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Art Periods and Styles related to
Gothic Architecture:

Carolingian: The title of this period owes its origin to Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler who defeated the Moors at Poitiers in 732. The artistic advances of this period were initiated by Martel's grandson Charlemagne, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Although the Carolingian empire itself would not survive past the ninth century, the civilizing forces set in motion during this era would form the foundation for cultural growth during the Medieval age. Rare examples of Carolingian architecture remain, excepting such sites as Minster at Aachen.

The Decorated style: The second of the three distinctive architectural styles of England's cathedrals, the first being Early English, the later, Perpendicular. A generalized date for the Decorated era is the middle thirteenth to the middle fourteenth centuries. It is within this period that the more distinctive features of English Gothic emerge, leaving behind evident transitional links with the Romanesque. Westminster Abbey is an example of construction during this era

Early English style: The beginnings of Gothic in England span from the final years of the twelfth century through the first half of the thirteenth. Cathedrals primarily constructed within this period are Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln and Salisbury. Within each of these, excepting perhaps Salisbury, it is plain to recognize preceding Romanesque forms and elements.

Flamboyant style: The closing period of French Gothic during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. A style characterized by tracery designs which resemble upward spiraling flames, dominant in the north of France. A classic example of this work is the north spire of Chartres which stands in evident contrast to the remainder of the cathedral, completed two centuries before.

Gothic Art: Seldom separated from the building craft of the Cathedrals, the term is used loosely to refer to religious European art forms of the 12th through 16th centuries. Other mediums utilized extensively during this period, and within similar manner, were Painting, Tapestry, Metalwork, Glasswork and Manuscript Illumination.

Mannerism: A prevalent style of art during the later half of the sixteenth century, characterized by a self-aware perspective with dominant, often disturbing, themes or moods. With roots in earlier artistic schools, Mannerist painters often projected themselves as opposition to the idealistic artists of the High Renaissance.

Ottonian Art: A German art form which preceded the Romanesque, and followed the Carolingian, in which can be seen some early beginnings of forms and innovations what would later be fundamental to Gothic structures. A primary feature of some Ottonian churches was the use of systematic pier and column support within the Nave.

Painterly form: A style distinctly different from Linear, emphasizing shape and color over line. Made popular by artists such as Titian, Painterly works are found in several of the later Gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular style: A distinctive English style within Gothic Architecture, contemporary to the French Flamboyant during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, yet having little else in common. The Perpendicular is clearly influenced by traditional Classicism in manners which are often impressively noble. While there is no cathedral constructed entirely within this style, a close candidate is Gloucester, built in the mid fourteenth century. The Nave at Canterbury was also executed during this time, and its clean, elegant lines are gracefully powerful.

Rayonnant style: The Radiant style, originating during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth in France, sometimes referred to as the Court style or 'the style of the French.' The name which carried through the ages refers to the patterning of the windows which allowed for such radiant lighting.

The Renaissance: Occurring after the close of the Gothic age, the Renaissance should be factored into any serious study of these cathedrals. Much of the spiritual expression silenced at the end of the Gothic building period found new voice within Renaissance art forms, although their expression was fundamentally distinct from the Gothic style, which was perceived as crude and barbaric.

Rococo: A style originating in France, but utilized primarily in English and Italian cathedrals of the early 1700s, as well as in renovations of the period. Distinctively lighter in expression with an emphasis on smaller, more graceful motifs.

Romanesque: The architectural style immediately preceding the Gothic, first singular influence to spread across Europe in the Medieval age. Clearly identified by broad walls and pillars, the style derives its name from inspirations of Roman architecture. Many cathedrals and churches consist of a blending of Gothic/Romanesque elements. A fine experience of this will be found at Canterbury, within its 11th century Crypt.

Romanticism: An artistic style which dominated or influenced much of European art through most of the nineteenth century. With an emphasis on emotional expression, the movement embraced the art of the Gothic period. Eventually responsible for the great Neo-Gothic building period of the later years of the century.


Structural Components of
Gothic Churches and Cathedrals:

Aisle : Passageways of a church or cathedral, separated from the Nave by rows of pillars; generally running along the north and south sides.

Ambulatory : A continuous isle which wraps a circular structure or an apse at its base. Designed for use in Processions.

Apse : A vaulted element in a church or cathedral which serves to terminate a semicircular Aisle or Chapel. The Apse, generally domed, will often form the Altar. The term is derived from the Medieval Latin: absis or apsis.

Basilica : A term sometimes used in reference to a cathedral for ceremonial reasons, although traditionally denoting an earlier form of structure. The Basilica is the archetype of succeeding cathedral forms, the most famous of which is the early Saint Peter's in Rome. A Basilica consists of a Nave bordered along its side by Aisles with a Clerestory and an Apse.

Chancel : Altar space reserved for the clergy or choir, bordered by railings.

Chantry chapel : A sub-chapel set aside for chanting of masses, often sponsored through an endowment. Prayers in the Chantry chapel are generally dedicated to the donor.

Chapter house : The administrative center or Bishop's office, attached to a cathedral, traditionally organized for the overseeing of a cathedral's construction and maintenance.

Chevet : The extreme east of a cathedral when Chapels encircle an Apse and an Ambulatory.

Choir : The area located between the Sanctuary and the Nave. By definition: the place where the psalms are sung. Loosely used to define the whole East end of a cathedral, and as a synonym for Chancel. Traditionally inaccessible to the public, reserved for the clergy or members of the choir

Clerestory : The upper area of the Nave, Transepts and Choir. The raised passage, above the Aisles, often windowed.

Crossing : The central space of a church or cathedral. The intersection of the Nave, Transepts and Chancel.

Crypt : The rooms below the cathedral designated as burial chambers.

Image at right: The Crypt of Canterbury cathedral, England.

Cupola : The turret which serves as the crown to the dome or roof of a structure.

Garth : The garden or court within a cloister, usually attached to or near a cathedral.

Hall church : A structure which does not contain a Clerestory or Triforium, thus the Aisles and Nave will be approximately the same height.

Narthex : A ceilinged porch or vestibule situated west of the Nave and Aisles. (Sometimes referred to as a Galilee.)

Nave : The central area of the western branch of a cathedral, bordered by Aisles. The center of a church or cathedral, intended for seating of parishioners.

Oratory : A small chapel or private room set aside for individual prayer.

Parvis : An area situated before a church or cathedral, in some instances enclosed.

Porch : The reception space situated at the entrance to a church or cathedral.

Presbytery (Sanctuary) : The area east of the Choir which contains or features the High Altar. The area of a church or cathedral reserved for the clergy.

Retrochoir : The space situated directly to the rear of the altar in a church or cathedral.

Sacristy : The secure storing chamber for holy relics and sacred vestments.

Spire: A tapering, often elegant, structure set atop a tower. In certain instances, the tower itself has been designed as a spire. On churches, smaller scale spires are often referred to as Steeples.

Image at right: The Spire over the crossing of the Transepts at Notre Dame de Paris.

Transepts : The north and south projecting extensions of a Cruciform style church or cathedral, crossing at right angles to the greater length.

Triforium: A walled passageway opening with arcades which run along and above the Nave, below the Clerestory.


Theme Introduction

Content Directory


'Must Know' Terms

Unique Cathedral

Decoration & Motif

Structural Design

Expression & Technique

Art Periods & Styles

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". . . if from the examination of the general features we proceed to the details of the building, every one who understands construction will be amazed to see what numberless precautions are resorted to in the execution, — how the prudence of the practical builder is combined with the daring of the artist full of power and inventive imagination; while in examining the mouldings and the sculpture we remark the use of reliable methods, a scrupulous adherence to principles, a perfect appreciation of effect, a style unequaled in purity by modern art, an execution at the same time delicate and bold, quite free from exaggeration, and owing its merit to the study and love of form."

— Viollet-le Duc,
regarding Notre Dame de Paris in Discourses on Architecture, 1860

Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle,
E. Viollet-le-Duc, Paris (1858-68)
Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams (1904)
Gothic Painting, J. Dupont & C. Gnudi, Skira (1954)
The Gothic Cathedral, Otto von Simson, Pantheon, NY (1956)
The Gothic, Paul Frankl , Princeton U. Press (1960)
The Cathedral Builders, Jean Gimpel, Grove Press, NY (1961)
Gothic Architecture, Robert Branner, G. Braziller, NY (1961)
High Gothic, Hans Jantzen , Pantheon, NY (1962)
Medieval Art I, II, III Georges Duby, Skira, Geneva (1966-67)
The Medieval Architect, J. H. Harvey, London (1972)
The Age of the Cathedrals, Art and Society 980-1420,
Georges Duby, London (1981)
French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries,
J. Bony , Berkeley (1983)
The Gothic Cathedral, C. Wilson , Thames & Hudson (1990)
The Art of Gothic, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, (1999)

Unique Features within
Gothic Cathedrals and Churches:

Antependium : Decorated frontispiece to an altar, featuring allegorical figures in tapestry or carved forms.

Canopy : An overhanging shade or shelter above an artwork or statue, sometimes situated upon pillars.

Capital : The upper element of an architectural pillar, often finely decorated in Romanesque and Early Gothic structures.

Column figure : A statue or sculpted figure which serves as a supportive or decorative shaft within a portal.

Gargoyle : From the Old French: gargouille, meaning: throat. The word refers to sound which water makes as it passes through the gullet. Originally a reference to the drains atop cathedrals which were later carved into the form of beasts or animals.

View the Foundation Stone about Gargoyles

Iconography : Religious imagery painted upon wooden panels. The term is also used to define the study of symbolism as it relates to the subject of a work of art.

Lady chapel : Found in all the Notre Dames, as well as many of the Great Cathedrals and churches, the Lady chapel is usually located behind the Sanctuary. These spaces are dedicated to - sometimes set aside for the use of - Mary, the Blessed Virgin.

Latin cross : A cross form which contains one arm that is longer than the other three, traditionally the base arm. This is the accepted manner of the Crucifixion cross, based upon the upright beam and crossbar commonly used by the Romans for execution. As a central Christian symbol this motif is utilized in many forms, from literal sculpted figures of the Martyrdom to Cruciform floorplans of churches and cathedrals.

Maesta : Artwork or sculpture which portrays the Madonna and the Christ child upon a throne, usually attended by angels.

Pieta : Artwork or sculpture which portrays the Virgin Mary cradling the lifeless body of Christ upon her lap.

Relic : A sacred object venerated because of its association to a martyr or saint, in certain instances, remains of the saint.

Retable : Sometimes referred to as Reredos, these sculpted structures form the back of altars.

Ridge turret : Found more commonly on churches without towers, located over the crossing and named for their location on the ridge of the roof.

Rood Screen : An ornamented piece which serves on the Altar as a separation between the Choir and the Nave. Quite often Rood Screens will contain or support a crucifix.

Rose window : Evolving from the simple round windows of the Romanesque period these intricate works of glass, metal and stone literally flowered into holistic representations of the known Universe. While glass windows were used in cathedrals of other countries, the Rose Window was initially a French creation, first appearing at St. Denis.

Image at right: Detail of Rose window at Rheims cathedral, France.

View the Foundation Stone about Rose Windows

Roundel : From the Old French: rondel, meaning small circle. In architecture: a curved panel or window recess.

Sacred Conversation : Artwork or sculpture which portrays the Madonna and Christ child contained in the same setting with saints & angels.

Sarcophagus : A sculpted stone tomb or wooden coffin, adorned with ornamentation.

Tabernacle : A ceilinged alcove used for the display of statuettes or art pieces.

Tetramorph : An allegorical figure containing the symbols of the four Evangelists; lion, eagle, bull and man. Traditionally, these are associated to Mark, John, Luke and Matthew.

Triptych : A three paneled art piece, either image or carving, linked by hinges, used in religious iconography.

Tympanum : The vertical space between the arch and the lintel of a doorway. This location was often considered the premier site on a structure for sculpture, and so contained significant scenes such as the Last Judgment or Christ enthroned.

Decoration and Motif within a
Gothic Cathedral:

Altarpiece : An individual or group of panels or screens located near or on the altar.

Annulet : A circular finishing found on pillars or piers, sometimes decorated with carvings.

Archivolt : An ornamental molding seen often in arch shaped portals following the lines of the face with sculpted figures.

Armatures : Iron framework used within mason-less Rose Windows to support the glass weight.

Ball flower : An ornamented ball sculpture surmounted in the petals of a flower.

Bar tracery : The dominant class of Tracery consisting of decorative patterns formed from stone bars..

Boss (Rib-boss) : Ornamental masonry strips used to conceal the breaks in vault work.

Chevron :An ancient European design motif consisting of a pattern of pointed zig zags.

Cinquefoil : A five sided design of converging arcs, often used in frame work.

Cornice : A decorative horizontal outcropping serving to crown a wall or column.

Crockets : A distinctive Gothic motif formed of floral and leaf ornamentation. Primarily used on spire and pinnacle sculpture.

Cusp : Found within Tracery decoration to form the meeting point of foils.

Fan vaulting : An intricate form of Tracery in which the ribs of a Vault arch out in a concave fan pattern.

Fillet : Delicate adornment strips applied to shafts and archways along the moldings.

Finial : An ornamental capping piece placed atop spires.

Fluting : Carved vertical groove work found on Piers, Columns and Pillars.

Foils : A small arc design used in Tracery, often utilized within Rose Windows.

Grisaille : A stained glass window incorporating muted tones as opposed to bright colors.

Grotesques : A class of decorative sculpture forms often found in or on Gothic structures. A term used broadly for gargoyles, although traditionally a gargoyle serves as a drainage spout for rain water, while a grotesque may function solely as decoration.

View the Foundation Stone about Gargoyles

Lierne vaulting : Vaults containing small decorative rib work not originating from the corners; primarily found in England.

Moldings : Carved contours given to Piers and columns to exploit optical effects of light.

Ogee arches : An arch formed by the meeting of two double curves forming a long S shape; a definitive design of the Gothic era.

Pinnacle :A vertical ornament forming the spire of a turret.

Predella : A series of small images or carvings at the base of an altarpiece.

Quadratura : An intended architectural illusion used to create the sense of a larger room.

Reredos : An elaborate wall carving or screen utilized primarily on or behind the high Altar.

Spandrels : The semi-triangular space formed by arches and the moldings surrounding them.

Vesica Pisces : The oval shape created by the intersecting of two equal circles. A ancient symbolic motif which has great significance within many cultures. In Christianity the form represents the sacred Body of Christ.

Expression and Technique of Craft
within Gothic Cathedrals:

Damp fold : A sculpting technique in which the lines are long and subtle, giving the featured material a look as though it were damp and clinging to the figure.

Image at right: A portal figure at Rheims, featuring the Damp fold technique.

Dog tooth molding : An ornamental feature in which pairs of 'tooth-like' pieces of wood or stone are set to each other in diagonal rows.

Fresco : The technique of blending wet plaster with water based paint. As the plaster dries it becomes a lasting surface base. The term applies to the technique as well as the painting itself.

Impasto : A painting technique where the material is applied in thick layers to wooden panels or canvas. This method creates a textured effect.

Intaglio : A technique of stylized engraving which is carved beneath the surface layer of a hard material, often stone or metal.

Intarsia : Essentially a Mosaic inlaid within a wooden panel, table or chest. Elements may include ivory or precious stone.

Mandorla : The artistic interpretation of a halo or aura surrounding the head of holy figures. An almond shaped motif often used in imagery of the Virgin, Christ or particular saints. Symbolically, the Mandorla has great significance within Medieval Christianity, and is related to the Vesica Pisces. The space which represents the shape of a Mandorla is the overlapping segment of two intersecting circles. In Christian context, the place where Heaven and Earth join as one, perhaps even the doorway between the two. Many cathedral portals feature Christ or the Virgin enthroned within a Mandorla frame.

Polychrome : A painted finish applied mostly to sculpture work, consisting of multiple combinations of color. Popular during the late nineteenth century.

Relief : A sculpture form in which elements project out of the background of the work.

Stucco : Traditionally, a soft, workable plaster sometimes used in sculpting, primarily it is worked into a decorative background.

Tapestry : A heavy fabric incorporated with intricate design or imagery, used as wall hung decoration or covering.

Image at right: A unique depiction of the Crucifixion, within an English Tapestry at Canterbury cathedral.

Tempera : A paint material mixed with egg white, casein or glue, to create an effect of luminescence.

Tracery : Ornamental stonework consisting of patterned bars; used most often within windows to support the weight of glass. When utilized in this way, such work is more specifically known as Bar Tracery, for its use of thin, decorative bars of stone. Larger window formations are known as Plate Tracery and designs upon solid surfaces without windows are called Blind Tracery.

'Must Know'
Structural Features of a
Gothic Cathedral:

Ambulatory : A continuous isle which wraps a circular structure or an apse at its base. Designed for use in Processions.

Apse : Particular to the East end of Cathedrals, the Apse is a semicircular form serving as a culmination. The Apse, generally domed, will often form the Altar. The term is derived from the Medieval Latin: absis or apsis.

Choir : The section of a Cruciform Cathedral located between the Nave and the main Altar. But be careful! The exact perimeter of the Choir is often disputable from cathedral to cathedral. By definition: the place where the psalms are sung. Loosely used to define the whole East end of a cathedral, and as a synonym for Chancel.

Flying Buttress : A masonry support branching from the sturdy piers and vertical Standing buttresses. Their role is to transfer the great weight of the vaulted roofs off to this more solid support of the firmly set abutments. In French: "arc-boutant."

Lady Chapel : If you are considering taking on some part time work in one of the Notre Dames, you had better memorize this term. The Lady Chapel will be found in all the Notre Dames, as well as many of the Great Gothic Cathedrals. Usually located behind the Sanctuary, these spaces are dedicated to - sometimes set aside for the use of - the Blessed Virgin.

Pier : Without piers there would be no Great Cathedrals to speak of. The solid standing piers serve as the main support to the heavy strain of the Gothics vertical aspirations. The piers take on many column shapes (rounded, cross and rectangular) but will also take the form of a segment of wall. The term derives from the Norman French: piere or pere.

Rose Window : Arguably one of the finest developments in the history of Western art. Evolving from the simple round windows of the Romanesque period these intricate works of glass, metal and stone literally flowered into holistic representations of the known Universe. While glass windows were used in cathedrals of other countries, the Rose Window was initially a French creation, first appearing at St. Denis.

Sexpartite Vault : Essentially a four part (Quadripartite) vault to which an additional transverse rib has been incorporated which divides the vault into six segments. This is yet another form which remained distinct to the Gothic period.

Tracery : Located throughout Gothic cathedrals, tracery adds much to the distinctive style of Gothic ornament. The variety of Tracery patterns within these cathedrals is nearly endless. Their interlacing lines are incorporated into vaults, walls, columns, windows and the woodwork of the screens.