Gothic Architecture: Ridiculously Anatomical

            Browsing through some photos of Gothic cathedrals, I was stricken by a resemblance between the Gothic architectural style and its look-alike components in human anatomy.

Interior of the Chartres Cathedral  

The ribbed vaulting of the Chartres Cathedral in France, bears a striking resemblance to an interior body cavity, with bony, rib-like support structures visible throughout. The stained glass windows and remarkable display of sculptures in the transepts of the Cathedral require an open, confluent use of space for maximum lighting effect. Flying buttresses made it possible to fill an entire cathedral wall with the dazzling color and light of stained glass. Without walls for support, that which is typically hidden away in most structures becomes part of the visible aesthetic in Gothic architecture, making the term skeletal an apt modifier for describing this style of building.

Lung Cavity Interior

The term “skeletal” as it applies to descriptions of Gothic architecture can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. As with the biological skeleton in mammals, architectural support structures provide the framework for buildings that gives them their shape and strength. It could even be argued that the skeleton of a thing gives it essential, overall shape, as well as defining its uses and capabilities. It is no surprise, then, that the visible structural elements of Gothic architecture resembles the hidden structural elements in living things.

In Gothic architecture, support structures such as the ribs of the gothic rib vault, were made intentionally visible, and were considered an integral part of its design and aestheticism. This differs greatly from modern architecture, in which most architectural frame structures, such as crossbeams and framing, are hidden from view by means of encasement in wood, plaster, bricks and stones.

The physical capabilities of any support structure, such as its load-bearing capacity or compensatory mechanisms, are directly related to its physical properties, such as degrees of an arch and aspect ratios. In this respect, art must imitate life because, in short, it is very effective. The same properties of biological structural support that evolution has provided to mammals in the skeleton after years of selective genetic modification have been imitated, if accidentally, by man in his own attempts to improve the effectiveness of supports in architecture.

          The spirit of Gothic architecture employs the use of light as well as space to achieve its skeletal aspect. Instead of walls, space-lending vaults, flying arches, piers, columns and buttresses are needed to achieve a more transparent, open feel.  High ceilings and intricate systems of support structures dominate the ceilings and aisles of these cathedrals. The strength and weight-bearing capabilities of the Gothic architecture’s pointed arches and flying buttresses of the style took interiors to literal new heights. These features, along with exterior spires and interior clustered columns, lend a definite “vertical visual character (Wikipedia)” to the cathedrals of this style when compared to the Romanesque edifices that preceded them.

Nave and Transept of the Interior Amiens Cathedral

This skeletal stone aspect, in combination with immense glazed and colored glass windows, has given Gothic cathedrals their distinctly haunting quality. Cunning manipulation of light, space, and opulent detail give Gothic architecture this unique essence, and remains impressive and distinguished among other constructions even today.


Benedict, Michael. “Gothic Architecture.” Art & Humanities. Pioneer High School, n.d.

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Amiens Cathedral.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Aug. 2013.

Gelbart, Jean-Jacques. “Amiens Cathedral.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. United Nations, n.d.

Piolle, Guillaume. The Clerestory of Amiens Cathedral. Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Wikipedia, 25 Jan. 2008.

Whatling, Stuart, Dr. “Chartres Cathedral – Medieval Stained Glass Windows – Key.” The Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art., 28 Jan. 2014.

Wikipedia contributors. “Gothic Architecture.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Dec. 2014.

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