For nearly four hundred years Gothic style dominated the architecture of
Western Europe. It originated in northern France in the twelfth century, and
spread rapidly across England and the Continent, invading the old Viking empire
of Scandinavia. It confronted the Byzantine provinces of Central Europe and
even made appearances in the near East and the Americas. Gothic architects
designed town halls, royal palaces, courthouses, and hospitals. They fortified
cities and castles to defend lands against invasion. But it was in the service
of the church, the most prolific builder of the Middle Ages, that the Gothic
style got its most meaningful expression, providing the widest scope for the
development of architectural ideas.1
Although by 1400 Gothic had become the universal style of building in
the Western world, its creative heartland was in northern France in an area
stretching from the royal domain around Paris, including Saint-Denis and
Chartres, to the region of the Champagne in the east and southward to Bourges.
Within this restricted area, in the series of cathedrals built in the course of
the 12th and 13th centuries, the major innovations of Gothic architecture took
The supernatural character of medieval religious architecture was given
a special form in the Gothic church. “Medieval man considered himself but an
imperfect refraction of Divine Light of God, Whose Temple stood on earth,
according to the text of the dedication ritual, stood for the Heavenly City of
Jerusalem.”3 The Gothic interpretation of this point of view was a cathedral so
grand that seems to belittle the man who enters it, for space, light, structure
and the plastic effects of the stonework are made to produce a visionary scale.
The result of the Gothic style is distortion as there is no fixed set of
proportions in the parts. Such architecture did not only express the physical
and spiritual needs of the Church, but also the general attitude of the people
of that time. Gothic was not dark, massive, and contained like the older
Romanesque style, but light, open, and aerial, and its appearance in all parts
of Europe had an enduring effect on the outlook of succeeding generations.4
Gothic architecture evolved at a time of profound social and economic
change in Western Europe. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries trade and
industry were revived, particularly in northern Italy and Flanders, and a lively
commerce brought about better communications, not only between neighboring towns
but also between far-distant regions.Politically, the twelfth century was
also the time of the expansion and consolidation of the State. Along with
political and economic developments, a powerful new intellectual movement arose
that was stimulated by the translation of ancient authors from Greek and Arabic
into Latin, and a new literature came into being. Gothic architecture both
contributed to these changes and was affected by them.5
The Gothic style was essentially urban. The cathedrals of course were
all situated in towns, and most monasteries, had by the twelfth century become
centers of communities which possessed many of the functions of civic life.
The cathedral or abbey church was the building in which the people congregated
on major feast days. It saw the start and the end of splendid and colorful
ceremonies, and it held the earliest dramatic performances.The abbey
traditionally comprised at least a cloister, a dormitory and a refectory for the
monks. But the cathedral also was around a complex of buildings, the bishop’s
palace, a cloister and the house of canons, a school, a prison, and a hospital.
However the cathedral dominated them all, rising high above the town like a
marker to be seen from afar.6
The architectural needs of the Church were expressed in both physical
and iconographical terms. Like its Romanesque predecessor, the Gothic cathedral
was eminently adaptable. It could be planned larger or smaller, longer or
shorter, with or without transepts and ambulatory, according to the traditions
and desires of each community. It had no predetermined proportions or number of
parts, like the Roman temple or the centrally planned church of the Renaissance.
Its social and liturgical obligations demanded a main altar at the end of a
choir where the chapter and the various dignitaries would be seated, a number
of minor altars, and an area for processions within the building.7 There were
rarely more than about two hundred persons participating in the service, even
though the smallest Gothic cathedral could easily contain that number. The rest
of the building simply supplemented this core and provided space for the laity,
who were not permitted to enter the choir or sanctuary. Still, after the middle
of the twelfth century, the choir was usually isolated by a monumental screen
that effectively prevented laymen from even seeing the service, and special
devotional books came into use to supply the congregation with suitable subjects
of meditation during mass.8
The program of the Gothic church fulfilled iconographical as well as
social requirements. The intellectual centers of the Middle Ages had long been
associated with the Church, and the tradition of learning that had been
preserved in monastic and cathedral schools gave rise to universities such as
Paris and Oxford in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Such an
association obviously had an effect on the arts, which were still primarily
religious in nature. Scholarly clerics, for instance, were appointed to arrange
the intricate, theological programs for the sculpture and the stained glass that
decorated the church. The relationship is thought by some historians to have
been even closer, for scholastic thinking first took shape in Paris early in the
twelfth century, at the very time that Gothic architecture came into being there.
It is possible that architects, who were “abstract” thinkers in their own right,
may occasionally have absorbed some of the habits of thought of the philosophers.
In the absence of written documents, however, it cannot be proved whether these
habits were consistently embodied in the design of the buildings.9
The Gothic age, as has often been observed, was an age of vision. The
supernatural manifested itself to the senses. In the religious life of the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the desire to behold sacred reality with
bodily eyes appeared as the dominant theme. Architecture was designed and
experienced as a representation of an ultimate reality.10 The Gothic cathedral
was originated in the religious experience and in the political and even
physical realities, of twelfth-century France. It was described as an
illusionistic image of the Celestial City as evoked in the Book of Revelation.
The essence of Gothic style was most fully developed in its conquest of space
and its creation of a prodigious, visionary scale in the cathedrals of the
Branner, Robert. The Great Ages of World Architecture: Gothic Architecture.
New York: George Braziller, 1967.
Gimpel, Jean. The Cathedral Builders. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
Mitchell, Ann. Great Buildings of the World: Cathedrals of Europe. Feltham:
The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968.
Panofsky, E. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe: Faber and Faber
Simson, Otto von. The Gothic Cathedral. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1956.
Worringer, Wilhelm. Form In Gothic. New York: Alec Tiranti Limited, 1957.