A Brief History of Gothic Architecture

Milan Cathedral, Italy

Gothic architecture in Europe and Great Britain grew out the Crusades. The rounded arches in churches soon evolved to the strong arch and Gothic style was born.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that the principle of Gothic architecture is “infinity made imaginable.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson described a Gothic cathedral as “a blossoming in stone.” Both writers had an obvious love of Gothic architecture. With its tall spires and pointed windows, there is a certain romance to this style of architecture, both in its history and its beauty.

Gothic Architecture in Europe

Gothic architecture in Europe began as early as the 12th century, but its origins are much earlier in one form or another. Until the 16th century it was known as “the French style.” But during the Renaissance, it was known among builders and craftsman as an insult to style. That attitude changed as more and more buildings of this nature were being built.

Key Features in Gothic Architecture

The key features in Gothic architecture are the strong arches – a style not far removed from ancient Sassanian architecture via the Arabs in the time of the Crusades. It was introduced into Europe and was preferred over the more rounded arch incorporated into buildings already extant. Soon came the cross-ribbed vaulted ceilings with “flying buttresses.” This made it possible to have higher naves in churches or cathedrals, larger and taller windows, giving the impression that the walls were not supporting anything, and the building was but a skeleton. It was “open concept” at its best and brilliant architecture for its time.

While some people were still living with mud floors, no glass in their windows and only shutters to keep out the weather, they had the beauty of the Gothic church to turn to with all its decadent splendor.

Examples of Gothic Architecture

Fine examples of Gothic architecture include Chartres Cathedral near Paris, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Doges Palace in Venice with leanings to Byzantine and Arab architecture. Many of these buildings were designed in Romanesque Gothic. The Milan Cathedral in Italy is one of the most splendorous. It has numerous spires like upside-down icicles rising 349 ft. into the air.

Gothic architecture was used mainly for churches and cathedrals. The overabundance of lines and details was proven to work well in these buildings as it touched the emotions and the spirit of the people.

18th Century Gothic Revival

In the 18th century, Gothic architecture was revived. It became all the rage in England when Horace Wolpole built his Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill. Chippendale began to make “Gothick” furniture and Gothic novels were being written and read everywhere, again beginning with trend-setting Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Gothic Revival architecture was considered a frivolous folly and not to be taken too seriously. Yet it continued and is still an important style for some new buildings.

By the 19th century, Gothic architecture was considered the only proper style for new churches and has remained so into the 21st century. With its emphasis on vertical lines, the curves and remarkable, unfathomable engineering have given it an awesome beauty that continues to have it’s place in cities, towns and villages everywhere.


  1. Gothic Architecture in England, Geoffrey Webb, Longman’s Green and Co. 1951
  2. Notre-Dame of Paris, the Biography of a Cathedral, Allan Temko, Viking Press, 1955