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Gothic Church Architecture, the Pointed Arch and More Light


The Gothic Age was famed for its towering churches filled with colorful light shining through glorious stained glass and devout pilgrims. The revolutionary skeletal Gothic church design is best illustrated by building one with 13 travelers.

Complete Video Script

[71, Amiens Cathedral, 13th century, Amiens, France] By the year 1000, Europe was on the rise. Entering a period called the High Middle Ages, it was a time of growing innovation, trade, and travel. Christianity was dominant, and people celebrated their faith by building great structures. The imposing Romanesque style was eventually eclipsed by an even grander style: Gothic.

[72, Gothic Age, mid-12th–mid-15th century] Gothic was an architectural leap forward with taller and taller churches reaching for the heavens and filled with more and more light. Fueled by their faith, Europeans built towering cathedrals to the glory of God. Each community tried to outdo the other. With churches featuring soaring naves supported by elaborate pointed arches and flooded with light, Gothic seemed to be emblematic of a Europe moving upward and onward.

[73, Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century, Chartres; Notre-Dame Cathedral, late 12th century, Paris] The Gothic style was born in France in the 12th century. The cathedral in Chartres, one of the first, greatest, and most influential Gothic churches, captures the spirit of this "Age of Faith" as the Middle Ages were nick-named. Magnificent structures were built by the sweat of peasants, construction projects that dominated entire communities for generations…all for the glory of God. Towering churches like this became sights which, for centuries, broke distant horizons, heartening the weary spirits of approaching pilgrims.

[74, Amiens Cathedral] Gothic churches were taller and brighter than the earlier Romanesque. They were made with a skeleton of support. The key to Gothic is the pointed arch. A Romanesque church is built with round arches. With a round arch, the weight pushes down. But with a pointed arch, the weight pushes not down but out. As a tour guide, it's fun to demonstrate this by building a Gothic cathedral out of tourists.

[75] You start with six columns. These will support the roof with ribs (ignore the elbows) coming together with pointed arches. The key to Gothic is the pointed arch. A Romanesque church is built with round arches. With a round arch, the weight sits squarely on the wall and it needs to be thick and strong. If a round arch collapses, it falls down. But, if you point the arches, suddenly the weight of the roof pushes not down but out. So, rather than thick walls you need to buttress the building by adding support pushing in. So, you need six more tourists to be buttresses. With buttresses rather than thick walls supporting the church, the walls are freed to become window holders — letting in more light. To free up even more wall space, you can make the buttresses "flying buttresses" with their support "flying" in with more arches.

Rick: Are you guys ready for a spire?
Tourists: Yes, we are!

Now, when the spire is raised, because of the pointed arches, the weight goes out rather than down and, with buttresses in place, everything is solid — windows can fill the spaces between the columns — and you've built a Gothic church out of tourists.

Rick: Alright, thank you! That was good!
Tourist: One more time! One more time! [laughter]

[76] As the Gothic style spread outward from France, Europe was soon dotted with magnificent cathedrals. While each had its own personality, all were fundamentally Gothic: with pointed arches, lots of stained glass, and stately statues. Grand entrances came with a heavenly host offering a stony welcome. And multi-tasking gargoyles served as fancy rainspouts while busy scaring away evil spirits.

[77, King's College Chapel exterior and fan vaulting, 1446–1515, Cambridge, England; Duomo, Milan] The style evolved. Over time churches grew taller and more elaborate. In England the final flowering of Gothic is called "Perpendicular," with an emphasis on vertical lines. The original simplicity of ribbed vaults was replaced by elaborate fan vaulting. And this cathedral in Milan illustrates the final stage of Gothic — called "flamboyant" for its flame-like spires and over-the-top features.

[78] Bathed in the light of a Gothic interior, we appreciate how this style — with its huge windows filling the sacred space with light — is such an improvement over the darker Romanesque style.

[79] Most medieval churches are built to look like a Latin Cross — with columns defining a long central nave and short arms called "transepts." As the church generally faced east, the entry is the west portal, there's a north transept and a south transept, and the altar is in the east — symbolically facing Jerusalem.

[80, Amiens Cathedral] Religious pilgrimages were a big deal in medieval Europe. And the greatest churches were designed to handle large crowds during holy days and festivals. This space was the "ambulatory" — it was designed for pilgrims, who may have walked for weeks to get here, to amble through the church.

[81] They'd circulate — behind the high altar around the semi-circular far end, or apse — worshipping at the various side chapels that fit their needs.

[82] Many Gothic churches have an enclosed space, called the "choir" — often elaborately carved — where monks or VIPs could gather for more intimate services in an otherwise vast space. In a time when daily life was pretty bleak, attending Mass provided a needed escape, a peek at the promised glories that awaited the faithful.

[83] Even today, attending a service — especially in the choir — can spark a church to life by filling it with both worship and music.