A History of Gothic Architecture

The Explosion of the Gothic

An Introduction


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This collection of over a hundred churches is first a picture book illustrating the History of Gothic Architecture with the best photos from the internet. It does not pretend to be another, new essay on the subject of which there are several listed under Further Reading. The selected places were compiled from many sources; they reflect my personal interests.
In this I considered Gothic architecture characterized by the use of pointed arches. Other specific accoutrements, like rib vaults, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows, elaborate tracery, towers, spires, pinnacles, and ornate façades, appeared later.

Ordering the very large number of examples chronologically, as I have done for Romanesque Architecture, soon revealed that this method did not produce any meaningful insights. The fact that the Cathedral of Plzen, Bohemia (1295) was begun one year before the Duomo of Florence (1296) may surprise the reader, but does not say anything about their mutual architectural relationship – even if there were one. However, the chronological table does show, how in a mere 200 years the Gothic spread like wild fire to the farthest corners of Europe, an explosion sine qua non.

I then decided to arrange the material by country, which immediately showed that this architectural style was started by the Normans almost simultaneously in Apulia, Sicily, England, and France after 1060.
Where did the pointed arch come from? The Normans did not invent it, and neither did they have the artistic imagination that surfaced in the next 50 years in the cathedrals of England, France, and Germany. Unfortunately the obvious answer to this conundrum, Islamic influences, gets one into a heated argument with the art-historians, who deny any such explanation.
Undeniably, however, the pointed arch appeared first in Islamic architecture following the Islamic conquest of Roman Syria and the Sassanid Empire in the 8th century.

Abbasid Damghan, Persia, 750

Buyid Na'ín, Persia, 860

Ar-Raqqah, Syria, 10th cent
Photos Wikipedia

Pointed arches have practical, structural advantages. In high-aspect-ratio openings like those in Gothic architecture, they distribute the load more evenly on its supporting columns. That alone justifies their use. The characteristic that necessitates pointed arches are the Gothic's penchant for over-high windows and spaces, and these, for liturgical reasons, it does not share with Islam.

The further development of the Gothic style shows that this over-heightened sense of space, sens de l'espace, Raumgefühl is restricted to northwestern Europe, to England, France, and Germany. Italy and Spain do not – with exceptions – share it. The Normans transmitted the Islamic architectural methods – and provided in all probability Islamic (sufi) artisans – but they, as their Sicilian cathedrals show, were not inspired by the spiritual Gothic ecstasy that obsessed the Northern Europeans. For political reasons they were more interested in representational Byzantine splendor.

My material, divided into three sections, Western Europe, Germany and Eastern Europe, and Mediterranean Europe, demonstrates the regional differences in the development of Gothic architecture. To give the reader a chance to see by himself, I shall collect my remarks and observations here, independent of the pictorial presentation.

Western Europe: England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands

England is an example of the melding of three cultures fertilizing each others creativity: English, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman. The arrival of William the Conqueror in 1061 started a flourishing building boom. The Anglo-Saxon churches were razed and replaced by “Norman” cathedrals headed by William's nephews as bishops.
One of the first observations is the size of these cathedrals, and in fact the Gothic building craze is one huge competition to build the longest, highest nave or tower. This resulted in building histories of many decades and occasionally hundreds of years, and often enough the daring constructions collapsed and had to be rebuilt – of course, in the newest style. Due to these long construction times the churches are not of a uniform style, begun with Norman Romanesque naves, they acquired high Gothic choirs and west façades.
An architecturally unique building is Wells Cathedral (1175-1230). Except in its outer appearance the architect completely freed himself of Norman influences and created an idiosyncratic nave, framed by two flamboyant aisles.

France's Gothic cathedrals are well enough known as to need a special introduction. Chartres, Reims, and Amiens are the highest expression of the French Gothic's sens de l'espace. But unfinished Beauvais (1225), which drives the French style to its most daring limit, was not as familiar to me.
The French Gothic is characterized by magnificent Rose Windows over the main door of its West Façades, which are absent in England and the Low Lands. I have tried to illustrate each cathedral with additional photographs to emphasize their special character.

The French section is prefaced with the Gislebertus tympanon of Vezelay, which, although La Madeleine is a Late Romanesque church, heralds the spirit of the coming age of the Crusades and Gothic sensibilities.

The churches of the Low Lands, Belgium and Holland, because of their history, exhibit a separate, more conservative style. The land being flat, they have exaggerated high church towers.

Eastern Europe: Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Poland

Cistercian monasteries occupy a special place in Gothic architecture. Founded at Citeaux, Burgundy in 1098 by Robert of Molesme the Cistercians devoted their lives to silence and manual labor. Representing the quiescent aspect of their times they built bare abbeys with austere, conservative churches all over Europe until the 16th-century Reformation. Dissolved during the 19th century they played an important role in the Christianization of Eastern Europe. Their cloisters always incorporate a fountain.

The German Gothic developed its own forms. Except in Strasbourg their cathedrals have no Rose Windows, naves are wider and less high than in France, their decor is less flamboyant, their ambiance more inmate. A characteristic of the German Gothic are the towers. Cologne, Ulm, Freiburg and Strasbourg got the highest most elaborate Gothic church towers in Europe. Often they were only completed during the 19th century Neo-Gothic revival.
A special variant are the brick churches of the Hanseatic cities along the Baltic Seaboard. Many of the Northern German churches joined the Reformation. By contrast the churches in Bohemia, Poland, and Austria remained Roman Catholic and show the elaborate Baroque interiors of the Counter Reformation.

Mediterranean Europe: Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus

Italian mentality abhors spiritual ecstasy, their architectural style is the cool, rational Renaissance - and, of course, the Baroque of Rome. There are but a few true Gothic cathedrals in Italy: Pisa, Siena, Orvieto, two in Florence, one in Rome, and Milano – and the last two owe their appearance to the 19th-century Neo-Gothic. Exceptions are the churches of the Cistercensians and the Franciscans, which are austere, if they are not veritable museums of early Renaissance frescoes like Asissi.

Spain has three late Gothic cathedrals, the most remarkable in Toledo. All were built after the Christian Reconquista. Although Islamic contributions are clearly visible in all of them, Spain, even today, still lives in denial of its rich Islamic heritage. Special are the late Mudejar arabesques in Zaragoza.

Portugal entered European mainstream architecture even later with three exuberant monasteries in Manueline style.

Cyprus is an oddity. During the Catholic Kingdoms after the Fourth Crusade French crusaders built two large Gothic churches, which in the 16th century have been turned into mosques by the Turkish Ottomans.