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Design History: Gothic

‘Design History’ is our new blog series – sharing research staff at EWD have undertaken to inform our own projects and for the enjoyment of the world around us. We feel passionately that only by understanding our design heritage, can we successfully design for today. We have condensed our internal reports here and hope you find them enjoyable and informative.


The Gothic style was the predominant style in Europe from the mid 12th century to the 16th century. The style was based off of the Romanesque style that was in practice prior but with modifications allowed by advancements in the engineering of the buildings.

The Gothic Style was originally referred to as “Opus Francigenum” (French Work) as this is where the style began; it wasn’t until the 16th century that the style was named Gothic.

The style was predominantly used by the Roman Catholic Church in the building of cathedrals but the characteristics of the style appear on other kinds of buildings. The first time the style was seen with all elements fully working together coherently was at the abbey (not a cathedral) of Saint Denis in Paris, completed between 1135 and 1144.

Gothic Architecture can be broken into three periods, Early Gothic; mid 12th – mid 13th century, High Gothic; mid 13th– 14th century, and Late Gothic; 14th - 15th century.


To understand the characteristics of Gothic Architecture it is best to see how they developed from the earlier Romanesque style.

The Romanesque style was, as the name suggests, based on the Roman style of building. The style featured many columns, rounded arches, and thick walls made of heavy stone. Any decoration was simple and often geometric and the ceilings were typically a barrel vault, as in a semi-cylinder.

The Gothic style also features all these elements but with modifications. The rounded arches became pointed and the columns and walls became much thinner as engineers found a new way to support the buildings; the flying buttress. Decoration became more and more intricate as the style developed and was often floral and curvilinear rather than geometric. The vaulting change from barrel vaults to more complex quadripartite and sexpartite vaulting. The walls and columns became thinner as time progressed and engineering developed. The buildings also began to get taller and there was the addition of large stained glass windows; there was an obsession with light and openness, connected to godliness.

These characteristics and the difference between the two styles can be seen below:

Anatomy of the Cathedral

Nave - central and principal part of the building, extending from the entrance (the narthex) to the transepts

Aisle - passageway to either side of the nave that is separated from the nave by a row of pillars or columns

Crossing - where the nave and the transepts intersect, usually topped by a tower

Choir - area that provides seating for the clergy and church choir

Apse - semicircular or polygonal termination to the choir or sanctuary, typically where the altar is placed

Chapel - Small areas around the apse for more private worship that often house relics. Can also refer to a larger attachment such as a Lady Chapel (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) seen regularly in the Late Gothic period


The Abbey of Saint Denis

The Abbey was founded by King Dagobert in the 7th century. Gothic structures were often built on the site of older buildings that had either been destroyed or just needed updating. The abbey was an important site as it was and still is today the burial place of many important figures. It was the Abbot Suger of the abbey who commissioned a west façade and new east end of the building, incorporating part of the older Carolingian building into it. The building has since been changed but the ambulatory and the chapels still belong to this phase of building. Abbot Suger wrote accounts of the building of the abbey as many abbots did, stating the aesthetics of the abbey “are infused with his personal aesthetic of light as a reflection of the infinite light of God.”

The abbey of St Denis features buttress strips, a precursor to the flying buttress, and a small rose window, an early attempt at an ornamental window. Many of the carvings are pictorial, featuring the second coming of Christ and other biblical stories, as wall as Abbot Suger himself kneeling at the foot of Christ. The people who commissioned and built these structures would often insert themselves into imagery within the building. Depictions of patrons (people who funded the construction of the new building) would also often appear in carvings and stained glass surrounded by saints or other religious figures.

Originally in Romanesque structures had enclosed chapels but here in Saint Denis they are opened up, allowing for more light and also a lighter feel. There is a vaulting pattern rather than a barrel vault, as well as pointed arches. There is extensive use of stained glass in the East end. Stained glass is only practical if there is a lot of glass as it darkens the light coming into the structure, which is why it could be used so extensively in the gothic buildings. After the construction of the East end, the work came to a halt as Louis VII, the main patron of the abbey went on crusade and could no longer funnel money into the project.

Nave of St Denis looking towards the apse

From this point on structures were built taller, with more glass, and more decoration. It was essentially a competition between each jurisdiction that had a cathedral, church, abbey, or monastery.

St Etienne de Sens (Sens Cathedral)

Abbot Suger had sparked a trend for renovation and rebuilding with his work at Saint Denis and so construction on the Sens Cathedral began in 1140, five years later. The choir was the first part to be complete in ca. 1160 and then the nave in 1180. It has alternating piers and columns and a pointed arch arcade. The piers feature where the three ribs of the vault join together as they give more support than the columns. There is a gallery above the nave, topped by the clerestory. The Cathedral shows a clear mix of the traditional, such as the double columns, a common feature of Roman architecture, and the new innovative styles. The cathedral itself is not especially tall (the nave reaches 24.4m) and the nave is rather wide, this is something that isn’t seen as the style develops. It features both quadripartite and sexpartite vaulting. There are heavy buttresses on the exterior of the building that offer support however these only work up to a certain height of building and thus are soon phased out.

The cathedral was built with William of Sens as the head architect, who then went on to work on the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, famous for its link to Thomas Becket.

Notre Dame de Paris

Another more famous example from this time is Notre Dame de Paris. The choir was built ca. 1160, the nave 1180, and the West Façade ca. 1200. This is the cathedral of Paris and so a statement was being made about how Paris was the centre of the French Kingdom with the construction of this building. It features sexpartite ribbed vaulting and 2 isles on either side of the nave. It also has the same three stories as Sens Cathedral. Heavy pillar style buttressed can be seen on the exterior of the nave supporting the weight of the vaults but flying buttresses were added to the design of the cathedral in the 14th century around the apse, giving the cathedral a lighter feel both inside and out. The cathedral was damaged and neglected until the mid 19th century when Victor Hugo’s novel titled Notre Dame de Paris(The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in English, sparked interest in the cathedral once more through its romanticised depiction and so it underwent renovations to restore it to its former glory. This campaign was led by Viollet le Duc.

Notre Dame de Chartres (Chartres Cathedral)

The cathedral had begun renovations in 1145, however burned down in 1194 and so underwent a full rebuilding process that lasted until 1220. This is an example of the next period of Gothic architecture, High Gothic. It features the same three stories as the previous cathedrals however there flying buttresses supporting the nave allowing for a taller clerestory than the previous structures. The whole structure is extended vertically and horizontal features that used to appear in previous structures were diminished, allowing the structure to seem taller and lighter and therefore connected to God. The structure main body of the church reaches 36.5m compared to Notre Dame de Paris’ 33m. Chartres Cathedral is perhaps most famous for its large rose widows which feature on the West façade and also at both ends of the transept. The window on the West façade features much thicker tracery to support the glass whereas the windows on the North and South ends of the transepts feature much finer tracery and are more intricate, this is an example of the Gothic style developing and advancing as construction is underway. These intricate rose windows are where the term “rayonnant” comes from in the High Gothic period as they appear to be radiating out from the centre. The cathedral is highly intricately decorated, especially in the tympanum and ribs of the arches on the facades. As time goes on these structures are becoming taller, lighter and more intricately detailed, each more so than the last.

The later 14th century and 15th century saw the development of Late Gothic. The two main styles under this bracket are Flamboyant (as in flaming) and Perpendicular (as in straight lines.) The Perpendicular style was very popular in England.

Beauvais Cathedral

A Gothic style structure began to be built on this site in 1225, however in 1284 a part of the choir collapsed. This was the beginning of many structural difficulties for the cathedral. Work came to a halt during the 100 Years War and picked back up again in 1500. It was at this time when an attempt to build the tallest tower in the Christian world took place. The transept and tower were completed in 1548 and the spire in 1569 after 6 years of construction and all the funding was funneled into it. The spire was 163m tall when complete, which made it the tallest in the world. In 1573 the bell tower and spire collapsed as there was not enough structural support. Due to this there was never enough money to finish building the rest of the cathedral and it remains incomplete until this day. This shows the extent to which the church communities desired to have the best and the biggest structure.

Kings College Cambridge

The first stone of the Kings College Chapel was laid in 1446 by King Henry VI. The chapel was not completed until 1515 and saw challenges to the throne, successions, and the War of the Roses while under construction. The long and complicated history of its building produced a beautiful and intricate result. There were four different master masons who worked on the chapel each taking over when the work picked back up after a battle or at the start of a new reign. In its completed state the chapel is composed of 12 bays covered with incredibly intricate fan vaulting decorated with Tudor motifs. This is the largest fan vault system in the world. The Chapel is an example of the Perpendicular style of the Late Gothic style which can be seen by the straight vertical lines that dominate the structure, especially in the tracery of the windows. The interior of the chapel reaches 24.4m and stained glass windows run the entire length of the structure.

Ely Cathedral

The first religious building on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral was built in the late 600s. For centuries it was a pilgrimage site where people would travel to see the shrine of Etheldreda (Audrey), the queen, founder, and abbess of Ely. The cathedral that exists today was begun in 1080, before the Gothic style began. Evidence of the Romanesque style can be seen in the nave as it is constructed from rounded arches and the clerestory is very small which no stained glass. In 1234 (Early Gothic) the apse was reconstructed to be a rectangular structure which was very typical of the English Gothic. The next part of the cathedral to be constructed was the Lady Chapel in 1321 (High Gothic) and then in 1322 the central tower collapsed, destroying the choir beneath it. Instead of entirely reconstructing the tower Alan de Walsingham, who was responsible for repairs and maintenance of the cathedral, decided to construct what we now call the lantern. The engineering used in constructing this feature was about 50 years ahead of its time. A new choir was also constructed later in the 14th century. Ely is a good example of a cathedral that was built over such an extended period of time that you can “read” the changes in style in the design.

Secular example:

House of Jacques Coeur

Jacques Coeur was one of the richest and most prosperous businessmen in France in the 15th century. His house was built in the mid 15th century, making it part of the Late Gothic period. The house is very decorated with lots of sculpture. There are some of the same elements that can be seen in Gothic cathedrals such as the large lancet window on the front of the building above the main entrance. This window features a heart like the window at York minster as Coeur means heart. The other sculptural elements on the front of the building are reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, such as these small turret like structures where sculptures would have originally been. There are many sculptural elements inside the house, many of which are architectural, such as these fortress motifs on the fireplace. The house also has its own personal chapel which is highly decorated.

Gothic Style not in architecture:

Other objects often featured Gothic architectural motifs, sometimes these were used as a way to practice new designs before constructing them to scale and others it was to show the objects connection to the church and to God. A prime example of this are reliquary châsses, where relics of the church were stored.

The Shrine of Jean de Touyl

The reliquary chasse depicts arches, vaults, and other sculptural elements that one would see in a cathedral. The decorations are made of gilded silver and translucent enamel panels depicting scenes of the Virgin and Child, evoking the stained glass windows of a cathedral.

Gothic Revival:

The Gothic style came back into fashion in both the UK and North America during the 19th century. It was a response to the backlash of Neoclassical architecture. Gothic architecture was also highly praised by John Ruskin, an influential art critic, in his books Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and Stones of Venice (1853). One of the most famous examples of Gothic Revival buildings in the UK is the Houses of Parliament in London. Some examples of Gothic Revival in Cambridge are All Saint’s Church, and St John’s College.

Research by Helena Wagg, Interior Design & Architecture Intern.



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