The Origins and Evolution of Gothic Architecture

The word “Gothic” often envokes a description of mysterious homes, or a modern-day group of people who have an affinity for dark aesthetics, but what the gothic architectural style historically brought to the built environment could not have been more opposite. Gothic designs were actually created to bring more sunlight into spaces, mainly churches, and led to the design and construction of some of the world’s most iconic buildings.

The Origins and Evolution of Gothic Architecture - Image 6 of 6
Basilica of Saint Denis. Image © Felix Benoist (Public Domain).

Gothic architecture was named for the Goths, a nomadic Germanic group that fought against Roman rule in the late 300s and early 400s. Their ascent is widely believed to have marked the beginning of the medieval period across Europe. Once the Goths held power, after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the creation of the new Holy Roman Empire from the 5th to 8th centuries. Although this group was not known for their architectural feats, the name “Gothic” was applied to the style of churches that emerged after the fact, nearly 1,000 years later. The style was first realized in France as a break away from the Romanesque style which boasted thick walls during a time when cultural development accelerated and architects and masonry workers had the opportunity to explore more complex structural elements. Politically, this era was marked by peaceful and prosperous times, where buildings were carefully designed and took up to a century to construct as a result.

The innovative structural elements that would support these mega-cathedrals would define Gothic architecture's aesthetics. First, the lightness of these structures came from the use of pointed arches, borrowed from Islamic architecture that was built in Spain around the same time. The arch reduced stress on other structural elements, therefore allowing the columns that support the arch to become more slender and taller- so much so that the columns extended all the way to the roof, forming part of the vault. The ribbed vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierne ribs into complex sculptural webs, or the addition of cross ribs known as tieceron.

The Origins and Evolution of Gothic Architecture - Image 4 of 6
Basilica of Saint Denis. Image © Wikimedia User Diliff Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Because of the lightness of the walls, elaborate stained glass mosaics were designed to allow light to flood the space, even projecting colorful patterns all across the interior. Gothic buildings, also feature ornamentation often in the form of gargoyles. Upon first glance, many gothic cathedrals can be hard to discern, but a close reading reveals intentional and very ordered designs.

The Origins and Evolution of Gothic Architecture - Image 3 of 6
Notre Dame Cathedral. Image © Flickr user davehamster licensed under CC BY 2.0

When you think of Gothic architecture, the first building that often comes to mind is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Its enormous rose windows and smaller stained glass features, flying buttresses that supported the tall roof structure, and decorative gargoyles that peer down over visitors is a truly exemplary image of Gothic style. It began construction in 1163, and its construction almost immediately influenced other cathedrals that were built around that time. It was completed almost 100 years later, after additional flying buttresses, or the external portion of an arch that sustains lateral forces that push a wall outwards, were added to hold up the massive roof. In an unfortunate tragedy, part of Notre Dame caught fire in 2019 but is currently undergoing careful restoration efforts. The Parisian government has promised that it would reopen in time for the Olympics in 2024.

After the construction of numerous gothic buildings, design tastes again shifted back to the more neat and straight lines that referenced architecture of the Classical era. But, as all styles have their recursive waves throughout history, fascination for medieval Gothic architecture was rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, when architects in the United States began to design buildings that imitated the cathedrals found across Europe, giving way to the term “Gothic Revival”.

Image gallery

See allShow less
About this author
Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "The Origins and Evolution of Gothic Architecture" 14 Jun 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.