German Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood in a large cathedral and looked up? Were you struck by beautiful stained glass windows and streaming light? In this lesson, we'll explore some of these basics of German Gothic architecture.

Gothic architecture in general

The term Gothic refers to a style of medieval art that developed in Europe in the twelfth century. It was a stunning contrast to Romanesque, the blocky, earthbound style that preceded it. Unlike the massive stonework, heavy walls, and few windows in Romanesque, Gothic style headed in a different direction and aimed skyward. During this time, the largest structures in communities tended to be churches, so religious architecture is a focus.

Advances like large stained glass windows and flying buttresses, external arched stone structures that supported walls, allowed for soaring height and more light-filled interiors. Gothic architecture has a strong sense of the vertical. Pointed, rather than rounded, arches also emphasized the upward surge.

Beginning of German Gothic architecture

Gothic style started in France around 1140. It gradually found its way to Germany, where the Romanesque style lingered. When Gothic arrived, it filtered first into places like Trier and Heidelberg that were closer to France.

The first major German gothic work was Strasbourg Cathedral, built in the second half of the 13th century. It sits in the city of Strasbourg in Alsace, a region that's now part of France but was once part of Germany. This cathedral began in the Romanesque style, but later incorporated Gothic elements. Cathedrals often took decades to build, so you can see style transitions arrive over time.

Strasbourg Cathedral, circa 1650
Strasbourg Cathedral

In this print of Strasbourg Cathedral, rounded arches on the lower side walls show its Romanesque beginnings. But after that, it heads skyward.

Flying buttresses support the side walls and the upper levels display pointed arches. The soaring tower with a tapered pointed top, called a spire, is another hallmark of the Gothic. There's definite Gothic emphasis on the cathedral's front facade, or decorative entrance wall, where doors, arches, statues, and other elements emphasize a vertical push. A typical German element of this structure is the single tower on the facade.

Unique German Gothic elements

As Gothic style spread in Germany, distinct elements developed, including hall-churches. In traditional Gothic churches, the nave, the long central interior section, was covered by one roof and separated from side aisles with thicker supports and a wall. The wall had smaller windows running along the external side of the church. In such structures, the aisle wall height is much shorter, so you only get a strong sense of vertical space when you stand in the middle.

But a hall-church has a nave and aisles that are the same height. It eliminates the lower side wall with small windows in favor of stained glass. The windows run the entire length of the walls, allowing a lot of light and a sense of soaring space. Immense roofs covered the nave and aisles. In the picture below, notice the sense of space and light created by the towering windows in the picture.

Church of Saint Nicholas, North Rhine-Westphalia. Example of the interior of a hall-church
German hall church interior

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