Expansive interior light has been a feature of Gothic cathedrals since the first structure was opened. The metaphysics of light in the Middle Ages led to clerical belief in its divinity and the importance of its display in holy settings. Much of this belief was based on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth-century mystic whose book, The Celestial Hierarchy, was popular among monks in France. Pseudo-Dionysius held that all light, even light reflected from metals or streamed through windows, was divine. To promote such faith, the abbot in charge of the Saint-Denis church on the north edge of Paris, the Abbot Suger, encouraged architects remodeling the building to make the interior as bright as possible.
Ever since the remodeled Basilica of Saint-Denis opened in 1144, Gothic architecture has featured expansive windows, such as at Sainte Chapelle, York Minster, Gloucester Cathedral. The increase in size between windows of the Romanesque and Gothic periods is related to the use of the ribbed vault, and in particular, the pointed ribbed vault which channeled the weight to a supporting shaft with less outward thrust than a semicircular vault. Walls did not need to be so weighty.
A further development was the flying buttress which arched externally from the springing of the vault across the roof of the aisle to a large buttress pier projecting well beyond the line of the external wall. These piers were often surmounted by a pinnacle or statue, further adding to the downward weight, and counteracting the outward thrust of the vault and buttress arch as well as stress from wind loading.
The internal columns of the arcade with their attached shafts, the ribs of the vault and the flying buttresses, with their associated vertical buttresses jutting at right-angles to the building, created a stone skeleton. Between these parts, the walls and the infill of the vaults could be of lighter construction. Between the narrow buttresses, the walls could be opened up into large windows.
Through the Gothic period, thanks to the versatility of the pointed arch, the structure of Gothic windows developed from simple openings to immensely rich and decorative sculptural designs. The windows were very often filled with stained glass which added a dimension of colour to the light within the building, as well as providing a medium for figurative and narrative art.
The Flamboyant Arch is one that is drafted from four points, the upper part of each main arc turning upwards into a smaller arc and meeting at a sharp, flame-like point. These arches create a rich and lively effect when used for window tracery and surface decoration. The form is structurally weak and has very rarely been used for large openings except when contained within a larger and more stable arch. It is not employed at all for vaulting.
Doorways surmounted by Flamboyant mouldings are very common in both ecclesiastical and domestic architecture in France. They are much rarer in England. A notable example is the doorway to the Chapter Room at Rochester Cathedral.
The style was much used in England for wall arcading and niches. Prime examples in are in the Lady Chapel at Ely, the Screen at Lincoln and externally on the façade of Exeter Cathedral. In German and Spanish Gothic architecture it often appears as openwork screens on the exterior of buildings. The style was used to rich and sometimes extraordinary effect in both these countries, notably on the famous pulpit in Vienna Cathedral.
Gothic architecture is a style of architecture that flourished in Europe during the high and late medieval period. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. Originating in 12th-century France and lasting into the 16th century, Gothic architecture was known during the period as Opus Francigenum (“French work”) with the term Gothic first appearing during the later part of the Renaissance. Its characteristics include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault (which evolved from the joint vaulting of romanesque architecture) and the flying buttress. Gothic architecture is most familiar as the architecture of many of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches of Europe. It is also the architecture of many castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, universities and to a less prominent extent, private dwellings, such as dorms and rooms.
It is in the great churches and cathedrals and in a number of civic buildings that the Gothic style was expressed most powerfully, its characteristics lending themselves to appeals to the emotions, whether springing from faith or from civic pride. A great number of ecclesiastical buildings remain from this period, of which even the smallest are often structures of architectural distinction while many of the larger churches are considered priceless works of art and are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. For this reason a study of Gothic architecture is largely a study of cathedrals and churches.
A series of Gothic revivals began in mid-18th-century England, spread through 19th-century Europe and continued, largely for ecclesiastical and university structures, into the 20th century.