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Rayonnant vs. Flamboyant Style Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Gothic style is often seen as very serious, but there's something undeniably fun about its later years. In this lesson, we'll examine two later Gothic variations and see how they compare.

Gothic Architecture: Structure vs. Style

When we think of dramatic cathedrals from European history, a lot of times we're picturing buildings made in the Gothic style. These aren't too hard to identify. If it's a medieval church, capped in dramatic spires, set with large stained glass windows, and possibly containing some gargoyles, it's probably a Gothic building. Gothic churches were defined by new techniques in structural engineering that let builders create edifices that were much taller, while also having relatively thinner walls and fewer internal supports. Altogether, the result was a towering building with a spacious and well-lit interior. It was unlike anything Europeans in that time had seen before.

The basic tenets of Gothic churches are these structural elements. However, we can't ignore the fact that these same elements resulted in buildings that simply looked awesome. That fact wasn't lost on medieval Europeans either, and eventually builders stopped focusing so much on the technical elements of construction, and started spending more time on playing with the decorative elements. The results were two important and undeniably fun variants of the Gothic style, the Rayonnant and the Flamboyant.

The Rayonnant Gothic Style

The first variation of Gothic architecture to start focusing on style over structure was the Rayonnant style, which appeared between 1200 and 1280 in France. For the first time, builders stopped trying to be so innovative with new engineering techniques and started focusing on adding ornamentation to basically every flat surface they could find.

Within a Rayonnant church, look for the repetition of motifs, such as shapes or patterns repeated on different scales throughout the building. You're also going to notice a lot of visual emphasis on the height of the building, with the strong use of vertical lines drawing your eyes upwards. At the same time, this height is coupled with a visual weightlessness, as the walls and ceilings seem to almost float despite their physical weight.

Rayonnant interior of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris
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It's a cool aesthetic, but how is it achieved? The secret to the Rayonnant style is in its most defining feature: stained glass windows. This was the first time that architects really started reducing the amount of stone in the walls to open lots of space for huge windows. These windows bring natural light into the interior, provide the visual linear focus, and help the walls feel so visually weightless.

The most important of these windows is the rose window, the massive circular one set into the far end of the nave. In fact, this is where the Rayonnant style gets its name. Rayonnant is derived from the French word for ''radiating,'' describing how the patterns of the rose window seem to radiate from its center, like decorative spokes from a wheel. This effect is largely created through the use of window tracery, the stone elements that hold the glass in place.

Interior and exterior views of Rayonnant-style rose windows of Notre Dame in Paris
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Some of the most important examples of the Rayonnant Gothic style can be found in Sainte Chappelle of Paris, Reims Cathedral, and Amiens Cathedral. The style lasted until about 1340, when the Black Death struck France and architectural innovation ground to a halt for a decade.

The Flamboyant Gothic Style

If you thought the Rayonnant style was eye-catching, just wait until you see what came next. To give you an idea of what to expect, it's called the Flamboyant style. That's not a style to be ignored. Around 1350, France started recovering. French builders took the visual emphasis of the Rayonnant style and apparently decided it just wasn't quite decorative enough. So they added more. Of what? Everything.

Intricate vaulting in the Flamboyant Gothic chapel of the Hotel de Cluny
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