What Is Gothic Architecture?

Gothic architecture dates back to the latter half of the medieval period, roughly between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. This type of architecture often features tall buildings which feature elaborate arches, vaults, and stained glass. Together, such elements united in buildings which were more spacious and light-filled than their predecessors.

Centuries after the Middle Ages had drawn to a close, Gothic Revival architecture borrowed stylistic elements from Gothic architecture. A new enthusiasm for medievalism began in earnest in the mid-1800s, and new buildings constructed in the Gothic Revival style resembled the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. One major proponent of this style was French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who renovated the medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, embellishing the building with his own medievalizing additions. He was also commissioned to design the interior scaffolding of the Statue of Liberty. When he died, Gustave Eiffel – designer of the famous tower in Paris – carried on the work.

Why this return to the Middle Ages after four hundred years?

  • A medieval style could counterbalance new developments in industry and technology. Those living during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have seen the advent of the telegraph, telephone, electric lighting, radio, still and moving photography, x-rays, automobiles, and airplanes. Along with technological development came industrialization and urbanization. Amid such rapid change, many might have found the old, recognizable Gothic forms comforting and familiar — just as we see vinyl discs and sepia photo filters making a comeback in our increasingly digital world today. The turn to the medieval in architecture was mirrored by a wider revival of the Middle Ages in novels, paintings, and broader culture as well.
  • Countries looked to their medieval pasts to define their nationhood. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many European nations were in the process of redefining their national identities against a backdrop of war, revolution, and new ideas about the relationship between citizens and their state. Many drew on origin stories and mythologies based in medieval times.

Why is architecture important?

  • Architecture is part of our built landscape. It shapes our physical environment, defines our movement through space, and contributes to how we identify a place.
  • Architectural styles often exemplify different geographic locations or historical periods, and specific buildings or constructions are sometimes associated with national identity. Landmarks like the Big Ben clock tower in London, the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the Great Wall of China have all come to be powerful symbols for their nations.
  • Buildings are built to endure. Unlike other types of art, many buildings can withstand wind, rain, and bright sun, as well as more intense events such as earthquakes, floods, fire, and war. In this way, they are like time capsules, preserving the art, technology, and culture of the time in which they were built.
  • Being inside an old building can often be the closest we physically get to our history. You may never have held an object that was made more than one hundred years ago, but chances are you’ve been in a building that old — and perhaps much, much older!
  • Why else might it be important to learn about architecture?

The Basic Elements

What architectural elements define the Gothic and Gothic Revival styles? Explore some below:

Pointed Arch

Pointed arches are often found in walls or doorways. Their peaked shape holds up the heavy weight of ceilings: the arch distributes the weight of a ceiling outwards, rather than straight down. This enables builders to rely on fewer supports such as columns or walls, which allows for taller walls and more spacious interiors.

Ribbed Vaulting

Introduced in the late eleventh century, ribbed vaulting developed earlier vaulted ceiling techniques with its more complex intersecting arches. This structure enabled buildings to support windows higher up along their walls.

Flying Buttress

Flying buttresses are arched structures that extend from the building’s exterior walls to a post leading to the ground. By directing some of the weight outwards from the main structure, they take much of the burden off the walls and allow the introduction of many more windows.


Gargoyles sit on the roof of a cathedral and function as a gutter. The gargoyle’s mouth has a spout, which directs water from the roof away from the side of the building, preventing the water from eroding the walls.

Stained Glass

Stained-glass windows require delicate artistry and craft. Each piece of glass must fit perfectly into the space for which it was made, and must be strong enough to withstand wind and rain. In Gothic cathedrals, stained-glass windows often depict Biblical narratives, an important resource for the congregation at a time when many could not read.

Rose Window

A rose window is a circular stained-glass window composed of spokes (called mullions) that radiate from the center, dividing the window into various segments.

Test Yourself!

Can you guess which of the buildings shown here are examples of Gothic architecture, and which are Gothic Revival?

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