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Gothic Architecture and Renaissance Architecture Comparison

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3255 words Published: 2nd May 2018

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Gothic architecture and Renaissance architecture are both the comprehensive expression of culture in their own times. Gothic architecture started in 12th-century France and lasted for 4 centuries, into the 16th. After that, renaissance architecture took the place of Gothic architecture from 15 century until 17 century from Florence, Italy. Different time-backgrounds, social cultures, religious believes and different aesthetical standards from origins are the main reasons that formed these two polarity architectural style, Gothic and Renaissance. They represent their time and nation, becoming a specific language. In this essay, I will study and compare two finest works from each era, Amiens Cathedral and Florence Cathedral, trying to find out the contrast of these two architecture styles through the angle of historical evolution on European architecture.

Time background and characteristics of Gothic architecture

Gothic architecture evolved from Romanesque architecture and then flourished during the high and late medieval period. Gothic started from the 12th century France and it spreaded to the entire Europe, especially south and middle Europe’s architecture are deeply influenced.

Europe was divided into a multitude of city states and kingdoms at the end of the 12th century. Throughout Europe archived its heyday because of the rapid growth in trade and the development of artisan industry, and an associated growth in towns (Banister, 1975 & John 1950). Because of Germany and the Lowlands were in comparative peace, emerged lots of large flourishing towns. With the purpose of competition with other towns, or united for mutual weal, citizens had very high enthusiasm to built religious buildings. Those buildings were importance to these towns, represented wealth and pride. At that time, religious architectures like churches, cathedrals, abbeys were not only used as unalloyed religious architecture, they became the central of civic lives, became as halls, Hanseatic Leagues, even markets or theaters. Not only the religious architectures, many castles, universities, municipal halls were built in gothic style and remained till today. Few of domestic houses were gothic style. In the other word, gothic architecture embodies the power of the rulers of the day.

Gothic architecture is the zenith of European medieval architecture. No matter the engineering technologies or the means of artistic expression both achieved an unprecedented level, and hence came the golden time of European religious architecture. Churches buildings are the most elegant and superb workmanship of construction among all gothic buildings.

Amiens cathedral is the most typical gothic architecture; we can almost find all of the gothic architecture Characteristics in this building. Amiens cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral. It is located in Amiens, the chief city of Picardy, north of Paris. It is the tallest complete cathedral in France, with the nave high 42.30 m, and it has the greatest interior volume, estimated at 200,000 m³ (Wikipedia, 2009). It is said that it can contain all citizens in Amiens city at that time and more than sufficient (Baidu, 2009).

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Characteristics of Amiens cathedral

Gothic art not only can been shown on the gothic religious buildings, but also painting, sculpture and crafts. A lot of sculpture, reliefs and illuminated entrances of the cathedral, let the gothic church buildings becoming art galleries. These sculptures and paintings break out of the range of religion and restrict, emphasize portray of characters, novelty seeking for accurate human histology. It presents a new thought, a brand new art creations tend was increasing through these gothic arts in church buildings, and it might lead to the renaissance art. (Huihua, 2004) The Western portals of the Amiens cathedral have a lot of outstanding elegant art works. Especially their elaborate sculpture, featuring a gallery of locally-important saints and large eschatological scenes are justly famous. In the book Mr Standfast, John Buchan has his character Richard Hannay describe the Amiens cathedral as being “the noblest church that the hand of man ever built for God.”( John,1960)


Gothic architectures have no strict restraint on the chosen of material. Mainly French gothic churches employed limestone as the material. In England, Germany and Italy, heavy materials such as marble, sandstone, brick and stone are also be used. Amiens cathedral, just like the mostly French churches use limestone as material.

Amiens cathedral have a very standardized gothic church’s Latin cross or “cruciform” plan. The long nave makes the body of the cathedral. Beyond a transverse arm called the transept, there is an extension which may be called the choir, chancel or presbytery. In other gothic churches architectures, there are several variations on the plan because of the regional reasons.

Gothic architecture made a breakthrough of Romanesque style, using sprightly ogival or pointed arch, forceful spires and lots of narrow long windows instead of heavy shape, stability and semicircle arch,emphasis gothic churches’ verticality. These characteristics application, aimed to create a powerful impression on the approaching people, indicating the might of God and the might of the institution that it represents.

Like other French cathedrals, Amiens cathedral is emphasis its height, both real and proportional. The 42.30 m height nave is even considerably taller than the width. On the interior of the Amiens cathedral, there is no break of the vertical lines. 126 giant pillars rise up from the floor straight to the ceiling, and meet the ribs of the vault. The walls and long narrow windows are all follow the rule of verticality. Through these methods, it leads people’s sight up to the high, create an impression of pious and transcendence of god, and the dream of heaven.

The treatment of vertical elements in gallery and window tracery of mostly French and perpendicular period of English gothic churches shows a strongly unifying feature that counteracts the horizontal divisions of the interior structure. (Wim, 1985)

Rose windows are applied widely in the design of gothic churches. In Amiens cathedral, rose windows can be found above the entrance and transept. This is the rose window above the west entrance of the Amiens cathedral. In Amiens cathedral, brick or stone is not the main part of the walls, but colored glasses, which tells many stories of gods, in order to educate people who cannot read at that time. All the rose windows and long narrow windows are using stained glass. The big contrast of dark walls and bright gorgeous windows gives a mysterious feeling.

The flying buttress is a crucial element or characteristic contributing to the larruping looking of Gothic cathedrals. The flying buttress was used as a structure element, supporting the walls vertically. But in some gothic architecture, it comes to become a kind of decoration of building. The flying buttress outside the clerestory walls, decreasing the solidity of structure virtually, made the cathedra looked as being suspended from heaven. Furth more, it also played a role to balance the network of interior vaults ribs to give the same impression of a tent-like canopy over the congregation (www.wikipdia.com, 2009). In “Art Through the Ages”, authors describe the flying buttress as “like slender extended fingers holding up the walls”.( TANSEV. R , KLEINER. F. S& CROIX. H, 1995)

The ribbed vault is another importance characteristic of gothic architecture. The ribbed vault is made by combining three separate but connected arches. These are the transverse arches that span the ends of the vault, the lateral or longitudinal arches that span the length or sides of the vault, and the two diagonal arches that reach from corner to corner.(Parry. S) This simple construction dominated the medieval construction because of it is simply constructed, strong and flexible.

Time background and characteristics of renaissance architecture

The renaissance architecture appeared from the 15th century Florence, Italy, and then it spread to other European countries like France, Germany, England, Russia and elsewhere quickly, and formed regional renaissance architecture styles. At the end of the 14th century, the bud of capitalism in Europe. With its development, people in that era changed their attitude and requirement of art. Renaissance is a Political and cultural movement, which aim to bury the darkness rule of religious class in medieval in Europe. The newly emergent bourgeoisie against feudal aristocracy, and at the same time, they also fight with religious forces. In their mind, the though the medieval culture as historical regression, they describe the era as “dark and barbarous time”. Classic Greece and Rome culture was highly praised as luciferous and well- developed culture. From then on, the whole Europe went into the renaissance. In brief, we can find that, both the gothic and renaissance architecture, the style of architecture changed and fit the rulers taste, as a result, influence on the architecture style of that age. Because of the change of ruler, lots of commercial buildings like town halls, theaters, palaces and domestic buildings all built in renaissance style, not only the religious churches.

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St. Peter’s Basilica

St Peter’s basilica can be though as one of the most outstanding religious renaissance buildings. St. Peter’s Basilica is located within the Vatican City. St. Peter’s Basilica can hold 60,000 people inside of it, been considered as the church with the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. It has a very high status of Christian churches, and it is regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites. The St. Peter’s basilica was described as “holding a unique position in the Christian world”(Lees-milne. J, 1967, p. 12.) and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom” by Fletcher (FLETCHER .B, 1996, p. 719). It is the most prominent building inside the Vatican City. Its dome is an outstanding symbolic feature of the Rome skyline. It covers 2.3 hectares with a capacity of over 60,000 people.

Characteristics of St Peter’s basilica

Gothic architecture emphasizes its verticality. But renaissance architects paid lots of attention on symmetry, proportion and geometry of buildings. The façade is 114.69 meters wide and 45.55 meters high .Not as the Amiens cathedral using pointed arch, spires and lots of narrow long windows to increase the visual verticality feeling, the St Peter’s basilica been put emphasis on its horizontality, symmetrical around its vertical axis. Its façades is surmounted by a pediment and organized by a system of pilasters, arches and entablatures (www.Wikipedia.com). The columns and windows show a progression towards the center. You can also find fancy sculptures of gods at the top of the basilica. Compare to Amiens cathedral’s intricate decoration, colourful west entrance and a good many sculptures on the surface of the cathedral, the St Peter’s basilica’s appearance seems more maestoso and laconic.


As the same reason as the architect of Amiens cathedral, the architect chose to use massive white travertine stone as the building material for the sake of highlight the solemn and saintly of the basilica. For gothic architectures, stones and glasses are the only used materials. For the St Peter’s basilica, brick masonry is used for the domes as well. Some other renaissance churches, timber and brick are also be used for domes.

The St Peter’s Basilica took almost 120 years to finish. Lots of architects and artists worked together to join the design of the basilica, and made great contribution. So we can say that, the St Peter’s basilica is an aggregation of greatest renaissance architects and artists’ brightness. Donato Bramante was the first architect start the rebuilt of the St Peter’s basilica. Photo 11 is the plan that Bramante designed, which followed the renaissance thought, applying an enormous Greek cross with a dome in the middle, inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon. But he did not blindly follow the classic style. Bramante employed four large piers to support the basilica.

Latter Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael. The concept of the 4 piers remained unchanged. In Raphael’s design, he added a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. He also reduced the size of towers to define the squareness of the exterior walls. And the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory (Wikipedia).

It cannot deny that Michelangelo made greatest contribution to the design of the basilica. The building remained now was built base on his design, although in his design he reconsidered the obvious plans and made some improvements. Michelangelo replaced every corner of the Raphael’s plan with small vestries to blur the definition of the geometry.

Columns and pilasters are the most obvious element of renaissance architecture, they are also an embodiment of the renaissance though, which is the classic columns and pilasters presents the harmony and senses of ancient Greece though. The whole series of columns and pilasters were continued to use by renaissance architecture. People tried to understand ancient Greeks’ understand of human body. So the base of the column was regarded as human’s foot, the main body as the body, and the capital as human’s head. A giant order of pilasters set at slightly different angles to each other was employed on the surface of the exterior walls of St Peter’s basilica. They do not like columns have supportive function, they are purely decoration purpose. Columns were used inside of the building. As introduced the basilica is supported by 4 piers, the columns take the role of decoration in this case.

Semi- circular arch, which was shunned by gothic architecture represent its value on renaissance architecture. They are used in arcades, supported on piers or columns with capitals. In my point of view, the pointed arch in Amiens cathedral gives a mysterious impression, but on the other hand, the renaissance semi-circular arch accidently gives people a shock of god. And the vaults without ribs continue follow the semi-circular or segmental shape. All the vaults are on a square plan, unlike the vault of Amiens cathedral, which is rectangular.

The dome of St Peter’s basilica is the tallest point of the Vatican City. The basilica becomes the landmark of the Vatican city of the day, the conspicuous dome made the most significant contribution to this result. Qua the tallest one among all renaissance domes, the dome’s height is as tall as 136.57 meters, accounting from the floor to the silver cross on the top of the dome. Its internal diameter, slightly smaller than Pantheon of Ancient Rome and Florence Cathedral, is 41.47 meters. I thing Michelangelo Buonarroti’s dome is another engineering success after the Florence cathedral. The dome is constructed similar as the dome of Florence cathedral, which has two shells, but the St Peter’s outer shell has 16 strong stone ribs, as twice of the Florence cathedral. The 16 pairs of 15 meters height columns visually buttress each of the ribs, but actually they are redundant in structure of the dome.

There are some openings along bottom edge of the dome, which subdued light up the elegant painting inside of the dome. Openings on the top of dome let bright sunlight goes straight into the interior of the basilica, light up the interior room naturally. Furthermore, the strong sunlight contrasts with the shading space, creating a saintly feeling.

As the same as mostly gothic architecture, the ceiling of Amiens cathedral is left open. The interior aesthetics rely on light and shade contrast by the effect of colourful windows. The St Peter’s basilica is comprehensive decorated. Roofs are fitted with coffered ceilings, which are painted. Not only the ceiling, but also inside of domes are painted by famous renaissance artists. Fancy sculptures can be seen on every surface of piers, including some Michelangelo’s masterworks.


After all, the thought of the society limited the architecture style of the day. So gothic architecture and renaissance architecture were both influenced by the particular politic, economy, culture and art of the time. After all, all architecture styles centered around the rulers’ taste, and then influenced all the building style of that era. From here we see that architecture, as the symbol of the age, also can presents the characteristics of the society. Therefore, in order to satisfied the need of new social, political and culture, architecture form changing along with the time. On the other hand, the development of engineering techniques and material gave a solid support for the development of new architecture.


  1. Banister FLETCHER, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, June 1975
  2. John HARVEY, The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art, 1950
  3. Amiens Cathedral, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amiens_Cathedral, modified on 24 December 2009
  4. Amiens cathedral, http://baike.baidu.com/view/426548.htm, modified on 27 December 2009
  5. John BUCHAN, Mr Standfast. London: Penguin Books, 1960
  6. Huihua HUANG, the difference characteristics between gothic architecture and renaissance architecture, 2004
  7. Wim SWAAN, The Gothic Cathedral,1985
  8. Flying buttress, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_buttress, 2009
  9. Richard TANSEV , Fred S. KLEINER, Horst De LA CROIX, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 1995, http://www.tudorhistory.org/glossaries/f/flying_buttress.html
  10. Stan PARRY, the key elements of gothic architecture , http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/Arts/Architec/MiddleAgesArchitectural/GothicArchitecture/KeyElementsGothicArchitecture/KeyElementsGothicArchitecture.htm
  11. “Claims made that the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Africa is larger appear to be spurious, as the measurements include a rectorate, a villa and probably the forecourt. Its capacity is 18,000 people against St. Peter’s 60,000. Its dome, based on that of St. Peter’s, is lower but carries a taller cross, and thus claims to be the tallest domed church.”
  12. James Lees-Milne describes St Peter’s Basilica as “a church with a unique position in the Christian world” in Lees-Milne 1967, p. 12.
  13. Banister FLETCHER, the renowned architectural historian calls it “…The greatest of all churches of Christendom” in Fletcher 1996, p. 719.
  14. Wikipedia, Renaissance architecture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_architecture,2009
  15. Wikipedia, St. Peter’s Basilica,2009


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