An introduction to Gothic architecture

Even today, Gothic buildings like the cathedrals of Milan, Canterbury and Salisbury; Notre-Dame de Paris and the Black Church remain inspiring. Understandably, many of these beautiful buildings are included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

Every year, millions of people across Europe go out of their way to visit these stunning buildings. In the UK alone, around nine million people a year pay a trip the country´s cathedrals. The majority of which were built in the Gothic style. Westminster Abbey alone welcomes around 1.1 million paying visitors, every year.

The origins of the word ‘Gothic’

Before we give you some examples of Gothic buildings, we would first like to tell you more about the history of this unique and impressive style of architecture. Over the past few decades, the word Gothic has become associated in a lot of people’s minds with something that is dark, gloomy and maybe slightly scary. In fact, when you mention Gothic architecture, a lot of people think of large rambling, dark and dim buildings with small windows.

In reality, the opposite is true. A key aim of the creators of the earliest Gothic buildings was to let the light in. They built buildings with tall ceilings and huge windows that allowed the sunlight to flood in. It is also word noting that Gothic architecture has nothing to do with the Goths, a barbarous tribe that ruled large parts of Europe between the 5th and 8th Centuries.

The origins of Gothic architecture design principles

Between 1000 and 1400 there was an explosion in the building of cathedrals across Europe. During that time, generations of skilled masons, architects and carpenters worked tirelessly on mammoth projects that took decades to complete. As they did so, they worked out new and innovative ways to create ever more impressive buildings. Passing what they had learned down to the next generation, disciples would innovated and push the boundaries even further.

Without a doubt, the early Gothic architects drew from other cultures and building traditions. They built upon the Romanesque style and drew inspiration from the impressive Islamic mosques. In fact, the classically pointed arches that are used in so many Gothic buildings are thought to have been borrowed from Islamic architectural traditions. This style of arch relieves some of the thrust, which in turn puts less stress on other structural elements. The piers and columns that support the roof can, therefore, be less bulky, which creates a far more elegant looking and open structure.

The Gothic period is when humans really mastered building materials like wood, stone and glass. At that point in architectural history, Western builders realised what they could achieve by using good engineering techniques. The Gothic period was when it finally became possible to build huge ornate, beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings.

Some examples of beautiful gothic buildings

These buildings were stunning. The towns and cities that were blessed by having a Gothic church, cathedral or other Gothic building built within their borders, prospered. Tens of thousands of people were drawn to these very important buildings.

As a result, many of them earned their keep, something that made it possible to maintain and preserve them. That and the fact they were so well built is why we can still enjoy many of these buildings today. Scattered across the European continent, there are more than 100 beautiful Gothic buildings, some of which date back to the 1100s, for you to enjoy visiting.

Virtually all of them are cathedrals, churches, and abbeys, but as you will see, there are also some secular examples, including several town halls, castles and manor houses. Everyone has their own favourites, and below are some ours:

The Basilica of St Denis, Paris, France

One of the most exquisite examples of Gothic architecture is also one of the earliest. The Basilica of St Denis was built a Gallo-Roman cemetery site. The relics of Saint Denis were reinterred in the basilica, at which point the small church became an important Christian site. Over the years, work was carried out to extend the church. In 1144, the choir was completed. This is the first example of Gothic architecture, which is part of the reason so many people visit this small, quaint cathedral.

The Duomo – Florence Cathedral, Italy

This beautiful cathedral has the largest brick dome ever built. Even today, it is not clear what technique the architect Fillippo Brunelleschi used to construct this impressive piece of architecture.


Notre Dame de Paris, France

Notre Dame is one of the most famous Gothic buildings. This is largely thanks to Victor Hugo, who based his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame there. Building started in 1163 and finished in 1345. It has also undergone major alterations and had to be heavily renovated after both the French Revolution and World War II, but many of its original features are still visible.

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England

This is one of the oldest cathedrals in England. The site first became a place or worship in the 6th Century. As time has past, several churches have been built here. The first Gothic cathedral was constructed in the 1100s. However, the cathedral we see today was not in fact built until the 14th Century.

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Perhaps the most impressive Gothic cathedral is the one in Cologne. It is the biggest in Europe and is certainly striking, so it comes as no surprise to learn that it took hundreds of years to build.
Construction began in 1248, but building work was stopped in 1473 and did not resume until 1840. The cathedral was finally finished in 1880. Perhaps its most striking feature is its Germanic Gothic spires, which are the 2nd tallest Gothic spires in Europe.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

This beautiful ornate cathedral is actually a mix of Romanesque and Gothic forms. It was built in 1160, and during WWII was spared by a German officer who disobeyed a direct order to destroy it as his forces retreated. Today, it is home to some of Vienna´s most important works of art.

Leuven Town Hall, Belgium

This remarkable building took only 21 years to build, yet is very ornate. The building fell into neglect in the 18th Century, but fortunately, it was restored in the 19th. It was also badly damaged in WWII and it took until 1983 to fully repair it. Today, it is open to visitors who enjoy visiting this small-scale example of Gothic architecture.

Posted by Mark
May 16, 2018

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