The word “Gothic,” implying the extreme of barbarism, was a contemptuous and inaccurate term used by the Italians of the Renaissance to describe the architecture, Frankish-Norman in origin, of the Middle Ages. It may be fittingly called the “Catholic Style,” since it was the expression of the new civilization introduced by the Church after the struggle with paganism, and since it remains today the supreme artistic achievement of that civilization. The religious orders, the Benedictines of Cluny, the Cistercians, Carthusians, and Augustinians, promoted the development of Gothic art; the Franks, Lombards, and Northmen gave it vitality; the Capetian kings and Norman dukes invested it with a sense of nationalism. From the Lombards were borrowed the pier and archivolt, the ribbed and domed vault; from the Carlovingian builders, the basilica plan of triple aisles, transept, and three apses; and the interior system of arcade, triforium, and clerestory. To these the Normans added the vaulted roof and the principle of concentrated thrusts met by pier buttresses and hidden flying-buttresses. Gothic architecture was perfected in the Isle of France in the early 12th century. The pointed arch was introduced, the flying-buttresses emerged through the roof, the clerestory windows were heightened, and the chevet, with double apsidal aisles and chapels, was added. Architecture was now associated with sculpture, stained glass, and mural painting, in France.
Among the cathedrals of the period may be mentioned those of Notre-Dame in Paris, Chartres, and Amiens. The last phase of Gothic architecture in France was more a form of decoration than a style. French 15th-century architecture was secular, and the best examples are found in guildhalls, palaces, manors, and memorials. In England a parallel, but individual, course of development was taking place; buildings were larger, and covered with timber roofs. Norman Romanesque was introduced with the erection of Canterbury by Edward the Confessor in 1050, and adopted by the Benedictines. The Cistercians preferred the economical Gothic. The Early English period is marked by great beauty of interior treatment, e.g., the slender shafts, lancets, and sculptured capitals, of Westminster Abbey. Perpendicular, a style distinctly English in character, was introduced, and with it the invention of the fan vault.
English Gothic displayed variety and personality, rather than the uniformity of the French. Its most famous examples are the cathedrals of Lincoln and Exeter, and Westminster Abbey. In Germany, where the favorite style was Rhenish Romanesque, Gothic developed slowly. Cologne cathedral was its first example. Individual development was manifest in the Hallenbau scheme, which consisted of a great hall with level vaulting, supported on slender shafts which divided it into aisles. In Flanders, Gothic architecture of distinctly French influence was evident in the secular buildings; the town and guild halls. In Italy, Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Spain the fundamental principles of Gothic were never accepted, although it influenced decoration and design.