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Gothic Architecture

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Although Gothic architecture is often defined by the use of the pointed (ogee) arch it is difficult to reduce precise styles and arts to their simple technical characteristics.

It is absurd to compare Romanesque and Gothic styles by their use of semi-circular or pointed arches and in the historical context it makes no sense.

The structures such as the ogival arch and ribbed vault were in use well before the first Gothic buildings appeared.

Numerous other techniques, architectural or decorative, were employed in Gothic constructions. The alternance of narrow and wide columns along the nave reinforces the impression of horizontality. The ratio height/width of the nave accentuates or diminishes the sensation of height of the vault.

The form of the columns, the decoration of the capitals and the proportion of the levels (large arcades, triforium, high windows) all participate in the aesthetic expression of Gothic architecture:

  • desire for height (as seen in the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre in Beauvais, Picardy) 
  • vertical emphasis (e.g.: Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, Picardy) 
  • alternating space with solidity (e.g.: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon, Picardy) 
  • fusion of space (e.g.: Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges, in the Cher) 
  • multiplying the interplay of light and colours (e.g.: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, department of Eure-et-Loire)

In this way the architectural elements were put to use to achieve specific aesthetic aims. In fact, they were used simply as tools to obtain the desired effects.

In order to build ever taller naves the technique of flying buttresses had to be improved. And to increase illumination and open up space the use of pointed arches was the best adapted.

Clustered pillars homogenised the space and lent logic to the volumes. The Gothic style initially appeared principally in the Haute Picardie region. The style evolved in time from the early Gothic of the 12th century which in France gave way to the classic Gothic style (around 1190 – 1230). This in turn was succeeded by the style referred to as ‘Rayonnant’ (1230 – 1350) and finally the style known as ‘Flamboyant’ (in the 15th and 16th centuries).

During the Renaissance the Gothic style in France evolved toward a hybrid between Gothic structures and Renaissance decoration (eg: the church of Saint Etienne du Mont in Paris).

Geographically, the expansion of Gothic architecture is confined essentially to Western Europe and numerous local variations can be found: Angevin (in the Anjou region), Norman, Perpendicular (also known as Rectilinear)... Perpendicular Gothic designates a period in the architectural style, developed in the south of France, characterised by the austerity of the buildings, the use of buttresses rather than flying buttresses and rare, narrow openings. Many edifices constructed in this style contained a single nave and were roofed by frameworks resting on diaphragm arches.

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