Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Matter of Gothic

Winchester Cathedral
This essay intends to complete a tripartite overview of the underlying principles of Gothic architecture. The first, The Spirit of Gothic, contemplated various aspects of its beauty and sublimity, the animating principle that draws us in and leaves us in awe. This was followed by The Form of Gothic, exploring the organising principle that makes the Gothic so uniquely identifiable. However, what remains to articulate is the generating principle, a consideration of the material, the very stuff the Gothic is made of. First and foremost, Gothic is an architecture of self-supporting masonry, typically stone. Nevertheless, other materials such as timber, metal, and glass have their secondary application. As construction and articulation ought to vary with the material employed we'll explore how all of these take the best advantage of their respective physical properties in turn.


Freiburg Minster
Gothic is above all an architecture conceived and articulated in stone, taking full advantage of its properties, most notably its incredible compressive strength, density and weight. In elevation, buttressed walls with large openings are in fact stronger than solid ones and the buttresses diminish in projection corresponding to their height. Flying buttresses are the greatest visual example of this, revealing in their construction the lines of force, as the gravitational thrust of the roof is directed through the masonry to the foundations and earth below.

Amiens Cathedral
In the interior of the monumental great cathedrals, further support for the ceiling is provided from clustered piers which are composed of multiple colonnettes rather than an colossal column so as to maintain an human proportion with the increase of scale. Ribs spring from the caps of the colonnettes as well as the corbels integrated into the buttressed walls, meeting at a boss acting as a keystone at the centres of the pointed groin vaulting. The spandrels between the ribs can be made of a thin layer of stone to complete the ceiling as they support no structural load. A combination of all of these methods permit the walls to be pushed higher even while being opened up.

Spires and pinnacles are similarly composed at different scales. The tower and turret respectively are square in plan and each is covered with a pyramid structure to shelter it from the elements. Spires serve a religious function, towers for the ringing of bells whereas the more diminutive pinnacles add critical weight to further stabalise the buttresses precisely where it is required.

Burgos Cathedral


Notre Dame de Paris

As one might expect, carpentry played a major role even in the predominantly masonry construction of Gothic architecture. Aside from the supportive role of such equipment as scaffolding, workbenches, and various tools an indispensable use of timber framing was to build the centering for arches and vaults, acting as temporary supports until the masonry was completed. A permanent application of timber framing is the hidden thought highly complex structural support for the roof that protects the vulnerable stone ceilings from the elements. 

Not all Gothic carpentry work is temporary or hidden from view. Elements such as doors, pulpits, and screens are typically made of wood. In domestic architecture the use of highly ornamental barge boards are used to protect the gable ends of buildings from water intrusion whereas in small churches, collegiate, and civic architecture it is more common to encounter splendid timber ceilings that look entirely differently than stone owing to the high tensile strength of wood as a material.

St Agnes Church, Cawston

Metal and Glass

Aside from the masons and timber framers, perhaps the next most important craft of Gothic architecture is plumbing, referring to the craftsmen who work with plumbum, or lead. Lead was used extensively as a means of protection from water intrusion including gutters and downspouts, flashing, and especially the incredibly durable lead roofs, some of which have lasted for centuries with minimal maintenance. 

Ely Cathedral

Wrought iron is another metal that finds extensive uses for hinges and other types of door and window hardware. It likewise features prominently in screens and stairs, the combination of strength and malleability of iron as a material allowing almost unrestricted ornamental expression.

"Love" by Philip Webb
Of course Gothic architecture is intimately associated with the light that its construction permitted to penetrate the building. Gothic windows, with their thousands of panes be they clear, stained, or coloured is a signature feature of the style. I'll leave you with an humble example, one of my favourites from a little Red House in Bexleyheath.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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