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13.3: Gothic Architecture in England and Germanic Lands

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    Gothic Architecture in England and Germanic Lands

    Alena Buis

    By the end of this module you will be able to:

    • Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key English and Germanic Gothic works
    • Define critical terms related to English and Germanic architecture
    • Discuss the characteristics and particular styles of English Gothic architecture
    • Summarize the principal features of German Gothic architecture

    English Gothic Architecture

    English Gothic architecture (c. 1180–1520) is defined by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires and flourished in England from approximately 1180 to 1520. The Gothic style was first developed in France, where the various elements had first been used together within a single building at the choir of the Basilique Saint-Denis north of Paris, built by Abbot Suger and dedicated in June 1144. The English adopted the Gothic style, however, they adapted it to their own regional preferences. While French Gothic Cathedrals were built to be increasingly tall, English Gothic Cathedrals tended to emphasize the length of the building rather than the height.

    Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England: This Cathedral showcases characteristics of Gothic architecture with the pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows, and spires, but emphasizes the length of the building, rather than the height.

    Many of the largest and finest works of English architecture, notably the medieval cathedrals of England, are largely built in the Gothic style. The earliest large-scale applications of Gothic architecture in England are at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Castles, palaces, great houses, universities, parish churches, and many smaller unpretentious secular buildings, including almshouses and trade halls, were also built in this style.

    Early English Gothic Period

    The Early English Gothic period lasted from the late 12th century until midway through the 13th century, according to most modern scholars. By 1175, the Gothic style had been firmly established in England with the completion of the Choir at Canterbury Cathedral by William of Sens.

    The most significant characteristic development of the Early English period was the pointed arch known as the lancet. Compared with the rounded Romanesque style, the pointed arch of the Early English Gothic is aesthetically more elegant and is more efficient at distributing the weight of stonework, making it possible to span higher and wider gaps using narrower columns. It also allows for much greater variation in proportions.

    Using the pointed arch, walls could become less massive and window openings could be larger and grouped more closely together, so architects could achieve more open, airy, and graceful buildings. At its purest, the style was simple and austere, emphasizing the height of the building, as if aspiring heavenward. In the late 12th century the Early English Gothic style superseded the Romanesque style, and during the late 13th century it developed into the Decorated Gothic style, which lasted until the mid 14th century.

    Decorated Gothic Period

    The Decorated Period in architecture is traditionally broken into two periods: the Geometric style (1250–1290) and the Curvilinear style (1290–1350). Decorated architecture is characterized by its window tracery, which are elaborate patterns that fill the top portions of windows. The tracery style was geometric at first, and flowing in the later period during the 14th century. Vaulting also became more elaborate, with the use of increasing numbers of ribs, initially for structural and later for aesthetic reasons.

    Examples of the Decorated style can be found in many British churches and cathedrals. Principal examples are the east ends of Lincoln Cathedral and of Carlisle Cathedral and the west fronts of York Minster and of Lichfield Cathedral.

    York Minster Cathedral: The west front of York Minster Cathedral is a fine example of Decorated architecture, in particular the elaborate tracery on the main window. This period saw detailed carving reach its peak, with elaborately carved windows and capitals, often with floral patterns.

    Perpendicular Gothic Period

    The Perpendicular Gothic period is the third historical division of English Gothic architecture and is characterized by an emphasis on vertical lines. The Perpendicular style began under the royal architects William Ramsey and John Sponlee, and lasted into the mid 16th century.

    The Perpendicular style grew out of the shadow of the Black Death, a disease that killed approximately half of England’s population in 18 months between June 1348 and December 1349 and returned in 1361–62 to kill another fifth of the population. This epidemic dramatically impacted every aspect of society, including arts and culture, and designers moved away from the flamboyance and jubilation present in the Decorated style. Architects were also responding to labour shortages resulting from the plague and therefore relied on less elaborate designs.

    Perpendicular linearity is particularly obvious in the design of windows, which became immense, allowing greater scope for stained glass craftsmen. Some of the finest features of this period are the magnificent timber roofs: hammerbeam roofs, such as those of Westminster Hall (1395), Christ Church Hall, Oxford, and Crosby Hall, appeared for the first time. Gothic architecture continued to flourish in England for 100 years after the precepts of Renaissance architecture were formalized in Florence in the early 15th century.

    Gloucester Cathedral: The Gloucester Cathedral exemplifies the Perpendicular Gothic Period. The interior conveys an impression of a “cage” of stone and glass, typical of the period. The walls and windows are sharper and less flamboyant than those of the earlier style.

    German Gothic Architecture

    Gothic architecture flourished during the high and late medieval period in the Holy Roman Empire, from approximately 1140–1400. The Gothic style first developed in France. Territories that constitute modern-day Germany adopted the French Gothic and developed regional distinctions to this style.

    German Gothic architecture is notable for its enormous towers and spires. Sometimes they were so big that they were left unfinished until modern times. The spires are quite different than English spires because they are made of lacy “openwork.” There are also many hallenkirke (or hall churches), which have no clerestory windows. The nave and the aisles are about the same height.

    Freiburg Cathedral was built in three stages, the first beginning in 1120 under the Dukes of Zahringen, the second beginning in 1210, and the third in 1230. Of the original building, only the foundations still exist. It is particularly notable for its 116-meter tower, which is nearly square at the base, and the dodecagonal star gallery at its center. Above this gallery, the tower is octagonal and tapered, with the spire at the top. It is the only Gothic church tower in Germany completed in the Middle Ages (1330) that survived the November 1944 bombing raids that destroyed all of the houses on the west and north side of the market.

    Freiburg Cathedral: View of the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany

    Cologne Cathedral is, after Milan Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1248 and took, with interruptions, until 1880 to complete—a period of over 600 years. It is 144.5 metres long, 86.5 m wide, and its two towers are 157 m tall. Because of its enormous twin spires, it also has the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir of the cathedral, measured between the piers, also holds the distinction of having the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church.

    Exterior view of the Cologne Cathedral with the two spires clearly visible.
    Cologne Cathedral: The Cologne Cathedral is an example of German Gothic architecture.

    The building of Gothic churches was accompanied by the construction of guild houses and town halls by the rising bourgeoisie. Examples are the Gothic Town Hall (13th century) at Stralsund, Bremen Town Hall (1410), and the (reconstructed) city hall of Munster (originally from 1350).

    The dwellings of this period were mainly timber-framed buildings, as can still be seen in Goslar and Quedlinburg. Quedlinburg has one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany. The method of construction, used extensively for town houses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, lasted into the twentieth century for rural buildings.

    Brick Gothic (Backsteingotik) is a specific style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea that lack natural rock resources. The structures are built, more or less, using only bricks. Stralsund City Hall and St. Nicholas Church are examples of this style. Cities such as Lubeck, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, and Greifswald are shaped by this regional style. St. Mary’s in Lübeck, built between 1200 and 1350, was a model for many North German churches. Hall churches are another example of German Gothic architecture that is distinct from French Gothic. In hall churches, the aisles and nave are almost the same height and the stained glass windows are typically the full height of the walls, allowing in maximum light and space.

    Interior view of a Hall church.
    Munich Frauenkirche, Bavaria: Hall churches are a distinctively German interpretation of the Gothic style.


    • While French Gothic Cathedrals were built to be increasingly tall, English versions tended to emphasize the length of the building rather than the height.
    • Territories that constitute modern day Germany adopted the French Gothic and developed regional distinctions to this style.
    • Brick Gothic is a style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea without natural rock resources where the buildings are built, more or less, using only bricks.
    • Hall churches are another distinctively German adaptation to the French Gothic style.

    Adapted from “Boundless Art History” License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

    This page titled 13.3: Gothic Architecture in England and Germanic Lands is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alena M. Buis (BC Campus) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.