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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?

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 successful.

A Tracery WindowGothic 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.

Chartres CathedralHundreds 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.

Gothic Vocabulary

Lancet: a tall, thin stained glass window with a pointed top.

Rose: a circular stained glass window usually constructed above the entry to a church.

Tracery: a popular Gothic window composed of two lancets topped by a rose window and crowned with a pointed arch (see drawing above)

Clerestory: a small window placed well above eye-level for the sole purpose of letting light into the interior spaces of the church

Other architecture articles from Volume VI (1997-98) of St. Joseph Messenger:

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

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