Gothic architecture is famous throughout the world for its unique style and structure. But what is the purpose of these structures? How have they helped the architects to create an experience that was asked for by the religious figures who paid for them? To find the answer, first we have to look at the major architectural style that came before.
Based on ideas taken from ancient Roman architecture, this style was very popular in the 11th and early 12th centuries. Many of the features of Gothic cathedrals exists in these churches: towers at the west entrances, decorated portals, a cross shape overall, columns, etc. But there were also a few major differences, especially when we look at who the building stood up and got light. Romanesque churches had very thick walls which supported the heavy buildings. In order to get light in, these buildings would have windows high up near the roof. There are called clerestory windows. The architects of the day did not try to build windows any lower because it would have weakened the structure. As a result, Romanesque churches took a lot of candles to keep them lit–something that bothered some church officials.
One annoyed church leader whas the Abbot Suger of St. Denis, a church within Paris. Suger believed that the lack of light in cathedrals gave them a dingy appearance that wasn’t at all what God was about. He decided to renovate the aging St. Denis and have the new work be done in the Gothic style, which he had heard not only allowed more light in, but it could be colored light through the editions of stained glass windows. Suger thought that by walking into a church like this, with colors everywhere and a high ceiling, worshipers would feel closer to God. It was an idea that quickly caught on. But how does Gothic architecture allow these windows?
One of the most famous features of a Gothic church are the flying buttresses. These are the hanging half-arches on the outside of the church that come down from the outside wall to a large pillar resting on the ground. A lot of people recognize this structure, but don’t actually understand what purpose it plays. Flying buttresses actually take weight off of the outer walls and support it from outside of the church. This crucial invention allowed the edition of the large stained glass windows throughout the church that couldn’t have been possible in Romanesque styled churches.
Another important feature of Gothic architecture can be seen anytime you look up at a Gothic ceiling. There, you will be sure to see elegantly crossing ribs all across the ceiling. These were also a large innovation for Gothic architecture. The ribs are actually the strongest part, while the webbing in between each rib has little to do with the structure. For this reason, some people refer to them as the skeleton of the church. These new vaults allow a ceiling to be larger than ever before because they send the weight straight to the foundations. Domical vaults of Romanesque architecture were not as good at dividing up and distributing the weight.