What Are the Characteristics of Gothic Cathedrals?

Many historic cathedrals are built of limestone quarried throughout France and western Europe.
A stained glass window from a gothic cathedral.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge is an example of a gothic cathedral.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2014
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Gothic cathedrals are spectacular structures that draw on Medieval French architectural design. These soaring structures rely on geometric shapes, elaborate support systems, and the importance of light to distinguish them from other types of cathedrals. The most common characteristics of Gothic cathedrals include the use of flying buttresses, pointed arches, large, elaborate windows, and stone construction with wooden accents.

Flying buttresses are perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of Gothic cathedrals. These innovative supports were created to allow the main structure of the building to bear more weight. Previous design styles without a buttress system did not allow for extensive windows or large doors, since the cut-outs in the walls decreased stability. By adding a buttress, which presses inward on an exterior wall, the carrying capacity and stability of primary walls could be greatly increased.

Another architectural detail commonly seen in Gothic or Gothic revival cathedrals is the pointed arch. Like the flying buttress, this type of arch was primarily a supportive detail, though it became artistically significant in Gothic design. Unlike the earlier round arch, a pointed arch greatly increases strength and stability, since the two sides of the arch press inward on one another, essentially holding the arch up. Some famous Gothic cathedrals feature hundreds of detailed arches, both on the exterior and interior of the church.


Enormous stained glass windows add considerable grandeur and magnificence to Gothic-era cathedrals. With the additional stability gained through the use of buttresses and pointed arches, stained glass windows in the Gothic period rose from simple panes of colored glass to elaborate, detailed pictorial artworks in an astounding array of dazzling colors. Many cathedrals windows are arch-shaped, to fit into the pointed arch structure. Another common cathedral window is a large, circular structure made up of dozens or even hundreds of window panes, known as a rose or wheel window.

In some cases, the material of the building itself can define it as a Gothic cathedral. Most historic cathedrals are built from stone, primarily relying on the limestone quarries present throughout much of France and western Europe. Doors, altars, pews, and window frames were frequently made from wood, though the specific type of wood varies based on the available lumber of the region.

Fortunately for modern architectural enthusiasts, many original Gothic buildings remain standing in modern times. Some of the cathedrals thought to typify traditional Gothic architecture include Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral in France, Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey in England, and Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Spain, Portugal, and Italy also have many Gothic cathedrals, though the architectural style and influences on these structures differed somewhat from more classical Gothic ideals.


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