The Gothic style of architecture is one of the oldest and most magnificent styles of architecture that we have in our society today. The Gothic form was prominent in the construction of buildings during the Middle Ages. The Medieval era spanned approximately from 500-1500. The Gothic form itself did not appear until around the year 1200 where it remained the dominant form to the end of the era. The Gothic form of architecture has been pivotal in art beyond the Medieval Period and continues to be an important element in our understanding of art and architecture in our culture today. The Gothic style of architecture can be split into 3 categories. The first is called the Early English Gothic style. This style branched off from the early Norman architecture into something much more ornate. The Normans used large stones to craft their buildings, but the Gothic architects replaced these large stones with shaped stones that were cut with utmost precision. The Normans also used hollow walls in their architecture which were extremely thick. The new Gothic style used solid walls and pillars which were much thinner but also allowed the buildings to hold far greater weights. The ability to create bigger buildings led to one of the main features of Gothic architecture; grand and tall buildings. Early English Gothic architecture also placed an emphasis on the height of buildings which led to the use of the pointed arch. The pointed arch was able to support greater weight which was another element that allowed the walls to be thinner along with with wider window openings. Flying buttresses were introduced as a structural feature during the Early English Gothic period. These buttresses helped to distribute the weight of roofs and walls as well as pushing against the lateral force of the walls. The chisel also began to be used, as opposed to the ax, which led to more decorative designs in the buildings. Stone Gargoyles were also introduced which served as waterspouts protecting the building foundations from rain. The nest section of Gothic architecture, which ranged from approximately 1300-1400, is the Decorated Gothic style. This style was characterized by wider windows which were decorated with tracery and ornamentation. Gothic Rose Windows were used dominantly in great Gothic Churches and Cathedrals but some smaller Rose Windows were featured in the chapels of Gothic Castles. Gothic Rose Windows were created in a similar form as the stained glass window. “Stained glass led to a great extension of window openings, and the development of tracery. In itself it lost the mosaic character and became more translucent, the pieces being larger, and lighter in tone. The subjects portrayed became of more importance, and there was a loss in the general decorative effect of the interior, but the glass in itself gained in value and expression” (victorianweb). The use of vaults and buttresses as structural elements allowed the elaborate Rose Windows to be featured in buildings as the major source of light. The final branch of the Gothic style is the Perpendicular Gothic Style which included fan vaulting and hammerbeam roofs. “The ‘Hammer-beam Roof’ is considered to be a natural evolution of the triangular framing adopted at the foot of the trussed rafter roof, and consists generally of hammer-beam, struts, collars and curved braces. The hammer-beam is merely the lengthening and thickening of the ‘sole-piece’ at the foot of the trussed rafter, the principal rafter being strutted, and the weight of llic roof carried lower down the wall by means of a curved brace tenoned into the hammer-beam and wall-piece. Being thus strengthened, it forms a truss which, repeated at intervals of 10 feet or more, supports the intermediate rafters of the bay” (victorianweb). Westminster Hall in London England is an example of this type of roofing.
All three of these branches of Gothic styles formed what is now known simply as Gothic architecture. The main elements of Gothic architecture are grand and tall designs, flying buttresses, pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, a light and airy interior, gargoyles, and an emphasis on ornate designs.
This style emerged in the 12th century after knights travelled to the Byzantine Empire and saw the magnificent architecture they built. Initially this style was simply called “The French Style” because it first emerged with the Goths. Although this style of architecture is arguably the most beautiful form, many people rejected it simply because of their misconceptions about the Medieval Period. Another important aspect of Medieval architecture is iconography. Iconography is defined as, “the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject” (Merriam-Webster). Iconography was an extremely important aspect of the Medieval church. In the church certain icons, such as pictures or statues, would be given deeper symbolic and spiritual meaning. This idea transferred into Gothic architecture and became one of the oldest art historical disciplines. Many Gothic buildings depicted spiritual scenes, such as the crucifixion, as a part of the ornate detail (see images on blog). By the end of the Medieval period most architecture lost its spiritual and symbolic meaning and was created simply to be aesthetically pleasing. Exeter Cathedral, which was established in 1112 in England, is one of the greatest examples of authentic Medieval architecture.
During the 1740s in England the Gothic revival movement began. Up until this point, people completely rejected everything associated with the Middle Ages. Faulkenhagen states, “Gothic was originally a pejorative term, implying barbarism, as contrasted to the classicism of Western civilization. During the eighteenth century, or Age of Enlightenment, the art and architecture of the Middle Ages were often disparaged as barbaric remnants of feudalism and superstition” (Faulkenhagen). Many 18th century philosophers disliked the Middle Ages because of its religious connections. The 18th century was a period of enlightenment where reason was considered to be deity rather than God. These philosophers also believed the Middle Ages to be a childish and grotesque time in history. Because of the bad reputation that the Medieval Period had, society refused to consider implementing any Medieval practices including architecture. Fortunately, writers and artists began to admire the Gothic style and revived it in their literature and art. This Gothic revival is also associated with the rise of Romanticism in the early 19th century. These artists and writers wanted to push the cultural boundaries. They, like so many other artists and writers, were not content simply creating their art in one form that fit into one specific category. They wanted to move past the classical form and explore new ideas. These artists and writers looked back to the ornate architecture of the Gothic tradition and became inspired by its beauty. This Gothic Revival in architecture can be seen most prevalently in cathedrals and churches. For example, St. Patricks Cathedral is one of the most wonderful examples of Neo Gothic architecture.
The construction of St. Patricks Cathedral began in 1858 and was not complete until 1878. Archbishop Hughes was determined to build this cathedral and refused to be content until the doors swung open. “Ridiculed as ‘Hughes’ Folly,’ as the proposed, near-wilderness site was considered too far outside the city, Archbishop Hughes, nonetheless, persisted in his daring vision of building the most beautiful Gothic Cathedral in the New World in what he believed would one day be ‘the heart of the city.’ Neither the bloodshed of the Civil War nor the resultant lack of manpower or funds would derail the ultimate fulfillment of Hughes’ dream and architect, James Renwick’s bold plan” (St. Patricks). This cathedral encompasses many of the elements of the Gothic style including vaulted ceilings, a tall and grand exterior, and exquisite detail spread throughout the entire cathedral. Another Neo Gothic cathedral in New York is the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester. This cathedral was opened in 1927 and underwent major renovations in 2005. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a beautiful example of the Neo Gothic style with its vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and grand exterior.
This cathedral is also the greatest example of Neo Gothic architecture standing in Rochester today. Because of its beauty and grandeur, the Gothic style has survived for over 900 years. Although many philosophers and architects originally rejected the Gothic style because of its Medieval connotations, it continues to be one of the most magnificent forms of architecture in our culture today. Because of the Gothic revival, many Neo Gothic pieces were created which we are still able to enjoy in our communities to this day. There are thousands of skyscrapers and technologically advanced buildings across the globe, but none of the modern architectural forms are able to reach the awe-inspiring beauty of Gothic architecture.