9 key points to identify a Gothic cathedral


Last week we reviewed the most characteristic elements of a Romanesque church Romanesque church in the Iberian peninsula with the aim to identify easily one of these churches in one of our journeys along El Camino. This week is the turn of Gothic cathedrals, the preeminent architectural style in western Europe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. They are much easier to identify than Romanesque churches, their features are clearer to distinguish, although sometimes they can get mixed up with Baroque ones (even though they are quite different, as you will see at the end of this series of posts). And why not? it feels nice to be able to explain to your companions certain things, doesn´t it?

Elements of a typical Gothic Cathedral

Elements of a typical Gothic Cathedral

Mostly Cathedrals

Although there were palaces, markets, town halls and even small churches built in this style, the most representative were the cathedrals. The reasons for the evolution from small Romanesque church to Gothic cathedral are several, amongst them: economic and cultural shifts, political changes and technological advances. The European population was growing and Christianism was in expansion, so its temples had to be bigger to accommodate a growing number of followers. On the other hand, the Christian church became more powerful and wealthier, so its buildings became more opulent, parallelled to its new status, this was made possible thanks to the advances in the techniques of constructions..

Basilican Latin cross plan

One of the features that Romanesque and Gothic temples share is their layout. They are typically a basilican and basilican Latin cross plan, with three naves (sometimes five), the central one wider and higher. This quality is often also found in the transept and the ambulatory.

Cathedral of peregrination: the ambulatory

During the Gothic period, the peregrination was a rising trend. Such was the effect that the cathedrals feature an architectural elements, the ambulatory: its function was simple and brilliant, the pilgrims could visit the altarpiece and the relics without interrupting the liturgy. The ambulatory is nevertheless an element that started in the Romanesque period, although it was during the Gothic period that became more important.

Ambulatory (Wikipedia)

Ambulatory (Wikipedia)


Thanks to the advances in architecture and to the new building techniques, the Gothic temple became much taller than their counterparts in the Romanesque (and not only in the two towers at the main entrance of the building), so the Gothic acquired one of the most relevant features: verticality

Division in several storeys

As the building became taller, the division of the building in several storeys became necessary. Usually a Gothic cathedral has a tripartite or quadripartite division. Each floor has its own denomination: arcade, tribune (or upper gallery), triforium gallery and clerestory arranged as on the illustration below, when the cathedral only has three storeys the tribune is often not present..

Vertical cut of a Gothic cathedral - Dizionario dell Architettura francese dal XI al XVI, Eugene Viollet le Duc (Wikipedia)

Vertical cut of a Gothic cathedral – Dizionario dell Architettura francese dal XI al XVI, Eugene Viollet le Duc (Wikipedia)

Vertical section: Ribbed vault, pointed arch, flying buttress arch and buttress

The arches and vaults also differ from those of the Romanesque. The latter had a preference for the semicircular arch and barrel vault, during the Gothic the most characteristic feature were the pointed arch and the ribbed vault. To this we need to add the use of the flying buttress arch (this innovation allowed architects to elevate the central naves even higher) and there was wider use of the buttress.

Types of arches and vaulting. Images Architectural Visual Dictionary Editorial Cátedra. Edición VOJO

Types of arches and vaulting. Images Architectural Visual Dictionary Editorial Cátedra. Edición VOJO

The dematerialisation of the wall: the importance of the stained windows

The improved building techniques did not only allow to build bigger temples, but also the use of great stained glass windows are proof of this. Thanks to the architectural innovations, the walls did not need to be so solidly built and the windows were much bigger than during the Romanesque. It is true that on these windows the iconography is used with a dogmatic as well as a decorative function, but its main function was to create a mystical atmosphere inside the temple, for that purpose they used the different colours of the stained windows used the masters glassmakers. This feature and the general material wealth during the Gothic have its origin in the figure of the abbot Suger de Saint Denis, his philosophy was that through the contemplation of material beauty one could be elevated to the knowledge of God.
The fact that the stained windows substituted the solid stone wall in a big part is what is understood as the “dematerialisation of the wall”, the paradigmatic temple is Sainte Chapelle in Paris ( it is also a good example of the verticality during the Gothic).

Saint Chapelle, Paris. Blog de ana Cob (Blogspot)

Saint Chapelle, Paris. Blog de Ana Cob (Blogspot)

The glass rosette, an unequivocal signature feature of Gothic style

In relation to the importance of the stained glass and the use of light during the Gothic period, we must add to this the rosette. It occupies a hollow space, generally with a circular shape and it is used at one or more entrances of the cathedral. If there is only an entrance point to the cathedral, then the rosette is opposite the main altarpiece, illuminating it at a particular time of the day (that is the rosette main function); when there are more than one entrance the cathedral, the rosettes usually go by the access points to the transept.

The evolution of the monumental façade

During the Gothic, the monumental façade is a continuous feature from the previous period, but it becomes more generalised, in particular because the church becomes wealthier. But there are several differences with respect to the previous period.

The sculpture comes directly from the architectural structure that is the building. If during the Romanesque the was an abundance of low and high relief in sculpture, during the Gothic the low relief is maintained but it tends to be sculpture in the round style.
The sculpture is not subordinated to the architecture. As opposed to the Romanesque, where the sculpture that decorates the façade has to adapt to the architectural shape of the building. This and the first point in this list, are interchangeable characteristics.
Flared façade, or plainly said, the façade diminishes or enlarges in size progressively as we get closer to the entrance, giving the impression of a conical shape.  

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I leave this comparative photographs in which to see all these features.

Tympanum of Puerta del Cordero, San Isidoro de León and Puerta del Sarmental, Catedral de Burgos. Lourdes Cardenal and Zarateman (Wikipedia)

Tympanum of Puerta del Cordero, San Isidoro de León and Puerta del Sarmental, Catedral de Burgos. Lourdes Cardenal and Zarateman (Wikipedia)

And this is all for today. Next week will be the last in this series, I will talk about the Baroque cathedrals and its characteristics. There are not as many as Romanesque and Gothic, but there are some very good examples in the Spanish architecture.

Header photo: Ely Cathedral, Gary Ullah (Flickr).
Translation: Elvira Sánchez.


About Author

Sergio De Arriba

Graduado en Historia del Arte, trabajo como Gestor de Contenido Cultural y arquitecto de rutas en VOJO, aunque de vez en cuando también realizo vídeos corporativos e ilustraciones. En este blog mi intención es mostraros el Arte de la forma más atractiva y sencilla posible, alejándome de descripciones complejas pero sin olvidar los métodos científicos que acompañan a la teoría artística.

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