Although high altar. The nave is where the

Although Gothic artwork was created hundreds of years after the fall of Classical civilization in Western Europe, there were still many examples of Classical influences in Gothic design. Learn more about similarities between the two styles.


To understand the Classical influences on Gothic styles, we first need to understand a timeline. Classical culture is the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. In Western Europe, the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century CE, giving rise to the Early Middle Ages, which was a very different culture. However, a variety of Classical ideas started to be embraced again in the High Middle Ages, which started around the 11th century CE.

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The Romanesque style evolved at about the same time.It is important to take note of the difference between ‘Roman’ and ‘Romanesque.’ Roman styles are the styles of the ancient Roman Empire.

Romanesque styles developed in the High Middle Ages, hundreds of years later.In the 12th century CE, which is still part of the Middle Ages, Romanesque styles started to give way to the development of Gothic styles, which continued to be influenced by Classical ideas. Note that both Romanesque and Gothic styles are medieval.These Classical ideas would become fully realized in the next time period, the Renaissance, which literally means ‘rebirth’, meaning the rebirth of Classical culture. The Renaissance started in the 14th or 15th century, depending on where you were in Europe.There is plenty about Gothic art and architecture that is very non-Classical.

In fact, Renaissance writers considered them crude and barbaric precisely because they were so different from Classical styles. They coined the term ‘Gothic’ as an insult, as the Goths were a barbarian tribe that sacked the city of Rome in the 5th century. However, there are actually a variety of important Classical elements in the Gothic style.

Arches and Vaults

The Gothic style is most defined by its architecture.

Large buildings, such as cathedrals, needed specific engineering solutions to support the weight of such immense projects. The answer was the use of the arch and the vault, which have been discussed in length in another lesson. Both of these architectural elements use curved surfaces to more efficiently redirect weight than horizontal surfaces.The first culture to put these elements into widespread use was the Romans. This example shows a series of arches holding up a structure. They were adopted for the Romanesque style.

Here, a vault forms a curved ceiling.Next, the curve of the Romanesque arch and vault was replaced by a pointed Gothic arch. This more efficiently redirected weight and thus, allowed engineers to continue increasing the size of these buildings. That means this design was actually an improvement on the original Roman idea.

Basilica Layouts

Romanesque and Gothic architecture also borrowed the layout of the basilica from Rome. Originally, the basilica was an administrative center, but Romanesque and Gothic builders used the basilica floor plan for Christian churches.

In a church, the apse holds the high altar. The nave is where the majority of the congregation stood during services. The narthex is the entrance.

The one big change is the addition of transepts, which gives the church the layout of a Christian cross.

Use of Concrete

Romans were one of the first people in the world to make concrete, which is created by mixing stone into cement. To create a single, heavy wall, the Romans would sandwich concrete between an inner and outer layer of dressed stonework, known as a veneer.

To an observer, only the veneer was visible, but the concrete core allowed buildings to be constructed more quickly and cheaply than using all dressed stone blocks. This technique returned to Europe in the High Middle Ages.


Classical art was dominated by lifelike sculpture. Many of these images were life-size or larger and freestanding. The details were intensely realistic.In the Early Middle Ages, statuary largely vanished. Art became small and personal, such as rings, belt buckles, clasps, and ceremonial weapons.

By the 12th century, however, Europeans were once more working on sizable stone sculpture. It began as relief carvings, which are figures carved into a flat surface such as a wall. This was a technique used in both Classical and Gothic styles.

As time continued to progress, Gothic figures were becoming increasingly separated from their backdrop, although they don’t become fully freestanding until the Renaissance.Classical knowledge was gaining importance in medieval education, and this also influenced art. While this figure comes from Chartres Cathedral, for example, the figure represents the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, whom students would be studying.

The figures also become increasingly detailed and realistic. Previously, medieval figures were not only small, but also simple and stylized. Gothic poses became more dynamic and natural, rather than the stiff, formal poses of earlier medieval art.

Large, Realistic Paintings

Before the Gothic style, medieval two-dimensional artwork was primarily limited to book illustrations.

Book illustrations continued, but they slowly lost their abstract stylization. Instead, proportions became more realistic, and shading was introduced to create the illusion of three-dimensional space.Large scale paintings also developed during this time period.

Large panels of wood, sometimes dozens of feet across, were used as surfaces for painting. The paint used was a fast-drying material called tempera as well as sheets of gold leaf.The Gothic style also saw the return of the buon fresco, a common medium in Classical art. Buon frescos are created by spreading wet plaster on a surface. Then, paint is applied so it soaks into the plaster before the plaster dries. The result is an image highly resistant to damage because it becomes part of the wall.

Lesson Summary

In Western Europe, the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome made way for the Early Middle Ages, which later evolved into the High Middle Ages.

It is during the High Middle Ages that both the Romanesque and Gothic styles developed. Nevertheless, various Classical elements can still be seen in Gothic art and architecture.The Roman basilica became the default floor plan of major Christian churches, using such elements as the apse, nave, and narthex, as well as adding the transepts. These large structures were built using Roman technology such as the arch and the vault.

Concrete once again became an important building material, with walls having their concrete cores hidden by veneers of dressed stone.Realism, an important Classical value, became much more emphasized in sculpture, painting, and illustration. Classical styles such as relief carvings and buon frescos were also used at this time. Artwork also became much larger during this period.

Despite the suggestion that Gothic art was barbaric and contrary to Classical ideals, it was actually highly sophisticated and strongly incorporated many Classical influences.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify how the Gothic style was developed through Classical elements
  • Describe how architecture is an important aspect of recognition for the Gothic style
  • Explain how Classical realism influenced painting, illustration, and sculpture

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