What is the Gothic style?

The Gothic style is a decorative style that dominated Europe throughout the late middle ages, beginning in the 12th Century and lasting up until the 16th Century. The style originated in the Ile-de-France, the area around Paris, and quickly spread throughout France and to the rest of Europe.

The Gothic style was preceded by the Romanesque style and succeeded by the Renaissance style.

The Gothic originally flourished in architecture and became primarily associated with religious buildings - it can most famously be found in cathedrals all across Europe. The Gothic then spread to encompass other secular buildings including castles and important houses, as well as painting, sculpture, furniture and interiors in an entire decorative movement.

Wells Cathedral facade in the gothic style

The West Facade of Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England. © Diliff via Wikimedia Commons.

The style became synonymous with religious motivations and content, highly intricate details, tall, towering buildings with spires and the celebration of light, colour and monumental beauty.

After enthusiasm for the Gothic style waned in the 16th Century, it was revived during the 19th Century in the Victorian period. This revival then became known as Neo-Gothic, Gothic Revival, or even the Victorian Gothic.

Where does the word ‘Gothic’ come from?

During the middle ages when it was popular, the Gothic style was known as opus francigenum (French work), due to its origins in France.

However, the first use of the word ‘Gothic’ for the style came about much later as a pejorative description, and it stuck.

The word bears reference to the Goths, who were barbarian tribes that most likely came from either Scandinavia or Germany. The Goths were responsible for the sacking of Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire, in 410 AD, and played a large part in the fall of the Empire in 476 AD.

They then rose to power across Europe, and from the 15th Century the erudite Italian historians of the Renaissance held them responsible for destroying the legacy of the Roman Empire and bringing much of Europe into a period of decline that is now known as the ‘Dark Ages’.

The term ‘Gothic’ was consequently coined by these scholarly Renaissance historians who criticised the style by associating it with supposed barbarians, who were crude, ugly and tasteless.

The ‘Gothic’ style was actually nothing to do with the Goth tribes and the word has – in most instances – lost its ugly, barbaric connotations.

However, we continue to use the word ‘gothic’ to describe this style – and, to the horror of its critics, has enjoyed a great deal of popularity throughout history.

Where, when and why did the Gothic style originate?

The Gothic style originated as an architectural style that was used by the Catholic Church, which had become more and more powerful throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

During the late Middle ages, Europe underwent significant border changes leading to new nations which were all under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.

Developing nations meant new cities, towns and changing demographics, and, thanks to significant technological advances in stonemasonry and building techniques, buildings could reach new heights and fill huge volumes.

The Catholic Church wanted to build huge, new churches for worship that would promote their faith, and so in building these new churches, the Catholic Church reacted to the macabre, god-fearing sense of religion that dominated the Middle Ages. People turned to worship in preparation for a foreboding day of judgement or a catastrophic change.

The Gothic style therefore expressed this apocalyptic ‘millennial anxiety’ that had taken hold from the year 1000, and, after gaining momentum over the course of the next hundred years, the style that emerged incorporated many elements that were designed to ward off evil spirits or signs of an apocalypse and lead the pious into God’s light.

Rather than paintings or decorations, these features were incorporated into the very bones of the buildings, and so the Gothic style was twofold – it provided a safe harbour within its magnificent, awesome structures and yet it simultaneously reminded all who viewed it of the horrors that could befall those that shunned the Catholic faith.

The earliest surviving building in the Gothic style is the abbey of Saint-Denis, which was built in Paris in 1140. In this church, elements of the preceding Romanesque style have been fully adapted into the Gothic, or as it was called at the time, opus francigenum.

 The style quickly spread throughout the region surrounding Paris, the Ile-de-France, and to England and the rest of France.

Through the building of churches, cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries, the Gothic style spread along with factions of the Catholic Church to England, Prussia (modern-day Germany), Poland, Hungary, and even as far as the Baltic states, and South to Italy, and Spain, where it enjoyed centuries of dominance.

It was so rapid that by the late 14th Century, much of Europe was touched by the Gothic style.

What was the Gothic influence on architecture?

The Gothic influence on architecture only occurred due to significant advances made in stonemasonry in around 1100 that, combined with the religious influence of the Catholic Church, meant that tall buildings, which stretched impossibly upward toward the heavens pierced with plentiful stained glass were deemed to be ethereal, magical qualities which would lend these buildings sufficiently inspirational qualities. 

However, in the late middle ages where society was re-emerging from the Dark Ages, this was easier to imagine than to conceive and build.

Reims cathedral

This view of Reims Cathedral, France, shows many key influences of Gothic architecture and the huge size and scale.© Wikimedia Commons.

The answer to the future lay in the present, and the techniques that were key to the Gothic style relied on the preceding dominant architectural style – the Romanesque. The Romanesque style was popular between the years 800-1100, and was characterised by semi-circular arches as a dominant feature across the design.

These Romanesque buildings were not structurally strong enough to be built tall with large, open spaces inside, and so stonemasons are thought to have found influence in aspects of Eastern architecture to facilitate the key characteristic that made the tall, slender, Gothic style possible – the pointed arch, which had been incorporated in Islamic architecture since the 7th Century AD

The pointed arch would come to define the tall, vaulted ceiling of Gothic buildings and, as well as allowing spaces for windows, was supported by the new technique of the ribbed vault.

Ribbed vaults were made with connecting pointed arches – two diagonal arches stretching from corner to corner in a curved ‘X’ shape. The vaults were joined to the walls at further pointed arches, and they were engineered so that the pressure and weight of the roof could be transferred along these connected segments back to robust pillars supporting the walls.

Vaults of the Cathedral Saint-Gatien in Tours, France, showing the curved 'X' forms from below meeting pointed arches. © Wikimedia Commons.

Vaults of the Cathedral Saint-Gatien in Tours, France, showing the curved 'X' forms from below meeting pointed arches. © Wikimedia Commons.

Key features of Gothic architecture

 The key features and characteristics of Gothic architecture were fine, intricate stonework and prominent pointed arches all over, as well as an overall tendency toward sweeping heights and soaring ceilings.

Cologne cathedral from above

This is Cologne Cathedral in Germany from above, showing how it towers over even the modern buildings around it. It is also possible to see how intricate every aspect of the stonework is, even from above! © Wikimedia Commons

Buildings were large and impressive, and the style was mostly reserved for churches, cathedrals and castles or chateaus.

The stonework in Gothic buildings would be heavily ornate and intricately decorated all over with roundels, statues mounted into pointed arch-form niches, windows and pierced stonework galleries, carvings, grotesque masks and sculpture as well as a great deal of stained glass, often depicting religious scenes and figures.

Milan duomo

The heavily ornamented facade of Milan Cathedral, Italy. © Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons.

Another prominent feature are the supporting ornate pillars attached to the exterior of buildings which are known as flying buttresses. They are often so intricately carved that they resemble wings or darts, and they  help to support the monumental weight of these tall, vast buildings evenly.

Unlike the preceding Romanesque style, the Gothic style of architecture was no longer dependent on robust, thick walls, and in turn this engineering allowed for far more detailed decorations to be incorporated into the very bones of the buildings.

In recent years, popular culture has come to associate the Gothic with the dark, brooding and sinister, but in reality this could not be further from the truth.

Flying buttress

The many flying buttresses extending outward like wings from Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France. © Wikimedia Commons.

Stained glass and architecture

Stained glass and windows, sometimes considered to be more of a painted craft than architectural, were already an important devotional aspect of religious buildings in the Romanesque style, but they became larger and more ornate through the Gothic style.

Nativity stained glass

A detail from a 12th Century window showing the Nativity scene from the Life of Christ in the Basilica of St. Denis, Paris. © Rebecca Kenninson via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to the innovations that allowed Gothic buildings to have larger windows than ever before, for the first time, stained glass windows truly became an artform, and the most impressive of Gothic stained glass was the rose window.

Rose windows were shaped like many petals separated by a fine, intricately carved stone web within a wheel. Rose windows were a prominent feature in many Gothic cathedrals. Another prominent use of stained glass in cathedrals was in the long, tall chapels, which were often decorated with long, slender panes of glass.

It was possible for windows to illuminate and cast shimmering colours throughout the interior, as well as depicting increasingly technically fantastic religious compositions.

Rose window Strasbourg

The Rose window at Strasbourg Cathedral, France. Wikimedia Commons

As an antidote to the apocalyptic fears of the Middle Ages, Gothic architecture was cut like a multi-faceted diamond, and the stained glass would sparkle like gemstones, bathing all around in magically coloured prisms of light.

What was the Gothic influence on sculpture?

Gothic sculpture, as an artform, was fully influenced by Gothic architecture, into which it was most often completely incorporated.

One of the most common types of Gothic style sculptures were rows of sculpted figures, often of saints or important religious figures, that were incorporated into the façade of a Gothic style cathedral or church to either side of the doors, or portals.

These figures were often displayed in motion, raising a hand or gesturing, holding objects which allow them to be easily identified by an illiterate medieval public. It is through the use of many of these statue sculptures that the exterior of Gothic buildings are able to achieve such a heavily ornate appearance.

Gallery of kings

The 'Gallery of Kings' sculpted statues on the facade of Reims Cathdral, France. Wikimedia Commons

Another important type of Gothic sculpture is the gargoyle – a small ‘grotesque’ fantastical creatures that were used to disguise aspects of plumbing and drainpipes on the exterior of a large, Gothic style building.

Gargoyles would often issue water from their mouths in different directions to divide the flow of falling rainwater. Many gargoyles had humorous appearances, although many others were designed with menacing, frightening appearances to ward off evil spirits.

Gargoyle_Sticking_Out_Tongue.JPG

A Gargoyle sticking out its tongue at York Minster Cathedral, York, England. © Wikimedia Commons

It was not just the outside of Gothic buildings that featured sculptures - the interior of churches and cathedrals were further adorned with sculptures, which were similarly mostly figural and could depict religious scenes, figures, or a moment from biblical history.

Altars or pulpits might feature highly intricate reliefs or sculpted figures which were crafted mostly in stone but also sometimes in wood and were designed to inspire devotion and to bring religious figures and important biblical moments to life.

Some sculptures, however, were portable. Small carvings, mostly for the illiterate, were created as devotional objects – souvenirs of a pilgrimage to a certain shrine or cathedral or small figures of saints were very popular in certain urban centres, where their production accrued a considerable industry.

Some of these small sculptures were designed to be worn on the body, or some others took the form of a relief scene in stone or ivory which could serve as an altarpiece in a private space of worship.

What was the Gothic influence on painting?

The Gothic style did not influence painting until c. 1200, around 50 years after the emergence of Gothic sculpture and architecture.

Gothic painting was heavily influenced by the preceding Romanesque style. Compositions remained simplistic, featuring strong, contrasting colours, and focussed on religious subjects and depictions. Gradually, figures became more animated and emotive. Architectural elements of paintings came to resemble Gothic architecture.

The greatest Gothic influence on painting occurred through the use of different mediums, which gained momentum during the period.

One of the most important forms of Gothic painting was manuscripts, which were often religious texts, known as ‘illuminated manuscripts’, or bibles that were illustrated and printed with decorative illustrations and used as personal worship devices. Often, they would also contain prayers to say at various times of the day, or information about saints considered relevant to the owner.

Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, by Jean Pucelle, Paris, 1320s.

An illuminated manuscript, or Book of Hours, by Jean Pucelle, Paris, 1320's, showing quite typical Gothic-style illustrations in black and white. © Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the finest illuminated manuscripts featured gold leaf and many bright pigments and colours, which were very expensive and rare at the time. However, it was customary for a lot of manuscripts to be illustrated in black and white.

Altarpieces and panel paintings were other important aspects of Gothic painting. Altarpieces would often contain two panels, known as diptychs, or three panels, known as triptychs, which could be folded to hide the paintings on their panels.

These panels and altarpieces mostly depicted scenes from the bible, and were made for churches, cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries, although very wealthy people were able to afford small panel paintings, or even personal diptychs or triptychs for their own homes.

The wilton diptych

The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395, is one of the most famous portable worship devices in existence. It is full of rich symbolism relevant to its wealthy owner, and can be visited in the National Gallery, London. © Wikimedia Commons.

It became customary for personally owned painted panels to travel with their owner wherever they went, and the owner was often painted into the panels alongside saints or the Virgin.

Frescoes, which were paintings painted directly onto plastered walls, also became an important aspect of Gothic style painting and were often used in France and throughout southern Europe to depict saints and religious scenes on the interior of churches. These continued an older Christian and Romanesque tradition, although they were adapted to the new Gothic style similarly to paintings.

Gothic revival & the neo-Gothic

The late-medieval Gothic style of architecture waned in popularity in favour of the Renaissance, which swept through Europe from the 16th Century.

However, the Gothic revival style flourished between 1830-1900 and became known as Neo-Gothic, or, in England, Victorian Gothic.

The Gothic revival was inspired by the buildings of the 12th to 16th Centuries, and many of the architectural elements were incorporated into buildings built in the modern period. A huge interest in medieval chivalry – knights, maidens and romantic tales – defined much of the 19th Century, and the Gothic provided the perfect aesthetic for these fantasies.

What was the Gothic influence on furniture and interiors?

Whilst many large and important buildings, both religious and secular, were built in the Gothic revival style during the 19th Century, the Neo-Gothic became a popular interior design style for 19th Century homes both large and small, of any style and age.

Neo-Gothic interiors would feature carved wooden panelling or painted wallpaper with Gothic motifs in place of stone carvings. Designs such as the pointed arch and ribbed, vaulted ceilings were created with plaster work and trompe l’oeil painted techniques.

house of lords

The Neo-Gothic House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster designed and built by A. W. N. Pugin in the mid-19th Century. Note the carved wooden panelling which minics the exterior of Gothic buildings, as well as the pointed arches and architectural features. © Wikimedia Commons.

Many pieces of furniture and decorative objects were crafted according to the design principles of the Gothic, and some works were even made to resemble a miniature church or cathedral in a nod to the historic medieval masterpieces.

Furniture, mostly crafted in wood and intricately carved, was often painted with elaborate scenes and heraldic motifs.

 gothic revival furniture

This Gothic revival table and chair feature similarly intricate carvings that resemble the towering spires of Gothic architecture. In fact, the back of the chair is quite similar to the facade of a cathedral. © Wikimedia Commons.

Legacy of the Gothic style

The legacy of the Gothic style is twofold: decorative and innovative.

The architectural techniques developed during the late medieval period not only made the Gothic style architecturally possible, but paved the way for the creation of tall, soaring buildings ever since.

Whilst techniques have been much refined since, it was these initial steps in engineering that have allowed architects from the Renaissance up until the present day to continue pushing the boundaries of architecture.

The Gothic buildings of the late medieval period, many of which are nearing 1000 years in age, offer us with a lasting reminder of the magnificence and beauty of the period, and serve as famous landmarks all across Europe.

The word ‘Gothic’ now describes a range of styles in popular culture, but in its true, late-medieval sense it is present and inspirational across interior and the decorative arts. Many pieces of antique furniture in the Gothic style are highly collectible, beautiful pieces and are consistently brought forward and celebrated by collectors internationally.

We do not have to venture far to encounter the Gothic – may its legacy be enjoyed for centuries to come.

Main image: Oldmanisold via Wikimedia Commons.