The Characteristics of the Gothic Architecture in French and English Cathedrals

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Updated: Jun 26, 2022
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The Gothic style originated in France around 1140. It spread to other parts of Europe and remained the dominant style in northern Europe for the next 400 years. Like the preceding Romanesque style, the Gothic style is defined largely in terms of architecture, with many regional variants. As the Gothic style spread throughout Europe, it brought profound changes in Europe. French Gothic captured the imagination of English architects and the style influenced their building down through the centuries. However, the Gothic introduced by William of Sens, and despite French influence, the English developed their own style. As a result, the architectural in French Gothic cathedrals are different to that of the English Gothic.

Location of the cathedral could be used to identify the difference between the French and English cathedrals. In France, cathedrals were built in the center of city. Instead of standing in the center of cities, Gothic cathedrals in England were often built in grassy, treed areas. Many tend to be horizontal in orientation in contrast to the soaring verticality of cathedrals on the continent. In addition, French Gothic was a time of secular age of towns, cities, universities, traders, merchants, bankers, guilds, powerful kings, and luxurious courts. Scholasticism, the dominant philosophy and theology exerted as impact on the arts. Women were given a new importance inspired by the Virgin Mary, and many cathedrals were dedicated to her, for example, the Notre Dame).

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French Gothic cathedrals are designed with pointed arches, groined vaults, and flying buttresses. The plan is compact and unified; the nave, divided into oblong bays, is supported on clustered ribs that shift the weight to pointed arches and piers. The cathedrals became a skeletal structure where walls were dissolved and replaced by stained glass windows. The objective was a buoyant, ever-increasing height that directed the eye upward. Deep porches on the façade were richly decorated with sculpture; twin towers were designed in proportion to the width of the façade and the rose window in the center symbolized the Virgin. The earliest Gothic structure was the Abbey of St. Denis where Abbot Suger (1137-1144) had architects designs the choir and buttresses on the exterior so that weight carried on pointed ribs and piers reinforced ambulatory. Windows replaced walls, and the interior was flooded with light.

In English Gothic cathedrals, Salisbury (begun 1220) has a double transept, square east end, and long choir. Typically, English are the dark marble colonnettes and capitals that create a color contrast in the interior. Lancet windows dominate the screen façade while a tall needle-like spire, 404 feet high, distinguished the cathedral. Gloucester (13th century) is filled with complex tracery. Diagonal ribs connected with intricate crisscrossing diagonals subdivide the strong verticals of the windows. Chapel of Henry VII (early 16th century) in Westminster Abbey marks the culmination of the Perpendicular Style evident in the fan vaults, a dazzling display of triangular tracery, trefoil arches, quatrefoils, gables, etc. Wells Cathedral reveals the thickness and solidity related to the AngloNorman style, but relieved by the multiplication of Gothic moldings, shafts and ornately carved capitals. The wide, massive façade has block-like towers, a fine portal, lancet windows, and numerous sculptured figures set within pedimented niches. Lincoln Cathedral has a nave vaulted by a multiplicity of ribs splayed out into a complex pattern of stars purely for decorative effect (called Decorated Style). Included are double curving ogee arches and twisted and turned intricate network of stone tracery that antedates the Flamboyant style. Here, surface ornament reached a climax and is comparable to rich embroidered vestments – an English specialty famed throughout Europe and known as “English Work.”

Although, the French and the English has once both enter the Gothic period, the difference can be seen between the two. Each has its own unique style that classified them as “French” or “English” work. Such as in France, the stained glass and the introduction of the triforium, while in England, the Flamboyant style standout. Furthermore, the Salisbury façade differs emphatically from the facade of either Notre-Dame or Amiens Cathedrals. Also different is the emphasis on the great crossing tower, which dominate the silhouette. In addition, the height in English cathedral is modest compared to those in France.

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The Characteristics of the Gothic Architecture in French and English Cathedrals. (2022, Jun 26). Retrieved from