The term “Gothic” originated in the Renaissance, when humanists and classicizing writers derogatorily referred to “the Goths” who – in the humanists‘ view – had destroyed classical culture. In architecture these Renaissance writers differentiated between the Gothic buildings and their favoured classical style.
Medieval Gothic cathedrals amaze numerous people worldwide. Every year they attract visitors, whether they are Catholics, Christians from other denominations or even non-believers. We generally associate with these magnificent buildings specific features like pinnacles, gargoyles, spires, pointed arches, flying buttresses, tapering pillars, spacious interiors, profuse decoration, ribbed vaults, a large-scale use of stained glass and the circular oculus.
These are also many of the salient characteristics of Gothic architecture. In relation to architecture the term Gothic was actually coined during the Renaissance. Especially Italian humanists as well as classicizing writers and architects of the 16th century like the painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), for example, referred to “the Goths” in a derogatory way to distinguish classical architecture from the – in their view – “barbaric” style in the medieval period.
According to Vasari in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le Vite de‘ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori; 1550, enl. ed. in 1568), this “monstrous” style showed no sign of “any accepted ideas of sense and order.” Broadly speaking, the Renaissance writers linked medieval architecture to the 5th-century Gothic tribes that – in their opinion – had been responsible for destroying the classical culture of the Roman empire.
Instead of the – in Vasari’s words – “accursed buildings” with their pointed arches, the Renaissance men favoured principles or features they attributed to classical architectural style including human dimensions, simplicity, elegance, symmetry and balance. Even though the 16th-century writers correctly pointed out the differences in the architecture of the classical, medieval and Renaissance or early modern period, they made a complete misjudgment regarding the aesthetics and the qualities of Gothic structures.
Intriguingly, Gothic architecture evolved from the Romanesque architectural style. The latter is characterized, for instance, by thick walls, round towers, tunnel vaults, semi-circular arches and windows that are limited in number and size. As far as the Gothic cathedrals are concerned, they originated in northern France during the 12th century. Today, medieval Gothic cathedrals are scattered about Europe. Undoubtedly, one of the most famous of them is Notre-Dame de Paris, which was built between 1163 and 1345.
Needless to say, the recent fire in this impressive place of worship justifiably shocked a very large number of people across the globe because it resulted in immense damage. Thank God and thanks to the firefighters and men like the courages priest, Jean-Marc Fournier, the fire neither destroyed the whole building nor consumed sacred relics such as the Crown of Thorns and several of the irreplaceable artworks.
However, the horrible event has understandably worried a lot of people, above all the French. Notre-Dame de Paris constitutes a house of God, one of the iconic landmarks of Paris and a part of Western civilization. For this reason, statements that depict the famous Gothic cathedral as a mere building are inappropriate. A sign of hope is certainly the great willingness to donate money for the rebuilding.
Part II will point out the significant structural innovations of Gothic architecture in the Middle Ages.