Gothic architecture explained

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris in Beverley Minster, England, 1190–1420

Additional resources

Beverley Minster

Gothic Art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Beverley Minster in Beverley, England. We wanted to talk about the basic elements of a Gothic church.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] Probably the most basic element that identifies the Gothic style is the use of a pointed — not a round, a pointed — arch.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] The pointed arch was a Gothic innovation that allowed Gothic architects to do what they really wanted to do, which was to build larger and brighter churches.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] Light was associated with God, with the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] It’s a perfect metaphor. Light has an almost magical quality in that it can pass through a solid. It can pass through glass.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] Romanesque churches, just before the Gothic period, required large, thick expanses of wall to hold up the ceiling. Usually a barrel-vaulted ceiling. From the rounded barrel vault, the architects moved on to the groin vault.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] The weight of a round arch pushes outward and requires a lot of buttressing. [A] big, solid wall underneath. The pointed arch redirects its weight more directly downward so that the supports can be thinner and can be more delicate. The Gothic architects brilliantly realized that that innovation would allow them to be able to have less wall and more window.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] The weight of the vault didn’t need to come down onto continuous walls, but could come down onto four columns. Opening up not just the walls to windows, but opening up the very space of the church itself.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] We might ask, then, how is the stone vaulting held up? The answer can be found in two places. First, if you look in between the glass, you can see a major structural element, which comes down to the nave level in the form of a pier. Now, Gothic architects camouflaged the massiveness of their piers by ornamenting them with delicate, thin colonnettes.

[2:11] This was a massive object that helps to support the stone vaulting above. But there’s another structural system that’s at work. Even with the pointed arch, the vaulting of these churches still created lateral thrust that pushed outward. And so the building had to be contained. It had to be supported from the outside. It had to be buttressed.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] That’s where we see one of the great features of Gothic architecture, the flying buttress; essentially a bracing in between the windows on the outside of the church.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] Because they are relatively delicate and pierced, they allow light to get to the windows, to flood the interior with brightness.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] When we look up along the wall of a typical Gothic church, we usually see three parts. We see the pointed arches that form the nave arcade. We see above that the triforium, and above that the clerestory, the level with windows.

[3:12] When we look at [a] triforium, even there we see the wall is pierced. Here in Beverley Minster, we see trefoil-shaped arches. Within that trefoiled arch, we see a quatrefoil, and then below that yet another level of opening, of these short, pointed arches that are separated by columns. This layering that allows the wall to have sense of depth.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] All of this brings our eye upward. It emphasizes the heavenly. The intent of the Gothic church is to create a sense of the heavenly on earth.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] If you imagine a typical person’s home in the 13th century, we imagine something dark and without a lot of windows, so coming into a space like this must have seemed truly miraculous.

[4:05] It’s even difficult, I think, for us in the 21st century to imagine the workmanship, the decades of labor, and the enormous costs that went into these buildings as places of worship, of places of connection to the divine.

[4:22] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gothic architecture explained," in Smarthistory, January 25, 2023, accessed June 14, 2024,