After the fall of the Roman Empire, people fled cities as they were no longer safe. The Romanesque era saw many people living in the countryside of France while cities remained largely abandoned. During this time period, the French monarchy was weak and feudal landowners exerted a large amount of regional power. In the 12th century, the French royalty strengthened their power, their titles, and their landholdings, which led to more centralized government. Additionally, due to advancements in agriculture, population and trade increased. These changes brought people back to the cities, which is where we find the most expressive medium for the Gothic style—cathedrals.
Gothic architecture is unique in that we can pinpoint the exact place, the exact moment, and the exact person who developed it. Around 1137, Abbot Suger began re-building the Abbey Church of St. Denis. In his re-designs, which he wrote about extensively, we can see elements of what would become Gothic architecture, including the use of symmetry in design and ratios.
Ratios became essential to French Gothic cathedrals because they expressed the perfection of the universe created by God. This is where we also see stained glass emerge in Gothic architecture. Abbot Suger adopted the idea that light equates to God. He wrote that he placed pictures in the glass to replace wall paintings and talked about them as educational devices. The windows were instructional in theology during the Gothic era, and the light itself was a metaphor for the presence of God.
Cathedrals served as religious centers and they were important for local economies. Pilgrims would travel throughout Europe to see relics, which would bring an influx of travelers and money to cities with Cathedrals.
While the Gothic style was developed in Northern France, it spread throughout Europe where different regional styles were adopted. In England, for example, cathedrals became longer than they were tall and architects in Italy typically did not incorporate stained glass windows in the manner that the French did.
French Gothic cathedrals are characterized by their lighter construction, large windows, pointed arches, and impressive height. These spaces represented the universe in microcosm, and each architectural concept, including the height and perfect ratios of the structure, was intended to convey a theological message: the great glory of God and his creation of a perfect universe. The building becomes a microcosm in two ways. First, the mathematical and geometrical nature of the construction is an image of the orderly universe, in which underlying rationality and logic can be perceived. Second, the statues, sculptural decoration, stained glass, and murals incorporate the essence of creation in depictions of events from the Old and New Testaments.
Most Gothic churches have the Latin cross (or “cruciform”) plan, with a long making the body of the church. This nave is flanked on either side by aisles, a transverse arm called the , and, beyond it, an extension referred to as the choir.
One of the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. Arches of this type were used in the Near East in pre-Islamic as well as Islamic architecture before they were structurally employed in Gothic architecture. They are thought to have been the inspiration for their use in France at the Autun Cathedral, which is otherwise stylistically Romanesque. The way in which the pointed arch was drafted and utilized developed throughout the Gothic period and four popular styles emerged: the Lancet arch, the Equilateral arch, the Flamboyant arch, and the Depressed arch.