his conquest of Wales, Edward I of England (reigned 1272–1307) built a series of castles along the boundary of his new territory. Jaume II of Majorca (reigned 1276–1311) built Bellver Castle on regaining his lands in the Balearic Islands. The Teutonic Knights established the castle complex at Malbork in Poland during their subjugation of the surrounding region.