The Religious Importance of Gothic Cathedrals

by Taylor Echolls
Detailed sculpture decorates the entrance to the Gothic cathedral Notre Dame.

Detailed sculpture decorates the entrance to the Gothic cathedral Notre Dame.

The Gothic style became prevalent in European religious architecture in the 11th century and has been revived and improved upon in countless cathedrals all over the world. In France and other countries entering into the Middle Ages cathedrals were renovated from drab fortresses to Gothic masterpieces of stained glass and natural sculpture. Notable for its vaulted ceilings and incredibly detailed facades, the Gothic style symbolized the glory of God and the church's central place in European society for hundreds of years.

Gothic Architecture

Gothic cathedrals honored God by building soaring vaulted ceilings as high into the heavens as contemporary architecture allowed. The flying buttress was an engineering development that bore more weight than previous constructions and freed up lots of space inside. The Gothic cathedrals literally centralized communities as they required entire villages of laborers and years to complete. The cathedrals became not only places of worship but also meeting places for peasants and farmers for whom the church provided spiritual and charitable services in everyday life.

Worship in Architecture & Glass

Many Gothic cathedrals had a floor plan in the shape of a cross, which was not only structurally sound but also a reminder of Christ's crucifixion. Larger windows were decorated with detailed stained glass panes depicting biblical scenes and stories of saints. This allowed illiterate peasants to learn the Bible visually, while priests and read and sermonized Scripture in Latin. With stained glass illustrations, Gothic cathedrals upheld the social and spiritual hierarchy of the Middle Ages.

Famous Gothic Cathedrals

London's Westminster Abbey is a prime example of the English Gothic style with its expansive interior and copious natural light. Notre Dame in France is another well-known Gothic example, with intricate gargoyles and narrative sculpture decorating its facade, turning it into a Gothic "stone Bible," in the words of Pope Benedict XVI. The Cologne Cathedral in Germany has been renovated multiple times over several centuries, with each addition adding more Gothic architecture including an enormous black marble altar, soaring steeples and an impressive set of 14th-century stained glass windows.

God Through Beauty

A key aspect of the widespread growth of Gothic architecture during the middle ages was a belief that beauty was the spiritual path to God. Pope Benedict XVI said that "the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul's longing for God, " but certainly validation of the church's power was a nice by-product. The union of beauty with power, money and religion was what gave rise to some of the most sprawling and detailed structures ever built.

About the Author

Taylor Echolls is an award-winning writer whose expertise includes health, environmental and LGBT journalism. He has written for the "Valley Citizen" newspaper, where his work won first- and second-place awards in sports and outdoor features from the Idaho Press Club. Echolls holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images