The Amiens Cathedral (1220-1280) seen from the east. This aerial photograph shows the external structure of a Gothic cathedral. The balance between vertical and horizontal lines have disappeared: the vertical lines now dominate the structure. The whole support system, apparent from outside, resembles the anatomy of a crustacean with its outer skeleton.

The Gothic style was not only characterized by new and unique construction procedures, but by different types of moldings and ornamentation.  Romanesque moldings were rounded, still resembling the classical styles, while Gothic moldings offered an infinite series of convex shapes protruding from concave surfaces to produce great effects of light and shadow inside the buildings. The greater or lesser degree of ornamentation on the moldings reflects the age of the monuments: the more carved and complicated they are, the more recent the style is. Initially, there was little difference between Romanesque and Gothic moldings. In its initial stage, the Gothic style was almost only recognized by the structure of the vaults, but as time went by, the moldings’ carvings became more pronounced and complicated. It is curious that moldings were placed inside buildings according to a principle of unity and symmetry: initially, they were part of the arches’ moldings, then they gathered on the columns’ capitals and sometimes extended vertically to the ground.  In this case, the columns were like a bundle formed by the arches’ moldings, and their transversal section reflected the accumulation of all the forms of a vault’s moldings.

Schematic showing buttresses and flying buttresses from the end of the XIII century.

In buildings with three naves, the central vault was much higher than those of the aisles since there was no need of using lateral naves to counter the thrust as this was achieved by using external buttresses. This arrangement prevented the existence of the upper galleries characteristic of the Romanesque churches; instead, the Gothic system allowed the opening of large windows on the arches separating the aisles from the central nave, a feature much needed in regions such as Normandy and Ile de France where sun light can be scarce sometimes throughout the year. The exterior of the building was thus defined by this internal arrangement because, rising above the lower aisles, the central nave rose in the air like a ship’s keel while being supported by buttresses and flying buttresses. Arches, windows and buttresses were ogival or pointed: in the Gothic style it is rare to find semicircular arches.

The windows were usually divided by smaller columns and curved stone ornaments that during the late Gothic formed extraordinarily complex traceries*. These elements were purely decorative: because the thrust was concentrated in the starting points at the base of the arches, the wall could be completely open and the space of the wall with the windows (however great they may be) didn’t need any structural reinforcement (which was solely achieved by the buttresses). Inside a cathedral’s central nave wall was usually a passage or ambulatory, called triforium, a gallery that was on many occasions also visible in the main facade.

Gothic flamboyant* traceries in the rose window of the Amiens cathedral.

The buttresses’ pinnacles and the top elements of the towers and spires* were often decorated with plant form motifs or a stone flower opened in the air. The arches’ moldings often appeared decorated with a series of leaves and flowers, and also the capitals and central point of vaults where the diagonal arches met.  The decorative elements of Gothic architecture -like flowers and sculptures- were placed in the most important areas of the building to artistically reinforce and ennoble those sites: the architectural lines were never combine in order to serve as a decorative frame like sometimes happened in Renaissance buildings.

Decorative forms were based in the flora and fauna of the country; the humblest plants of the fields were represented on moldings, a trend that hadn’t been expressed since the days of the Classical Greek art. The clover, ivy, young shoots of grape vines and oak leaves climbed on the arches and spires of a Gothic building.

In Greek Classical art, only two or three plants (the acanthus, ivy and laurel) were accepted in the decorative repertoire, but the Gothic style uses all wild plant species as well as birds and even fantastic creatures, monsters that sometimes appeared standing as guardians at the top of the balustrades* and some other times were crouched, condemned to serve as gargoyles* to collect rainwater from the roofs and dispose of it by their open mouths.

Left and right, Gothic gargoyles from the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Paris).









On the cathedrals’ facades is where the Gothic spirit produced its most precious works. Generally, the cathedrals were built by ambitious prelates, but later the bourgeois made efforts to enrich them with towers, chapels and facades. The bourgeois were rich and were protected by the monarchy, which had relied on the municipalities to finish with the Romanesque feudalism, long gone. With its legal and regular economic resources, the bourgeois of the cities had commitment and pride in that their cathedrals were praised as something extraordinary throughout Europe. These efforts did not die with their people: the work on the cathedrals almost always encompassed more than a century. It is surprising that master architects succeeded one another, and in consequence the construction was carried out only with slight modifications, generally faithful to the initial plan.

West facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Paris).

The facades usually displayed a rich sculpture decoration. At the bottom of the facade were three doors filled with small niches that served as shelter for the figures of apostles and prophets. These three doors opened to each one of the church’s naves which often were manifested at the outside with the arches’ buttresses separating the naves and so they served as dividing lines that distributed the facade into three vertical zones. Each door had several series of concentric arches or archivolts; the large central opening (or the door per se) was sometimes divided by a pillar, or mullion* decorated with the image of Christ or the Virgin, or even with that of the patron saint of the city.

Above the door area was usually a frieze with statues of kings, who according to some represented the sovereigns of France (because cities were grateful to the royal power that had granted them privileges), and according to others, these royal statues represented the monarchs of Judah, predecessors of Christ, who instead of scepters carried the branches of the tree of Jesse.  Other interpretation see these sculptures as a survivors of the traditional Romanesque decoration that used to represent the Almighty with the elder kings of the Apocalypse. This gallery of royal statues is found in the facades of the cathedrals of Amiens, Reims, Chartres and Paris; the figures of the latter were destroyed during the Revolution, but its sculptures have been replaced with modern figures.

Another upper zone of the facades consisted of three large rose windows or three magnificent large windows in pointed arch, where sun-light came in from the west, the direction to which the cathedrals’ facades were usually oriented. As the lateral naves were lower than the central one, this internal structure was sometimes externalized with three pediments of different heights, but more often happened than in the area corresponding to the two lateral naves, two bell towers rose flanking the area of the central nave. Such towers were finished with stone arrows that often were never built. But with or without ending arrows, these towers were the key feature of these Gothic cathedrals’ silhouette. Some of these towers are still seen from far away: on the French plains without big mountains or hills breaking the horizon, the huge mass of the Gothic cathedrals with their naves, towers, and pinnacles, stands out from the surrounding sea of houses’ roofs of the old French Medieval cities.

Structure of a Gothic portal.


Balustrade: A railing supported by balusters or moulded shafts, especially an ornamental parapet on a balcony, bridge, or terrace.


Gargoyle: In architecture, a gargoyle is a carved figure usually in form of a grotesque being or a fabulous monster with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thereby preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar between.  The term originates from the French gargouille, which in English is likely to mean “throat” or is otherwise known as the “gullet”.

Mullion or Trumeau: A mullion is a vertical element that forms a division between units of a window, door, or screen.



Spire: A spire is a tapering conical or pyramidal structure on the top of a building, often a skyscraper or a church tower. Etymologically, the word is derived from the Old English word spir, meaning a sprout, shoot, or stalk of grass. 






Tracery: In architecture, tracery is the stonework elements that support the glass in a Gothic window. The term probably derives from the ‘tracing floors’ on which the complex patterns of late Gothic windows were laid out.



Flamboyant: Flamboyant: (from French flamboyant, meaning “flaming”) refers to a florid style of late Gothic architecture in vogue in France beginning in 1350 until it was superseded by Renaissance architecture during the early 16th century. It is mainly used in describing French buildings, particularly when related to the style of window tracery. The name derives from the flame-like windings of the tracery and the dramatic lengthening of gables and the tops of arches. It evolved from the Rayonnant style and the English Decorated Style and was marked by even greater attention to decoration and the use of double curved tracery.