Gothic Architecture

Gothic Architecture: The Abbey Church of Saint Denis

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis is known as the first Gothic structure and was developed in the 12th century by Abbot Suger.

Learning Objectives

Illustrate a timeline of the creation of the Abbey Church of Saint Denis

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Abbey Church of Saint Denis provided an architectural model for cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England, and other European countries.
  • In the 12th century, Abbot Suger rebuilt portions of the church using innovative structural and decorative features that were drawn from a number of sources, resulting in the first truly Gothic building.
  • The two architects who worked under Abbot Suger's direction remain uncredited, identified only by their unique stylistic contributions.

Key Terms

  • Abbey Church of Saint Denis: The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis is a large medieval abbey church in the commune of Saint Denis, renowned for its Gothic architecture.
  • Rayonnant Gothic: The period of French Gothic architecture between c. 1240 and 1350, characterized by a shift in focus away from the High Gothic mode of great scale toward a greater concern for two dimensional surfaces and the repetition of decorative motifs at different scales.
  • ambulatory: The round walkway encircling the altar in many cathedrals.
  • Romanesque: European architecture containing both Roman and Byzantine elements; sometimes applied to the debased style of the later Roman Empire, but especially to the more developed architecture prevailing from the 8th to the 12th centuries.

The Abbey Church of Saint Denis, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Denis, is a large medieval abbey church in the commune of Saint Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. This site originated as a Gallo-Roman cemetery in late Roman times. Around 475 CE, St. Genevieve established a church at this site. In the 7th century, this structure was replaced by a much grander construction, on the orders of Dagobert I, King of the Franks.

The Basilica of Saint Denis is an architectural landmark, the first major structure of which a substantial part was designed and built in the Gothic style . Both stylistically and structurally, it heralded the change from Romanesque architecture to Gothic architecture . Before the term "Gothic" came into common use, it was known as the "French Style."

Saint Denis is a patron saint of France and, according to legend, was the first Bishop of Paris. Legend says that he was decapitated on the Hill of Montmartre and subsequently carried his head to the site of the current church, indicating where he wanted to be buried.

Sculpture of decapitated Saint Denis, holding his head in his hands.

Saint Denis, from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: Saint Denis was martyred in connection with the Decian persecution of Christians, shortly after CE 250.

Dagobert I refounded the church as the Abbey of Saint Denis, a Benedictine monastery. Dagobert also commissioned a new shrine to house the saint's remains; it was created by his chief counselor, Eligius, a goldsmith by training.

Dagobert's tomb is shown elaborately decorated.

Tomb of Dagobert I: Dagobert's tomb was improved during the 13th century at the Basilica of Saint Denis.

Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger (circa 1081-1151), Abbot of Saint Denis from 1122 and a friend and confidant of French kings, had been given the abbey as an oblate at the age of 10 and began work around 1135 on rebuilding and enlarging it.

Suger was the patron of the rebuilding of Saint Denis, but not the architect, as was often assumed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact it appears that two distinct architects, or master masons, were involved in the 12th century changes. Both remain anonymous, but their work can be distinguished stylistically. The first, who was responsible for the initial work at the western end, favored conventional Romanesque capitals and molding profiles with rich and individualized detailing. His successor, who completed the western facade and upper stories of the narthex before going on to build the new choir , displayed a more restrained approach to decorative effects, relying on a simple repertoire of motifs , which may have proved more suitable for the lighter Gothic style that he helped to create.

Suger's western extension was completed in 1140 and the three new chapels in the narthex were consecrated on June 9th of that year. On completion of the west front, Abbot Suger moved on to the reconstruction of the eastern end. He wanted a choir (chancel) that would be suffused with light. To achieve his aims, Suger's masons drew on the new elements that had evolved or been introduced to Romanesque architecture: the pointed arch , the ribbed vault , the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions, and the flying buttresses , which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. This was the first time that these features had all been brought together. The new structure was finished and dedicated on June 11th of 1144, in the presence of the King.


Abbey Church of Saint Denis: This is the west facade of the Basilica of Saint Denis, showcasing the distinct features of Romanesque architecture.

Thus, the Abbey of Saint Denis became the prototype for further building in the royal domain of northern France. Through the rule of the Angevin dynasty , the style was introduced to England and spread throughout France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily.

The dark Romanesque nave , with its thick walls and small window openings, was rebuilt using the latest techniques, in what is now known as Gothic. This new style, which differed from Suger's earlier works as much as they had differed from their Romanesque precursors , reduced the wall area to an absolute minimum. Solid masonry was replaced with vast window openings filled with brilliant stained glass and interrupted only by the most slender of bar tracery—not only in the clerestory but also, perhaps for the first time, in the normally dark triforium level. The upper facades of the two much-enlarged transepts were filled with two spectacular rose windows . As with Suger's earlier rebuilding work, the identity of the architect or master mason is unknown.

The abbey is often referred to as the "royal necropolis of France" as it is the site where the kings of France and their families were buried for centuries. All but three of the monarchs of France from the 10th century until 1789 have their remains here. The effigies of many of the kings and queens are on their tombs, but during the French Revolution , those tombs were opened and the bodies were moved to mass graves.

Gothic Architecture: La Saint-Chapelle

Louis IX's patronage of the arts drove much innovation in Gothic art and architecture, exemplified by his commission of La Saint-Chappelle, an example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the innovations in Gothic art and architecture seen in La Saint-Chappelle

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Louis IX established the Gothic chapel Sainte-Chapelle to house his collection of Christian relics in the mid-13th century.
  • Louis IX's artistic and architectural patronage was both innovative and highly influential among European royalty.
  • Louis IX was made a saint in 1297, and remains the only French monarch to have been canonized.
  • Sainte-Chapelle epitomized the Rayonnant Gothic style of architecture.

Key Terms

  • Rayonnant Gothic: The period of French Gothic architecture between c. 1240 and 1350, characterized by a shift in focus away from the High Gothic mode of great scale and height toward a greater concern for two dimensional surfaces and the repetition of decorative motifs at different scales. Rayonnant structures tend to be smaller than High Gothic Cathedrals. This style is also known as Court Style.
  • Sainte-Chapelle: A chapel in the courtyard of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité, built to house Louis IX's collection of Holy relics.

Louis IX ruled during the so-called "golden century of Saint Louis," when the Kingdom of France was at its height of power in Europe, both politically and economically. The king of France was regarded as a primus inter pares among the kings and rulers of the continent. He commanded the largest army, and ruled the largest and most wealthy kingdom of Europe, which was the European center of arts and intellectual thought (La Sorbonne) at the time. The prestige and respect for King Louis IX resulted more from his benevolent personality than from his military domination. For his contemporaries, he was the quintessential example of the Christian prince, and embodied the whole of Christendom in his person. The King was later recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Bust depicts Louis IX from the side with long hair and a crown.

Bust of St. Louis, ca. 1300 from the church of Mainneville, Eure, France: Louis IX, or Saint Louis, was a revered leader and strong patron of the arts during the Gothic period.

The style of Louis' court radiated throughout Europe through the purchase of art objects from Parisian masters for export and by the marriage of the King's daughters and female relatives to foreign husbands. Louis' personal chapel, La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was copied more than once by his descendants elsewhere.

The ceiling is richly colored and decorated. The prominent design is gold fleur de lys on a blue background.

Sainte-Chapelle, ceiling of the lower chapel: Saint Louis' Sainte-Chapelle epitomizes the Rayonnant Gothic style as was King Louis IX's personal chapel.

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) is one of the only surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris, France. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of relics of the passion, including the Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. Begun some time after 1239 and consecrated on April 26, 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture . Although damaged during the French revolution and heavily restored in the 19th century, it retains one of the most extensive in-situ collections (collections that are still in their original positions) of 13th century stained glass anywhere in the world. The glass depicts stories from the Old Testament and focuses heavily on the depictions of biblical kings, both good and bad. Scholars believe the inclusion of "bad" kings, along with the good, were meant as a lesson for the royal viewer to learn from both good and bad examples of rulership.

La Sainte-Chapelle is a prime example of the phase of Gothic architectural style called "Rayonnant Gothic," also known as Court Style, and is marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis. Rayonnant structures tend to be smaller than the High Gothic Cathedrals that came before them. La Sainte-Chapelle stands squarely upon a lower chapel, which served as parish church for all the inhabitants of the palace, which was the seat of government. However, the chapel proper was a private royal chapel and scholars have noted how the structure almost looks like metalwork , as if the chapel itself is a reliquary .

English Gothic Architecture

English Gothic architecture (c. 1180–1520) is defined by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires.

Learning Objectives

Define the characteristics and particular styles of English Gothic architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Gothic style originated in France with the choir of the Basilique Saint-Denis, built by Abbot Suger and dedicated in June 1144.
  • The lancet , a pointed arch , was the most crucial development of the Early Gothic period (c. 1180–1250), resulting in graceful buildings with thinner walls and more light.
  • While French Gothic Cathedrals were built to be increasingly tall, English Gothic Cathedrals tended to emphasize the length of the building rather than the height.
  • The Decorated Gothic Period (c. 1250–1350) is subdivided into the earlier Geometric Period and later Curvilinear Period, differentiated by styles of window tracery .
  • Known for emphasizing vertical lines , the austerity of the Perpendicular Gothic Period was a response to the pandemic Black Death , which emerged in England in 1348.

Key Terms

  • Decorated Gothic Period: A name given specifically to a division of English Gothic architecture, which was broken into two periods: the Geometric style (1250–1290) and the Curvilinear style (1290–1350).
  • choir: The part of a church where the singing group assembles for song.
  • Early English Gothic Period :A period in the late 12th century, characterized by pointed arches, that superseded the Romanesque style.

Gothic architecture flourished in England from approximately 1180 to 1520. This style is defined by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses , large windows, and spires . The Gothic style was first developed in France, where the various elements had first been used together within a single building at the choir of the Basilique Saint-Denis north of Paris, built by Abbot Suger and dedicated in June 1144. The English adopted the Gothic style, however, they adapted it to their own regional preferences. While French Gothic Cathedrals were built to be increasingly tall, English Gothic Cathedrals tended to emphasize the length of the building rather than the height.


Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England: This Cathedral showcases characteristics of Gothic architecture with the pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires, but emphasizes the length of the building, rather than the height.

Many of the largest and finest works of English architecture, notably the medieval cathedrals of England, are largely built in the Gothic style. The earliest large-scale applications of Gothic architecture in England are at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey . Castles, palaces, great houses, universities, parish churches, and many smaller unpretentious secular buildings, including almshouses and trade halls, were also built in this style.

Early English Gothic Period

The Early English Gothic period lasted from the late 12th century until midway through the 13th century, according to most modern scholars. By 1175, the Gothic style had been firmly established in England with the completion of the Choir at Canterbury Cathedral by William of Sens.

The most significant characteristic development of the Early English period was the pointed arch known as the lancet. Compared with the rounded Romanesque style, the pointed arch of the Early English Gothic is aesthetically more elegant and is more efficient at distributing the weight of stonework, making it possible to span higher and wider gaps using narrower columns . It also allows for much greater variation in proportions.

Using the pointed arch, walls could become less massive and window openings could be larger and grouped more closely together, so architects could achieve more open, airy, and graceful buildings. At its purest, the style was simple and austere, emphasizing the height of the building, as if aspiring heavenward. In the late 12th century the Early English Gothic style superseded the Romanesque style, and during the late 13th century it developed into the Decorated Gothic style, which lasted until the mid 14th century.

Decorated Gothic Period

The Decorated period in architecture is traditionally broken into two periods: the Geometric style (1250–1290) and the Curvilinear style (1290–1350). Decorated architecture is characterized by its window tracery, which are elaborate patterns that fill the top portions of windows. The tracery style was geometric at first, and flowing in the later period during the 14th century. Vaulting also became more elaborate, with the use of increasing numbers of ribs , initially for structural and later for aesthetic reasons.

Examples of the Decorated style can be found in many British churches and cathedrals. Principal examples are the east ends of Lincoln Cathedral and of Carlisle Cathedral and the west fronts of York Minster and of Lichfield Cathedral.


York Minster Cathedral: The west front of York Minster Cathedral is a fine example of Decorated architecture, in particular the elaborate tracery on the main window. This period saw detailed carving reach its peak, with elaborately carved windows and capitals, often with floral patterns.

Perpendicular Gothic Period

The Perpendicular Gothic period is the third historical division of English Gothic architecture, and is characterized by an emphasis on vertical lines. The Perpendicular style began under the royal architects William Ramsey and John Sponlee, and lasted into the mid 16th century.

The Perpendicular style grew out of the shadow of the Black Death, a disease that killed approximately half of England's population in 18 months between June 1348 and December 1349 and returned in 1361–62 to kill another fifth of the population. This epidemic dramatically impacted every aspect of society, including arts and culture , and designers moved away from the flamboyance and jubilation present in the Decorated style. Architects were also responding to labor shortages resulting from the plague, and therefore relied on less elaborate designs.

Perpendicular linearity is particularly obvious in the design of windows, which became immense, allowing greater scope for stained glass craftsmen. Some of the finest features of this period are the magnificent timber roofs: hammerbeam roofs, such as those of Westminster Hall (1395), Christ Church Hall, Oxford, and Crosby Hall, appeared for the first time. Gothic architecture continued to flourish in England for 100 years after the precepts of Renaissance architecture were formalized in Florence in the early 15th century.


Gloucester Cathedral: The Gloucester Cathedral exemplifies the Perpendicular Gothic Period. The interior conveys an impression of a "cage" of stone and glass, typical of the period. The walls and windows are sharper and less flamboyant than those of the earlier style.

German Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture flourished during the high and late medieval period in the Holy Roman Empire, from approximately 1140–1400.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the principal features of German Gothic architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Gothic style first developed in France. Territories that constitute modern day Germany adopted the French Gothic and developed regional distinctions to this style.
  • Brick Gothic is a style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea without natural rock resources where the buildings are built, more or less, using only bricks.
  • Hall churches are another distinctively German adaptation to the French Gothic style.

Key Terms

  • nave: The middle or body of a church, extending from the transepts to the principal entrances.
  • Middle Ages: The period of time in Europe between the decline of the Roman Empire and the revival of letters (the Renaissance) or, according to Henry Hallam, the period beginning with the sixth and ending with the fifteenth century.
  • spire: A tapering structure built on a roof or tower, especially as one of the central architectural features of a church or cathedral roof.

Gothic architecture flourished during the high and late medieval period in the Holy Roman Empire, from approximately 1140–1400. The Gothic style first developed in France. Territories that constitute modern day Germany adopted the French Gothic and developed regional distinctions to this style.

German Gothic architecture is notable for its enormous towers and spires . Sometimes they were so big that they were left unfinished until modern times. The spires are quite different than English spires because they are made of lacy "openwork." There are also many hallenkirke (or hall churches), which have no clerestorey windows. The nave and the aisles are about the same height.

Freiburg Cathedral was built in three stages, the first beginning in 1120 under the Dukes of Zahringen, the second beginning in 1210, and the third in 1230. Of the original building, only the foundations still exist. It is particularly notable for its 116-meter tower, which is nearly square at the base , and the dodecagonal star gallery at its center. Above this gallery, the tower is octagonal and tapered, with the spire at the top. It is the only Gothic church tower in Germany completed in the Middle Ages (1330) that survived the November 1944 bombing raids that destroyed all of the houses on the west and north side of the market.


Freiburg Cathedral: View of the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany

Cologne Cathedral is, after Milan Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1248 and took, with interruptions, until 1880 to complete—a period of over 600 years. It is 144.5 metres long, 86.5 m wide, and its two towers are 157 m tall. Because of its enormous twin spires, it also has the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir of the cathedral, measured between the piers , also holds the distinction of having the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church.

Exterior view of the Cologne Cathedral with the two spires clearly visible.

Cologne Cathedral: The Cologne Cathedral is an example of German Gothic architecture.

The building of Gothic churches was accompanied by the construction of guild houses and town halls by the rising bourgeoisie. Examples are the Gothic Town Hall (13th century) at Stralsund, Bremen Town Hall (1410), and the (reconstructed) city hall of Munster (originally from 1350).

The dwellings of this period were mainly timber-framed buildings, as can still be seen in Goslar and Quedlinburg. Quedlinburg has one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany. The method of construction, used extensively for town houses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, lasted into the twentieth century for rural buildings.

Brick Gothic

Brick Gothic (Backsteingotik) is a specific style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea that lack natural rock resources. The structures are built, more or less, using only bricks. Stralsund City Hall and St. Nicholas Church are examples of this style. Cities such as Lubeck, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, and Greifswald are shaped by this regional style. St. Mary's in Lübeck, built between 1200 and 1350, was a model for many North German churches.

Hall Churches

Hall churches are another example of German Gothic architecture that is distinct from French Gothic. In hall churches, the aisles and nave are almost the same height and the stained glass windows are typically the full height of the walls, allowing in maximum light and space .

Interior view of a Hall church.

Munich Frauenkirche, Bavaria: Hall churches are a distinctively German interpretation of the Gothic style.

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