French Gothic Architecture: Features & Characteristics

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the most important features and characteristics of Gothic architecture in France. Also explore great examples of cathedrals that defined this period, not only in France but also all over Europe.

French Gothic Architecture

Many have heard of Quasimodo and the famous gargoyles of Notre Dame, a Gothic cathedral in Paris. Gothic architecture inspired literature and legends, and it created a lasting impression still present in the social imaginary.

Gothic architecture was a style that first appeared in France during the second half of the 12th century. The style was seen after the Romanesque period of the Middle Ages and it represented the desire of getting closer to God, expressed by high towers stretching to the heavens. It continued to evolve and spread throughout Europe until the 16th century. In France, a Gothic cathedral was built in almost every major city.

The word Gothic comes from Goth, used to refer to the East Germanic people from the Baltic and the Black Sea regions.

Features and Characteristics of French Gothic Architecture

The shift from Romanesque architecture to Gothic goes along with the end of the feudal ages, and the arrival of a new bourgeois order. During the Gothic period, medieval architecture reached its highest point of evolution, with distinct features compared to classic architecture. The social and political context was dominated by the Church, so religion was the main theme of Gothic art and architecture.

Gothic architecture brought many innovations in terms of construction systems and design. One of its defining characteristics was the sense of verticality, which was sought after in every building. The idea was that the more vertical the building would feel, the closer the faithful visitors would feel to God.

The layout in French Gothic cathedrals was often of a Latin cross. The main axis is the most important and defines the order of the composition. The secondary axis is evident in some examples but very subtle in some others.

Layout plan of the Chartres Cathedral
Layout of the Chartres Cathedral

Gothic walls became lighter due to their composition of stone columns and large windows or stained glass. These elements allowed for open, illuminated spaces in the interior.

The pointed arch was widely used in most of the French Gothic cathedrals. It was used as a structural and decorative element in doorways, windows, arcades, and galleries. Pointed arches were effective in channeling weight to the columns in a steep angle, thus allowing for ceilings to be much higher and to increase the perception of the verticality.

Vault ceilings were used, in the form of cross-ribbed vaults. This type of vault consists of two or more intersecting vaults, reinforced with ribs on the joints. This opened up the interior space of the cathedrals to accommodate more visitors. Vaults became increasingly complex as the Gothic style evolved.

The flying buttress is another defining constructive element of Gothic architecture in France. The buttress transfers part of the weight from the tall walls and helps keep the structure stable. They were created as a constructive solution but also became an important decorative element of the facade. The designs for the buttresses became much elaborate, enhancing the sense of verticality and greatness of the building.

Another functional element that evolved into a decorative item was the gargoyles. These little monsters were spouts for rainwater to drain from the roofs. However, they served a higher purpose; they were there to create fear of evil among the superstitious population of that time and encourage them to seek God's protection inside of the cathedral.

Examples of French Gothic Architecture

Notre-Dame of Noyon (1235)

This was one of the first Gothic cathedrals to be built in France, the construction took almost a century. The lightness and verticality of the structure are remarkable and we see the use of the pointed arch and the cross-ribbed vault.

Interior of Notre-Dame of Noyon Cathedral
Interior of Notre Dame of Noyon

Notre-Dame of Chartres (1230)

The cathedral in Chartres was built in only 26 years, a short time during the medieval ages. The building has a Latin cross layout, and on the exterior facades, stylized towers and buttresses were built to be both functional and aesthetic elements.

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Chartres
Cathedral of Notre Dame of Chartres

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