Gothic Influence

The church in the Middle Ages was a place that all people, regardless of class, could belong to. As a source of unity, its influence on art and architecture was great during this time. As society drew away from the feudal system of the Romanesque period, a new spirit of human individualism began to take hold; alas, the birth of Gothic. Here, the Church became a place where humanity became more acceptable, alas becoming the ideal place to visual such new ideals. The beauty and elegance of Gothic architecture is depicted most in the great cathedrals of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries—St. Denis, Notre Dame, Chartres, Salisbury, Durham, Amiens, and more. The experience of looking at one of the great gothic cathedrals is to look up towards God. Indeed, most Gothic structures emphasize the vertical, drawing one’s eyes upwards toward the heavens with the awesomeness of God.

These cathedrals were built with towering spires, pointed arches and flying buttresses giving impressions of harmony and luminosity. One of the major accomplishments of the 12th and 13th centuries was to develop the engineering mastery of the ribbed vault, pointed arch and flying buttress to create a great cathedral that is at once taller, lighter, wider, and more elegant than the ones before. Even though the pointed arch could support more weight than its predecessors, there was still the problem of finding a way to support the heavy masonry ceiling vaults over wide spans. In order to support the outward thrust of barrel vaults, vertical support walls have to be very thick and heavy. What makes possible the extensive use of ribbed vaulting and pointed arches to “open” and “lighten” the walls and space of the cathedral is the flying buttress—“an arched bridge above the aisle roof that extends from the upper nave wall, where the lateral thrust of the main vault is greatest, down to a solid pier.” [Jansen, History of Art, p. 407]. The effect is to add structural strength and solidity to the building. The visual appearance of changes from the Early and Later or High Gothic are clear, as each cathedral became increasingly narrower and taller. For instance, compare the nave elevations of Notre-Dame to Amiens [Text, fig. 442, p. 333], the pointed arches of Amiens are significantly taller and narrower than the much earlier Notre Dame.

The mastery of the flying buttress allowed medieval builders to construct taller and more elegant looking buildings with more complex ground plans. Encyclopedia Britannica ’97 describes the “flying” effect of this buttress of hiding the masonry supports of the structure: “a semi-detached curved pier connects with an arch to a wall and extends (or “flies”) to the ground or a pier some distance away. The delicate elegance of Gothic cathedrals is different from the “Heavy buttresses jutting out between the chapels” of Romanesque churches,. From the outside, aesthetic consideration of the flying buttresses was significant and “its shape could express support…according to the designer’s sense of style.” The flying buttress was first used on a monumental scale at Notre Dame From the outsider the flying buttresses create a seemingly bewildering mass of soaring props, struts, and buttresses, yet blend in with the rich sculpture and elaborate portals of the West façade, giving the appearance of a three-story layout. [Text. P. 325-326, fig. 429 ( This contrasts visually with the plans that show the buttresses “as massive blocks of masonry that stick out from the building like a row of teeth.” [Text. P. 325, Fig. 426].) At Chartres the flying buttress is more unique, the half arch is made of smaller arches that give more height to the already narrower and more vertical walls of the nave., as well as blending in with the colonnaded triforium wall of the nave [Text, p. 329, fig. 434, fib. 437]. In England, the flying buttress appears almost as an “afterthought” where verticality is not as important. English Gothic style emphasizes a “long, low, sprawling” character compared to the compact, vertical of French Gothic. [Text. P. 336])

Flying Buttresses also made the personification of Gothic art possible, as it allowed for almost no structure support in the walls. The flying buttress lends the interior illusion of being “amazingly airy and weightless” because the masonry supports are hidden and