Gothic Sculpture and Stained Glass Windows: Characteristics & Style

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  • 0:07 Decorating the Great…
  • 0:49 Stained Glass Windows
  • 1:59 Gothic Sculpture:…
  • 2:35 Order
  • 4:24 Realism and Sculpture…
  • 7:20 Lesson Summary
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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.

In this lesson, we cover the development of Gothic architectural decoration, specifically decorative sculpture and stained glass windows. You'll learn about Gothic use of stained glass and the evolution of sculpture from Romanesque decoration to Gothic statues.

Decorating the Great Cathedrals

In the 12th century, as Gothic cathedrals began popping up all across Europe, those in charge of decorating these fabulous structures were faced with a new challenge: Given the grand scale and great importance of these buildings, how should they be decorated? Gothic artists responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. On the outside, Gothic sculptors decked their cathedrals with an ever-growing array of decorative sculptures. On the inside, Gothic glaziers took advantage of advances in Gothic engineering to build soaring walls of stained glass, flooding the interior with light.

Stained Glass Windows

Gothic architecture is marked by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses
Gothic architecture

Probably the most important form of Gothic architectural art was the stained glass window. Stained glass windows are closely tied to the architectural developments of Gothic cathedrals. Most of the innovations of Gothic architecture were developed for the very purpose of adding more stained glass windows to churches. From pointed arches to rib vaults to flying buttresses, all of these techniques allowed Gothic architecture to replace the thick, dark walls of Romanesque cathedrals with thin, towering walls of colored glass.

These stained glass windows were the multimedia stories of their day. Since very few people could read at the time, stained glass windows offered illiterate Christians a glorious glimpse into the tales of the Bible. Fitting pieces of glass together in lead frames, Gothic glaziers wrote the stories of the Bible, not in words but in light. You can identify Gothic stained glass windows by their massive size as well as their shape. There are two standard Gothic shapes of stained glass window: the tall window with the pointed arch and the round rose window.

Gothic Sculpture: Order, Realism and Sculpture in the Round

While glaziers were flooding the interior of Gothic cathedrals with holy light, sculptors began coating these cathedrals with decorative sculpture. We see three trends developing in Gothic sculpture:

  1. The wild movement of Romanesque sculpture is replaced with geometric harmony and symmetry.
  2. We begin to see the first steps toward full sculpture in the round, or 3-D sculptures that stand on their own two feet.
  3. This trend is accompanied by an increased sense of realism in Gothic sculpture.


We can see the first of these developments most clearly by comparing Gothic sculpture to earlier Romanesque sculpture. Romanesque architects invented the art of adorning church entrances with dense sculptural decorations called a tympanum. Here's a particularly fine tympanum from the entrance to the Cathedral of Autun. Let's look at some of the features of this tympanum.

  • It's a semicircular arch decorated with shallow relief.
  • The figures are highly stylized with thin, puppet-like arms, captured in the middle of spontaneous movement.
  • The figures vary in size depending on their placement.
  • They are densely crowded together, to the extent that their limbs are often entangled.

Now let's compare that Romanesque tympanum to this Gothic tympanum from Chartres Cathedral:

  • This tympanum is a pointed arch, decorated with deep relief. Indeed, the figures are almost fully rounded.
  • The figures are much more realistic, and they stand or sit with a quiet dignity instead of the wild movement of the Romanesque tympanum.
  • Each figure is the same size as its neighbors, and instead of being crowded together every figure has a place, separated from its neighbors by architectural elements.

Gothic sculpture, left, contains more realistic figures and details than does Romanesque sculpture
Details of Gothic sculpture

Comparing these two, we can see how the chaotic wildness of Romanesque decorative sculpture gave way to the stately order of the Gothic style. We've gone from highly stylized figures of various sizes, gesturing wildly and often entangled in their dense crowds to much more realistic, standardized figures standing with a quiet dignity within their place in the overall architectural framework.

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