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Gothic architecture

Gothic architecture. The main medieval style in western Europe, characterized by the pointed arch, slender columns and shafts, buttresses, pinnacles, and increasingly complex ceiling vaulting and window tracery. Courtly and sophisticated, often with chivalric connotations and redolent of theological symbolism, it found its fullest expression in the great cathedrals and churches of the Middle Ages; in Britain it flourished until the 16th cent., when many parts of Europe had adopted Renaissance forms.

Higher, lighter, and more delicate than the massive Romanesque or Norman style which it superseded, Gothic has been memorably described by Gombrich as the epitome of the ‘church triumphant’ rather than the earlier ‘church militant’. The origins of Gothic are obscure—the adoption of the pointed arch may well have stemmed from contact with the Saracens during the crusades—but probably lie in northern France during the late 12th and early 13th cents.

Before long, the English were making a major contribution, as in the nave of Wells cathedral or the western choir of Lincoln, both designed shortly before 1200. Another good example is Salisbury cathedral, unusual in being largely the product of a single building programme (c.1220–84), and where the usual emphasis on verticality occurs even more in the slightly later tower and spire than in the interior. Many English cathedrals combine Gothic with earlier Norman work and were built and rebuilt over several centuries, which accentuated their distinctive, even occasionally eccentric, character. For example, the early Gothic western façade of Peterborough cathedral (c.1193–1230) is far wider than the (Norman) nave hidden behind, as is that at Wells (c.1230–60), where, above tiny entrance portals, the effect is one of a screen of sculptured figures. At Lincoln, the western towers and upper portions of the façade (13th and 14th cents.) are grafted onto an earlier Norman structure and, typically, but in complete contrast to the French prototype, the cathedral has double transepts and a squared-off east end. Of English examples, Canterbury cathedral, its choir (1175–8) designed by a Frenchman, William of Sens, and Westminster abbey (basically 13th cent.) are the most French in character.

In Britain, Gothic is traditionally classified into three main phases, although there were periods of overlap and transition between them and with earlier Norman architecture. These are, with approximate datings: ‘Early English’ (c.1180–1270); ‘Decorated’ (c.1270–1370); ‘Perpendicular’ (c.1350–1550). The first of these has an austere purity, as in the examples of early Gothic mentioned above, and utilizes the simple, ‘lancet’ window type (e.g. the ‘five sisters’ window in the north transept of York minster, c.1250). The ‘Decorated’ is marked by intricate vaulting and window tracery (as in the nave of Exeter cathedral, 1328–42, and the early 14th-cent. east window at Carlisle); and the uniquely English ‘Perpendicular’ by even more elaborate vaulting, and ever-larger window apertures almost like a screen of glass. The great east window of Gloucester cathedral (c.1337–50) is a classic early example.

During the Civil War and after, systematic damage was inflicted upon the Gothic heritage by Cromwellian iconoclasts, but the Gothic Revival of the 18th and 19th cents. reasserted its significance.

T. E. Faulkner

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