How the Gothic Spirit Enthralled the Architectural World for Nine Centuries

A brief history of the eternal style.


Over the course of the history of Western architecture, diverse movements representative of the spirit of their times have captivated the collective creative imagination.  Every such movement clamours for an identity, represents certain ideologies and philosophies, and ultimately respectfully gives way to the next evolutionary step. What remains of it is the spirit it embodies – to be further refined over centuries, and sometimes to even be rejected.

Architecture is essentially a manifestation of man’s will and circumstances. It is this that Wilhelm Worringer expounds in Form in Gothic when he calls the Gothic ‘the last period in art history when the instinctual spirit was given full expression.’ The art of a civilization is a very precise reflection of the society which produced it. This essay analyses the essential qualities of the Gothic spirit which have inspired and influenced several movements, with connotations that exceed the purely architectural.


The Rise of the Gothic




Gothic architecture arose in France in the 12th Century, from the progressive evolution of the mass-dependent Romanesque architecture, towards an architecture dependent on the balance of forces. Structural theory went hand in hand with aesthetics as the thrust-transmitting flying buttresses were frankly exposed and stone was transformed into something light and airy. Windows could now be long, narrow and filled with tracery patterns, and the pointed arch clearly became the key defining element of the Gothic. But what is it that defines the spirit of this architecture that has found a resonance in movements to follow, well into the 1900’s?


Neoclassicism and Romanticism


Romantic Lanscape with Ruined Tower, 1832-36, by Thomas Cole


As a reaction to this highly mechanised ideal rose a polar movement, with emotions and senses overtaking reason, heralding Romanticism – a subjective alternative to the contemporary condition that dwelled upon the idea of the world as a living organism. In this melancholic state of reversion, people began to look upon their medieval past of chivalry and other such perceived virtues with nostalgia. In desperate attempts to recreate a past that was more romantic, and to return to nature, Gothick styles began to emerge across country houses and villas. The Gothick, however, was not an authentic architectural phase, relying more on superficial resemblances and mock creations of sham ruins, known as follies. Strawberry Hill in London is a prime example of this movement.

Gothic Revival and Picturesque Movement


The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin (1851-53)

By the 1840’s, efforts to revive the Gothic spirit took a more serious direction. Eminent architect Augustus Pugin heralded the Gothic Revival movement, along with John Ruskin, an architectural historian, who penned The Stones Of Venice in praise of the Gothic.  They verbosely attacked classical architecture’s aim for perfection, instead believing imperfection and changefulness to be essential qualities. Asymmetric planning, in fact, was first introduced in Western architecture during the Gothic Revival by Richard Payne Knight for the Downton Castle. Perceiving the Gothic as the architecture of free craftsmen, Ruskin and Pugin thus fervently championed its revival. Religion was also a primary driving force behind their mission, as they feared Christian ideals were being eclipsed by Classical ideals and destroyed by industrialisation.

In 1756, Edmund Burke elucidated in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful that the sublime is that which produces the passions of fear and awe, exemplified by qualities of immensity, grandeur, magnitude, elegance and silence. The beautiful, on the contrary, is that which is delicate, smooth, mild and varies gradually.

Downton Castle, plan

Gothic Revival Movement: Downton Castel, 1880 — assymetric planning first introduced by Richard Payne Knight


It becomes clear in this manner that Gothic architecture possesses a subliminal quality, and thus the emergence of Romanticism (with the consequent Gothic Revival movement) after the fiercely objective Neoclassical phase indicates a preference of the sublime over the beautiful. As a mediator between these two aesthetic qualities, lies the picturesque. This aesthetic notion went hand in hand with, and indeed fomented, the Gothic Revival movement, as the Picturesque Movement emerged. Uvedale Price observed that a picturesque scene was rough and textured, with irregular form and dramatic play of light and shadow. The Castle buildings of the Gothic Revival thus came to be the ultimate expressions of the Picturesque movement. The fascination with medieval ruins that heralded the Gothic Revival speaks of man’s fixation at the time to bask in the picturesque beauty that a scene evocative of man’s temporal existence, of the eroding effect of time upon monumental architecture, evokes.


Gothic Literature

Contemporaneously, the Gothic also made its way into the realm of literature with the advent of its own fiction genre. Horace Walpole penned The Castle of Otranto in the 1830’s, arousing an interest in America for the Gothic. This greatly inspired the macabre tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The spirit of this genre was marked by romance, melodrama, melancholy and death. Atmosphere and other such subliminal methods were employed to extricate pleasure from extreme emotions.




Expressionism: The interior of the Grosses Schauspielhaus, Berlin, 1919, by Hans Poelzig. A design inspired by stalactite formations in a mineral cave.


The Gothic spirit has been most manifest in the cathedrals, making spirituality an inseparable component of it. Extant Gothic buildings other than churches are rare. As the ultimate representation of man’s spiritual aspirations, these Gothic cathedrals influenced later movements such as Expressionism in the early 1900’s that sought creativity on a high spiritual plane to produce a stellar and utopic architecture.

One of the key features of Expressionism was the use of coloured glass to lend openness and spiritual elevation, coupled with the use of mystical symbols and organic shapes – characteristics that clearly stem from Gothic influences. It was also the dynamic spirit of the Gothic that influenced Expressionism, as exemplified by Bruno Taut’s sketches of an architecture in movement and tension. The Gothic was always in a state of movement – of becoming, not fixity. Echoing the revival of the Gothic post the industrialised phase of Neoclassicism, the Expressionist movement also arose as a reaction against Naturalism and Impressionism, which were seemingly ‘superficial’. In his design for the House of Friendship, Hans Poelzig reinterpreted Gothic detailing, designing elevations with closely spaced ribs, terraces and internal light wells.


Arts and Crafts Movement


Arts and Crafts Movement: Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1897-1909)

The Arts and Crafts movement from 1860-1910 too drew its influences from the Gothic spirit — its value on creativity, its emphasis on handicraft and skill, on ‘purpose’ instead of decoration, and on an honesty of construction/materials that exposes the structure. This closely followed on the heels of Ruskin and Pugin. Ruskin clearly denounced classical architecture as one of slavery, preferring instead the ‘savage’ Gothic imperfections, and Pugin went on to revitalize several crafts.  Architects of the Arts and Crafts, like Edwin Lutyens, continued to employ mock fortifications and porticos in a reversion to the romantic and the medieval. Mackintosh’s masterwork, the Glasgow School of Art, is an exemplary modern interpretation of the Gothic spirit. As he observed, Gothic architecture is one in which

… outside conditions are evolved from internal fundamental conditions; staircases and windows come from where most convenient for use. All openings are proportioned to the various parts to which they apply.


Art Nouveau and Art Deco Movements

Gothic and Art Nouveau Style: Antoni Gaudi’s masterwork the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (1883)


The Gothic spirit continued to influence a new age — inspiring several ensuing movements such as the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Goethe and Coleridge believed that the Gothic was inspired by ‘the crossing of branches in a forest.’ The ribbed vaulting that developed with the Gothic evolved over time into ornate and intricate fan vaulting patterns that slithered across the high ceilings, directing the eye upwards. The imagery of the forest evokes a sense of verticality, of the slenderness of long trunks and of the ornate detailing of nature itself. When Antoni Gaudi took the metaphor of the church as a forest a step further by concocting the fantastic architecture of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in 1883, he was reverting Gothic architecture to its organic genesis, exaggerating it to its vertical, luminescent and metaphorical extremities.


The Gothic Spirit

Regardless of the criticism that the Gothic drew in the 15th-17th centuries, when it was termed by Molière as comprising ‘hateful monstrosities vomited up in torrents by barbarians throughout the centuries of ignorance’, it remains to be seen that the influence of the Gothic thereafter has been far-reaching. This itself is testimony to the ingenuity and innovativeness of its creators. The people of the 13th century recognised the originality of the style and referred to it as ‘opus modernum’, the modern work. Indeed, the influence of the Gothic is such that it continues to inspire designers today by the sheer universality of its spirit. The Gothic spirit, in summary, is:

  • One of an immense verticality, mass and sense of presence.
  • It is an architecture of light, majesty and sacredness.
  • Its spirit possesses a subliminal beauty, seeking to arouse in man certain sensations of awe and wonder, through a dynamism and tension in its form-making.

A. L. Goldberger offers another insight into the timeless appeal of the Gothic. It lies in its intrinsically fractal nature — i.e. the intensity of perceivable details in its wrinkled surfaces — which he conjectures to be ‘an externalization of the fractal patterns of our brain’s neurological organization’. An inner-outer resonance may account for the feeling the Gothic spirit evokes in us, despite years of undergoing transformation in form. This research is especially important because it reveals the importance of ornamentation in lending ‘life’ or ‘feeling’ to a place, regardless of its specific style. The Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements seem to have understood the value of this before their near demolition by the Minimalism-bulldozer in the 1920’s.

On the practical front, the Gothic spirit relies on:

  • structural and material honesty,
  • on purposefulness of organization of parts within the whole,
  • and on the inclusion of the crafts and human hands in the making of spaces.

As the ultimate realisation of man’s instinctual will, the Gothic embodied an anthropomorphic spirit. This calls forth once again the inner-outer resonance that characterises it. As Karl Scheffler observes in ‘The Spirit of the Gothic’,

The first person towers up in Gothic architecture; the spire is an ‘I’, the flying buttress is an ‘I’.

About the Author

Niharika Sanyal

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