Gothic Cathedrals – The Origin of the Term Gothic in Architecture

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.

Notre-Dame de Paris (another view, 2017)
Notre-Dame de Paris in 2017

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.

A Brief Look at the Böckenförde Dilemma

The former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde posed a dilemma by asking the question of whether the liberal, secularized state lives by normative presuppositions which it cannot guarantee itself. Here the concept of social capital also comes to the fore. 

On 24 February 2019 the former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde died at the age of 88. During his lifetime he became famous for a dilemma he posed in the 1960s by stating that the free, liberal and secularized state exists because of prerequisites that it cannot guarantee itself. It is commonly known as the Böckenförde Dilemma. Basically, this dilemma refers to the difficulty of a secular state to create social capital.

A Definition of Social Capital

We can conceive of social capital as follows: there are interpersonal relationships, strong ties and / or networks of individuals that share values, norms and a sense of identity. From these tight-knit networks arise understanding, sympathy, goodwill, willingness for cooperation and norms of trustworthiness and reciprocity. Accordingly, social capital ensures the effective functioning of a group.

Undoubtedly, the extent of social capital depends on whether the members of a particular group have a similar cultural background. However, at this point, we should not neglect the ethnic dimension. That means, when focusing on social capital, we need to consider a group’s ethnic composition.

Broadly speaking, social capital constitutes a significant factor in society. If everything is equal, a community with a higher degree of social capital will surely outcompete an opposing group with less social capital because the latter lacks cohesion and internal trust. Let’s now return to the Böckenförde Dilemma and briefly look at the question of its relevance nowadays.

The Relevance of the Böckenförde Dilemma

So, does the liberal, secularized state live by normative presuppositions which it cannot guarantee itself? Many will probably agree that the obvious answer is: yes, it does. Today,  the free, secular state really exists on the basis of certain presuppositions or foundations. These are, in turn, laid by components we associate with the concept of social capital including shared values, customs, norms as well as a sense of cultural identity.

More precisely, the liberal, secularized state relies on indigenous, ideological, ethical, philosophical and / or religious traditions, which are collectively binding. Eventually, such traditions not only lead to cooperation, cohesion and trust but also to the working of society. Thus, the Böckenförde Dilemma is still relevant. In this connection, questions regarding the role of Christianity, churches, religions or other traditional institutions take centre stage.


Angenendt, Arnold. Toleranz und Gewalt: Das Christentum zwischen Bibel und Schwert. 2nd ed. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2009.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. London, New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Murray, Douglas. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.