The general perception of anything Gothic involves, more or less, dusty, dark corridors, a Grandfather clock ticking ominously in a mahogany-lined room lit with a single candle, a bat flapping in the belfry, thunder and lightning overpowering mist-covered forests and a pale-skinned, darkly dressed, tattooed homogeneous subculture. That ideology is due in part to literary creations of Bram Stoker & Anne Rice and the mourning fashions of Victoriana – but Gothic is much more than that.
As well as having roots all the way back by 1,500 years, it is in architecture where the Gothic style has its most prominent imagery.
Let’s go on a journey now to take a look at five great examples of Gothic design.
Starting off in a most northern part of Europe, the way being long and the wind being cold, we arrive in Edinburgh and, nestled amongst medieval and Georgian streets, is Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens. Erected in the 1840s (taking four years to complete), it celebrates the life and work of Sir Walter Scott, the prominent Scottish poet, playwright and historical novelist. The monument itself is the largest erected for any writer and sits on four corner pieces, the pointed arches on each side flowing up, with the keystones beneath a spire that features sculpted faces of Scott’s fictional characters from his novels. Other prominent figures are represented on the lower pilasters, including Robert Burns, Mary, Queen of Scots, James Hogg and (this writer’s favourite) Lord Byron.
As an example of relatively modern Gothic architecture, it is impressive and awe-inspiring and one can spend hours looking at its intricate carvings and designs.
Heading south, we arrive in York and the rise of the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter looms far above. More commonly known as York Minster, the cathedral is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. Most Gothic architecture is of this ilk: medieval in background (the style first occurring in the mid-12th century) and aspiring to Canterbury’s own cathedral. Construction of the Chapter House began in 1260 on the site where the original church was built and rebuilt since 627, at the instruction of the then-Archbishop de Gray with a gradual expansion until the entire cathedral was consecrated on completion in 1472. It’s incredible to think in our modern age that it took over two centuries for it be built but amazing still that it was all done so by hand. Set in a traditional cruciform plan, its vaulted ceilings, the Kings Screen, transepts and remarkable detail of medieval artistry, York Minster is astonishing in its creation and longevity.
Over the water next to France to visit Notre Dame de Paris and, like York, the cathedral we know of today was built on the site of a much older development. In 1163, the cornerstone was laid and it took another 180 years for completion of the remaining elements to occur. The western facade is the most recognised, with its two towers mounted above which allow both ingress and egress under three impressive arches. However, it’s the east side of Paris’ Lady that shows the Gothic influences: buttresses pan out like fingers, supporting the nave an d the spire it extends from. Here we see the circle design repeated, albeit smaller, from the western facade, a shape implied to symbolise eternity. The spire itself rises up, a beautiful example of ornate and in tricate stonework so prevalent of the Gothic style.
Look carefully and you’ll see you’re being watched: the famous gargoyles forever look out over the beauty that is Paris, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the world as the centuries pass.
Leaving France to head east, passing through Germany, Prague is our next destination and to the third cathedral on our whirlwind tour. Vitus was a young boy when he was venerated almost 2000 years ago, but his name lives on as the patron saint of the most eclectic mix of subjects: actors, rheumatica chorea, comedians, epilepsy, dogs, snake bites…and Serbia. His cathedral he shares with St Wenceslaus and the 1st century missionary Adalbert and is a prime example of Gothic architecture, with multiple spires and dizzyingly high vaulted nave and sanctuary.
St Vitus Cathedral is as equally as breathtaking as Notre Dame and its eastern facade is quite similar to its Parisienne cousin with multiple buttresses splaying out to the outer perimeters. Within, the most impressive portion of the cathedral is St Wenceslaus’ chapel. While not open to the public, simply because of its age, one can catch a glimpse of the good king himself, in the form of a wonderfully detailed Gothic statue above the 16th century altar. Whether one visits any such place either on a pilgrimage or simply as an inquisitive visitor, one can’t help but be in awe of the splendour.
surrounded by greenery and vestiges of ancient forests, it’s unlike any common perception of a castle with knights in armour and heraldry flapping in the breeze.
This is a castle of Gothic stature, where it rises tall and thin out of the land, dark and foreboding and looking as old as any cathedral we have previously visited on out trip. Yet it was built only comparatively recently, in the 1440s, with phases of extensions and reconstructions continuing right up until the 19th century. It was commissioned by John Hunyadi, a crowned leader of Wallachia (as Romania was known then) and a contemporary of Vlad Dracul, the father of the infamous Impaler (the part-inspiration for Stoker’s vampire).
While the site boasts as being one of the largest castles in Europe, it has been sadly neglected over the last few decades when once it was a sumptuous fortified home and landmark. Gothic both in nature and in the imagination, Corvin is, then, the perfect place to end our voyage.