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Rayonnant Style 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 entered a large church and been surrounded by walls composed of windows? You might have been in a Rayonnant Gothic church. In this lesson, learn about the Rayonnant style in Gothic architecture.

What is Rayonnant Style?

In the Middle Ages, churches across Europe were built in a style known as Gothic. Gothic architecture developed in medieval France in the 12th century. During the early Gothic period, builders worked to develop better ways of supporting walls and ceilings so churches could become larger and have more open interiors. Advances like pointed arches, vaulted ceilings and tracery, or supporting stonework between glass sections, allowed them to achieve soaring heights and light-filled spaces. As the style developed, adaptations occurred. In the 13th century, Rayonnant style grew out of Gothic, and it's regarded as the culmination of Gothic architecture.

When Rayonnant came about, the structural challenges of the Gothic period had been met. An early example of the style, Amiens Cathedral, built between 1220 and 1270, is the tallest cathedral in France. But it feels lighter than earlier Gothic churches despite being made of stone. It also features more elaborate and thinner tracery. As Amiens suggests, Rayonnant was about refinement and decoration rather than changes in building techniques. Think of it like this: Now that builders knew how to construct Gothic churches, they were going to make them more delicate and refined. Rayonnant developed in France and spread to places like Leon, Spain and Cologne, Germany, where the Cologne Cathedral is considered a wonderful example of the Rayonnant style.

To better understand Rayonnant, let's discuss some important characteristics of the style.

Characteristics of Rayonnant Style

One of the most obvious elements of Rayonnant style are large stained glass windows, including massive circular rose windows. In fact, the Rayonnant style gets its name from the tracery of these windows, because many rays or bands of glass radiate out from the center like the spokes of a wheel.

A rose window from Amiens cathedral
Rose window from Amiens Cathedral

Builders had refined tracery and stonework to such a degree that Rayonnant churches seem like beautiful architectural shells dominated by wall-to-ceiling windows, with only thin areas of the wall supporting them. The windows were the focal point of the church. Walking into one of these structures gives an illusion of weightlessness. One of the finest examples of Rayonnant architecture is Saint Chapelle (1241 - 1248) in Paris, the palace chapel of Louis IX. Its upper chapel is a colorful open sea of glass.

Interior of the upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle, dominated by stained glass windows.
Interior, upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle

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