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.

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Introduction / Einführung

“There are few words which are used more loosely than the word “Civilization.” What does it mean? It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization – and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort, and culture. When Civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.”

Winston Churchill, 1938

Hello and welcome to my bilingual blog. My name is Nils Zumbansen, Ph.D.

The above quote by the famous British statesman Winston Churchill indicates what my blog is about. It is about civilization. To put it more precisely, it is about Western civilization. So topics will range from historical issues to current affairs. In this context, emphasis will be placed on ‘the Anglosphere’, even though I’m German. 😉

James C. Bennett defines the Anglosphere as follows:

“To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, the rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”

I’m especially interested in British history, the British legal system, the concept of liberty and American politics. Moreover, my blog will deal with narratives and stories (i.e. literature, films as well as TV shows).

However, I will not only focus on these issues, but also on topics that are related to Western civilization (and, of course, other civilizations) – church history, Christianity, economic principles and the history and philosophy of science…And, occasionally, I will write about my own country.

I hope, I can do this, if you know what I mean. :/

First of all, I will publish my articles mainly in English and, then, I will translate them into German.

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Hallo,

ich begrüße Sie/euch ganz herzlich. Mein Name ist Nils Zumbansen.

Dies ist ein bilinguales Blog. (Sehr viele Leute schreiben, “bilingualer Blog”.) Hier werden üblicherweise meistens englische Texte veröffentlicht, die ich dann aber häufig ins Deutsche übersetzen werde.

Ich habe meine Doktorarbeit über die Bürgerkriege in Britannien (im 17. Jh.) geschrieben. Aus diesem Grund bin ich sehr an britischen Themen interessiert.

Ferner beabsichtige ich aber, über viele verschiedene Themen zu schreiben, die sich mit der westlichen Welt – und ganz besonders mit der englischsprachigen Welt –  beschäftigen. Sie beziehen sich auf die Vergangenheit und die Gegenwart.

…Und ich werde auch über Deutschland schreiben.