The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture

Fundamentally, gothic architecture transformed castles, churches, cathedrals and pretty much the whole of Europe!

This style of architecture developed because of common architectural problems in Medieval times.

Back in the 1100s-1200s, building skills were extremely limited. Stone castles were rudimentary - dark, cold, and damp.

Gothic architecture tried to solve some of these unpleasant problems, and created light, pleasant and airy buildings. Before the gothic, architecture was functional. Now, architecture became beautiful.

This menacing gargoyle I discovered in Munich is a great example of gothic architecture. Why build a simple rain-gutter, when you could turn it into a monster?!

Screaming gargoyle, Munich Town Hall

Some gothic buildings - particularly churches and cathedrals, such as York Minster, in York, England (the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe) - were rendered into awe-inspiring places of piety and worship, as a result of their phenomenal gothic design.

Many castles adopted some of the characteristics of gothic architecture, too. They became transformed from dank living environments into majestic, light and pleasant residences for the lords and ladies within.

Don't forget, though, that the term 'gothic architecture' is a retrospective term. Medieval people wouldn't have used it. Back in Medieval times, this form of building was called 'the modern style'. If you're interested, the history of gothic architecture is on the next page of this series.

The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture

1. Grand, Tall Designs, Which Swept Upwards With Height and Grandeur

Gothic Architecture York Minster The magnificent gothic exterior of York Minster in the UK. Credit: M Poudal CC-BY-2.0

In the times before gothic architecture, Early Medieval architects struggled to spread the weight of heavy stone walls.

This meant that most towers needed to be short, and buildings thin, otherwise the sheer weight of higher levels (or large rooms and halls) would collapse into themselves.

One of the fundamental characteristics of gothic architecture was its height. New building techniques (such as the flying buttress, detailed below) enabled architects to spread the weight of taller walls and loftier towers.

This all meant that gothic buildings could, quite literally, scale new heights. It allowed them to reach up to the heavens - perfect for cathedrals and churches.

The cathedral pictured above is York Minster - one of the many attractions of York, UK.

Gothic Dom Cologne This is the famous Dom - or cathedral - of Cologne. It's an amazing example of the Gothic style.

You'll see that I've scattered photos of the Cologne Dom (Cathedral) throughout this page - see the pic just above. It's one of the most visited tourist attractions in Germany, and miraculously survived the bombings of World War II. It's a phenomenal example of gothic architecture, exhibiting all seven characteristics of this amazing design style. I hope you enjoy the photos!

2. The Flying Buttress

Gothic Flying Buttresses These flying buttresses are a feature of gothic architecture. They're part of the St Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle. Credit: Patrick Gonzales CC-BY-SA-2.0

The flying buttress is the defining external characteristic of gothic architecture. These buttresses effectively spread the weight of the new designs, taking the weight off the walls and transferring force directly to the ground.

"The flying buttress was practical and decorative, too"

However, what's particularly notable about the flying buttress is that it's decorative, too.

Rather than just being a simple support, buttresses were often elaborately designed and extremely decorative. They appeared to dart and sweep around each building, giving a sense of movement and of grandeur missing from previous architectural designs.

3. The Pointed Arch

Characteristics of Gothic Architecture Pointed Arch A modern example of the characteristic pointed arch. Credit: J Brew CC-BY-SA-2.0

The innovation of the pointed arch which was the defining internal characteristic of gothic architecture. Its significance was both practical and decorative.

The pointed arch effectively distributed the force of heavier ceilings and bulkier designs, and could support much more weight than previous, simple pillars.

The stronger arches allowed for much more vertical height, too - they literally reached up to the heavens.

The gothic arch wasn't just a workhorse. It had an aesthetic value and beauty which influenced many other features of gothic design - most notably the vaulted ceiling.

Malbork Castle, in Poland, has some excellent examples of pointed ceilings.

4. The Vaulted Ceiling

The vaulted ceiling was an innovation which lead on from the achievements of the pointed arch.

Gothic Castles - Malbork, Poland The delicate vaulted ceilings of Malbork Castle in Poland. These ceilings are another feature of gothic architecture. Credit: Alexander Baxevanis CC-BY-2.0

Irregular, vaulted ceilings utilised the technology of the pointed arch to spread force and weight from upper floors. The arch also provided the impression of height and magnificence, giving the vaulted ceiling a feeling of grandeur and elegance.

The distribution of force within the vaulted ceiling enabled vaults to be built in different shapes and sizes, too. Previously, vaults could only have been circular or rectangular.

The picture above is again an example from Malbork Castle, in Poland.

Continue for more Characteristics of Gothic Architecture...

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Hey - I'm Edd.

I've always loved visiting amazing old castles.

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