Exercise: Research Medieval Architecture

“Today we admire Romanesque and Gothic art for their formal qualities; the strength of their religious imagery is less evident except to devout Christians.” p73 of the course notes

Gothic architecture:
To the uninformed (as I was when staring this chapter of the course) when you think of Gothic, you think of creepy gargoyles, towering spires and Edgar Allen Poe. After reading around the subject and watching the Art of the Western World videos, it now seems to me that Gothic architecture was more practically born out of a desire for extra height, terrifying beauty and magnificent, exaggerated grandeur in building design, specifically religious buildings, for the glory of God.
Medieval architects struggled to spread the weight of heavy stone walls so they developed some revolutionary new building techniques to spread the load of the upper sections to allow extra high ceilings, extra stories on buildings, bigger windows and generally a loftier airy feeling to the interior (although the WHA seems to suggest this isn’t the only reason and that aesthetic motives had a role to play (p374)). At the time, in the medieval era, this new style was called ‘the modern style’. It originated in France in 1144 when the Abbey of St Denis was built. The style spread to England where we emphasised length over height (unlike the French). Culturally a lot was happening between 1100 and 1300 AD. Europe was more stable and prosperous so consequently there was a massive population boom, people were getting married younger and having bigger families. In those two centuries the population increased 3 fold (up to 10 fold in the richest parts) and the church was not only the centre of spiritual life at this time but daily life of a medieval town resolved around it too. More people means bigger churches and more contributions with which to fund them. It was not all superstition and church scaremongering though, Oxford and Cambridge universities were founded during this period too. As the style gained in popularity, designs got more fantastical, ornate and ambitious, resulting in High Gothic.
Nearly three centuries later it was retrospectively renamed ‘Gothic’, in the Renaissance, as a derogatory term when it fell out of fashion. The term related back to Goths as barbarians who wreaked havoc across Europe centuries earlier, inferring that this architectural style had wreaked havoc across Europe too. However, with the cyclical nature of fashion, by Victorian times the style was back in vogue and resurfaced as ‘Gothic revival’, much of which still stands today.

So what are the main features of Gothic architecture?
Internally, the innovation of the Pointed Arch allowed for massive windows compared with previous designs. The force of the wall above is distributed differently (facilitated by the flying buttress outside – see below) so the windows were able to be very big and filled with beautiful stained glass creating a light, airy interior filled with beautiful colour. Abbot Suger, (from the Abbey of St Denis), equated the light shining through stained glass windows with “Divine light”. As an illiterate medieval peasant the bible stories must have come to life before their very eyes by the power of God as the sunlight hit these windows.
“The Gothic stained glass style played the role of storyteller, offering Christian and secular scenes through intricate design and inspiring color and light. These windows shared the teachings of faith with all worshippers, whether literate or not. The clergy would use the windows to teach the gospel, ultimately elevating the art form as a symbol of the divine.” Robert Jayson, http://faithandform.com/feature/color-and-light/
The same pointed arch design allowed the force of heavier ceilings and upper floors to be distributed across pillars creating a Vaulted ceiling. This catered for extra vertical height which was especially good for grand churches to reach into the heavens. Previously, vaults could only have been circular or rectangular but with the distribution of force within the vaulted ceiling vaults could now to be built in different shapes and sizes. Aesthetically, the combined arches in the ceiling added to the impression of height and elegance, these modern style churches were (and still are) truly magnificent places of worship, especially so for the congregation who most likely lived in medieval squalor.
Externally, one of the most famous of the defining characteristics is the gargoyle, if you know nothing else about Gothic architecture you’ll have heard of gargoyles. These little stone creatures serve a double purpose, firstly, a practical purpose of allowing rainwater to clear the walls when it pours down from the roof. Usually the water pours through the mouth of the creature. Secondly, these creatures are grotesque and creepily decorative, especially designed to scare the superstitious villagers into the safety of the church. Other
Another notable external characteristic of Gothic architecture is the Flying Buttress. These buttresses spread the weight of the taller designs, taking the weight off the walls and transferring force directly to the ground, allowing windows to be bigger and external walls to be taller. Often these supports were elaborately designed, seeming to dart and sweep around the building, giving an impression of movement and of grandeur missing from previous architectural styles.

“The human form as sanctified by the church released the creativities of the Gothic sculpture. The figures are standing on, but away from the walls of the cathedral.” Art of the Western World Ep 4 todo check quote.

 “We can’t hope to travel back in time and respond to these works in the same way that medieval churchgoers did, although some Victorian architects made the attempt. By the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, AWN Pugin was arguing that Gothic was the only proper Christian architecture, a view strenuously reinforced by Ruskin. Hence Gothic revival churches can be found in all parts of the British Isles.

Take a look around your local area. If there are no original examples in your area, find buildings that show some of the characteristics of Romanesque or Gothic architecture – you may even find some that are a hybrid of the two. Don’t just look at churches – think about town halls, Masonic lodges, government buildings, etc. Take some photographs and see if you can find out when the building was made, by whom and why. What was its original function? Why might the architect have used the features you’ve identified?” p73 of the course notes

Until I’d read the section in WHA on Medieval Christendom I hadn’t realised that I’d already seen Romanesque architecture in person in Italy, in Florence and Pisa!

The Baptistery, Florence, begun in 1152
Detail from the doors of the Baptistery, Florence

In Pisa, I didn’t take a photo of the Baptistery itself but the Cathedral behind, and of course the famous leaning tower (campanile).


For the Gothic part of this task, I thought I’d go to google, I know I know, wikipedia is frowned upon for being not schollarly enough but its an excellent springboard for the uninformed from which to do forth into the world with a camera and sketchpad. I’ve *’d the information below that I was unable to substatiate from anywhere other that wikipedia. I’ve already been to Southwick Catheral up the road to research my ‘visit’ (more on this later) so I thought I’d focus on the ‘not just churches’ aspect of this course task. What luck, there is a list of Gothic Revival architecture in England on there. Picking out those just in London…

  • Albert Memorial, London, 1872.
    Architect: Sir George Gilbert Scott. *
    Situated: Kensington Gardens *
    Original Purpose: Memorial commisioned by Queen Vistoria for Prince Albert her husband. *
  • 33-35 Eastcheap, City of London, 1868.
    Architect: Robert Lewis Roumieu. *
    Original Purpose: Vinegar warehouse for Hill & Evans now until recently an office but its haven works done on it – see images below

“In medieval times, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City of London, with butchers’ stalls lining both sides of the street. It is also notable as the former location of Falstaff’s Boar’s Head Inn, featured in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2.”  WikiPedia

EastCheap Gothic

EastCheap Gothic - Boar detail

EastCheap Gothic - pointed arches

EastCheap Gothic

EastCheap Gothic looking up

  • The Maughan Library, City of London, 1851–1858
    Architect: Sir James Pennethorne *
    Situated: Chancery Lane *
    Original Purpose: Public Records Office, now the main research library of King’s College London. *
  • Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London, begun in 1840
    Architect: Charles Barry and Augustus W. N. Pugin *
    Situated: Westminster
  • Royal Courts of Justice, London, 1873 – 1882
    Architect: George Edmund Street *
    Situated: Chancery Lane/Temple *
  • South London Theatre, London, 1881
    Architect: Robert Pearsall *
    Situated: West Norwood *
    Original Purpose: Firestation, now a theatre *

Tower Bridge

  • Southwark Cathedral, Southwark, London, the nave – See my later posts as I visited this small Cathedral for my Gothic church visit. todo photo & link


References: todo

A White Garment of Churches – Episode 3 (1989) In: Art of the Western World [television programme online] Presented by Michael Woods At: https://vimeo.com/16973769 (Accessed on 20 April 2016)
The Art of Gothic – Episode 4 (1989) In: Art of the Western World [television programme online] Presented by Michael Woods At: https://vimeo.com/16977550 (Accessed on 20 April 2016)
Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing
Jayson, R. (2011) ‘Color and Light’ In: Faith and Form Vol 44, 01.03.11 [online] At: http://faithandform.com/feature/color-and-light/
(Accessed on 20 April 16)
Morris, E. (2016) The Seven Key Characteristics of Gothic Architecture (parts 1 & 2) At: http://www.exploring-castles.com/characteristics_of_gothic_architecture.html
(Accessed on 20 April 16)
Tower Bridge. (2016) Bridge History At: http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/bridge-history/
(Accessed on 18 April 16)
Wikipedia: Albert Memorial. (2016) Albert Memorial At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Memorial
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: Eastcheap. (2016) Eastcheap At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastcheap
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: List of Gothic Revival architecture: England. (2016) List of Gothic Revival architecture: England At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Gothic_Revival_architecture#England
(Accessed on 18 April 16)
Wikipedia: Robert Lewis Roumieu. (2016) Robert Lewis Roumieu At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lewis_Roumieu
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: Royal Courts of Justice. (2016) Royal Courts of Justice At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Courts_of_Justice
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: Royal Courts of Justice. (2016) Royal Courts of Justice At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Courts_of_Justice
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: St Pancras railway station. (2016) St Pancras railway station At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_railway_station
(Accessed on 19 April 16)
Wikipedia: Tower Bridge. (2016) Tower Bridge At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_Bridge
(Accessed on 18 April 16)


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