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Gothic Architecture – Unique Features and Structures that Fascinate

Gothic Architecture evolved from Romanesque architecture and was prevalent in Europe from the late 12th century to the 16th century. Its architectural style is largely recognized through its impressive details and expression of carved stonework. It features completely full of artwork, light, glass, vaults, and more finer and transcalent.

Unique and outstanding qualities of Gothic architecture are –

  • A unique way of handling architectural stress.
  • Arches designed to push each other, stone walls stabilized by flying buttresses, and reached heights never before.
  • Lengthy Spires as if meeting the sky.
  • The extraordinary use of light from luminescent stained glass windows.
  • Vaulted ceilings, pinnacles, tracery, and mesmerizing decorative details.
Wells Cathedral; Image source – Wikipedia.org

Architectural Features of Religious Gothic Architecture

The churches were of Basilica type with a central Nave and side aisles separated by arcades. The nave is higher with vaulted ceilings, large windows, and clerestories that let the natural light inside. Flying Buttresses support Central Naves in Gothic Architecture. The buttresses supported the weight, as a result, this allowed the buildings to be taller, with thinner walls and wider windows.

In addition to basilicas and hall churches, which were constructed along the horizontal axis, centrally planned churches were designed with round or polygonal forms. In the halls, a choir screen divided the Nave and the choir that separates the monks and clergy.

1. Pointed Arches

The most significant and impressive characteristic of the Gothic style is the pointed arches. Arches were pointed to allow them to bear greater weights of masonry above them. They were used both for structural and decorative purposes. The pointed arches were also used for construction purposes, such as to bring transverse vaults equal to the height of diagonal vaults.

Arches give a sensation of height and vertically draw our eyes upwards, similar to spires. Pointed arches adoring the facades were impressive and were commonly used for arcades, windows, and doorways.

The pointed arches of the early Gothic period were narrow windows terminating in a lancet arch (lancet windows).In the later periods, these pointed arches were of different sizes and decorated with sculptures.

Gothic architecture
Varieties of pointed arches; Image source – Wikipedia.org
Gothic architecture
Image source – study.com
Gothic architecture
Photo source – romeofthewest.com
Gothic architecture
Image source – pixabay.com

2. Ribbed Vaults

Large unique windows and great heights and widths were possible with Ribbed vaults. Ribs (little arch frames) span the vaulted area transversely and each vaulted bay has diagonal ribs similar to a groin vault. They consist of diagonal crossing arched ribs. Small pieces of stones were filled in between these ribs. Here, the ribs are structural members which direct the thrust outside to the corner of the vault and downwards to columns below by colonettes. The outward thrust against the walls was countered by the weight of buttresses and later flying buttresses. As a result, the walls were thinner, unlike the thick walls of Romanesque architecture. Six ribbed vaults in the earlier periods and four ribbed vaults in later stages were more common.

In the later periods, the four ribbed vaults were more decorative with additional features or forms such as

  • More decorative features.
  • Addition of ribs to form a star design and branching patterns.
  • Additional decorative ribs formed triangular and geometric forms.
  • Ribs spacing equidistantly upwards and outwards in the shape of a fan – Fan vault
  • Other new forms were skeleton vaults, umbrella vaults, and elaborate vaults.
Vaulted arches; Image source – Shutterstock
Image sources – Pinterest

3. Windows and Stained Glass

The glass was melted and colored with traditional techniques and lead was used to join stained glass fragments. The windows were featured with the stories of the bible.

Rose windows

Rose windows were a significant feature of Gothic Style Architecture and the rose was considered as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The design of the rose windows was circular with stained glass patterns with a circle and radiating patterns meeting at the perimeter of the circle. It illustrates God’s love radiating to all sides.

Most of the Gothic cathedrals included rose windows in the western facades.


Tracery is the decorative system in Gothic windows. The windows were divided into various sections by stone bars or ribs. Different forms of geometrical, floral, and radial patterns present the Gothic style with a unique definitive character. They were not only used on windows but also on walls, gables, gablets, etc.

Rose windows; Image source – Pinterest.com
Gothic architecture
Rose windows; Image source – link.springer.com

A study of rose windows – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00004-015-0264-6

4. Flying Buttresses – A significant feature of Gothic Architecture

Another significant feature of Gothic architecture is the flying buttresses. These buttresses were in the arch form standing outside the cathedrals and carried the thrust or weight of the roof to a heavy stone column. They were placed in rows in the external facades, similar to arcades and several decorative features were added to them. In German cathedrals, buttresses were richly decorated with sculptures, ornamental features, and pinnacles.

The buttresses not only served as structural purposes but also formed an elegant and awe-inspiring feature for the facades. Pinnacles adored the buttresses on the top. They were also serving practical purposes that carried the rainwater runoff by lead channels. The rainwater expels from the mouth of Gargoyles.

Gothic architecture
Flying Buttresses; Image source – Shutterstock

5. Towers and Spires of Gothic Architecture

Spectacular towers and spires were notable and inspiring features of the Gothic style. Most of the facades have a central rectangular section (belfry) that contains a bell, including two planned towers on either side and spires on the rooftop. The purposes of a bell tower were –

  • Belfry is an interesting feature of the façade.
  • Announcement of religious services.
  • The ring of the bell was also considered as a warning when an enemy attacked.
  • Announcement for the celebration of victories.

The towers and spires represented great heights; visibly prominent buildings among other structures of the city were considered symbolic of the path of heaven. Octagonal spires rising up the sky were standing on triangular or polygonal bases. The sculptures of the saints and Judgment day adorn the entrances of the cathedrals.

Image source – Wikimedia commons

Examples of Gothic Architecture

1. Amiens Cathedral

Image source: wikipedia.org
  • BuildingAmiens Cathedral
  • Function/Use: Roman Catholic Church
  • Location: Amiens, France
  • Date of construction: 1220-1270
  • Architect: Robert of Luzarches, Thomas and Regnault de Cormont
  • Key Features: Three entrance portals arranged linearly
  • Materials Used: Stone, polychrome sculpture
  • Structure: The structure features grand arcades, and upper windows and is constructed with harmony by striking dimensions.
  • Façade: The three entrance portals stand out of the facade amid the central entrance portal dominating by its size. Above the pointed arches, you can see a gallery of sculpted kings residing in niches arranged in a horizontal band across the entire facade. A rose window occupies the center above the horizontal band with open arcades on either side and a series of pinnacles above. The towers rising above on either side are not symmetrical as they were built in different years.

2. Cologne Cathedral

Image source: wikipedia.org
  • Building: Cologne Cathedral
  • Function/Use: Roman Catholic Church
  • Location: Cologne, Germany
  • Date of construction: 1248-1473
  • Key Features: a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value
  • Materials Used: sandstone, stained glass
  • Structure: Cologne Cathedral comprises one of the highest Gothic vaults in the world.
  • Façade: The facade comprises highly ornate tracery, pinnacles, stone spires, finials, and pointed arches. Twin towers rise high above as if touching the sky.

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