Gothic – Architecture features

Gothic architecture

Today it is time to learn more about the Gothic Architecture features that made this style so famous!

Let’s start!

Hi everyone!

In the previous post we learnt more about the enigmatic Gothic Art. It developed during the Medieval period as a new style of architecture and it rapidly spread beyond its origins to sculpture and painting in the whole Europe.

Today I want to go deeper in the Gothic architecture features to understand the big innovations and impact Gothic has had in the creation of the huge cathedrals!

Cathedral Saint-Etienne (Bourges)_Gothic - Architecture features
Cathedral Saint-Etienne, Bourges


It emerged in Île-de-France, the Northern region that includes Paris, in the early 12th century and lasted until the 16th century. During that time Gothic architecture was known as Opus Francigenum (“French work”). It started to be called “Gothic” in fact just during the Renaissance whit the meaning of “Barbaric”. Why that? Well because this new style broke most of the “classical” rules in architecture, even if it was a Romanesque‘s evolution.

Already in the Basilica of St Denis, the first example of Gothic architecture, we can easily understand how the main features were so innovative.

Basilica of Saint-Denis_outisde_gothic introduction
Basilica of St Denis

The Pointed Arch

And we need to start with the foundation: the pointed or ogival arch. It is an arch with a pointed crown, whose two curving sides meet at a relatively sharp angle at the top of the arch.

Pointed arch geometric - Gothic - Architecture feature

Compared to the round arch, the pointed one allows to reach dramatically greater heights and make more space for windows.

Semi-circular arch compared to Pointed/ogival arch_scheme
Semi-circular arch (left) vs Pointed/ogival arch (right)

The Ribbed Vault

The combination of pointed arches led to the development of the pointed ribbed vault. The Gothic vault of pointed arches, unlike the semi-circular vault of Roman and Romanesque buildings, can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped plans. The other structural advantage is that the pointed arch channels the weight onto the bearing piers or columns at a steep angle. This enabled architects to raise vaults much higher than before!

Notre Dame, Gothic Cathedral Paris
Notre Dame Paris, nave

Furthermore, Gothic builders designed a new and lighter kind of rib vault that allowed to distributed the weight of the roof downwards and outwards. Not just downwards like in the barrel vaults.

If some ribs go downwards as colonettes and are bundled into pillars on the ground floor, other ribs carry the thrust outwards to the walls. These outwards strengths are counterbalanced by heavy flying buttresses outside the walls. On top of them we can see pinnacles that are not mere decorations, but help the buttresses to have more strength adding weight.

Section of Reims Cathedral with flying buttress over aisles
Section of Reims Cathedral

Since the weight was supported by a “skeleton” of pillars and buttresses that you can see in the illustration above, the walls themselves could be much higher and thinner. This made possible the expanses of stained glass that are another beautiful characteristic of Gothic cathedrals.

Saint Denis Choir, stained glass windows, Gothic architecture feature
Basilica of Saint Denis choir view

Floor plan

The combinations or arches, vaults and flying buttresses was combined in a plan what usually was following a scheme plan called Latin cross.

Gothic cathedral floor plan
Gothic Cathedral floor plan

A long nave is the body of the church that meet a transverse arm called transept. Beyond it, an extension which may be called the choir, chancel or presbytery. The area where the nave and transept meet is called the crossing and it could be surmounted by a stone tower. The nave is generally flanked on either side by aisles. These are sometimes doubled, not only because natural “extensions” made by the buttresses, but also to give more internal space and magnificence to the entire building.

As you can see, the application of a “simple” element like the pointed arch made possible to revolutionize the architecture! It is amazing thinking that a structural element was consequence of such a lot of beauty.

The ogival arch in fact makes possible to reach extreme heights. Combining many arches, builders obtained ribbed vaults that, at the same time, allowed to have more space for the windows that are another key feature in Gothic Art as well as the flying buttresses with their pinnacles.

I know, I know that it is a lot of names and details, but now that we learnt a lot more about the main Gothic features in architecture, in the next post we will see a beautiful application of them! So stay curious and see you soon!

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