The Development of Gothic Style & the Cathedral of Chartres

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  • 00:00 The Gothic Style and…
  • 1:50 Door Jambs
  • 2:51 The Interior
  • 4:57 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.

An early example of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral in France demonstrates how the style developed over time. Learn about the cathedral's development and how it compares to earlier Romanesque buildings as well as later Gothic ones.

The Gothic Style and Chartres Cathedral

Gothic churches are immensely complex buildings. It can be difficult to keep so many different elements straight, particularly since there are considerable differences between different buildings. Here, we look at Chartres Cathedral in France, one of the chief examples of the style. Built in the mid-12th century CE, its steepled towers, flying buttresses, and rose windows are all foundational elements of Gothic architecture.


Chartres' West Face

This is the west face of Chartres Cathedral. As the name implies, this portion of the church faces west. The west face is normally the main entrance to the church. At Chartres, the west face is on the oldest part of the church, so it is the least Gothic. For example, Gothic arches are pointed at the top, while the older style, the Romanesque style, has rounded arches. Here, the arches over the doors are mostly round, with subtle points at the tops. The windows are also all rounded or nearly rounded. However, the tall, thin shape of them is distinctly Gothic.


The fact that there are three doors is also standard, as this represents the concept of the trinity in Christianity; that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At Chartres, this set of entrances is known as the Royal Portal because the decorations feature a variety of kings and queens, although their individual identities are debated.


In comparison, Reims Cathedral was built several decades later and illustrates how styles changed in that time. Arches are more distinctly pointed, and triangular gables have been placed over the entrances and windows. The windows are taller and thinner. And the surface of the west face is much more intricately carved. Overall, Reims offers are much more complex and, perhaps, even confusing image of a Gothic structure.


Door Jambs

The jambs are the decorations on either side of the doorways, and all of the door jambs at Chartres have this type of sculpture, although they are at various stages of development. The figures at the Royal Portal are somewhat Romanesque in the fact that they are overly elongated. However, the attempts at realism in the details are distinctly Gothic.

Door jamb figures on newer portions of the cathedral are much more proportional and, thus, more Gothic. Here, on the south side of the cathedral, five Old Testament prophets have slightly more bulk, are in more dynamic positions and, most notably, are far more detached from the wall behind them. They now take up space rather than being part of the columns to which they are attached.

Door Jambs

Reims Cathedral is also known for its large number of sculptures. Because it is newer, you can see further progression in the realism of the figures, as well as their three-dimensionality. Here, they almost look like freestanding sculpture, although they are not. They are still attached to the wall of the cathedral.

Sculptures of Reims

The Interior

Like the outside, Chartres's interior also offers up arches, which are only slightly pointed. The technique of crisscrossing arches, as seen here, is called ribbed vaulting and is standard for Gothic architecture. It helps to reinforce the arches, allowing them to bear more weight. Looking up, you can find large stain glass windows with minimum stonework holding them up.


Here we compare Chartres with Sainte Foy, an older, Romanesque building. Ste. Foy's arches are rounded and not rib-vaulted. The windows are smaller, and they are spaced farther apart. They are also missing stained glass, which was not widely used until the Gothic style.


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