Gothic Architecture: Style, Characteristics & History

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  • 0:05 St. Denis: The First…
  • 2:13 Fundamentals of Gothic…
  • 2:30 The Pointed Arch
  • 3:45 The Road to the…
  • 5:47 The Flying Buttress
  • 7:25 Examples of Gothic…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson covers the three main features of Gothic architecture: the pointed arch, the rib vault and the flying buttress. We then look at a slideshow of examples of the Gothic style around Europe.

St. Denis: The First Gothic Cathedral

The new Church of St. Denis was built in a new style called Gothic.
St. Denis

In 1137, Abbot Suger began to rebuild the Abbey Church of St. Denis. Suger was not content with the dark, bulky, haphazard style of Romanesque architecture. Suger wanted his church to be a graceful expression of geometric harmony, striving toward Heaven and flooded with miraculous light.

Years later, the new Church of St. Denis was revealed to the world. As Suger had wished, this new church was definitely unlike its Romanesque predecessors. Where Romanesque churches were short and thick, his new church was tall and elegant. Where Romanesque churches were dark and imposing, his new church was bright and inspiring. Suger called his new style of church 'modern.' His critics called it Gothic.

When you hear the word 'Gothic,' you probably think of the kids in high school - you know, the ones who wore a lot of black clothing and eyeliner and wrote depressing poetry of questionable quality. A thousand years ago, the word 'Gothic' referred to the Goths, a group of Germanic barbarians who had invaded and looted much of the Western Roman Empire. When the people of the 12th century called Suger's new church Gothic, they meant it was unrefined, barbaric and non-Roman.

Those critics were almost entirely wrong. First of all, Gothic churches showed incredible refinement. Second, they marked the apex achievement of medieval civilization. However, they were right about one thing: these churches certainly were not Roman. This is what makes Gothic architecture so fascinating. After centuries living in the shadow of Rome and trying to copy the marvels of the Roman Empire, Western Europe had finally come up with something new, something marvelous in its own right: the Gothic cathedral.

Fundamentals of Gothic Architecture

There are three things that make Gothic architecture Gothic:

  1. The pointed arch
  2. The ribbed vault
  3. The flying buttress

These three elements come together in Gothic architecture, and the results changed the world.

The stress lines of a pointed arch are much more vertical than those of semicircular arches.
Stress Lines

The Pointed Arch

The pointed arch makes all the rest of Gothic architecture possible. Its predecessor, the semicircular or Roman arch, had some severe limitations. These limitations have to do with what engineers call 'stress lines.' A stress line is basically the direction in which an arch distributes the pressure above it. The stress lines of the semicircular arch are mostly horizontal. This meant that the weight above these arches was distributed to the sides of the arch, pushing against the walls on either side. This is why Romanesque churches had such thick walls and tiny windows. They needed all that bulk to support the weight of the roof pushing outwards.

By contrast, the stress lines of the pointed arch are much more vertical. The weight above the pointed arch is mostly directed downward to the supporting pillars. This means that you no longer need big heavy walls to support the roof. This redirection of force from a horizontal to a more vertical plane is characteristic of the other elements of Gothic architecture.

The Road to the Pointed Ribbed Vault

This is especially true of the ribbed vault. A vault is essentially an extended arch made of masonry used to roof a building. In early vaulted churches, the base arch was the standard semicircular arch. The resulting barrel vaulting was very heavy, and its stress lines tended to push out the walls of the church.

Pointed ribbed vaulting directs weight downward and eliminates the need for thick walls.
Pointed Ribbed Vault

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