The characteristic of architecture we now call Gothic first emerged in northern France in around 1140. It evolved during the construction of magnificent churches in the Paris region in a move towards greater height, light and volume. Later it was also used for secular buildings such as castles, palaces, bridges, city walls and gates. Key features include the pointed arch, the rib vault, buttresses (especially arched flying buttresses) and window tracery. Over time and across Europe, Gothic developed into a family of related habits.
Enthusiasm for Gothic architecture commenced waning in the early fifteenth-century, initially in the city-states of central Italy where it had never been entirely popular. However, in northern Europe, the vogue persisted into the sixteenth-century and beyond.
The novel Gothic method emerging in France was rapidly taken up in the United Kingdom. It was used in two highly important buildings: Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, where royal coronations took place. English Gothic buildings often include plant decoration, adding to the tree-like effect of the interiors. At York Minster, the stone “pendants” suspended from the canopies above the seats in the walls of the chapter house are carved with botanically accurate leaves that seem to burst into life.
In the later Middle Ages, creativity in Gothic architecture downshifted from cathedrals to parish churches. Many small churches serving local communities were built according to the latest fashion or refurbished in the habit. Parish churches across Europe still display the great variety and inventiveness of medieval architects and stonemasons working within a shared family of Gothic techniques.
French statesman, Abbot Suger (1081–1151), who is often credited as an historian and one of the earliest patrons of Gothic architecture, felt art was central to religious experience. In 1140–1144 he renovated the eastern end of his church, the abbey of Saint-Denis. The original and most influential building project in the novel Gothic vogue, it would be followed by a series of majestic Gothic cathedrals, in Paris such as Notre-Dame Cathedral, Soissons, Chartres, Bourges, Reims and Amiens. Much of Saint-Denis was restored in a succeeding fashion of Gothic during the 1230s. Portions of its initial Gothic architecture survive in the walkway around the eastern end and in the crypt beneath it.
The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, completed in 1248, is the solitary remaining portion of the palace complex built by King Louis IX (reigned 1226–70). With its masonry engineered to maintain vast expanses of glass, the Sainte-Chapelle became the most influential building of the period. Form and decoration were now taking over from height and volume as the main aims of Gothic architecture. Smaller-scale buildings were better able to showcase this new attention to detail and delicacy.
Regional building practices also had an impression on Gothic architecture. In north Germany and the Baltic region, the main building material was brick, resulting in striking exteriors. In central Europe, the ribs of Gothic ceilings evolved into a beautiful star and net patterns. The spectacular cantilevered tower at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire reflects the local tradition for timber construction. The pointed arches on the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace in Venice are a variation on the arcading typical of buildings in north and central Italy.
Later variants of Gothic embroidered key features of the vogue. Buildings decorated with miniature architectural forms by the Parler family of architects were enormously influential in central Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth-centuries.
In France, the cultural Gothic vogue extended its characteristic flame-like window tracery into other parts of the building in the form of stone screens. In the United Kingdom, the move was towards larger rectangular windows and elaborate, fan-shaped vaults. Thick layers of ornament are found in Spain, where Netherlandish and Islamic styles came together in the fifteenth-century, as well as in Portugal, where the decoration was inspired by maritime travel.
The optical properties and architectural engineering of Gothic construction were also used to build great castles and fortifications. These monumental buildings were planned for defence and administration, but also for their psychological impact on the local population. Following his conquest of Wales, Edward I of England (reigned 1272–1307) instituted a series of castles along the boundary of his new territory. Jaume II of Majorca (reigned 1276–1311) built Bellver Castle on regaining his lands in the Balearic Islands. The Teutonic Order established the castle complex at Malbork in Poland during their subjugation of the surrounding region.
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