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Last edited 02 Jul 2021
|Amiens cathedral, France.|
Gothic is an architectural style applied mainly to religious buildings in masonry in the later middle ages, starting around the middle of the 12th century and lasting until the beginning of the 15th century. Originating in the Ile-de-France area of Paris, the Gothic period generally slots between Romanesque and Renaissance periods.
The main built form of the Gothic period was the cathedral (but also the church). The Gothic cathedral is seen as a perfect synthesis of architecture and structure, so much so that it is often very difficult to separate the two. This may be due to the fact that the designers were master craftsmen, skilled both in engineering and masonry.
The massive construction and ‘blockiness’ of the Romanesque period gave way to the lightness and verticality of Gothic, with its emphasis on the straight line. Where the Romanesque cathedral had a feeling of being a stronghold, encircled by thick, massive walls, the Gothic builders (often peripatetic and unknown) tried to achieve an etherealness by dissolving the wall until it becomes almost diaphanous. The wall becomes a thin shell of stone and glass.
Large windows filled with stained glass provided a new way to filter light and affect the religious experience. Indeed, the Gothic is as much about structural prowess in masonry as it is about a new interpretation of light which was used to determine the character of the new construction. The mass of the building appears to dissolve, helped in part by the large window areas, the longitudinal plan and the vertical lines leading the eye up to the roof.
In plan, the Gothic cathedral would have typically been that of a Latin cross although in some cases the transepts (crossings) were not that pronounced (e.g Notre Dame, b.1200). Divided into three longitudinal elements by a tall nave (where the congregation worshipped) which was flanked by side aisles to produce a tripartite division. The walls separating the nave from the aisles supported the main roof and took on a three-storied elevation comprising arcade (lowest), gallery (middle) and clerestory (upper). The nave elevation at Chartres cathedral (begun c.1194) clearly shows this division as does Rheims (begun c. 1211). In some cathedrals this was to become a four-storied elevation with the addition of a low-wall passage called the triforium, situated between the gallery and the clerestory.
A pointed arch can transfer forces fairly close to the vertical, so is therefore structurally more stable than the shallower semi-circular arch. The introduction of the pointed arch was a major change from the Romanesque and allowed the innovation of the ribbed vault – a diagonal support member which could be semi-circular or as close to it as possible, thus giving a profile that was not dangerously flat. This was not possible with the former semi-circular vaults of the Romanesque which by virtue of their shape over square bays would have resulted in very shallow, possibly flat (and therefore structurally dangerous) diagonal vaults. Vaults in Gothic architecture were typically rectangular bays supported by parallel, transverse and diagonal ribs.
 Flying buttresses
Although flying buttresses had been known in Roman times, the Gothic master craftsmen made particularly good use of them. Loads from Gothic cathedral roofs were very heavy which initially required the use of thick, heavy, stone abutments. However, flying buttresses (arches located outside the building) connected to the walls allowed the thrust to be conveyed off the nave walls and diverted outside the structure through the flying buttresses and into the ground. The buttresses also contained lead channels that allowed rainwater to be conveyed away from the roof.
 Other features
Other features of Gothic architecture:
- Height of the nave (43m at Amiens).
- Large windows to aid the effect of transparency.
- Stained glass windows (particularly rose windows) to filter light.
- Entrance – usually on the west, hence the west front is usually the most important elevation.
- Articulation of stone piers to give a lighter appearance and take the eye heavenwards.
- Long, narrow lancet window – 6-10 times higher than wide, popular in English Gothic.
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