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  Gothic architecture is the architecture of western Europe of the medieval period, 12th to the 16th century, generally characterized by the use of the pointed arch, the vault and the flying buttress. It succeeds the round-arch style, known as Romanesque, and is in its turn succeeded by the architecture of the Renaissance, which sought to revive the architecture of Latin Antiquity. The term ‘gothic’ seems to have originated as a term of abuse in the Renaissance period, referring to that which was not classical, and later has come to be a general term to cover the arts of the medieval period. Gothic is seen to be an important break from classicism, but this was undoubtedly not self-conscious.

Gothic architecture and ornament varied widely across Europe, but its principal expression is in church architecture, its aesthetic innovation and experiment principally inspired by the creative and impressive settings from the Christian liturgy. There is general agreement that the first important Gothic building is the choir of the Abbey of St Denis, Paris, designed for, and quite possibly by Abbot Suger, in the early 12th century. The effect of the new choir was visually, dramatically different to the heavy and monumental quality of Romanesque architecture. It was light, its masonry seeming almost skeletal, and offered a splendid focus for the high altar of Christian liturgy. At Chartres and Bourges in France the next principal structural innovation, allowing a much greater degree of spatial integration (compared to the compartmentalization of Romanesque architecture of the previous centuries), was the use of the flying buttress, to provide structures which had previously depended on galleries as supports for the vaulting. Gothic churches tend to be characterized by a strong sense of verticality, lightness and movement towards the eastern end of the church—as Nikolaus Pevsner puts it: ‘Activity held in suspense’. In later gothic architecture, great emphasis is also laid on scale, with enormous churches and cathedrals dominating towns, often with tall soaring spires.

The Gothic style was favoured by one of the more important reformed monastic orders, the Cistercians, apparently on grounds of structural soundness rather than beauty, and it soon became the dominant style across Europe for ecclesiastical architecture. Needless to say there are variations of the Gothic style in different European countries.

The naturalistic carved stone ornamentation of Gothic churches, particularly their entrance portals, was extremely important, and they have been referred to as ‘encyclopedias in stone’, associated partly with a scholastic tendency to systematize knowledge and to see the natural world as systematically ordered towards God. JM

See also Gothic Revival.Further reading R. Branner, Gothic Architecture; , B. Fletcher, A History of Architecture, chapter 12; , E. Male, The Gothic Image; , N. Pevsner, An Outline to European Architecture, chapters 3 and 4.



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