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On April 15, 2019, a devastating fire engulfed and nearly destroyed the 800-year-old Notre Dame Church in Paris. Fortunately, this majestic piece of French-Gothic architecture mostly survived the blaze with only the roof and steeple suffering major damage. When unfortunate events like this happen, the world relies on experts in gothic architecture characteristics to restore and preserve the integrity of these iconic and historic structures.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced an international competition for the replacement of the Notre Dame spire, which collapsed during the fire. While not everyone can participate in this venture, gaining a deeper understanding of gothic architecture characteristics will help regular folks appreciate the style, engineering, and design put into Gothic-style structures like the Notre Dame and the importance of restoring the historic cathedral to its former glory.

What Is Gothic Architecture?

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Gothic architecture is a style of architecture which originated from and flourished in Europe from the mid-12th century to the 16th century. Some of its distinctive features include loftiness and an intricate and delicate aesthetic.

The Word

Originally, the word “gothic” was attributed to the barbaric tribes of German Goths who conquered and demolished ancient buildings in Rome and then built new ones using their own style of architecture.

However, the Gothic style had nothing to do with barbarism and actually developed and evolved from the Romanesque style. Years and years of prosperity and peace brought a surge in cultural as well as architectural and structural developments. Gothic architecture became widely used for building cathedrals and churches up until the 16th century. During that period, Gothic architecture was known as opus francigenum (meaning “French/Frankish work”). It came to be known as Gothic architecture in the 16th century.

The structural characteristics of Gothic architecture stemmed from concerns of medieval masons who needed to solve problems involving the support of heavy masonry ceiling vaults or arched roofs with wide spans. The stonework of the traditional arched roof was exerting a tremendous downward and outward pressure upon the walls, causing them to collapse. Innovations brought about by Gothic designers resolved the issue.

We’ll elaborate on gothic architecture characteristics, later on, to give you a better idea of the different facets and attributes of the Gothic style of architecture.

The Significance and History of Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture traces its early roots to the Ile-de-France region of Northern France during the first half of the 12th century. The rise of the Capetians (a new dynasty of French kings who became the most powerful rulers in France) brought about a strong alliance with bishops from the major cities of Northern France. This kinship between the Capetians and bishops brought prosperity and significant population growth in the cities of Northern France. Cathedrals were built to symbolize wealth, power, and religious faith.

The Prototype of Gothic-Style Churches

The Abbey of St-Denis became the prototype for Gothic architecture after Abbot Suger did some major reconstruction to the abbey.

From 1140 to 1144, the facade and the choir underwent some major reconstruction. At the ambulatory, enclosures which separated chapels were torn down and replaced with pillars and rib vaults. This allowed for higher and wider bays, prompting Abbot Suger to install larger windows, filling this area of the Abbey with light.

Three deep portals, each having an arch with sculptures of biblical stories, were used during the rebuilding of the facade. Along with these structural changes, two towers were erected to flank the facade and a small circular rose window was installed over the central portal.

The Proliferation of Gothic-Style Cathedrals

Sens Cathedral was the first Gothic-style cathedral to be built from the ground (1135-1140). Soon after, other cathedrals started appearing in Northern France’s landscape. Three of the most famous still in use today are:

  • Noyon Cathedral
  • Laon Cathedral
  • Notre-Dame de Paris

The Emergence of Decorated and Flamboyant Gothic Architectures

As Gothic designs and innovations became more developed and refined, new phases in the Gothic era also emerged.

Rayonnant Gothic architecture (or Decorated Gothic) is characterized by geometrical ornaments which became more elaborate over time. This was a period when structural improvements became less of a priority among cathedral architects and masons, and their attention was shifted towards making enhancements to aesthetics and the decorative aspect of the structures.

This led to the appearance of more decorative elements such as pinnacles, moldings, window tracery, and rose windows. Other notable innovations were the slimming down of vertical structural supports as well as the merging of the clerestory and the triforium gallery.

Notable Gothic architectural structures that were built in the Rayonnant style include the cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais, Bourges, and Reims.

As the name suggests, Flamboyant Gothic architecture went above and beyond with its decorative innovations. Some of its unique and notable characteristics include:

  • The S-shaped curve in the stone window tracery
  • Walls supported by skeletal uprights and tracery with continuous and expansive glass
  • The obscuring of geometrical logic by covering the exterior with tracery
  • Overlaid masonry
  • Star patterns in added ribbed vaulting
  • Complex clusters of pinnacles, gables, and porticos

Gothic Revival Movement in the 19th Century

During the period of Victorian architecture, Gothic architecture experienced a major revival, especially in England and in the United States. Gothic revivalism energized Victorian art and brought about new and notable architectural structures such as the House of Parliament, the Fonthill Abbey, New York’s Trinity Church, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

10 Gothic Architecture Characteristics

Gothic architecture is distinguished by its notable and unique gothic architecture characteristics. These characteristics include:

1. The Ribbed Vault

A vault is a constituent part of a structure that acts as a support. It consists of an arrangement of arches that form the ceiling or roof.

The ribbed vault was designed to reduce the weight and outward thrust of the ceiling vault, solving the problem of the downward and outward pressure being placed on the walls by the arched roof. A ribbed vault is made up of intersecting barrel vaults with stone ribs supporting a vaulted ceiling of thin stone panels. This allows the weight of the vault to be transferred to a stone rib instead of on a continuous wall edge. With the inner walls freed up, further additions of tracery and glass were accommodated.

As Gothic design and architecture evolved and became more sophisticated, more complex vaulting systems were developed, significantly reducing the need for inner load-bearing walls and providing a more open inner space and a unity between visual and aesthetic.

2. The Flying Buttress

Elaborately designed with intricate carvings, the flying buttress is considered as a distinctive external characteristic of gothic architecture. However, its function goes beyond just aesthetics. The flying buttress also fulfills an important structural role. It’s designed to spread the weight of tall walls and to transfer the load of the vaulted roof to the ground.

3. The Pointed Arch

The pointed arch is another unique feature of Gothic architecture that is both decorative and functional. Its pointed feature is designed to relieve the stress and thrust being placed on the other structural components. Because of this function, the size of the columns and piers which support the arch could be significantly reduced and they became more slender.

4. Spire

Spires in Gothic architecture give the appearance of loftiness. With its tapered shape and structure, a spire is capable of reaching amazing heights.

5. Gargoyle

The word gargoyle was derived from the French word gargouille which means “throat” or “gullet”. This is also attributed to the gurgling sound of water coming from the gargoyle’s mouth. The gargoyle is a decorative sculpture which serves as a waterspout to prevent water from eroding the mortar and from running through the masonry walls.

The water flow is divided among these gargoyle sculptures in order to minimize water damage. They are usually elongated so as to extend the water flow away from the walls. Gargoyles also symbolize the evils of the outside world so as to encourage people to seek comfort and protection inside the church or cathedral.

6. Pinnacle

The pinnacle was originally designed to divert the pressure from the vaulted roof downward and to pin the sideways pressure of the vault. Saturated with lead, they also served as counterweights to corbels, extended gargoyles, and flying buttresses. With aesthetic possibilities considered, pinnacles evolved and became lighter while flying buttresses were later delegated to handle the load from the vaulted roof. The pinnacle has since been used to transition slenderness more gradually, giving the impression of a tapered appearance.

7. Tracery

The tracery is a series of thin stone frames which are set in window openings to support the glass windows. The lancet-and-oculus pattern allows an increase in the amount of glass paneling.

8. The Oculus

The oculus is a small, circular window or opening found in the center of a dome or a wall which originated from ancient Roman architaecture. During the Gothic era, the oculus became a design element which held the stained glass (often referred to as rose windows).

9. Statue Column

Statue columns have been around since the early Gothic period. Patriarchs, prophets, and kings were depicted on statue columns and were placed in the porches of Gothic churches to add to the vertical design.

10. The Fan Vault

The fan vault distinguishes the English from the French Gothic style because it was used exclusively in English cathedrals. The ribs are spaced equidistantly and curved equally, giving the impression of an open fan.


These centuries-old structures and gothic architecture characteristics need not remain ancient history. They can still serve as inspirations for modern-day architectural innovations.

In the case of restoring the Notre Dame, both history and architectural experts will need to hit those dusty books and acquire as much information as they can to rebuild the magnificant structure back to its original glory.

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