Gothic Style (12th – 16th Century)

The Gothic style developed in the 12th century and was an European phenomenon, with very complex and varied characteristics, which affected all sectors of artistic production.

Abbey of Saint Denis, France, designed by Abbot Suger, completed 1144.
Abbey of Saint Denis, France, designed by Abbot Suger, completed 1144. Image source:


Although Gothic artwork was created hundreds of years after the fall of Classical civilization in Western Europe, there were still many examples of Classical influences in Gothic design.

To understand the Classical influences on Gothic styles, we first need to understand a timeline. Classical culture is the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. In Western Europe, the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century , giving rise to the Early Middle Ages, which was a very different culture. However, a variety of Classical ideas started to be embraced again in the High Middle Ages, which started around the 11th century. The Romanesque style evolved at about the same time.

In the 12th century, which is still part of the Middle Ages, Romanesque styles started to give way to the development of Gothic styles, which continued to be influenced by Classical ideas and to develop until the late 16th century across Europe.

Info source:


What is the meaning of the term “Gothic” ?

We have seen that there are a variety of important Classical elements in the gothic style.

In reality, however, the writers of the Renaissance considered the Gothic style as crude and barbaric, far from the classical style, coining the term “gothic” as an insult, as the Goths were a barbaric tribes that sacked the city of Rome in the 5th century.

The term retained its derogatory overtones until the 19th century, at which time a positive critical revaluation of Gothic architecture took place. Although modern scholars have long realized that Gothic art has nothing in truth to do with the Goths, the term Gothic remains a standard one in the study of art history.

Info source:



Architecture was the most important and original art form during the Gothic period.

The principal structural characteristics of Gothic architecture arose out of medieval masons’ efforts to solve the problems associated with supporting heavy masonry ceiling vaults over wide spans.

Infact, large buildings, such as cathedrals, needed specific engineering solutions to support the weight of such immense projects.

The answer was the use of the arch and the vault, and the first culture to put these elements into widespread use were the Romans, with the traditional barrel vault.

The problem was that the heavy stonework of the traditional arched barrel vault and the groin vault exerted a tremendous downward and outward pressure that tended to push the walls upon which the vault rested outward, thus collapsing them.

Medieval masons developed so a ribbed vault, in which arching and intersecting stone ribs support a vaulted ceiling surface that is composed of mere thin stone panels.

The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by pointed (Gothic) arches which distributed thrust in more directions downward from the topmost point of the arch.


Four common types of vault. A barrel vault (also called a cradle vault, tunnel vault, or wagon vault) has a semicircular cross section. A groin (or cross) vault is formed by the perpendicular intersection of two barrel vaults. A rib (or ribbed) vault is supported by a series of arched diagonal ribs that divide the vault’s surface into panels. A fan vault is composed of concave sections with ribs spreading out like a fan.
Four common types of vault: A barrel vault, a groin (or cross) vault, a rib (or ribbed) vault and a fan vault. Image source:


Other features common to Gothic architecture are the:

  • flying buttresses (leaned against the upper exterior of the nave thus counteracting the vault’s outward thrust)
  • large windows which are often grouped, or have tracery;
  • rose windows
  • towers
  • spires and pinnacles
  • ornate facades.
  • Triforium


Image source:

Three successive phases of Gothic architecture can be distinguished, respectively called early, high, and late Gothic.

Early Gothic:

This first phase lasted from the Gothic style’s inception in 1120–50 to about 1200. The combination of all the aforementioned structural elements into a coherent style first occurred in the Île-de-France (the region around Paris), where prosperous urban populations had sufficient wealth to build the great cathedrals that epitomize the Gothic style. The earliest surviving Gothic building was the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, begun in about 1140.

Structures with similarly precise vaulting and chains of windows along the perimeter were soon begun with Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163) and Laon Cathedral (begun 1165, one of the greatest achievements of the first Gothic period).

Buildings built in this era saw a consolidation of the tried and tested construction techniques in Saint Denis, for example, in the Cathedral of Sens.

Info source:

The ambulatory at the Abbey of Saint Denis, France.
The ambulatory at the Abbey of Saint Denis, France.








Image source: – /media/File:Basilica_Saint_Denis_ambulatory.JPG


Notre-Dame de Paris, France.
Notre-Dame de Paris, France.

image source:

The basic form of Gothic architecture eventually spread throughout Europe to Germany, Italy, England, the Low Countries, Spain, and Portugal.

High Gothic:

Notre Dame also marks the transition from early Gothic to the Gothic classic, which is framed in the first half of the thirteenth century.

This phase was characterized by the application of increasingly elaborate geometrical decoration to the structural forms that had been established during the preceding century.

After about 1250, gothic architects became more concerned with the creation of rich visual effects through decoration. This decoration took such forms as pinnacles, moldings, window tracery, and, especially, the great circular rose. The most notable examples of this phase are the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, Chartres, and Beauvais.

Info source:


West rose window in Reims cathedral, France.
West rose window in Reims cathedral, France.          
The north rose window in Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.
The north rose window in Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.

Image source:

Late Gothic: 

The last phase of the Gothic style is defined Flamboyant style, lasted from about 1375 to 1500. The style was characterized by the use of extended elements in the sense of the length that forms acquired attributable to a flame, infact, the most conspicuous feature of the Flamboyant Gothic style is the dominance in stone window tracery of a flamelike S-shaped curve.

Famous examples of this style are the Palace of the Parliament of Rouen, the Sainte-Chapelle of the Château de Vincennes, the facade of the cathedral of Toul, the facades of the transepts of Senlis cathedral, Notre-Dame church of Louviers, the Church Saint- Maclou of Rouen.

Info source:

West façade of the church of Saint-Maclou, Rouen, France, begun 1437
West façade of the church of Saint-Maclou, Rouen, France, begun 1437

Image source:

Leave a Reply