One word — Gothic — and over 1,500 years of cultural history. That’s what I’ll be looking at in a short series of posts tracing the evolution of one of the most intriguing styles in western civilization, from Medieval religious architecture to genres that remain highly influential in novels, movies, and subcultures.
Let’s start with Gothic architecture, which first developed in the 12th century in France. Why is it called Gothic? Because by the 16th century, Renaissance masters thought this style of building quite unrefined, like the Goths.
The Goths, the original ones, are the Germanic tribes that stormed into the Roman Empire starting in the 3rd century AD from northeast Europe. The Goths eventually destroyed Rome in 476, beginning a new period of western history — the Middle Ages — which lasted about a thousand years.
By association with the Goths, and with the typical Renaissance dislike for all things Medieval, the most striking architecture of the Middle Ages was called Gothic, even though the Goths had nothing to do with it.
Gothic architecture is actually quite refined and technically challenging. A case in point is Notre Dame de Paris, built from 1163 to 1345:
Another is the Lincoln Cathedral, in Lincoln, England, built from 1185 to 1311:
And the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built in the 1200s:
The Gothic has the following features:
– Elongated, pointy structures that rose higher than any before them in Europe. Why so tall and thin? Because the purpose is to raise the human spirit up to heaven and the divine.
– Flying buttresses, i.e. exterior supports to bear the weight of the building. Here are the flying buttresses of the Reims Cathedral in France, in stone and on the 13th-century drawing by Villard de Honnecourt:
– Pointed arches and ribbed vaults as ceiling. Here is the ribbed vault of the Saint-Séverin church in Paris:
– Dramatic use of light through tall and narrow windows
– Use of stained glass to tell Biblical stories in pictures for those who could not read, as in this example from the Chartres Cathedral, in which Saint John drinks poisoned wine but is not hurt:
And in these rose windows, from Notre Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chapelle, with many figures and stories:
Spectacular examples of Medieval Gothic cathedrals can be seen in the French cities of Paris, Reims, Chartres and Amiens. The Lincoln Cathedral in England and the Seville Cathedral in Spain also deserve a special mention. Britain as a whole, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as parts of Eastern Europe, also have other stunning Gothic structures. Many of them, however, are part of the next phase of Gothic evolution, which I will cover in the next post, along with the rise of Gothic stories.