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The Evolution of Gothic Architecture


The origins of Gothic architecture can be found in 12th-century France and the style continued into the 16th century and was commonly known as the "French Style" during that period and the term "Gothic" was originally used in a disparaging way since in 17th-century English usage it meant 'vandal'.

Cathedrals, abbeys and churches popularized the style but it's main features which include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress are also evident in many palaces, castles and universities and the style saw something of a revival during the 18th-19th centuries when many more structures in the aforementioned categories were built in the Gothic style.

The types of materials that were used in construction during the earlier periods was heavily dependent on their local availability and accessibility.

In France for example several types of limestone were readily available and the very fine white limestone from the Caen area was much favored for sculptural decoration.

England had a coarser limestone, a red sandstone and also a dark green Purbeck marble which took its name from a peninsula in the English county of Dorset from which it was quarried.
In Italy, whereas stone was used for fortifications, brick was much preferred for buildings and because of the widespread and varied deposits of marble many buildings were faced with it.
Because local building stone was unavailable in Northern Germany and Poland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and in the Baltic countries there was a strong tradition of building with brick which led to the term "Backsteingotik" in Germany and Scandinavia and the term can be rendered as "Brick Gothic".
The Medieval periods saw a rapid growth in monasticism and a number of different orders were able to exert their influence such as the Benedictines whose abbeys and churches greatly outnumbered all others in England.

Many cultures had an influence on Gothic architecture and the Islamic one can clearly be seen in Spain. The pointed arch of the Salamanca Cathedral had its origins in ancient Assyrian architecture and it can also be seen in a number of structures dating back as early as 720 B.C.

In essence, what separated Gothic from Romanesque was the widespread replacement of massive masonry and solid walls with small openings and a style whose main thrust was to make light all important.

Therefore, the Gothic style when applied to an ecclesiastical structure emphasizes verticality and light and this effect was achieved by the introduction of certain architectural features. One's focus was moved from the structural parts of the building such as its solid walls, to its columns, its pointed ribbed vaults and its flying buttresses.

What is of interest perhaps is that there was probably a simultaneous structural evolution towards the pointed arch for the purpose of vaulting spaces of irregular plan and to also bring transverse vaults to the same height as the diagonal vaults and a good example of this can be seen at Durham Cathedral in the nave aisles which date back to 1093.

The Gothic vault which is dissimilar to the semi-circular vault of both the Roman and Romanesque buildings can be used to roof rectangular and irregularly shaped plans such as trapezoids and an additional structural advantage is that the pointed arch channels place the weight onto either the bearing piers or its columns at a steep angle which enabled architects to raise vaults much higher than was possible with Romanesque architecture.

It is important to note that in addition to providing a greater flexibility to architectural form that the pointed arch also directed one's gaze to heaven.

Due to the versatility of the pointed arch the structure of Gothic windows evolved from simple openings to immensely rich and decorative sculptural designs and the windows were later filled with stained glass which added a dimension of color to the available light in the building.

To sum up, the major characteristic of a Gothic church is its height, both real and proportional and the main body of a Gothic church will most often show the nave as considerably taller than it is wide.

In England the proportion is sometimes greater than two to one while the extreme is reached at Cologne Cathedral which has a ratio of three to six point one.
The tallest example however is the Beauvais Cathedral which measures 157' 6" (48 m).