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The Gothic Cathedral


  • Credit value: 15 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: a 3000-word essay (100%)

Module description

On this module we take a look at one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of Western architecture: the Gothic cathedral. Since its creation in France from the middle of the twelfth century to the end of the fifteenth century, the great church has dominated - physically, spiritually and often politically - the medieval European landscape.

We will consider the extraordinary technical advances which accompanied the construction of cathedrals and trace their development both north and south of the Alps, from the first fully fledged manifestation of Gothic - the Abbey of St Denis - to the (arguably) last great medieval cathedral, that of Milan.

We will discuss how sculpture and stained glass are an integral part of cathedral design and iconography, and the relationship between architecture, liturgy and cult, as well as the formative influence of architects and patrons.

Finally, we will observe cathedrals as complex institutions with competing priorities - monastic, secular and political. Importantly, we will assess the way in which cathedrals have been studied, and whether their justifiable hold on our imagination may have, paradoxically, distorted our view of Gothic architecture.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction: material and spiritual cathedral
  • St Denis, Paris and Benedictine patronage
  • Chartres Cathedral and high Gothic architecture in France
  • Portals and their sculpture: Reims, Amiens and Strasbourg
  • Architectural practice: drawings, geometry and statics
  • Canterbury Cathedral and St Thomas Becket’s cult
  • Westminster Abbey: Royal and Benedictine patronage
  • The decorated style of the West Country: Wells, Bristol and Exeter
  • The arrival of the perpendicular: Gloucester, Canterbury and Winchester
  • The end of the Gothic cathedral: Prague and Milan