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Gothic Style Guide

Widespread throughout western Europe during the Middle Ages, it lasted from the 12th to the early 17th century. Gothic is the architecture of the pointed arch, the rib vault, the flying buttress, window tracery, pinnacles, and spires. By the 15th century walls are reduced to a minimum by large arcades, huge windows, with an emphasis on verticality. During the long building campaigns of the Middle Ages, the style evolved from simple pointed forms, with plain windows, to the highly elaborate vaults and decorative tracery seen from the 14th century. Gothic is mostly dominated by church architecture during this period, but is also seen in collegiate architecture, notably at Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, the role of the medieval architect or master mason develops from a mere stonemason in the early Middle Ages, to one of middling or higher rank during the more literate and sophisticated 15th century. It was also complex and multifunctional, but fundamentally, the art of design and knowledge of craft was rooted in the practical tradition of the mason’s craft, dependent on separate skilled specialisms. As building was a collaborative and lengthy process, the individual contributions are often difficult to determine.

What to look for in a Gothic building:

  • Pointed arches and windows
  • Vaulting
  • Tracery and decorative stonework
  • Vertical Emphasis

Explore these galleries from the RIBA Collections illustrating the main features of Gothic Architecture


For further reading on Gothic Architecture below is a selection of books from the British Architectural Library on the subject:

  • Medieval Architecture by Nicola Coldstream. Library Reference: 72.033.4/.5(4) // COL
  • The Decorated Style: arcihtecture and ornament 1240-1360 by Nicola Coldstream. Library Reference: 72.033.4/.5(41/42) // COL
  • Masons and Sculptors by Nicola Coldstream. Library Reference: 72.033.4/.5 // COL
  • The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel translated [from the French] by Teresa Waugh. Library Reference: 726.6.033.4/.5 // GIM

Style Guide written by Suzanne Waters

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Gothic tracery panelling from Carlisle Cathedral, Cumbria: tracing of a published illustration showing the open-carved panelling with a simplified geometric plan

NOTES: This traced drawing was made by an unidentified 19th century English draughtsman from those executed by Robert W. Billings in his book entitled 'Illustrations of Geometric Tracery from the panelling belonging to Carlisle Cathedral by Robert W. Billings, 1849'.

Gothic tracery panelling from Carlisle Cathedral, Cumbria: tracing of a published illustration showing the open-carved panelling beside a simplified geometric plan

NOTES: This traced drawing was made by an unidentified 19th century English draughtsman from those executed by Robert W. Billings in his book entitled 'Illustrations of Geometric Tracery from the panelling belonging to Carlisle Cathedral by Robert W. Billings, 1849'.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset: perspective view of the flying buttresses on the south side of the choir

NOTES: This drawing is one of a number made by Anthony Salvin Jnr, the son of Anthony Salvin, while a pupil at his father's architectural practice. Salvin Snr was responsible for supervising the extensive restoration of Wells Cathedral choir from 1847 to 1857.

Pershore Priory, Worcestershire: the nave vault

NOTES: This Benedictine abbey church was built in 1090-1130. The ploughshare lierne vaulting and the tower were rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style in 1290 after a fire. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 and thereafter used as a parish church. The extant church represents only a small part of the original building since it underwent many alterations, including a restoration by George Gilbert Scott in 1852. Only the south transept and tower piers survive from the Norman period.

Westminster Abbey, London: the nave vault and arcade seen from the west

Yevele, Henry (d. 1400)
NOTES: A Benedictine abbey was established on this site in the 10th century and it has been the coronation church of English monarchs since 1066. Construction on the present church began in 1245. The Gothic nave was begun in 1376 under Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton (d. 1386), and completed by the master mason, Henry Yevele, in the 1390s.

Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire: the choir seen from the south

NOTES: The first church for this large Cistercian monastery, founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in 1132, was built between 1135 and 1145. The monastic buildings were extended in 1145-1167 and the chancel was rebuilt in a more elaborate style in c.1230. The abbey was dissolved in 1538.

Exeter Cathedral: the nave and north aisle seen from the crossing

NOTES: The cathedral was founded in 1050 and construction began in 1112 in Norman style and was completed in Gothic style by c.1400.

Gloucester Cathedral: the fan-vaulted monks' lavatorium at the west end of the cloisters

NOTES: The cathedral was built between 1089 and 1499. It was extensively restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott between 1873 and 1890, and in 1897. The cloisters, begun after 1351 in Perpendicular style and completed before c.1360, have the earliest surviving large-scale fan vaulting.

Sketch of window tracery from the Or San Michele (Orsanmichele), Florence

NOTES: This image is from a volume of drawings (entitled Vol I) by various designers produced for or presented to the Quarto Imperial Club, London, between 1889 and 1891. The annotation at the foot of this drawing reads 'from a sketch by 'D. A.' (probably Thomas Dinham Atkinson).

Ca' d' Oro, Venice: the external staircase and well-head in the entrance courtyard

Bon, Bartolomeo, the Elder (c. 1405-1464 or 65)
NOTES: The well-head by Bartolomeo Bon dates from 1427. The original staircase, demolished in the mid-19th century, was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th.

Worcester Cathedral: the north walk of the cloister

NOTES: Construction on this cathedral began in 1084. The central tower was built in 1358-1374. Major rebuilding work was undertaken in 1375-1395 with the completion of the nave and crossing, the west front, north porch and east cloister.

Rose window, part of the remains of Winchester House, Clink Street, Southwark, London

NOTES: Built as the town residence of the Bishops of Winchester, this palace dates from the 12th century and remained in use until the 17th century when it was divided into tenements and warehouses. Much of it was destroyed by fire in 1814 and its remains, visible from Clink Street, include the uniquely designed rose window which was restored in 1972.

Church of St Gregory, Pottergate, Norwich: the tower vault

NOTES: When this church was made redundant, the building was subsequently converted into St Gregory's Centre for the Arts which opened in 2007.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset: the vaulting of the choir

NOTES: Construction on the original cathedral began in Early English style in 1180 and was completed by the Lady Chapel in 1326. The nave was completed in 1220-1229 while the choir and new east were added in Decorated Gothic style in the 14th century.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset: the clerestory

NOTES: Construction on the original cathedral, a masterpiece of Early English style, began in 1180 and was largely completed by the time of its dedication in 1239. The west front was completed in 1209-1250, the chapter house in 1306 and the Lady Chapel in 1326. William Wynford was appointed master mason in 1365 when he built the south-west tower of the west front. He also designed the north-west tower which was added in the 1400s.

Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire: the arcaded nave looking towards the west end

NOTES: Built between 1136 and 1536 and located on the Welsh bank of the River Wye, Tintern was the second Cistercian foundation in Britain and the first in Wales.

Peterborough Cathedral: the west front

NOTES: Originally an abbey church, construction began in 1182. The western end of the nave and the central tower were completed by 1193. The western transept and great west front portico were completed by 1238, the year of consecration. The older Norman tower was rebuilt in 1350-1380. It became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough in 1541.

Salisbury Cathedral: the cloister

NOTES: The cathedral was built between 1220 and 1258. The chapter house was built between 1263 and 1284. The tower and the spire were completed by c.1330.

Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, seen from the north-west

NOTES: Considered an outstanding example of Norman and Early English architecture, this church was built between 1120 and 1286. It became the Cathedral Church of Nottinghamshire in 1884. Extensive restoration, which included the rebuilding of the nave roof, was undertaken by Ewan Christian in 1851-1888.

Abbaye du Mont St Michel: cloisters of the 'Merveille'

NOTES: The cloisters form the west half of the upper storey of the monastery proper, also known as the 'Merveille'.

Cathedral of St Martin (Martinsdom), Mainz: the main altar seen from the high choir

NOTES: Built between 972 and 1009, the original Romanesque basilica consisted of a nave with two aisles, to which two more Gothic naves were added in the 13th century. The Gothic choir was begun at the beginning of the 12th century and consecrated in 1239.

Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim: a Gothic portal

Schirmer, Heinrich Ernst (1814-1887)
NOTES: Construction on this cathedral began in Romanesque style in c.1070 and was completed in Gothic style in c.1300. Ravaged by fire several times, major rebuilding and restoration work on the building began in 1869 under the direction of Heinrich Ernst Schirmer and was only completed in 1969.