What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (2024)

When fire devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in April 2019, the architectural historian Diana Darke noted in a Twitter post that of course everyone knew the famous twin tower and rose window of France’s finest Gothic cathedral were copied from a Syrian church in Qalb Loze built in the fifth century. The post went viral: amplified or rebutted, triumphed or tossed.

Darke was surprised at the reaction to what historians have established as a well-known path of influence: the East-West trade in architectural ideas. It was argued centuries ago that key defining elements of the Gothic style were borrowed from the Islamic architecture of the Middle East. The soaring pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster in London, the pointed arches of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and the rose windows of Notre Dame all point to the influence of Islamic design.

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (1)

(Three years after a devastating fire, Notre Dame rises again.)

But from early in the 19th century, these contributions were forgotten, and Gothic became celebrated as an intrinsically Northern European style. In Britain, it was only in the revival of this medieval style of architecture that it started to be called “Gothic.” The Revivalists no longer dismissed the Gothic as a crude or barbarous form, and instead repurposed it as a national, patriotic style.

By knowing this deeper history of some of Europe’s most iconic buildings, travelers can approach these well-known attractions with new eyes and can appreciate that the “East-West divide” isn’t as deep as we are often led to think.

Reviving the Gothic in England

Rekindling elements from the greatest medieval cathedrals in Europe, such as London’s Westminster Abbey and Paris’s Notre Dame, Gothic Revival architecture defined the imperial might of Victorian England.

(These are some of Europe’s most extraordinary cathedrals.)

Cities mentioned in the article with Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture

You can see its grand scale scattered throughout London, from the 1872 Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, built to remember the Queen’s beloved consort, to the ostentatious layering of arches on the sweeping 1873 facade of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London (formerly Midland Grand Hotel) at St. Pancras train station.

The chief advocate of this Gothic Revival in England, Augustus Pugin, claimed that it was a properly Christian architecture that swept away a heathenish devotion to Greek or Roman symmetries. The influential tastemaker John Ruskin argued in 1851 that it was the expression of a northern European sensibility, a mark of virile and restless tribes like the Goths. Gothic Revival style was supposed to symbolize order, tradition, and continuity in a volatile modern world.

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (2)
What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (3)

Nineteenth-century architect John Carter considered the word Gothic “a barbarous appellation” and argued that it should simply be called “English.” In the midst of a long war with revolutionary France, Carter declared the Gothic “our National Architecture,” rooted in centuries of tradition. After fire destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834, it was inevitably rebuilt in the Gothic style.

Yet elsewhere, even at the height of the Victorian Gothic Revival, it was clear to many that the Gothic had traveled from the East.

Islamic influence on the Gothic

When architect Christopher Wren officially won the commission in 1673 to rebuild London’s most iconic building, St. Paul’s Cathedral, after the medieval Gothic church was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire, he chose to design it in neo-classical style. The west front entrance portico was made of 12 Greek columns below and eight above, framed by symmetrical towers. It is rational and ordered, a mathematical wonder. Wren explicitly dismissed the irrational, asymmetrical “Gothick,” which he argued would be better called “Saracenic.”

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (4)

“Saracen” was the term used in medieval Europe to group together Arab Muslims. Wren supposed that it was during the Crusades (from 1096 to 1291) that Western Europeans fighting against the expansion of Islamic states in the Middle East first glimpsed the pointed arches, ribbed roofs, domes, rose windows, and minaret towers that were typical of religious buildings and palace complexes across large swaths of the Islamic East. Once the crusaders returned home, what Wren called the “sharp-heeled arch” began to appear over new church doorways, and minarets became models for cathedral bell towers and spires.

(This historian uses lasers to unlock the mysteries of Gothic cathedrals.)

Even as Wren dismissed the device of the pointed arch as it appeared in the Gothic for lacking “proportion, use, or beauty,” he still relied on the East for the most striking element of St. Paul’s—its majestic dome. Ancient mosques all over the Middle East use domes to crown their sacred spaces (such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, completed in 691).

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (5)

Gothic Revivalists worked hard to invert Wren’s argument. They said it was Greek or Roman neo-classicism that was the suspicious foreign import. However, Wren was historically correct.

Islamic influence surfaced in other design elements as well. The interior of London’s Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition in 1851 in celebration of the British Empire’s global reach, was actually painted in bold colors that the designer Owen Jones had taken from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He considered the Islamic palace the finest form of architectural expression in the world. Jones’s choices were initially controversial, but his celebration of Moorish styles and polychromatic buildings of the East meant these became fully incorporated into English architecture.

(Read why this ancient city of sultans is a 21st-century wonder.)

Soon enough, the impact reached out from sacred and public spaces into the worlds of commerce. The English department store, so central to the luxurious Victorian shopping experience, was also borrowed from the covered markets and bazaars of the Middle East.

The continuing interplay of East and West

Creative dialogue between East and West continues into the present day. The 2021 short list for the Stirling Prize, one of the most prestigious architectural awards in the United Kingdom, included the beautiful Central Mosque in Cambridge, designed by Marks Barfield Architects.

The wooden roof beams over the main prayer hall spread up and out like intricate tree branches. It is an echo, perhaps, of the lovely theory proposed by Bishop William Warburton in 1760 that the ribbed ceilings of Gothic churches derived from “northern people having been accustomed, during the gloom of paganism, to worship the deity in groves.” This was purely speculation, as roof ribbing came from Eastern building solutions.

This modern mosque design, like the Gothic Revival church, points to the underlying truth that many architectural forms are products of an intricate interchange of different cultures. These patterns of mutual influence produce ingenious fusions and hybrids. Ideologues would place the East and West in implacable opposition. But so many of the spaces we traverse every day reveal a very different, and much more optimistic, history.

Roger Luckhurst is a professor in the English Department of Birkbeck College, University of London, where he specializes in the Gothic. His bookGothic: An Illustrated Historywas published by Princeton University Press in 2021.

A previous version of this story incorrectly captioned the Westminster Abbey photo as being destroyed by fire in 1834.

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think. (2024)

FAQs

What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think.? ›

The influential tastemaker John Ruskin argued in 1851 that it was the expression of a northern European sensibility, a mark of virile and restless tribes like the Goths. Gothic Revival style

Gothic Revival style
New Gothic or Neo-Gothic is a contemporary art movement that emphasizes darkness and horror.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › New_Gothic
was supposed to symbolize order, tradition, and continuity in a volatile modern world.

What is the meaning of Gothic style? ›

Gothic. In European architecture, the dominant style during the late Middle Ages , characterized by slender towers, pointed arch es, soaring ceilings, and flying buttress es. Many great cathedrals (see also cathedral ), including Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris , were built in this style.

What is the term "gothic"? ›

The adjective gothic describes something that is characterized by mystery, horror, and gloom — especially in literature.

What makes Gothic unique? ›

Gothic fashion is marked by conspicuously dark, antiquated and hom*ogeneous features. It is stereotyped as eerie, mysterious, complex and exotic. A dark, sometimes morbid fashion and style of dress, typical gothic fashion includes colored black hair and black period-styled clothing.

Why was gothic a derogatory term? ›

They denounced this type of art as unrefined and ugly and attributed it to the Gothic tribes which had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century AD. Abbot Suger (about 1081 – 1151) is widely credited with popularising Gothic architecture.

What does gothic mean in person? ›

: a person who wears mostly black clothing, uses dark dramatic makeup, and often has dyed black hair.

Why do goths wear black? ›

Goths love wearing black - whether it's black clothes or make-up because they like to look different from other people. The gothic culture has its roots in punk and wearing black is part of looking dark and mysterious.

What does Gothic even mean? ›

often not capitalized : of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents.

What do goths believe in? ›

What do goths really believe in ? There isn't a religious aspect to the Gothic movement as it's mostly musical and cultural , therefore Goths are of all religions and walks of life : pagan, agnostic, atheist, satanists and Christians… and not limited to that.

What do goths stand for? ›

A Goth person likely defines themself by their values (counterculture freedom of expression), their appearance (dressing in a lot of black), and their music (listening to something similar to punk rock).

What is Gothic for kids? ›

In Gothic fiction the reader passes from the reasoned order of the everyday world into a dark region governed by supernatural beings, a region that inspires dread and horror, where decay abounds and death is always at hand.

What is the point of Gothic? ›

There are many definitions of what gothic literature is, but all state that it is a story of fear and terror with emotional extremes and dark themes. It has regularly been used as a literary device to highlight social issues and injustices, which is possibly one reason for its enduring popularity.

Why is Gothic called Gothic? ›

The term Gothic was coined by classicizing Italian writers of the Renaissance, who attributed the invention (and what to them was the nonclassical ugliness) of medieval architecture to the barbarian Gothic tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical culture in the 5th century ce.

Why are modern Goths called Goths? ›

At the beginning of the 1980s, one band jokingly labelled the newly emerging movement “gothic”, and so it changed from a label for a few bands to a label for a movement. In general, punk was an aggressive rock when gothic bands were more introverted and personal, with elements that refer to a gothic novel.

Is Gothic still a thing? ›

Today, goth is still visible, both through those young people in the 1980s and 1990s who have since grown up and remained true to the subculture, but also in younger generations today who find something revolutionary and compelling about the music and the clothing of goth.

Why is Gothic no longer spoken? ›

The language was in decline by the mid-sixth century, partly because of the military defeat of the Goths at the hands of the Franks, the elimination of the Goths in Italy, and geographic isolation (in Spain, the Gothic language lost its last and probably already declining function as a church language when the ...

What does goth style represent? ›

Goth subculture is stereotyped as eerie, mysterious, and complex, and the fashion is used as an outlet to express these characteristics. Goth fashion can be recognized by its stark black clothing.

Which best describes what gothic means? ›

The term Gothic refers to a style of writing that is characterised by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion.

What does it mean when someone is gothic? ›

What defines a goth? A Goth person likely defines themself by their values (counterculture freedom of expression), their appearance (dressing in a lot of black), and their music (listening to something similar to punk rock).

What is Gothic style based on? ›

Gothic architecture is an architectural style that was prevalent in Europe from the late 12th to the 16th century, during the High and Late Middle Ages, surviving into the 17th and 18th centuries in some areas. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture.

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