Art History for Normal People: Gothic

This edition of AHFNP, on Gothic art and architecture, is a very special one because it really was the inspiration for the whole series. Credit is due to my sister-in-law and GFOB [Great Friend of the Blog], Britny, who asked about Gothic architecture after attending the rededication of the exquisitely renovated St. Mary’s Church in David City, Nebraska.

I really did set out to write a short response, but realized it is hard to explain a movement without reference to what came before. So, Britny, sorry it took me almost a year and nine articles to actually answer your question.

Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome • The Monastic Period • Romanesque • Gothic

The Gothic style is perhaps the most familiar to us here in United States. You probably don’t have to go far to find a church, library, or college with Gothic influences. Tall buildings with pointed arches signal a sacred place, even in our modern, secular culture.

Art and Liturgy - West facade of Saint Denis church in Paris - first Gothic church - completed 1144
The west façade of Saint Denis.

The movement was started by a fellow named Abbot Suger, who was a historian, art collector, statesman, architect, and abbot. The guy was a rockstar. Its development took off in France – the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris was the first Gothic church, finished in 1144 – and it quickly spread across Europe, developing regional variations and divergences so that we can now pretty easily identify an English Gothic or Bavarian Gothic building. (Do not be misled by the majority of French Gothic photos in this post. Gothic stuff was all the rage everywhere.)

The name, much like “Romanesque,” was a later invention. It came from those who claimed the new style was coarse and barbaric like the Goths, ancient tribes who prowled around Eastern Europe and were partly responsible for the fall of Rome.

Recall that in the Romanesque period, architects had experimented with placing a series of criss-crossing round arches down the center of the building. This arrangement worked out pretty well, artistically and structurally. People liked how it looked, and they appreciated that the buildings did not collapse. Along the way, engineers noted that the resulting pointy archways supported weight just as well, but now they could make the buildings taller because of the way the arches supported the weight without too much outward pressure.

The Gothic style, in any of its dialects, is one of the most recognizable to us because of its trademark pointed arch. As a matter of aesthetics, the arch creates a path we can’t help following with our eyes. It lifts our eyes and our hearts heavenward. Its verticality is a natural choice for sacred spaces – we humans have always believed that the heavens are somewhere “up there.”

You might also remember that enormously thick walls and tiny windows were hallmarks of the Romanesque style. These were necessary to support the weight and outward pressure exerted by the building’s roof and ceiling. In the Gothic period, architects developed flying buttresses, one of the enduring hilarious terms in the art historian’s vocabulary. These buttresses are structures joined to the exterior wall, which support it from the outside.

Notre Dame de Paris, East View,
The east end of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The elbow-like structures supporting the walls are flying buttresses.

This, in turn, allowed for the introduction of more windows. Abbot Suger said, “Bright is the noble edifice that was pervaded by new light.” Windows were everything, as builders tried to get as much light as possible into their churches, for visual and theological reasons that are not hard to infer.

Art and Liturgy - High Altar at Gloucester Cathedral England
The high altar and nave at Gloucester Cathedral in England.

Thus, we see the development of the art of stained glass, which we associate so closely with the great Gothic cathedrals like Strasbourg and (everybody’s favorite) Sainte-Chapelle.

Art and Liturgy - Sainte Chapelle Paris France - French Gothic stained glass windows
Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

One related development is the rose window, which is the name for these huge, circular windows.

Art and Liturgy - Chartres Cathedral North Transept Rose Window - Gothic stained glass
Rose window in the north transept at Chartres Cathedral, c. 1230. — “The rose depicts the Glorification of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels, twelve kings of Juda (David, Solomon, Abijam, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Ahaz, Manasseh, Hezechiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoram, Asa et Rehoboam) and the twelve lesser prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, Haggai, Habakkuk, Micah, Obadiah and Joel). Below, the arms of France and Castile (the window was offered by Blanche of Castile). The five lancets represent Saint anne, mother of the Virgin, surrounded by the kings Melchizedek, David, Solomon and by Aaron, treading the sinner and idolatrous kings: Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Jeroboam and Pharaoh.”

Fun fact! These windows are sometimes called Catherine windows, after St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was sentenced to a torturous death upon a spiked wheel. To find out the end of the story, click here.

There is so much more that can be said about Gothic art and architecture. But you and I are normal people so we will wrap it up here. Let’s close with a passage from Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation:

Art and Liturgy - Sir Kenneth Clark
Sir Kenneth Clark

So much has been written about the Gothic style that one feels inclined to take it for granted. But it remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements. Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture … man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to transcend it …  he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. 

Now by the devices of the Gothic style … he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit.

Photo credits:

• Saint-Denis: Photo by Thomas ClouetOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

• Saint-Etienne: Photo by Harmonia AmandaOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• Cologne Cathedral: Photo by Thomas Robbin – from de.wp, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• St. Mary’s, David City: Photo from the website of Clark Architects Collaborative 3 of Lincoln, Nebraska.

• Reims Cathedral: Photo by bodoklecksel – own foto, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• Notre-Dame Cathedral: Photo by Daniel Vorndran / DXR, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• Gloucester Cathedral: Photo by DiliffOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• Chartres Cathedral: Photo by DiliffOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• Sainte-Chapelle: Photo By gnosne –, CC BY 2.0,