From about 1140ad until about 1500ad, some of the most beautiful buildings ever created rose above the cities of medieval France, Germany and Spain. These buildings were all churches. They were church centers: the regional seats of bishops, the school churches of abbots, and the chapels of kings. These churches were all built in a new style called "Gothic", a style meant to inspire, to bring a small piece of heaven to earth.
Before gothic, churches were heavy and dark, with small windows and thick walls. Gothic churches soared compared to earlier buildings, with ceilings as high as 150 feet. Their walls glowed with colorful stained glass, with just enough wall to hold the glass in place and keep out the weather. The blues and reds of the stained glass made the inside of a gothic church stunning. You could really believe that it was the house of God.
We're going to learn about some of the most famous gothic churches, but first let's learn a bit about how these buildings were made.
What Came Before
In the early days of the middle ages, churches and most other buildings were built of wood. The great stone buildings created by the Romans and Greeks had mostly fallen down. The skills to create such structures were lost in the fall of the Roman Empire.
The problem with wooden buildings was fire. In a world warmed by wood fires, burning buildings were common. Those with money, such as the church and the nobility, tried to build structures that could survive fire. Over a few hundred years that led to the Romanesque style. These were buildings made of stone. Even the ceilings were of heavy stone and concrete, and their weight pressed down on their walls with great force. To stand up to that pressure, the walls were made very thick, with small windows. This made the buildings strong and fireproof, but also dark and gloomy.
Romanesque churches like St. Ambrogio on the left, because of their thick walls and small windows, were rather dark, almost off-putting.
Gothic churches like Laon Cathedral on the right were much brighter; they had many large windows and less stone in the walls.
Gothic builders used particular techniques and construction styles to create these giant churches of light. Next we look at some of the common qualities of gothic churches.
This hour-long video aired on PBS in the mid-1980s. It is still one of the best sources for learning how the gothic churches were built and experiencing the lives of those who created them.