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Characteristic 5. Light, Airy Interiors
Before gothic architecture, castles and early Medieval buildings were pretty depressing places.
Castles, in particular, were damp and mouldy. Most castle walls were too weak to support slate or stone roofing. As a result, many fortresses had wooden roofs. Typically, these let in the rain.
If that wasn’t depressing enough, these old buildings tended to be dark and dingy. They generally didn’t see any sunlight. If they did have any windows, these were generally tiny. The force of the walls would collapse into themselves if they included large glassworks.
Gothic architecture strove to be the anthesis of this older Medieval style of building.
Gothic architecture emphasised light, bright windows and airy interiors, transforming castles and churches into more pleasant and majestic environments.
6. The Gargoyles of Gothic Architecture
One of the most notable characteristics of gothic architecture is the gargoyle. Gargoyles are decorative, monstrous little creatures, perched at along the roofs and battlements of gothic buildings and castles.
Gargoyles have a practical purpose: they’re spouts, enabling rainwater to drain off the roof and gush through their mouths, before plummeting to the ground. (Guttering is a relatively recent innovation!).
However, gargoyles had another intended purpose. They were designed to strike fear into the hearts of ill-educated Medieval peasants, scaring them into the church or cathedral.
Many gargoyles include elements of the grotesque. They had xaggerated, evil features or threatening poses, which would have leered down from on-high.
eIn a world marked with fear and superstition, these creepy creatures would undoubtedly have encouraged many to seek solace and safety inside of a church or cathedral. There, they would be protected from the demons and ghouls which roamed outside.
The gargoyle is one of the defining characteristics of gothic architecture, and sticks in the mind even to today.
7. An Emphasis on Decoration, and the Ornate
Gothic architecture marked the first time that beauty and aesthetic values had been incorporated into building design.
This revolutionised the way that Medieval people began to think of buildings. Architecture was no longer just functional – it began to have merit and meaning in its own right.
Increasingly ambitious and ornate designs of church, cathedral and castle came to be built. Rivalry and competition drew different groups of builders to conceive and construct grander and more decorative designs, for the glory of the Christian region.
Bonus Round! A Quick History of Gothic Architecture
Gothic architecture revolutionised the appearance of Mid-Medieval buildings. Do remember though, that ‘gothic’ is actually a retrospective term. It wouldn’t have been used in Medieval times.
This style of architecture was, back then, called the “Modern Style”, and it was a revolutionary influence for all castles, churches and palaces in Europe.
The style originally became popular in France from the 1150s, and spread with surprising speed across the whole of Europe.
Some 300 years later, in the 1450s, this style began to go out of fashion. Renaissance architects, the new vogue, started to pour scorn upon this style of architecture.
They derided it as being old-fashioned and uncouth, because it was fantastical, exaggerated and daring. Their Renaissance style was classical, solid, pure, and symmetrical.
To express their scorn, the Renaissance architects actually coined the term ‘gothic architecture’.
‘Gothic’ was a pejorative term, as the goths were barbarians who had wreaked havoc on Europe hundreds of years earlier. The choice of “gothic architecture” expressed their disgust for an architectural style that they felt had blighted the face of Europe.
However, the gothic style was – and is to today – absolutely unstoppable. In the mid 1600s, the style resurfaced, and was re-invented for more modern audiences.
The ‘gothic revival’ period (or the “neo-gothic” period; also referred to in England as the “Victorian gothic”) saw many of the characteristics of gothic architecture re-invented for more modern buildings.
Buildings built in the gothic revival style include the Houses of Parliament in London; Parliament Hill in Ontario, Washington Cathedral, and many campuses of 1800s Universities worldwide.
These adopted the common characteristics of gothic architecture in a more contemporary style.
Even today, the gothic style is still phenomenally popular. It is often the design-of-choice for new churches, cathedrals and similar buildings in Europe and the Americas.
Many of the key characteristics of gothic architecture have been adopted into more modern architectural designs, and our current aesthetic style owes a great deal to the roots of the gothic architecture movement in Medieval times.
Recommended Resource: Tolman, Rolf. Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. Ullman Publishing, 2010.
If you’re looking to appreciate the beauty as well as the history of gothic buildings, this book is a great place to start.
This impressive hard-cover book is filled with awe-inspiring photos of European gothic architecture. There’s a focus on churches and cathedrals from France (including Notre Dame), and a little on castles, too.
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