What is Gothic Architecture?

Famous Gothic cathedral, Cologne Cathedral

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Well-known for its pointed arches, flying buttresses, and large, stained glass windows, Gothic architecture is a European architectural type that originated in the mid-12th century and remained popular until the 16th century. Often employed for churches, cathedrals, and other massive stone buildings, Gothic architecture became extremely popular across its origin country of France, as well as the rest of Europe and the world.

Although the type of Gothic architecture that was used to construct a building is based on the building's age, location, and building type (for example, a church), all Gothic structures share five key elements: stained glass windows, pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and highly ornate decoration.

It's rare to find a personal dwelling built in the Gothic style—although, they definitely do exist!—but Gothic architecture essentially defined European construction and decoration for four centuries. Read on to learn more about gothic architecture, including its history, must-have architectural elements, and where to find concentrations of gothic architecture.

The History of Gothic Architecture

As previously mentioned, Gothic architecture originated in France—where it was originally called "Opus Francigenum," or "French Work." Beginning in the mid-12th century, advancements in structural engineering enabled French builders to create massive structures. Some of the key elements of Gothic architecture—like large, stained glass windows and vaulted arches—allowed ample natural light into the structures, despite their massive size and height. This style dominated European architecture—especially structures built by the Roman Catholic church—until the 16th century, when it became known as Gothic architecture.

Over time, Gothic architecture evolved through phases:

  1. The High Gothic years, which lasted from 1250 to 1300 and was first introduced by Chartres Cathedral in France. This time period was defined by Rayonnant style, or highly ornate decorations on the buildings' exterior. Germany, Spain, and Britain created their own variations of Rayonnant Gothic architecture over the next several decades.
  2. The Late Gothic years, which lasted from the 15th to 16th centuries. During this time, Germany produced massively tall churches with vaulted ceilings. British Perpendicular Gothic architecture (identified by a focus on vertical lines) and French Flamboyant style (extremely elaborate exterior decoration) were popular during this time as well.

Although Gothic architecture has many Romanesque characteristics, Gothic builders abandoned the very thick, solid walls produced by the Romans. Why? In order to build extremely tall structures, walls had to be thinner and weigh less. What's more, Gothic-era builders used flying buttresses—or an inclined beam that supports the weight of a structure—in order to build structures that appeared to touch the sky.

It's rare to find new construction built in the Gothic style, but a European vacation—or a trip to New York City, Washington D.C., and other major cities in the United States—can provide an excellent tour of this architectural style's history, as well as Gothic Revival.

Must-Have Elements of Gothic Architecture

As previously mentioned, the type of Gothic architecture used to produce a building depends on the structure's age, location, and usage. However, all Gothic buildings share these distinguishing characteristics:

Stained glass windows

It's common to find stained glass windows in places of worship, but they're extremely prevalent in Gothic churches and cathedrals. The windows are usually very tall and arched, or round, and were intended to let in as much natural light as possible. You'll often find tracery, a decorative, stone support, as well as biblical scenes in Gothic stained glass windows.

Pointed arches

Rather than using round, Romanesque arches, Gothic builders built tall, thin, pointed arches. Inspired by Islamic architectural styles, Gothic pointed arches accentuated ceiling heights, accommodated vaulted ceilings, and symbolically pointed towards the heavens.

Ribbed vaults

In order to build extremely tall structures with tall windows, Gothic architects began to use ribbed vaults—or arched vaults placed parallel to each other to support a rounded roof—rather than traditional vaulted beams. Not only did these intersecting vaults create visual interest, but they offered more support to tall Gothic structures.

Ribbed vaults in a Gothic cathedral.
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Flying buttresses

Flying buttresses were another Gothic-era advancement that helped support tall, heavy Gothic buildings. Flying buttresses are shaped like half of an arch, and offer support by redistributing weight from a higher, heavy level, to a lower, more solid level.

Decorative elements

Gothic architecture is characterized by extremely ornate exterior decoration. Embellished columns, moldings, statues, pinnacles, spires, and gargoyles that spout water are commonly found in Gothic architecture.

Where to Find Gothic Architecture

Personal homes are rarely built in the Gothic style, but visits to some of the world's major cities can offer a glimpse into some of the oldest—and most elaborate—architecture in the world. Here are some famous Gothic structures from around the globe:

  • Westminster Abbey in London, England
  • Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France
  • Duomo di Milano in Milan, Italy
  • Cathedral of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain
  • St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria

If you want to travel around the United States, you'll find Gothic Revival buildings, rather than true Gothic structures. Some Gothic Revivals in the U.S. include:

  • St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, New York
  • Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
  • The Tribune Tower in Chicago, Illinois
  • Trinity Church in New York, New York
  • Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania