What Makes It Gothic?
You've probably heard someone refer to
certain churches as being "Gothic."
Well, what exactly does that mean? What makes it
Gothic architecture made its
debut in the cathedrals of France during the 12th
century. Between 1130 A.D. and 1230 A.D.
twenty-five cathedrals were built within 100
miles of Paris. All of them were
"Gothic." These cathedrals can be best
characterized by two features: height and light.
The Gothic architects used
height and light to obtain a feeling of
aspiration toward God and heaven. They did this
through the use of an ingenious structural
system: the weight of the building is placed on
outside supports called butresses. Since
the walls were freed from bearing the weight of
the ceiling, they could be designed with large
openings. Artists filled these openings with
stained glass--tiny pieces of colored glass fit
together to form images which told the stories of
Jesus and the sints of His Church.
When the sun shines through
these stained glass windows, the light is
transformed into multi-colored patterns on the
floor. The architects of the Gothic cathedrals
were trying to create an other-worldly
feeling--the beauty of heaven. They were
Gothic architecture also tends to be
dramatic in height. The walls typically appear as
tall, thin columns set between the windows.
Again, this is a result of the Gothic structural
system employed. Whereas most other types of
church buildings are covered by trusses, wooden
roofs or stone barrel vaults, which do not permit
large openings as can be found in Gothic
architecture, the Gothic cathedrals are covered
by a unique set of masonry vaults (see diagram
below). These vaults are formed by the
intersection of two half-cylinders which allows
arches to appear on all four sides.
The floorplan of the Gothic
cathdral resembles the shape of a cross. The
horizontal arm of the cross is called a transept.
It extends out from the main body of the church,
called the nave. This Gothic floorplan is
a reminder of Jesus' passion and death.
Hundreds of Gothic cathedrals were built
in Europe between the 12th and the 15th
centuries--the Notre Dame Cathedrals of Paris and
Chartres (at right), France are probably the most
well-known. Many American architects who liked
the looks of the Gothic churches imitated them in
the design of their churches in the 19th and 20th
centuries. Most often, however, the American
churches--such as St. Mary's Cathedral in
Covington, Kentucky, or Sacred Heart Cathedral in
Newark, New Jersey--did not employ the Gothic
structural system. The buildings were merely
built to look like their European predecessors.
We would properly call this American version
"Neo Gothic" since true Gothic
architecture is not so much a decorative style as
it is a structural system.
The Flying Butress
The Gothic goal of creating a
single, open, high, lighted interior space was
achieved by the use of flying butresses. The
barrel-vualted ceilings were butressed (held in
place) by means of these wall-like pillars set
outside of the church. They acy like slender,
gigantic fingers. As the illustration at the
right shows, flying butresses have a straight
upper surface and a curved lower surface. Heavy pinnacles
were added on top of the outer pillars which were
needed to weight don the butress properly.
The men who designed the flying
butress were artists guided by geometrical
concepts of proportion yet one of the basic
methods they used to acquire knowledge was the
process of trial-and-error: they kept at it until
they perfected their building techniques. The
development of the Gothic structural system with
its flying buresses is one of the greatest
achievemants in architecture. It is no
coincidence that it was devised by men of great
faith who wished to give honor and glory to God
through their arts and crafts.
a tall, thin stained glass window with a pointed
a circular stained glass window usually
constructed above the entry to a church.
popular Gothic window composed of two lancets
topped by a rose window and crowned with a
pointed arch (see drawing above)
a small window placed well above eye-level for
the sole purpose of letting light into the
interior spaces of the church
articles from Volume VI (1997-98) of St. Joseph
Grotesque Guardians of the Cathedral
Notre Dame de Paris--the Bible in Stone
The Gothic Cathedral Like a Mighty Ship
Hagia Sophia: from Cathedral to Mosque to Museum
Inside the Church