A History of the Gothic Period of Art and Architecture

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Gothic Art is concerned with the painting, sculpture, architecture, and music characteristic of the second of two great international eras that flourished in western and central Europe during the Middle Ages. Architecture was the most important and original art form during the Gothic period. The principal structural characteristics of Gothic architecture arose out of medieval masons' efforts to solve the problems associated with supporting heavy masonry ceiling vaults over wide spans. The problem was that the heavy stonework of the traditional arched barrel vault and the groin vault exerted a tremendous downward and outward pressure that tended to push the walls upon which the vault rested outward, thus collapsing them. A building's vertical supporting walls had to be made extremely thick and heavy in order to contain the barrel vault's outward thrust. First and foremost they developed a ribbed vault, in which arching and intersecting stone ribs support a vaulted ceiling surface that is composed of mere thin stone panels. This greatly reduced the weight of the ceiling vault, and since the vault's weight was now carried at discrete points rather than along a continuous wall edge, separate widely spaced vertical piers to support the ribs could replace the continuous thick walls. The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by pointed Gothic arches, which distributed thrust in more directions downward from the topmost point of the arch. Since the combination of ribs and piers relieved the intervening vertical wall spaces of their supportive function, these walls could be built thinner and could even be opened up with large windows or other glazing. A crucial point was that the outward thrust of the ribbed ceiling vaults was carried across the outside walls of the nave, first to an attached outer buttress and then to a freestanding pier by means of a half arch known as a flying buttress. The flying buttress leaned against the upper exterior of the nave, crossed over the low side aisles of the nave, and terminated in the freestanding buttress pier, which ultimately absorbed the ceiling vault's thrust. These elements enabled Gothic masons to build much larger and taller buildings. The use of flying buttresses made it possible to build extremely tall, thin-walled buildings. Paris played an especially important role in the history of Gothic art. Three successive phases of Gothic architecture can be distinguished, respectively called: Early, High, and late Gothic.

Early Gothic.
This first phase lasted from the Gothic style's inception in 1120-50 to about 1200. The combination of all the structural elements into a coherent style first occurred in the Île-de-France (the region around Paris), The earliest surviving Gothic building was the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, begun in about 1140. Structures with similarly precise vaulting and chains of windows along the perimeter were soon begun with Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163) and Laon Cathedral (begun 1165). A series of four discrete horizontal levels or stories in the cathedral's interior were evolved, beginning with a ground-level arcade, over which ran one or two galleries (tribune, triforium), over which in turn ran an upper, windowed story called a clerestory. The columns and arches used to support these different elevations contributed to the severe and powerfully repetitive geometry of the interior. The long sides of the cathedral's exterior presented a baffling and tangled array of piers and flying buttresses Early Gothic cont.

At the technical level Gothic architecture is characterized by the ribbed vault the pointed arch, and the flying buttress. These features were all present in a number of earlier, Romanesque buildings, and one of the major 12th- and early 13th-century achievements was to use this engineering expertise to create major buildings that became, in succession, broader and taller. Use of buttressing, especially of flying buttresses, made it...
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