If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Gothic architecture: an introduction

Essay by Valerie Spanswick
East end of Salisbury Cathedral.
Forget the association of the word "Gothic" to dark, haunted houses, Wuthering Heights, or ghostly pale people wearing black nail polish and ripped fishnets. The original Gothic style was actually developed to bring sunshine into people's lives, and especially into their churches. To get past the accrued definitions of the centuries, it's best to go back to the very start of the word Gothic, and to the style that bears the name.
The Goths were a so-called barbaric tribe who held power in various regions of Europe, between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (so, from roughly the fifth to the eighth century). They were not renowned for great achievements in architecture. As with many art historical terms, “Gothic” came to be applied to a certain architectural style after the fact.
Early Gothic arches, Southwell Minster.
The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity and relative peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes. From roughly 1000 to 1400, several significant cathedrals and churches were built, particularly in Britain and France, offering architects and masons a chance to work out ever more complex and daring designs.
The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch, which was likely borrowed from Islamic architecture that would have been seen in Spain at this time. The pointed arch relieved some of the thrust, and therefore, the stress on other structural elements. It then became possible to reduce the size of the columns or piers that supported the arch.
Nave of Salisbury Cathedral.
So, rather than having massive, drum-like columns as in the Romanesque churches, the new columns could be more slender. This slimness was repeated in the upper levels of the nave, so that the gallery and clerestory would not seem to overpower the lower arcade. In fact, the column basically continued all the way to the roof, and became part of the vault. 
In the vault, the pointed arch could be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting met in the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture. However, it should be noted that prototypes for the pointed arches and ribbed vaulting were seen first in late-Romanesque buildings.
Open tracery at Southwell Minster.
The new understanding of architecture and design led to more fantastic examples of vaulting and ornamentation, and the Early Gothic or Lancet style (from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) developed into the Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (roughly fourteenth century). The ornate stonework that held the windows–called tracery–became more florid, and other stonework even more exuberant.
The ribbed vaulting became more complicated and was crossed with lierne ribs into complex webs, or the addition of cross ribs, called tierceron. As the decoration developed further, the Perpendicular or International Gothic took over (fifteenth century). Fan vaulting decorated half-conoid shapes extending from the tops of the columnar ribs.
Lierne vaults Gloucester Cathedral.
The slender columns and lighter systems of thrust allowed for larger windows and more light. The windows, tracery, carvings, and ribs make up a dizzying display of decoration that one encounters in a Gothic church. In late Gothic buildings, almost every surface is decorated. Although such a building as a whole is ordered and coherent, the profusion of shapes and patterns can make a sense of order difficult to discern at first glance.
Gothic windows at Gloucester Cathedral.
After the great flowering of Gothic style, tastes again shifted back to the neat, straight lines and rational geometry of the Classical era. It was in the Renaissance that the name Gothic came to be applied to this medieval style that seemed vulgar to Renaissance sensibilities. It is still the term we use today, though hopefully without the implied insult, which negates the amazing leaps of imagination and engineering that were required to build such edifices.
Essay by Valerie Spanswick; images from video footage by Richard Spanswick

Additional resources

Want to join the conversation?

  • purple pi purple style avatar for user victoria aka crafty girl aka cupid
    How come buildings are considered art.?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • hopper cool style avatar for user DC
      Because they can be built beautifully. Many buildings are plain and boring, like a painted wall, but when you turn the architecture, or the paint, into a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa or the Hagia Sophia, it is art, and art by any measure.
      (25 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Joe Rue Pighams
    I thought that the architecture had a symbolic meaning. Like how the churches were often in the shape of a cross, I thought that the ribbed vaulting was supposed to look like the inside of the bottom of a boat, referring to how the church is where the spiritual journey takes place.
    Am I wrong or did they just fail to mention this?
    (11 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user 1315048633
    what was the difference between ribbed vaulting and barrel vaults
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • primosaur seedling style avatar for user Justin Tang
      Barrel Vault

      To understand the ribbed groin vault, we have to see where it derived from. We can understand it better by looking at the barrel vault and groin vault.

      A barrel vault is the simplest form of a vault. It is a continuous archway with a surface or ceiling that is semi-circular or with a point. It is very similar to a barrel or a tunnel that was cut in half height-wise, hence the name barrel vault. Barrel vaults have existed since the Ancient Egyptians and were commonly used during Roman times.

      Groin Vault

      A groin vault in the simplest definition is an intersection of two barrel vaults positioned in right angles (90 degrees). Groin vaults are stronger than barrel vault structures because barrel vaults must be built on long walls creating less stable lateral stress, whereas the groin vault design can implement stress vertically on piers.

      Ribbed Vault

      In ribbed vaults, stone "ribs" are added to groin vaults where the arris would form. The ribs offer many advantages from functional and structural support to visual enhancements. Groin vaults compared to ribbed vaults are heavier, requiring more support and heavier filling. The stone ribs allow some of the force and pressure from the ceiling to be easily transferred to the columns/pier support below. This allows the structure to use lighter materials for the filling.

      The most important advantage of ribbed vaults is the ability to construct vaults in greater heights. It was very important for architects to achieve a monumental scale to represent the glory of God. The ability to go higher creates a sense of greatness and also allows windows in the structure to be bigger and taller, eliminating walls as a primary form of support. This creates an airy and ethereal atmosphere. Cathedrals would change from dark, massive and heavy buildings to tall elegant structures with a multitude of windows. The Durham Cathedral marks the first building to have ribbed vaults, an important structural element that would help the Gothic style flourish between the 12th and 16th century.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user forreynj
    What are some additional resources that go into more detail about the mathematics and engineering behind Gothic architecture?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Shadia
    I was wondering where on Khan Academy I could find an activity on Gothic Sculpture?

    Also, did the Gothic architecture also reflect on the artwork produced?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user jzhang1
    "In fact, the column basically continued all the way to the roof, and became part of the vault."

    Could someone please explain what a "vault" is? The word reminds me of an attic, or a treasury, but I'm not sure...
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • winston default style avatar for user jacobsmith2028
    i eat waffle fries
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user saubhaginimahajan2298
    Comparision between st sernin toulouse ( romanesque ) and reima catherdral (gothic)?
    Points of comparsion
    (Answering what why how ?)
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Casey.O
    How common were Gothic churches?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Kamren Epps
    Ooh wow ooh my lordey lord im shaketh and amazed do they ever like fall or claps
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user