It is generally agreed that Gothic architecture made its initial appearance (c.1140) in the Île-de-France, the royal domain of the Capetian kings. However, the inception of the style owes much to several generations of prior experimentation, particularly in Normandy (see Norman architecture). Although individual components in Gothic architecture, such as ribbed vaulting and the pointed arch, had been employed in Romanesque construction, they had not previously received such a purposeful and consistent application. While the structural value of the Gothic rib has been contested, its formal significance cannot be overestimated. It served above all to delineate the vaults with a skeletal web that gave to the entire structure an articulation of impressive clarity.
Unlike Romanesque architecture, with its stress on heavy masses and clearly delimited areas, Gothic construction, particularly in its later phase, is characterized by lightness and soaring spaces. The overall effect of the Gothic cathedral combined this lightness with an innumerable subdivision and multiplicity of forms. The introduction (c.1180) of a system of flying buttresses (see buttress) made possible the reduction of wall surfaces by relieving them of part of their structural function. Great windows could be set into walls, admitting light through vast expanses of stained glass. Wall surfaces of High Gothic churches thus have the appearance of transparent and weightless curtains. The spiritual and mysterious quality of light is an important element of the religious symbolism of Gothic cathedrals.
In plan the High Gothic cathedral remained faithful to the traditional basilican form. It consisted of a central nave flanked by aisles, with or without transept, and was terminated by a choir surrounded by an ambulatory with chapels. These elements, however, were no longer treated as single units but were formally integrated within a unified spatial scheme. The exterior view was frequently dominated by twin towers. The facade was pierced by entrance portals often lavishly decorated with sculpture, and at a higher level appeared a central stained glass rose window. Additional towers frequently rose above the crossing and the arms of the transept, which often had entrance portals and sculpture of their own. Around the upper part of the edifice was a profusion of flying buttresses and pinnacles.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.