The most striking external feature of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch, yet it is part of a more extensive development, which created a new kind of vaulted ceiling and gradually transformed the Romanesque method of construction.
This development met the erstwhile massiveness of construction with a skeletal structure, ultimately resulting in the joist system. These joists gave an appearance of complete stability and security, even to the most daring creations of architectural imagination.
The groin vault rises between pointed supporting arches and is sectioned into parallel ribs that gather in a keystone in the vertex of the vault. Since these ribs were made of stone, the coping of the vault between them and the supporting arches only required light walls. Therefore, ribs were originally of greatest importance to construction, but throughout the Gothic era their role became more and more decorative.
Raising their number to three and four created six- or eight-part vaults. Eventually, the increase of ribs covering the copings of the vaults created the star vault, the net vault, and finally the fan vault with its low hanging keystones. The English Gothic, in particular, developed the latter with extravagance and rich imagination.
From the ribs of the groin vault the pressure was relayed onto the pillars of the nave, which also carried the supporting arches. Since these pillars had replaced walls in carrying the main weight, while also having to resist the lateral forces of the vault, they were reinforced not only in terms of circumference, but also externally with abutments, the so-called buttresses, which were weaker at the upper wall of the nave, but more significant at the outer walls of the aisles.
For additional securing, the buttresses extended beyond the walls of the aisles and climbing arches connected them to the flying buttresses of the nave. These flying buttresses anchored the construction securely.
To demonstrate that the Gothic architectural principle had found its perfection, its “keystone”, in these flying buttresses, their tops were adorned with small, slender spires, so-called pinnacles, which consisted of a lower, four-sided base (the body) topped by a pyramid form (the giant).
These pinnacles were eventually sectioned and decorated like the main spires, while the edges of the pyramids were trimmed with crockets, or leafy, bulbous formations; finally, their tips were crowned with a finial of four leaves.
The combination of the interior rib vaulting and supporting pillars with the external system of flying buttresses is most pronounced in Amiens Cathedral. The walls of the nave no longer show any closed mass because Gothic architecture avoids large surfaces and aims to display the frame of the construction as clearly as possible. The lower wall of the nave is interrupted by arcades with pointed arches; likewise, the upper parts of the wall below the windows are set off by a narrow aisle, the triforium, which opens onto the nave with arcades.
The formation of pillars, which fulfil various tasks, also differs completely from the Romanesque method of construction. Their cylindrical core is reinforced with half or three-quarter columns. Along the longitudinal axis, they carry the arcades; along the crossways axis they carry the vaults of the aisles on one side and the central vault on the other.
The result is a cluster of pillars, which is a characteristic and innovation of Gothic style. This new formation of pillars is still kept together by a provincial capital, which, however, consists only of a wreath of loosely strung leaves and no longer represents the actual end of the pillar. The half and three-quarter pillars climb above the roof to carry the supporting arches and ribbed vaulting.
The introduction of naturalistic foliage to the ossified forms of medieval ornamentation was a further essential innovation of the Gothic style. All these new designs proved to be very fruitful and would later lead to a renewal of the ornamental style, which had grown rigid from its relentless study of Antiquity. The overall delight in nature was awakened in the hearts of medieval people by courtly minnesong and commoners’ didactic poetry.
Both influenced stonemasons, too, who wanted to test their skills with chisel and hammer in the imitation of local leaf and plant formations. Oak, ivy, acorn and vine leaves were complemented by flowers that were particularly dear to the stonemasons.
These leaf and plant ornamentations, which were further refined by being painted naturalistically, spread not only over the capitals, but also over ledges and portal walls; they also framed empty surfaces. However, over the course of the Gothic period, this study of nature diminished.
Once accomplished, the ornamentation forms were thoughtlessly repeated until bulbs and buds appeared only in outlines and finally the memory of their model, which had been culled from nature, completely vanished.
Similar was the fate of the shafts and bars that structured the window openings and gave them outward closure. Originally, these window ornaments had only been a web of stone poles, but with time they developed into a well-ordered system. Within the outer pointed arch that encompassed the entire window opening, stone bars rose from the window ledges.
They sectioned the window into two to six fields and rejoined the top of the outer arch. The free space between these inner pointed arches and the outer main arch was filled with what is known as tracery, which consisted of stone circles and segments and was contained within a circumference.
This technique created geometrical figures of great variety. The segments were at first arranged around a circle like three and four-leafed clovers. The latter is called a quatrefoil. However, towards the end of the Gothic era, the number of leaves increased to six and eight.
The outer arches were further heightened with pointed ornamental gables, known as Wimpergs, the sloping rims of which were studded with crockets and peaked in a finial. The surface of the gable was also filled with tracery. The richest tracery designs can be found in the round windows that are usually located above the central portal of the western façades between the towers. These rose windows were the centrepieces of decoration. The rose window of Strasbourg Cathedral is particularly famous.
The changes that Gothic architecture brought to the ground plans of churches are less drastic and revolutionary. The basic form of the basilica was adopted from the previous Romanesque style and only expanded in some details. The cross-shaped ground plan was the norm; only the arms of the transepts did not always reach beyond the side walls of the nave.
In the Late Gothic the transept was often discarded altogether. The nave was usually three-aisled and even five-aisled during the highest developmental stage of the Gothic. The best example is Cologne Cathedral.
The Gothic really only reinvented the formation of the choir. Since crypts were no longer built, the choir was no longer separated from the nave, but instead considered to be a continuation.
The choir no longer ended in a half circle, but in a polygon. If the aisles led around the choir, they created an ambulatory. However, this was extended even further in the French Gothic: around the entire choir end, a series of chapels was added to the outer wall of the ambulatory.
This chevet rendered the choir the most important part of the entire construction. The master builders of Cologne Cathedral also adopted such a chevet. When a new Gothic cathedral was built or a Romanesque one rebuilt, the first concern was usually the choir.
The master builders and their clients invested most of their enthusiasm in it, not least because their main worry was housing the main altar as well as the local, often numerous clergy. Particularly in the initial, exuberant phase the funds provided by the princes of the Church flowed freely.
Later, when these funds dried up, citizens were also forced to contribute. Consequently, the enthusiasm strongly diminished under the pressure of ecclesiastical or political turmoil. This explains why the choir structures often far surpass the naves in their richness of creation and artistic decoration. Also, the two sides of the nave are frequently uneven in design, one being more lavish, the other more sober and humble, which may be another indication of the decrease of overall wealth and artistic stamina.
Very rarely did Gothic architectural works actually achieve complete balance, even though the law of symmetry was at the spiritual core of the style. The buildings that were completed in the nineteenth-century came closest to this ideal.
When a Gothic church construction had progressed to the stage where the nave needed to be concluded with a façade, the artistic spirit usually recovered no matter how difficult the external circumstances. Surely all Gothic master builders intended to perfect a house of God with a pair of mighty towers, or a single, but even more gigantic tower. However, executing their own original ideas, or at least witnessing their implementation, was not granted to all.
Lengthy work on the towers dragged on from one artistic family to the next and slackened in proportion to the dwindling enthusiasm of devout donators. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth-century, public building interest shifted to different objects altogether.
Every successor to construction leadership tried to outshine his predecessor, without worrying whether the first plans had contextualised the façade and the tower in a well-considered organism. The most famous example of master builders’ artistic egocentricity is Strasbourg Cathedral, where artistic unity is sacrificed for ambition. Its single northern tower stands in stark contrast to the façade. As such, the tower is a work of art that no one would want to exchange for perfect regularity.
It is possible that the architectural artists of the later Gothic period recognised the inner law of the Gothic — symmetry — as a constraint which tried to break their liberated imagination. This could explain certain, often reoccurring differences, such as the uneven handling of nave façades or pairs of towers that were begun at the same time, yet completed one after another.
Naturally, the richer is not always the later example: often it was the hardship of the times that forced master builders to employ simplicity and economise. However, the essential feature of the Late Gothic is nonetheless the propensity to the picturesque and a desired liberation from norms, which in the end deviated into empty play with mathematical formulae.
In their creative joy, the old masters did not feel that this would be the end of the Gothic. The artist who strides ahead in the stream of time always courageously looks ahead, never back with fear.