Classical Influences on Gothic Art & Architecture

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  • 1:35 Arches and Vaults
  • 2:35 Basilica Layouts
  • 3:10 Use of Concrete
  • 3:35 Sculpture
  • 4:55 Large, Realistic Paintings
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

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. Learn more about similarities between the two styles.

Timeline

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 CE, 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 CE. The Romanesque style evolved at about the same time.

It is important to take note of the difference between 'Roman' and 'Romanesque.' Roman styles are the styles of the ancient Roman Empire. Romanesque styles developed in the High Middle Ages, hundreds of years later.

In the 12th century CE, 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. Note that both Romanesque and Gothic styles are medieval.

These Classical ideas would become fully realized in the next time period, the Renaissance, which literally means 'rebirth', meaning the rebirth of Classical culture. The Renaissance started in the 14th or 15th century, depending on where you were in Europe.

There is plenty about Gothic art and architecture that is very non-Classical. In fact, Renaissance writers considered them crude and barbaric precisely because they were so different from Classical styles. They coined the term 'Gothic' as an insult, as the Goths were a barbarian tribe that sacked the city of Rome in the 5th century. However, there are actually a variety of important Classical elements in the Gothic style.

Arches and Vaults

The Gothic style is most defined by its architecture. 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, which have been discussed in length in another lesson. Both of these architectural elements use curved surfaces to more efficiently redirect weight than horizontal surfaces.

The first culture to put these elements into widespread use was the Romans. This example shows a series of arches holding up a structure. They were adopted for the Romanesque style. Here, a vault forms a curved ceiling.

Next, the curve of the Romanesque arch and vault was replaced by a pointed Gothic arch. This more efficiently redirected weight and thus, allowed engineers to continue increasing the size of these buildings. That means this design was actually an improvement on the original Roman idea.

Basilica Layouts

Romanesque and Gothic architecture also borrowed the layout of the basilica from Rome. Originally, the basilica was an administrative center, but Romanesque and Gothic builders used the basilica floor plan for Christian churches.

In a church, the apse holds the high altar. The nave is where the majority of the congregation stood during services. The narthex is the entrance. The one big change is the addition of transepts, which gives the church the layout of a Christian cross.

Use of Concrete

Romans were one of the first people in the world to make concrete, which is created by mixing stone into cement. To create a single, heavy wall, the Romans would sandwich concrete between an inner and outer layer of dressed stonework, known as a veneer. To an observer, only the veneer was visible, but the concrete core allowed buildings to be constructed more quickly and cheaply than using all dressed stone blocks. This technique returned to Europe in the High Middle Ages.

Sculpture

Classical art was dominated by lifelike sculpture. Many of these images were life-size or larger and freestanding. The details were intensely realistic.

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