The History of Gothic Architecture

The history of Gothic architecture reflects the themes and ideals that dominated the early European Renaissance. In 1140, Abbot Suger of France viewed God as a supernatural, transformational light. To manifest this ideal, the new construction of the church of Saint Denis was designed to let in light and include large spaces. The ribbed vaulting and pointed archways were designed with these themes in mind as well. Later cathedrals of Gothic design added bell towers, more stained glass, taller towers with pointed arches and more ornamentation.

Inspired by the church of Saint Denis, three cathedrals were built over the next hundred years in France. Noyon, Laon, and Notre-Dame were each examples of the rise of Gothic architecture. The form evolved through these buildings, with each cathedral having more elaborate construction, more glass, higher towers and more ornamentation than the last. Each featured infusions of light and color inside and out, high vertical towers with pointed tops and columns capped with ornamental designs. Pointed archways, ribbed vaults and high pinnacles were significant inclusions in these cathedrals, inspiring the designs that followed.

The development of flying buttresses provided a new method of support that allowed interior spaces to be completely open. Gothic cathedrals are actually a series of arches; the walls in between the arches don't carry much weight, so designers were free to add massive windows and stained-glass panels. As the form evolved, the use of windows increased dramatically.

Following these three cathedrals came the construction of the cathedral at Chartres, from 1194 to 1224. Chartres is known as a High Gothic building due to its soaring heights. It also holds some of the most treasured stained glass in Europe.

A stronger vertical emphasis was used in the cathedrals at Reims, Amiens, Beauvais and Sainte-Chapelle. All of these buildings are noteworthy examples of this majestic and ornate style of architecture.

The Gothic style spread through England, Spain, Italy and Norway. Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral and even secular buildings such as the town hall of Brussels showed the influence of Gothic architecture. By the end of the 1400s, the decorated and flamboyant style was thought to be pretentious and overdone. Gothic architecture waned in popularity, and the word "Gothic" came to be an insult.

Although the style itself fell out of favor, no one could deny that the buildings themselves were functional and well constructed. Many of the Gothic cathedrals and public buildings in Europe have been in continuous use since their construction in the Middle Ages.

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