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
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.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

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.


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.


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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Additional Activities

Deeper Dives into Gothic Architecture

In this lesson you have learned to identify elements of the Gothic style, and to describe how Classical realism influenced the Gothic art styles of painting, illustration, and sculpture. Now we are going to dig a little deeper and take a closer look at the relationship between Classical and Gothic Art and Architecture. Choose one of the following prompts to guide you in your further research.

Prompt 1

Find an example of a Classical structure, for example, the Pantheon in Rome. Next, find an example of a Gothic structure, for instance, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Do a side by side comparison of your two Classical and Gothic structures. Identify the Classical elements in your Gothic structure, and point out the purely Gothic elements of the Gothic structure. Is the Classical influence on Gothic architecture immediately obvious, or does it require a more trained eye to identify?

Prompt 2

Art in Europe is often heavily influenced by religion. Do some further research into the religious trends at the time of the Gothic period and write a short essay detailing how you see religion influence this art style. Feel free to look at all aspects of Gothic art: architecture, paintings, and sculptures, or choose just one and include lots of detail. For example, think about how Gothic art conformed to religious trends or defied them. Do you think the religious influence and the Classical influence were in conflict when it came to Gothic art, or in harmony?

Prompt 3

Gothic painting styles saw a sharp turn away from the typically two-dimensional, abstract art of the early middle ages. With an increased emphasis on realistic proportions and the introduction of three-dimensional space, Gothic paintings marked some of the first examples of realistic art in Europe. The Renaissance saw a further advancing and refining of this artistic ideal. Write a short essay detailing how you think the Gothic period paved the way for Renaissance realism. Why do you think emphasis began to be placed more and more on realism and less on abstract images? What events were happening that could have influenced this shift in style?

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