The Gothic style first appeared in the 12th century in the area around Paris. In architecture, Gothic buildings employed a variety of new techniques to pierce walls with larger windows and to build loftier spaces. In sculpture and the other figurative arts, the style combined the detailed observation of nature with an expressive elegance. Gothic quickly spread throughout Europe, and versions of the style were still in use as late as the 1550s.
Pointed arches were an important characteristic of Gothic architecture. They were used in arcades, vaults, doors, windows and niches. When used row on row in churches and cathedrals, pointed arches gave an impression of soaring height. They could also bear heavier loads than the earlier round arches. Pointed arches and other architectural motifs are also found on Gothic objects. They often served as frames for the figures or narrative scenes.
Figures in Gothic art often curve or sway in an ‘S’ shape. The pose of the figures is enhanced by the hanging folds of their clothes. This gives them a sense of life and movement. Curving figurescould be large or small, male or female. The poses are not natural and can look uncomfortable, even though the overall effect is very elegant
Artists who worked in the Gothic style paid close attention to natural forms and were able to reproduce them with remarkable accuracy. Leaf forms were especially popular in England, and churches were often decorated with a variety of recognisable species. Animals, although rendered realistically, would rarely have been drawn from life. Instead, artists took them from pattern books.
Gothic artists made figures full of tender feeling and strong emotion. Viewers were more likely to identify with the stories in a work of art when the figures expressed human emotion. With sacred images this helped to inspire religious devotion. Images of the Virgin and Child, for example, often emphasised the close relationship between mother and infant.
Museum no. A.45-1931
The John of Thanet Panel
Panel from a cope
Woven silk twill, embroidered with silver-gilt, silver and silk threads and pearls
Museum no. T.337-1921
The Soissons Diptych
Painted and gilt ivory
Museum no. 211-1865
The Virgin and Child
Museum no. 4685-1858
The Virgin and Child
Museum no. A.17-1941
Carved white marble
Museum no. A.27-1913
Limestone (Yorkstone) painted and gilded
Museum no. A.102-1916
Late 14th century
Carved walrus ivory with traces of gilding; some later bone repairs
Museum no. A.1-2002
Missal from the Abbey of Saint-Denis
Ink on parchment with watercolour and gold
Museum no. MSL/1891-1346
Virgin and Child
Museum no. 200-1867
The Crucified Christ
Carved ivory with traces of gilding
Museum no. 212:1 to 3-1867
Abbot Suger (about 1081 – 1151)
Suger was abbot of Saint-Denis Abbey near Paris. Between about 1135 and 1144, he enlarged the eastern end of the building, and his additions are considered to be the earliest example of Gothic architecture. Suger left written records of his building work, but did not refer to the ideas behind the innovative architecture. Indeed, the name of his talented architect is unknown.
Peter Parler (about 1330 – 1399)
Peter Parler was a master mason and came from an important family of architects and sculptors. He worked in Prague from 1356 until his death in 1399. The upper level of the choir o f Prague Cathedral shows his inventiveness as a Gothic architect, especially the zigzag of the triforium (the arches below the upper windows) and the design of the ribs of the vault. The intricate stone tracery decoration that is a characteristic of the outside of his buildings was very influential.
Louis IX (1214 - 1270)
Louis IX, King of France 1226 - 1270, was an important patron, especially of architecture. He funded building work throughout France, and in the Crusader kingdoms of the Near East, but his most significant project was the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Built to house a relic of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, the Gothic chapel is designed lie a precious reliquary or container. Its walls are reduced to the minimum to allow for vast stained glass windows that fill the interior with coloured light.
Buildings and Interiors
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris
Notre-Dame is one of the earliest French cathedrals to be built in the Gothic style. The exterior includes an important structural feature of Gothic architecture: flying buttresses. These arches, springing off the outside of the building, help support the weight of the stone ceiling vaults. The walls could then be thinner and the windows larger. This made Gothic buildings feel lighter and more spacious.
Gothic cathedrals were built on a huge scale. York Minster, among the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe, is still the largest building in the city. Like many medieval churches it replaced an older building on the same site, and itself took centuries to complete. The current building was started in 1220 but only finished in 1472
Reims Cathedral, France
Reims Cathedral is often seen as a perfect example of the Gothic style. Inside, two arcades of pointed arches separate the nave from the side aisles. Above this is another level of pointed arches (the triforium).The upper windows (the clerestory) fill the whole space between the piers, allowing maximum light to enter the building. The ceiling is a ribbed vault made from stone. Delicate naturalistic carving picks out architectural details.