The Architecture of Gothic Churches

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  • 0:08 Gothic Architecture
  • 0:25 Floor Plan
  • 2:46 Vertical Structure
  • 4:10 Outside Features
  • 7:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Gothic churches were complex structures composed of many different elements. Learn about the construction of Gothic churches both inside and out, including the goals of the people who built them.

Gothic Architecture

During the High Middle Ages, there was a constant push to glorify God through increasingly large, complex, and brightly lit churches. By the 12th century, the Gothic style was developing specifically to address these goals. Here, we learn about the different parts of a Gothic church and how they developed throughout the period.

Floor Plan

Large Gothic churches were built according to a basilica floor plan, which was originally designed by ancient Romans as an administrative center and which early Christians adopted during the Roman Empire. The Roman basilica was a rectangular building with a large, open central area known as the nave. Along either side of the nave were two aisles. The entrance opened into a narthex. Opposite the narthex was the apse, a semi-circular alcove set into one end of the building.

All of these aspects were worked into the Gothic church. In Roman basilicas, the apse held items representing the power of the gods or the government. When the design was adopted for churches, the apse became the most holy location of the building, containing the high altar, which represents the presence and holiness of God. Because God is associated with rebirth and resurrection, the apse was generally pointed towards the east, the direction of the rising sun.

The Church also added a major feature: the transept. These extensions to the north and south transformed the rectangular floor plan into one shaped like a Christian cross. This further emphasized the holiness of the location. Where the transept and the nave meet is the crossing. Frequently, a large bell tower was constructed over the crossing. The tallest towers are over 400 ft tall, which is the equivalent of a 40-story building.

Two more towers were added to the ends of the narthex. All three of these towers often had pointed tops called steeples. These emphasized the height of the building, which was another major goal, since heaven is commonly envisioned as being above everything else. Normally, the towers match one another. However, in the case of Chartres Cathedral, shown here, one of the steeples was damaged by lightning in the 16th century, and it was replaced by one reflecting the style of the times, which accounts for the lack of symmetry.

Between the transept and the apse was the choir, which held church singers, priests, and monks. The average person was not allowed to sit here, as it is adjacent to the high altar in the apse.

Another feature added by Gothic architects was the ambulatory. This is a passage that circles the apse. Chapels, often dedicated to specific saints, particularly the Virgin Mary, commonly branched off the ambulatory. Chapels could be found in other areas of the church as well.

Vertical Structure

Gothic churches competed to be the tallest buildings in Europe. This feat required considerable engineering skill, and the design was based on the creation of a vault. A vault is a curved roof supported by columns. Originally, these roofs were semi-circular, but in the Gothic style, the curve was pointed at the top. Vaults could support the weight of these immense buildings much more efficiently than a flat surface, and a pointed vault was more efficient than a semi-circular one.

The Gothic church is split into three levels. The first is the floor level. The second level is the gallery, also sometimes called a triforium. This is a walkway over the aisles, which looks out over the nave. These may be small areas where pilgrims can rest for the night, or they can be wide expanses.

The third story is the clerestory. This part of the church is taller than the aisles so windows can bring in light. A major aspect of Gothic architecture was to bring in as much light as possible, representing the illumination of God, so developments in the clerestory were central to the Gothic style.

Gothic windows were filled with stained glass, which uses colored glass and metal frames to create elaborate images. As the style continued to develop, stained glass decorations became increasingly complex, and the windows became larger and more numerous. Eventually, almost the entire clerestory was constructed of glass.

Outside Features

Previously, the outside of churches had been fairly plain and functional. This changes in the Gothic style.

The curve of the vault continued outside the building via the flying buttress. The flying buttress connects the building with upright supports called buttresses standing several feet away from the building. By moving them away from the wall, they are able to offer support without making the walls heavy, which allows for larger windows. The buttresses themselves emphasize the vertical height of the building. To further emphasize the height, slender, pointed sculptures called pinnacles decorated the roof and buttresses.

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