10 Extraordinary Examples of Gothic Architecture

March 9, 2020

A pan-European style that lasted between the mid-12th Century and the 16th Century, Gothic architecture was actually developed to bring sunshine into people's lives, and especially into their churches.

Growing out of the Romanesque architectural style, a medieval aesthetic characterized by arches, vaulted ceilings, and small stained glass windows, it represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had prevailed. The gothic style adopted and adapted the main elements of the Romanesque one to produce a new style of building that featured exaggerated arches, increased vaulting, and enlarged windows. Becoming taller and taller, these cathedrals and churches were supposed to evoke ethereality and reach toward the heavens.

The Gothic architecture introduced heavy use of cavernous spaces with walls broken up by overlaid tracery, with the most fundamental element being the pointed arch. This relieved some of the thrust, and therefore the stress on other structural elements, allowing to reduce the size of the columns or piers that supported the arch which became more slender. Buildings became more delicate with thinner walls due to the introduction of the flying buttresses that were used for support.

Another main feature of the style were kaleidoscopic stained glass windows made of meticulously cut colored glass. Larger than those found in other types of churches, these windows allowed the architects to let in more dazzling light.

The Gothic style introduced fantastic examples of vaulting and ornamentation. The architects began utilizing a new method of ribbed vaulting, involving the use of intersecting barrel vaults. Ornate decorative elements included embellished colonnades and colonettes, sculptural moldings, statues of saints and historical figures, pinnacles and spires, and gargoyles, grotesque figures that double as water spouts.

Developed over four centuries, Gothic architecture went through several periods. Early Gothic lasted between 1130 and 1200, with notable examples being the Abbey of St-Denis, Sens Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral; Rayonnant Gothic lasted between 1250 and 1370s, with notable examples being the chapel of Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame; and Flamboyant Gothic lasted between 1350 and 1550, with notable examples including the Rouen Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes.

Below, find the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture across Europe.

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Featured image: Saint Denis Basilica, via rogiro/

The Cologne Cathedral

Hovering above the roofs and chimneys of the city, the magnificent Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, featuring immense twin towers that stand 157 meters tall. Its foundation stone was laid on August 15th, 1248 on the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. For more than 300 years, there was only the lower section of the South Tower with bell tower as well as the long nave and the cross nave were completed up to the lower arcades, until it was finally completed in 1880.

As is usual with Gothic cathedrals, the plan is in the shape of a Latin Cross, while two aisles on either side help to support one of the very highest Gothic vaults in the world. It is famous for its architectural statues, steep gables, blind tracery and unifying series of spires, as well as its rare works of religious art.

Featured image: The Cologne Cathedral, via Zachi Evenor.

The Milan Cathedral

Telling a story of faith and art spanning over six centuries, the Milan Cathedral, or the Duomo di Milano, is the largest church in Italy, the third-largest in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world. 

The construction work on the Duomo of Milan probably began in 1386, in the area of the ancient basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla. It took six centuries to complete, resulting in a number of contrasting styles. The plan consists of a nave with four side-aisles, which forms the highest Gothic vaults of a complete church, while the roof of the cathedral is renowned for the forest of openwork pinnacles and spires, set upon delicate flying buttresses.

Featured image: Milan Cathedral, via Wikipedia.

Notre Dame, Paris

One of the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the Notre Dame of Paris is distinguished for its size, antiquity, and architectural interest. It was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, with its name meaning Our Lady of Paris

Today considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, it is renowned for its pioneering use of the rib vault and flying buttress, its enormous and colorful rose windows, as well as naturalism and abundance of its sculptural decoration. It consists of a choir and apse, a short transept, a nave flanked by double aisles and square chapels and a central spire. On its exterior, it has a range of small statues, all individually crafted.

Featured image: Notre Dame, Paris, via Wikipedia.

The Saint Denis Basilica

A building of singular importance, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is the earliest masterpiece of French Gothic architecture.

A royal abbey and major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, the Basilica Cathedral in Saint-Denis, France assumed its principal role as the burial place for the kings of France as early as the 6th century. Its architecture the features of Norman architecture, rib vaults, to those of Burgundian style, pointed arches, hence giving birth to Gothic architecture style and serving as a model to the main Gothic cathedrals in France in the 13th century. It has a central nave with lower aisles and clerestory windows, with an additional aisle on the northern side formed of a row of chapels. It is renowned for its stained glass which dates from many different periods.

Featured image: Saint Denis Basilica, via Wikipedia.

The Chartres Cathedral

Also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, the Chartres Cathedral was partly built starting in 1145 and then reconstructed over a 26-year period after the fire of 1194.

Marking the high point of French Gothic art, it is renowned for the vast nave, in pure ogival style, the porches adorned with fine sculptures from the middle of the 12th century, and the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows. Heavy flying buttresses allowed the architects to increase the window size significantly, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires. With all the features miraculously preserved from the ravages of humankind and time, it is certainly one of the most admirable and best-preserved examples of Gothic art and architecture.

Featured image: Chartres Cathedral, via Wikipedia.

Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Constructed over a time span of almost 600 years, the Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague is central to the religious and cultural life of the Czech Republic.

Regarded as one of the most richly endowed cathedrals in central Europe, it houses treasures that range from the 14th-century mosaic of the Last Judgement and the tombs of St Wenceslas and Charles IV, to the baroque silver tomb of St John of Nepomuk, the ornate Chapel of St Wenceslas and art nouveau stained glass by Alphonse Mucha. Its construction began in 1344, when the overall layout of the building, which was an import of French Gothic, was built. Renaissance and baroque details were added over the following centuries.

Featured image: Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague, via Wikipedia.

Town Hall, Brussels

An elegant building dating back to the 15th century, the Town Hall in Brussels is the only remaining medieval building of the Grand Place and is considered a masterpiece of civil Gothic architecture and more particularly of Brabantine Gothic.

A work of several architects, it is particularly imposing due to its size, its remarkable sculpted decorations and its asymmetrical facade. Its east wing, together with a shorter belfry, is the oldest part of the building. The facade is decorated with numerous statues representing nobles, saints, and allegorical figures, which are reproductions of the original ones which are now housed in the city museum in the King's House across the Grand Place.

Featured image: Town Hall, Brussels, via Kirk K.

The Westminster Palace, London

The first royal palace constructed on the site dating from the 11th century, the Westminster Palace in London, also referred to as the Houses of Parliament, is a Gothic-style building where the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet.

The current building was finished in 1847 in Perpendicular Gothic style, which was popular during the 15th century and returned during the Gothic revival of the 19th century. The sumptuous façade features gilded pinnacles and the statues of the English kings. Victoria Tower, the largest and tallest tower, is found in the south-western part of the Palace, while on the north side is the world-famous tower, Big Ben.

Featured image: Westminster Palace, London, via Wikipedia.

Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

The third and last cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore is a vast Gothic structure built on the site of the 7th-century church of Santa Reparata, the remains of which can be seen in the crypt.

The construction began in 1296 in the Gothic style to a design of Arnolfo di Cambio and was structurally completed by 1436, with the dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. The exterior is covered in a decorative mix of pink, white and green marble, while the interior is pretty stark and plain. It is renowned for it mosaic pavements which look like mosaic carpets. Among exterior highlights is Giorgio Vasari's frescoes of the Last Judgment. It was designed by Vasari but painted mostly by his less-talented student Frederico Zuccari by 1579.

Featured image: Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, via Wikipedia.

The Canterbury Cathedral

Located in Canterbury, Kent, The Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.

A place of worship for more than 1,400 years, it is often described as "England in stone" as its history is intrinsically linked to the country’s history. It is the first important example of English Gothic architecture, evident in the construction of the choir, the nave, the triforium, and the clerestory. The exterior of Canterbury Cathedral immediately impresses by its size, with a clear change from Romanesque to Gothic. Its creamy-yellowish color comes from Caen stone, while its magnificent collection of medieval stained glass windows depict miracles experienced at Thomas' shrine, biblical scenes, prophets and saints.

Featured image: Canterbury Cathedral, via Wikipedia.

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