Gothic Cathedrals – the 3 main components that make them look light as a feather


Gothic Cathedrals main attributes are the verticality, the lightness and the weightlessness. Gothic architecture seems to be light as a feather. The vaults almost appear to stay up by magic.

Abbot suger and St Denis Chorum

The new choir that Abbot Suger had built for Saint Denis was the first Gothic structure.

How was this possible?

Gothic Cathedrals – 3 main architectural components

To create all of these beautiful characteristics, Gothic architecture relied on three features: pointed archesrib vaults, and flying buttresses.

None of them were completely new innovations, but they had never before been regularly used together and developed to their full potential.

They opened up a world of new possibilities for the Gothic Cathedrals .

Pointed arches

Gothic cathedrals 1


There are two main advantages to pointed arches, which look like regular arches with the top pinched up.

First of all, they don’t have to maintain perfect semicircular proportions like rounded arches do. Because of this, they can be very tall without having to be very wide.

And, arches in a row can each be different widths but a uniform height. Secondly, pointed arches don’t send as much force outward (called “lateral thrust”) as rounded arches do.

This means that they’re less likely to collapse outward, and the columns or piers supporting them don’t have to be as thick.

Do you want to learn more about Gothic Architecture?

Get to know the online course GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE, by Alexandra Kiely.

Rib vaults


Gothic Cathedrals 2

Rib vaults are basically reinforced groin vaults. They have extra bands of stone along the diagonal ridges formed when two barrel vaults intersect to become a groin vault.

Rib vaults can be four-part (quadripartite) or six-part (sexpartite) based on the number of pieces they divide each bay (section of the vault) into.

Scholars disagree about whether they have a strong structural function or not, but there’s no question they contribute to the Gothic aesthetic.

Flying Buttresses

Gothic Cathedrals 3

Buttresses are external supports that help to hold up a building.

The simplest buttresses are basically pillars with one side connected to the exterior wall.

Flying buttresses have pillars several feet away from the exterior wall that connect to the building through arches. This makes them stronger and more useful  than simpler buttresses. They may have elaborate details, both decorative and functional.

Flying buttresses are the real heroes that make Gothic possible.

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