Gothic Art and Architecture

Longing for heights, yearning for Heaven: Gothic Art and Architecture

Medieval Europe was a period of turmoil and ongoing fights in Europe. Many know it as times that violence, ignorance, and barbarism reigned over. However, these times were also impregnated to an outstanding architectural fashion, namely, to Gothic art.

The Goths were Germanic tribes who fought against Roman rule in the late 300s and early 400s. A.D. Helping to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, they controlled much of Europe for centuries ( editors, 2018). After the Empire’s fall by so-called barbarians such as “Goths,” Europe was divided. As a result, its Roman traditions (Romanesque art and architecture) began to lose its power. Yet notwithstanding, owing to the decline of Roman culture, Gothic art began to spread across Western Europe.

Art historians now categorize buildings into Early, High, and Late Gothic. Its early period in France lasts from 1140 to 1200, the High from 1200 to 1350, and the Late from 1350 to 1520 (Charles, Carl and Hacker, 2008). (The term “Gothic” was unknown during its period. Renaissance artists used the name for the first time as an example of bad taste, obnoxious, and “barbaric” architecture (Camille, 1996, p. 9).

Gothic art contains in itself architecture, painting, and sculpture. To achieve greatness, all of the elements of an artwork must be in harmony. In those times, every region wanted to show their development, power, and capacity. They used massive, splendent cathedrals to the that as cities’ population grew and competition among them was rising.

Kathedrale Saint-Ètienne, Sens © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Approaches to Gothic Art

In his book Michael Camille indicates the two major approaches to the study of Gothic art and architecture, both inherited from the nineteenth century. The first one is a rationalist and secular system pioneered by historian and restorer Eugène Emmanuel Violletle – Duc (1814-79). According to this approach, great cathedrals of Gothic are products of progressive technology and functional engineering (ibid).

The second approach examines this style in terms of spiritual and literary matters. It focuses on the meaning of structural symbols and interprets them. Camille also indicates this as iconography. He mentions from the writings of the French scholar Emile Male (1862-1954) as the best example of this approach, “…who sought to “read” cathedrals, like that Amiens, as though they were “books in stone.” 

When we look at the architecture in terms of religious reasons, the writers of Gothic Art Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl say that:

“…namely the deep piety that constituted the ethical foundation of medieval man and his yearning for the bliss of Heaven, which is visible externally in the towers reaching for Heaven and internally in the pillar constructions that lift the vaults to vertiginous heights.” This “longing for heights,” this “yearning for Heaven” is certainly one of the decisive reasons for the vertical tendency in the development of Gothic architecture, which is so unlike the horizontal tendency of the Romanesque style.” (Charles, Carl and Hacker, 2008, p. 8)

Gothic Art

Palastarchitektur mit Musizierenden, 1596 by Hans Vredeman de Vries

Gothic Art in France, Germany and UK

Gothic started in France with the constructions of Sens Cathedral (1135) and The Basilica of Saint-Denis (1144, an abbey, not cathedral), which are the first uses of all elements of Gothic architecture.The new architecture method developed and proved itself in Notre-Dame in Paris (1163-1345) and Laon Cathedral (twelfth and thirteenth centuries). With Sainte-Chapelle (1248), the most mature and magnificent formation of the French Gothic, we see High Gothic’s transition as a miracle actualized by medieval artists.

Its oldest architectural style in Germany is Magdeburg Cathedral, which began in 1208.  Although it is the oldest one, This sanctuary shows a strong Romanesque architecture influence. Unlike most other cathedrals, it does not have flying buttresses supporting the walls.” The two cathedrals are seen as touchstones to show the style’s integration in Germany: Cologne (1322) and Freiburg (1230). 

Early English, late 12th–late 13th centuries, was significantly dominated by “The French style.”  The Gothic architecture in England evolved gradually from Norman architecture (also called English Romanesque architecture.The first complete expressions of this architecture in the country are Canterbury Cathedral (1070), Westminster Abbey (960), Wells Cathedral, 1239.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Final Thoughts on Gothic Art

It would be best to conclude with the words of Victoria Charles, Klaus H. Carlbe about Gothic art by saying that, “Gothic finds its roots in the powerful architecture of the cathedrals of northern France. It is a medieval art movement that evolved throughout Europe for more than 200 years. Leaving Roman forms behind, the architects started using flying buttresses and pointed arches to open cathedrals to the daylight. A period of significant economic and social change, the gothic era also saw the development of a new iconography celebrating in Holy Marry, in contrast to the fearful themes of dark Roman times. Full of rich changes in all the different arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, etc.), Gothic art gave way to the Italian Renaissance and International Gothic.”


Camille, M., 1996. Gothic Art. London: The Everyman art library.

 Rudolph, C., 2006. A Companion To Medieval Art. Malden (Mass.): Blackwell Publishing.

von Simson, O.G., 1998. The Gothic cathedral: origins of Gothic architecture and the medieval concept of order. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Charles, V., Carl, K. and Hacker, A., 2008. Gothic Art. New York: Parkstone Press.


Erhan Ozan Acıdere is a documentary photographer and journalist based in İstanbul. He worked in Milliyet as a photojournalist in 2016 Many photos of him published by Milliyet newspaper and Milliyet Art. He did his first photo-story called, “Dest-i Izdivac, a Marriage TV Show” in 2017 He studies journalism at Ege University as bachelor degree and is interested in EU Politics.


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