What Are the Characteristics of Gothic Cathedrals?

Gothic cathedrals are magnificent structures inspired Medieval French architecture. To distinguish themselves from other types of cathedrals, these soaring structures rely on geometric shapes, elaborate support systems, and the importance of light. The use of flying buttresses, pointed arches, large, elaborate windows, and stone construction with wooden accents are all common features of Gothic cathedrals.

The most recognizable feature of Gothic cathedrals are the flying buttresses. These innovative supports were designed to allow the building’s main structure to bear more weight. Because the cut-outs in the walls decreased stability, previous design styles without a buttress system did not allow for large windows or doors. The carrying capacity and stability of primary walls could be greatly increased adding a buttress that presses inward on an exterior wall.

The pointed arch is another architectural feature that can be found in Gothic or Gothic revival cathedrals. This type of arch, like the flying buttress, was primarily a supporting detail, but it became artistically significant in Gothic design. Because the two sides of the arch press inward on one another, essentially holding the arch up, a pointed arch, unlike the earlier round arch, greatly increases strength and stability. Hundreds of detailed arches can be found on the exterior and interior of some famous Gothic cathedrals.

Cathedrals built during the Gothic era have massive stained glass windows that add grandeur and magnificence. Stained glass windows in the Gothic period evolved from simple colored glass panes to elaborate, detailed pictorial artworks in an astounding array of dazzling colors, thanks to the added stability provided buttresses and pointed arches. To fit into the pointed arch structure, many cathedral windows are arch-shaped. Another common cathedral window is a rose or wheel window, which is a large, circular structure made up of dozens or even hundreds of window panes.

In some cases, the building’s material can identify it as a Gothic cathedral. The majority of historic cathedrals are made of stone, with limestone quarries aplenty throughout much of France and Western Europe. Wood was frequently used for doors, altars, pews, and window frames, though the specific type of wood used varied depending on the region’s available lumber.

Many original Gothic buildings still stand today, which is fortunate for modern architectural enthusiasts. Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral in France, Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey in England, and Cologne Cathedral in Germany are among the cathedrals thought to typify traditional Gothic architecture. Many Gothic cathedrals can be found in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, though the architectural style and influences on these structures differ from more classical Gothic ideals.