June 17, 2016 / Property Spotlight

A Guide to Gothic Architectural Style

Pointed arches and ornate stone carvings characteristic of medieval architecture reemerged as a defining aesthetic of the Victorian age

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Europe’s great cathedrals were once among the tallest buildings on earth with their pointed spires drawing the gaze up toward the heavens and flying buttresses supporting their awe-inspiring height. The sheer ingenuity that made their construction possible in the medieval era as well as their masterworks of stained glass and delicate stone carvings continue to draw crowds to iconic structures like Chartres Cathedral in France, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in England, and Burgos Cathedral in Spain. While these landmarks demonstrate regional differences in style, they share a common architectural language via classic Gothic elements such as the pointed arch.

St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic is a well-preserved and ornate example of the key features of Gothic style, including tall and slender stained glass windows and ornate stone carving.Centuries after its heyday, the Gothic aesthetic experienced an enthusiastic revival in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States for much of the 19th century. The Gothic Revival movement was deeply linked to social, civic, and religious developments of its day. As industrialization began transforming the landscape of Europe and the daily lives of its citizens, a nostalgia for the perceived purity and romance of the Middle Ages came into vogue, inspiring a return to varied elements of the era’s handcrafted furniture and homes. Imagery depicting coats of arms, painted furniture featuring Arthurian scenes, medieval-style clothing, and Gothic script and type all enjoyed a resurgence. Gothic Revival architects cleverly adapted characteristics of medieval architecture such as the pointed arch or delicate carved tracery to the design and construction of modern dwellings. Today, such features are found in great estates from New England to New South Wales built primarily in the early to mid-19th century, though some examples in England date back to the 1740s. Below are four distinctive properties that exhibit signs of Gothic influence.

The Pointed Arch

This 1830 estate in County Cork, Ireland, combines the structure of a classic farmhouse with Gothic-style details such as its two grand pointed windows, carved limestone portico, entry hall with a fan-vaulted ceiling, and baronial-style stone fireplace. Elizabeth Tower at London's Houses of Parliament is perhaps London's best known Gothic-style icon, and it's a prime example of the Gothic Revival moment, completed in 1858.

The pointed arch is the most prominent and enduring feature of Gothic architecture and the Gothic Revival style. Unlike the rounded “Romanesque” arch commonly found in the architecture of the Roman Empire, the pointed arch developed in the Middle East. It is likely that the inspiration for the design was spurred by the contact between Europe and the Islamic world that occurred during the crusades. While the steeply pointed arch common in Gothic architecture of the 12th century is sometimes referred to as a “lancet arch,” the “flamboyant Gothic” style of the 14th century commonly featured a wider arch embellished with ornate carvings. English architect and critic A. W. N. Pugin (1812–1852), a passionate proponent of the pointed arch, made the case in his 1841 treatise “The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture” that Gothic architecture was admirable in large part because medieval society itself was pure, thus modern designers should seek to emulate its forms. Pugin and fellow architect Charles Barry did just that with their design for the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben clock tower in London.

Steeply Pitched Roofs Windmill Hill, an 1865 Grade II-listed Victorian estate in Essex, England, has the classic roofline of a Gothic Revival manse as well as Venetian Gothic-style windows and Tudor-style chimney stacks. The mantle carvings of its drawing room’s ornate fireplace displays the faces of the Victorian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.One of the design challenges of adapting the look and feel of a Gothic cathedral to a private home—even a large one—is scale. To emulate the dramatic rooflines of massive medieval structures and accommodate vertical details like lancet windows, architects working in the Gothic Revival mode introduced the steeply pitched roof. This emphasis on the vertical was sometimes extended to include deeply overhanging eaves, board-and-batten siding, tall and slender chimneys, and a decorative style of carving known as “carpenter Gothic” in homes where little or no stone was used. The pitched roof was also a common feature of the related Tudor Revival style. In both cases, it was considered not only stylish but practical because its steep angles prevented snow and rain from accumulating on the roof.

Tracery and Ornate Stone Carving This 16th-century Gothic gem in southwestern France is full of ornately carved architectural details including 13 monumental fireplaces that are still intact.A subtle but nonetheless crucial element of Gothic architecture, tracery is just what it sounds like: delicate, branching ornamental stonework that literally “traces” the lines of a stained-glass window, providing structural support while emphasizing the window’s geometric design. Tracery became increasingly elaborate over the course of the medieval period as stained-glass windows became larger and more complex, requiring more support. Foils, typically trefoils or quatrefoils, and rosettes are among the most common elements of tracery design.

Stained-Glass Windows

This stately circa-1880 High Victorian Gothic home has both mullioned windows and magnificent stained-glass windows, some of which are inscribed with quotations from Byron and Keats.Sainte-Chapelle is a Gothic-style Royal chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris, and its 13th century stained glass windows considered to be among the finest in the world.

Stained-glass windows proliferated in church architecture from the 10th through the 13th centuries due in large part to the need to illustrate Bible narratives for illiterate parishioners. Like tracery, stained glass became increasingly complex throughout the medieval era. Designers were able to enlarge windows by dividing them into sections, adding the visual element of the Gothic arch to the windows’ colorful patterns, which could be either abstract and geometric or representative of Bible stories. The stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris are spectacular examples of the style with tracery connecting at hundreds of points to yield awe-inspiring height and illumination. Read more articles on architecture 

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