What is gothic architecture?

One of the most significant architectural movements in Europe that took shape during the time period  of the Middle Ages, the Gothic style of building — gothic architecture characteristics' are its definition, standing out for its pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, cavernous interiors, stained glass windows— were most commonly quite tall structures.

For the record there is no such thing as Gothic architecture in Australia - what some think may be gothic style, is actually neo-gothis or even neo-Romanesque style architecture like we find with Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral.

Gothic architecture features evolved from the Romanesque genre, retaining many of the elements such as the arches and vaulted ceilings, but in a more exaggerated form – the rounded arches, for instance, were replaced by thin, pointed arches, very likely influenced by Islamic architecture. However, the massive columns and thick walls of the Romanesque era were discarded in favour of slender columns and thinner walls, with the primary intent being to build sky-high.

These medieval wonders, many of which continue to stand tall even today, were built around height and light. A gothic cathedral, gothic church or gothic castle built from the 12th century through to the 16th century were based on Gothic architecture and evolved. Constructed from heavy stone, these buildings featured slim columns and thin walls to create lighter and taller structures with architects of the time using flying buttresses for support and stability. Windows became larger with the stained glass allowing abundant amounts of natural light into the cavernous spaces.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey. Photo: Jdforrester [GFDLCC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

With better understanding of architecture and engineering, architects introduced increasingly complicated designs, especially in the ribbed vaulting and tracery – the decorative stonework that held the windows and other openings on the structure. The ribbed vaulting grew more complex with the addition of cross-ribs, the decoration around the windows became more ornate, and the stained glass windows presented a canvas for Biblical stories. Decorative elements characteristic of the Gothic style of architecture also included embellished colonnades, saintly statues, religious motifs, spires, carvings and gargoyles.


Source: Stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (Photo: Jean-Christophe BENOIST (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia

The evolution of Gothic architecture can be divided into Early Gothic or Lancet style (12-13th century), Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (around 14th century), Perpendicular or International Gothic (15th century), and late Gothic (16th century).

While the signature Gothic style originated in France, the architectural movement spread across Europe, especially in Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain. Some of the best Gothic architecture examples can be seen in France, one of the earliest being the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris completed in 1144 CE. Some of the more well-known and notable Gothic buildings and Gothic style house include the Notre-Dame De Paris (1345 CE), Westminster Abbey (1245 CE), Chartres Cathedral (12-13th century), Milan Cathedral (1386-1865 CE), Notre-Dame de Reims or Reims Cathedral (13th century) and Leuven Town Hall, Belgium (1469) among many more.

The Classical era, which originated in Florence, Italy in the 15th century, saw the intricate Gothic art and architecture being gradually replaced by the more refined Renaissance architecture, which was based on simplicity, clean lines, harmony and order. However, the Gothic movement experienced a revival in the 18th century, beginning in England and making its way around the world including North America, Australia and South Africa. The Gothic revival was closely associated with religion and church reforms, as well as the literature of the time, which romanticised the Gothic period and created a sense of nostalgia for medieval times.

There was a political angle too, meaning the Neoclassical style was perceived as radical and liberal while Gothic Revival was more aligned with monarchy, tradition and conservatism. Additionally, the views of John Ruskin, an influential art critic of the time, who endorsed Gothic architecture through his books, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stone of Venice, played an important part in the revival.  

Examples of Gothic Revival architecture can be widely found in Great Britain and North America. The new Houses of Parliament in London (1840), St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (1879), the Tribune Tower in Chicago (1925), Trinity Church in New York, Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal (19th century), the Parliament Hill buildings in Ottawa (late 19th century), Liverpool Cathedral in Liverpool (1903-78), University of Glasgow's main building at Gilmorehill, Glasgow (1870) and Washington National Cathedral in Washington (1912) are a few of the many notable buildings. Several university campuses in the US including Princeton University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania have also adopted the neo-Gothic style in their architecture.

Neo-Gothic architecture built in the 20th century include The Tower Life Building in San Antonio, Texas, The Woolworth Building in New York, The Chrysler Building in New York, and The Fisher Building in Detroit among others.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne (1891), St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne (1858-1940), St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney (1821-1882), and St. Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide (1901) are famous examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Australia.

Top 9 Gothic buildings in the world

1. Milan Cathedral, Milan

The biggest church in all of Italy (and the third largest in the world), the Milan Cathedral was a work-in-progress for a few centuries from the time of ground-breaking in 1386 until its completion in 1865. However, the building that we see today wasn’t finished until 1965, with the work facing stoppage during World War Two when Milan was bombed. The cathedral’s spires and pinnacles as well as a highly ornate facade are strongly representative of its Gothic design.


Source: Photo by Marco Nürnberger [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Basilica of Saint-Denis, Paris

Considered one of the earliest Gothic buildings in the world, the Basilica of Saint-Denis was built on the grave of Saint Denis, a Bishop of Paris who died in 250 AD. Designed by Abbot Suger, the church was completed in stages, beginning with the choir in 1144, and finally finished in the 13th century. From the 7th century up until the 19th century, 43 kings and 32 queens were buried in the church.


Source: Photo by Thomas Clouet/Wikimedia Commons

3. Notre-Dame, Paris

One of the most iconic cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame de Paris is also one of the earliest Gothic structures with its construction beginning in 1163. Completed in 1345, the basic structure went through several alterations and also suffered desecration during the French Revolution. Though the cathedral was restored in the 19th century, it was damaged again during World War Two. A devastating fire tore through the structure in April 2019, destroying its roof and impacting the stability of the stone structure. The restoration cost is expected to run into billions of dollars; however, 3D scans of the Gothic structure taken by the late architect Professor Andrew Tallon are expected to aid in the full restoration of the Notre-Dame.


Source: Photo by Peter Haas / CC BY-SA 3.0via Wikimedia Commons

4. Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France

Located about 80km southwest of Paris, Chartres Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres was built in the 12th-13th century and is in a well-preserved state – from its vast nave and fine sculptures to its original stained glass windows. A major pilgrimage site dedicated to the Virgin Mary as well as a popular tourist destination, Chartres Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Source: Chartres Cathedral Photo: guy_dugas

5. Notre-Dame de Reims, Reims, France

Also known as Reims Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims was the place where the kings of France were crowned once upon a time. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this Gothic style cathedral was built in the 13th century. With more than a million visitors each year, Reims Cathedral is indeed a popular destination. One of the most embellished structures in the Gothic style, the cathedral features over 2,300 statues in addition to beautiful buttresses, arches, decorative figures and tabernacles.


Source: Photo by bodoklecksel (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

6. Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England

The seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury – the head of the Church of England – Canterbury Cathedral is the Mother Church of the global Anglican Communion and has a history going back 14 centuries. Completely rebuilt in 1070-1077, the cathedral was also the scene of Thomas Beckett’s dramatic murder on the orders of Henry II in 1170. A fire in the 12th century led to the rebuilding of the east end in the English Gothic architecture style.


Source: Wyrdlight/Wikimedia Commons

7. Palace of Westminster, London

The seat of political power in Britain, the Palace of Westminster houses the British Parliament and represents one of the early examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the country. Designed by architect Charles Barry after a fire destroyed the previous structure, the building was constructed from 1840-1876.Parliament House and Big Ben

Source: Photo by Mайкл Гиммельфарб/Wikimedia Commons

8. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

The Gothic Revival took this style of architecture beyond Europe, all the way Down Under to Australia. One of the most beautiful cathedrals in the country, St. Mary’s is an English style Gothic building that was built over several decades. The foundation stone for the first chapel was laid in 1821 and the chapel was elevated to a cathedral in 1835. Thirty years later, the building was destroyed in a fire. The foundation stone for the present cathedral was laid in 1868 and dedicated – in its still unfinished state – in 1882. Though the original design included spires, these were installed only 135 years later, in 2000.

St Mary's

Source: By User Adam.J.W.C. - Own work, CC BY 3.0

9. The Woolworth Building, New York City

Designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, The Woolworth Building opened in 1913 and was the tallest building in the world for the next 17 years until 1930 when the Empire State Building came on the scene. One of the most famous examples of Gothic Revival architecture of the 20th century, this 60-storeyed building inspired several skyscraper projects of the time to adopt the architectural style. The Woolworth Building is a National Historic Landmark as well as a New York City designated landmark.


The Woolworth Building, New York City (photo 1913) - United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division