The early era of Gothic architecture produced long-lasting religious monuments that have continued to amaze onlookers from around the globe

If you have ever hopped the pond to Europe, you know that there are plenty of Gothic cathedrals, abbeys, and other Gothic-style buildings littering the landscape. This Gothic presence isn’t merely due to the highly religious past and present of Europe. These cathedrals are one of the most spectacular feats in architectural history, both due to their striking appearance and their structural ability to defy gravity. Where did Europe’s legendary Gothic architecture get its start?

The roots of Gothic cathedrals

Where did Gothic cathedrals stem from? Like many grand buildings in history, Gothic cathedrals were a product of a power trip. Northern France saw the first emergence of these structures in the middle of the 12th century. Who built them? A new political force of bishops and kings known as the Capetians. The group of leaders, which ruled over France and helped the city enjoy economic and social growth, decided they wanted to produce physical markers of their success.

As a result, they instructed that new religious monuments to be built to signal the era in architecture. This was how the Gothic style was manifested. Inspired by old Roman architecture, Gothic architecture would exhibit a structural imaginativeness that no architectural style had ever accomplished before.

To test out their Gothic style, the French rulers decided to renovate an older building into a new Gothic structure: the Abbey of Saint-Denis. The project’s renovations were undertaken by Abbot Suger, a Catholic builder who was buddies with King Louis VII. With his assistance, the first Gothic structure would spur a wave of breathtaking Gothic architecture for decades to come.

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The renovation of St-Denis

In his efforts to turn the spot Gothic, Suger completely revamped the abbey. He restructured the entire building with pillars and vaults that boosted the building’s height. After elevating sections of the abbey, he filled in empty spaces with magnificent, wide windows. He redid much of the abbey’s exterior, adding three portals to the outside of the abbey that included thoughtful inscriptions from Bible stories, as well as a small, rose-colored window on the main portal.

From this renovation of St-Denis, the Gothic style was birthed—and it only continued to evolve. Gothic architects were able to design buildings of great heights while also optimizing the amount of natural light that entered a structure. After the initial renovation of the abbey, more Gothic cathedrals began to be built from scratch, including Sens Cathedral, Noyon Cathedral, and Notre-Dame de Paris, the most recognizable Gothic building of them all.

Beyond their background, what exactly makes a structure Gothic? According to Four Rivers Charter School:

The characteristics of Gothic architecture are stone structures, large expanses of glass, clustered columns, sharply pointed spires, intricate sculptures, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. One of their main characteristics is the ogival, or pointed arch.

The spread of Gothic architecture

With the introduction of more grand Gothic cathedrals such as the Chartres Cathedral, the High Gothic years (1250-1300) were born. These years saw an influx in Gothic architecture (especially cathedrals, abbeys, and other religious buildings), particularly that which spread from France to other parts of Europe. Before long, spinoffs of the French Gothic style were produced in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Britain.

While the Gothic structures may have originated in France, no country could resist the new style. The tall windows, high ceilings, and fascinating designs that came with Gothic buildings drew every architect in. Other countries began to produce structures emulating the original French style, yet many added their own flair. From the stone-based structures in Italy to the fanciful stylistic choices of the Spanish, unique Gothic architecture became a medium on which to construct an entirely new wave of monumental buildings.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Gothic cathedrals may defy gravity, but these fountains defy physics

France’s history goes beyond their architecture…try digging through their dirt!