A Gothic Overview: Architecture, Garden Design, & Much More


"Pre-Gothic"

300-600 C.E.: Goths, Visigoths, Ostragoths, and other "barbaric" Germanic tribes invaded southern Europe. They built nothing of lasting value and left no cultural traces behind, in the wake of their destruction.  It is supremely ironic that Renaissance critics and artists named one of the most beautiful and influential movements of Western art and architecture after barbarians.

Click here to see where the Gothic and Gothic Revival movements fall in the history of Western architecture. Follow the links to see photos of major architectural masterpieces.

Pre/Post-Gothic Timeline


Gothic

1150-1400: Gothic Architecture  flourished, particularly in France & England.  The person generally honored as the originator of the Gothic style was Abbot Suger (1081-1151), whose Benedictine abbey church of St. Denis near Paris reveals the first clear Gothic features.  The Gothic style quickly spread to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and from there to the rest of France.  Close ties with the English meant that the new style soon appeared in Canterbury Cathedral and within a century throughout the island.  During its peak in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Gothic architecture dominated church building in France, Italy, Germany, and England.

The transition from Romanesque and Norman architecture to Gothic is especially evident in Canterbury and St. Alban's Cathedral.  See Gothic Transitions.

For other Gothic architecture, especially English and French, check this site:  Gothic Gallery.

For my own galleries of gothic architecture, check here: My Gothic Galleries

Characteristics of Gothic Art & Architecture


The Renaissance & Neoclassicism

1400-1650: Renaissance critics coined the term Gothic to refer to the architecture from 1150-1400 because they considered it barbaric, old, and uncouth.  Eager to get away from what they judged to be the excesses of Gothic art and architecture, they strived to return to the simple purity of form, proportion, and symmetry of classical Greece and Rome.  The revival of classical architectural ideals began in Italy in the early 1400s and quickly spread across Europe to France and England.  By 1600 the dominant architectural style for public buildings, churches, and private estates was neoclassical, except in areas like Oxford and Cambridge, where the Gothic style continued unchecked in reverence for tradition.

Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1518-70) exerted an immense influence on neoclassical architecture.  Author of Four Books of Architecture (1570), Palladio closely analyzed Greek and Roman architectural design. Palladio's extensive drawings of surviving ruins became blueprints for countless buildings in Italy, France, England, and America.  The style of neoclassicism inspired by Palladio is known as Palladianism.  For more information on Palladianism, check Andrea Palladio.  The most important English Palladian architect was Sir Christopher Wren, whose St. Paul's Cathedral and numerous London churches continue to be much admired. The following galleries show photos of neo-classical or Palladian architecture by Wren and his close associates.

Palladian or neo-classical architecture is in many ways the antithesis of Gothic:

Aesthetic Shift: Gothic to Neoclassical


Gothic Trends, Revivals, and Inventions

Gothic Garden Motifs

Gothic Revival Architecture

Gothic Literature

1700-1750: Gardens that surround important buildings are often treated as outdoor extensions of the buildings themselves, with areas of lawn and plantings of trees and shrubs partitioned and arranged like "rooms."  Of course, these planted areas are designed to be harmonious with the house they adjoin.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Italy, France, and England, neoclassical ideals dominated garden design as well as architecture.  Rigid bilateral symmetry reigned supreme.  Versailles, Hampton Court Palace, and other royal as well as private residences featured formal gardens of incomparable grace, elegance, and beauty.  The extremely high cost of maintaining such formal gardens contributed to their gradual replacement throughout the eighteenth century by gardens that were freer in design and more closely represented unrestricted natural scenery.  By the mid eighteenth century these landscape gardens dominated the English countryside and came to represent a genuine shift in aesthetic.

Formal gardens such as those of Versaille express the view that Man's relationship to Nature is essentialy tyranical.  From shrubs shaped by the art of topiary to tightly clipped hedges and geometrically shaped plantings, these formal gardens suggest that the will and art of man must be imposed on Nature in order to create beautiful surroundings.  Man must dominate and control Nature with absolute force regulated by rules applied with mathematical precision.  In this view of the relationship of Man and Nature, Man is at the center, surrounded by a Nature which has been manipulated to call attention to Man's indomitable will and power.

The emerging aesthetic of the landscape garden, however,  gives the balance of power to Nature.  The hand and will of man are less conspicuous in the landscape garden; the power of Nature seems greater than that of Man.  Nature appears to be free from the restraint and stricture of the formal garden.

This shift in garden aesthetic in England has political implications.  English landscape designers associated the new freer style of garden with the freedom of the English political system, which they traced to the "Merry Old England" of the Middle Ages.  Thus during a period of what was otherwise neoclassical ideals in architecture (and other arts as well), the Gothic art and architecture of the Middle Ages became associated with traditional English values, particularly liberty.  And when a landscape garden did not come already equipped with a real piece of Gothic architecture, garden designers did not hesitate to create a modern imitation of a gothic monument or ruined chapel to echo the depth of English historical tradition.  These imitation Gothic monuments are the beginning of the Gothic Revival movement in architecture.

Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire provides an excellent example of the use of Gothic influences to convey a political message about old English liberty.  Please visit Stowe to see photos of neoclassical and Gothic monuments set in a truly beautiful landscape garden.  Also see Eighteenth Century Garden History.

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1748-77: Horace Walpole, son the powerful politician Sir Robert Walpole, purchased an uninteresting box-shaped home called Strawberry Hill in Twickenham outside London in a fashionable area well known for its neoclassical or Palladian homes.  Over the next quarter century, Walpole assembled a committee of experts in Gothic architecture who assisted him in modifying Strawberry Hill according to Gothic design motifs. Strawberry Hill eventually became the most distinctive Gothic revival structure of the 18th century.  

1760-1850: The Gothic Revival in architecture  inspired by Walpole and others exerted a widespread influence in England and America.  Prime examples are the Parliament Building in London and Georgia Military College & St. Stephens Episcopal Church  and First Presbyterian Church here in Milledgeville.  Compare the Neo-Palladian Old Governor's Mansion (1839) on the campus of GC&SU to these local Gothic Revivial Structures in Milledgeville:

See these other Gothic Revival Sites:

1765 to Present: In his gothic revival home on the Thames in 1765, Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.  Although not an instant success, Castle would exert an immense influence on the history of English and American fiction.

In brief, since the late seventeenth century, fiction writers had labored to produce a new style of writing that was firmly grounded in the ordinary real world, in contrast to earlier medieval romance and fantasy literature. By the mid eighteenth century, fiction, particularly the early novel, was entirely "realistic," set in fictional but recognizable countryside and homes and inhabited by fictional but real people whose lives were subject to social and natural law.  The only mysteries in the characters' lives and world were the natural unknowns occasioned by real life.  Walpole grew up on a steady diet of these novels and wanted to write something different.  The result was The Castle of Otranto.  Set in the distant past in Italy, the novel blends the realism of the early English novel with the mysticism and supernaturalism of medieval romance.  Dark, turbulent and stormy weather, equally turbulent lives, family curses, walking portraits, giant suits of armor, bleeding statues, ghosts, subterranean passageways, arbitrary and cruel power exerted capriciously: these and many more features soon became stock features of an ever increasing body of literature in England and America that continues to the present.

Since its invention in 1765 gothic fiction flourished in England and America until around 1840.  Realistic styles then returned and indeed continue even today, but interest in gothic ideas and motifs has never altogether ceased.  Not even the enormous progress in modern science that so distinctly marked the early twentieth century prevented gothic tendencies from influencing literature and the new art form film.

Horror films, science fiction, and fantasy are all a very real part of the legacy of the gothic initiated by Horace Walpole.  From Strawberry Hill and the Castle of Otranto to Nightmare on Elmstreet and X Files, the gothic movement in the arts has distinctly colored the last two centuries.

1980-Present: The past twenty years have witnessed an especially high level of interest in the gothic and its subsidiary  arts.  Go to the closest Barnes & Nobles and look through the shelves of Gothic, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy.  Or go to the local video store and look under the same categories.  Check TV Guide for all television programming that overtly or explicitly deals with the gothic, such as X Files and Millenium, but also the less conspicuous shows that feature world mysteries and unsolved secrets.  Examine the internet for gothic elements, and don't forget the remarkably healthy market in "Pop Gothic" commodities ranging from gothic finger nail extensions and tattoes to desktop gargoyles.  

The gothic is alive and well right now in high, middle, and low culture.  Our fascination with the unknown and the unknowable has never been greater, and this at a point in our cultural history when we know more than we ever have before.  Perhaps what we don't know, what we can't understand, is intrinsically more interesting that what we do know with certainty.  Perhaps what we can't see stirs us more than the beauty all around us in plain view.


Spike's Really Cool Schema of BROAD Gothic (in progress)

X

Traditional Categories &

Origins

Mid Branches

"Modern" Branches

20th Century & Beyond

Gothic

Architecture

1100 to 1500

The Great Gothic Cathedrals and Churches

of England, France, Spain, etc:

1750 to 1840

Gothic Revival

Parliament Buildings (Pugin),

Neo-Gothic (The Gothic style in architecture has never really died out)

Facile Gothic (a la Disney)

Gothic

Fiction

All literature that deals with Gothic categories such as death & dying, the gothic hero, the grotesque & fantastic, etc.

Gothic Fiction

1764 (Castle of Otranto) to 1840 (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc.)

Detective & Crime

Fiction (Poe); Fantasy (Lewis Carole)

Horror Fiction

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Crime & Detective Fiction

Paranormal Non-Fiction

Tribulation Studies

Nostro-dummass Stuff

All of the Above in TV & Film

Facile Gothic TV & Film

Gothic

Art

1100 to 1500

Manuscript Illuminations, Stone & Wood Carving,

Church Painting (altar pieces, frescoes, etc.)

1780 to 1850

Romantic Painting

Modern Romantic Painting

Fantasy Painting

Optical Art

"Modern" Art that "Shocks"

Facile Gothic Art

Gothic

Music

1100 to 1500

Gregorian Chant (monophony)

Early Polyphony

1780 t0 1850

Romantic Music

German Sturm und Drang

Modern Romantic

Music that "Shocks"

Film Soundtracks

Music for Television

Gothic Rock

Pop Gothic

Facile Gothic