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Gothic Style Architecture


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Medieval Churches and Synagogues
Basilique Saint-Denis, or the Church of St. Denis, in Paris

Basilique Saint-Denis, or the Church of St. Denis, in Paris

Photo © flickr member Stevecadman

The Gothic style, dating from approximately 1100 to 1450, stirred the imagination of painters, poets, and religious thinkers in Europe and Great Britain.

From the remarkable great abbey of Saint-Denis in France to the Altneuschul (Old-New) Synagogue in Prague, Gothic churches were designed to humble man and glorify God. Yet, with its innovative engineering, the Gothic style really was a testament to human ingenuity.

Gothic Beginnings

The earliest Gothic structure is often said to be the ambulatory of the abbey of Saint-Denis in France. Built between 1140 and 1144, the church became a model for most of the late 12th-century French cathedrals, including those at Chartres and Senlis. However, features of the Gothic style are found in earlier buildings in Normandy and elsewhere.

Gothic Engineering

"All of the great Gothic churches of France have certain things in common," says Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA, of Columbia University. "—a great love of height, of large windows, and an almost universal use of monumental west fronts with twin towers and great doors between and below them....The whole history of Gothic architecture in France is also characterized by a spirit of perfect structural clarity...to allow all of the structural members to be controlling elements in the actual visual impression."

Gothic architecture does not hide the beauty of its structural elements. Centuries later, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright  praised the "organic character" of Gothic buildings: their soaring artistry grows organically from an honesty of visual construction.

SOURCES: Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, p. 286; Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 63.

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