A Chapter of Art
Gothic Architecture

When a baby is perfectly healthy and has had enough to eat and has slept all it wants, then it hums a little tune to show how happy it is. To grown-ups this humming means nothing. It sounds like "goo-zum, goo-zum, goo-o-o-o-o," but to the baby it is perfect music. It is his first contribution to art.

As soon as he (or she) gets a little older and is able to sit up, the period of mud-pie making begins. These mud-pies do not interest the outside world. There are too many million babies, making too many million mud-pies at the same time. But to the small infant they represent another expedition into the pleasant realm of art. The baby is now a sculptor.

At the age of three or four, when the hands begin to obey the brain, the child becomes a painter. His fond mother gives him a box of colored chalks and every loose bit of paper is rapidly covered with strange pothooks and scrawls which represent houses and horses and terrible naval battles.

Soon however this happiness of just "making things" comes to an end. School begins and the greater part of the day is filled up with work. The business of living, or rather the business of "making a living," becomes the most important event in the life of every boy and girl. There is little time left for "art" between learning the tables of multiplication and the past participles of the irregular French verbs. And unless the desire for making certain things for the mere pleasure of creating them without any hope of a practical return be very strong, the child grows into manhood and forgets that the first five years of his life were mainly devoted to art.

Nations are not different from children. As soon as the caveman had escaped the threatening dangers of the long and shivering ice-period, and had put his house in order, he began to make certain things which he thought beautiful, although they were of no earthly use to him in his fight with the wild animals of the jungle. He covered the walls of his grotto with pictures of the elephants and the deer which he hunted, and out of a piece of stone, he hacked the rough figures of those women he thought most attractive.

As soon as the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the Persians and all the other people of the east had founded their little countries along the Nile and the Euphrates, they began to build magnificent palaces for their kings, invented bright pieces of jewellery for their women and planted gardens which sang happy songs of color with their many bright flowers.

Our own ancestors, the wandering nomads from the distant Asiatic prairies, enjoying a free and easy existence as fighters and hunters, composed songs which celebrated the mighty deeds of their great leaders and invented a form of poetry which has survived until our own day. A thousand years later, when they had established themselves on the Greek mainland, and had built their "city-states," they expressed their joy (and their sorrows) in magnificent temples, in statues, in comedies and in tragedies, and in every conceivable form of art.

The Romans, like their Carthaginian rivals, were too busy administering other people and making money to have much love for "useless and unprofitable" adventures of the spirit. They conquered the world and built roads and bridges but they borrowed their art wholesale from the Greeks. They invented certain practical forms of architecture which answered the demands of their day and age. But their statues and their histories and their mosaics and their poems were mere Latin imitations of Greek originals. Without that vague and hard-to-define something which the world calls "personality," there can be no art and the Roman world distrusted that particular sort of personality. The Empire needed efficient soldiers and tradesmen. The business of writing poetry or making pictures was left to foreigners.

Then came the Dark Ages. The barbarian was the proverbial bull in the china-shop of western Europe. He had no use for what he did not understand. Speaking in terms of the year 1921, he liked the magazine covers of pretty ladies, but threw the Rembrandt etchings which he had inherited into the ash-can. Soon he came to learn better. Then he tried to undo the damage which he had created a few years before. But the ash-cans were gone and so were the pictures.

But by this time, his own art, which he had brought with him from the east, had developed into something very beautiful and he made up for his past neglect and indifference by the so-called "art of the Middle Ages" which as far as northern Europe is concerned was a product of the Germanic mind and had borrowed but little from the Greeks and the Latins and nothing at all from the older forms of art of Egypt and Assyria, not to speak of India and China, which simply did not exist, as far as the people of that time were concerned. Indeed, so little had the northern races been influenced by their southern neighbors that their own architectural products were completely misunderstood by the people of Italy and were treated by them with downright and unmitigated contempt.

You have all heard the word Gothic. You probably associate it with the picture of a lovely old cathedral, lifting its slender spires towards high heaven. But what does the word really mean?

It means something "uncouth" and "barbaric"—something which one might expect from an "uncivilized Goth," a rough backwoods-man who had no respect for the established rules of classical art and who built his "modern horrors" to please his own low tastes without a decent regard for the examples of the Forum and the Acropolis.

And yet for several centuries this form of Gothic architecture was the highest expression of the sincere feeling for art which inspired the whole northern continent. From a previous chapter, you will remember how the people of the late Middle Ages lived. Unless they were peasants and dwelt in villages, they were citizens of a "city" or "civitas," the old Latin name for a tribe. And indeed, behind their high walls and their deep moats, these good burghers were true tribesmen who shared the common dangers and enjoyed the common safety and prosperity which they derived from their system of mutual protection.

In the old Greek and Roman cities the marketplace, where the temple stood, had been the center of civic life. During the Middle Ages, the Church, the House of God, became such a center. We modern Protestant people, who go to our church only once a week, and then for a few hours only, hardly know what a medieval church meant to the community. Then, before you were a week old, you were taken to the Church to be baptised. As a child, you visited the Church to learn the holy stories of the Scriptures. Later on you became a member of the congregation, and if you were rich enough you built yourself a separate little chapel sacred to the memory of the Patron Saint of your own family. As for the sacred edifice, it was open at all hours of the day and many of the night. In a certain sense it resembled a modern club, dedicated to all the inhabitants of the town. In the church you very likely caught a first glimpse of the girl who was to become your bride at a great ceremony before the High Altar. And finally, when the end of the journey had come, you were buried beneath the stones of this familiar building, that all your children and their grandchildren might pass over your grave until the Day of Judgement.

Because the Church was not only the House of God but also the true center of all common life, the building had to be different from anything that had ever been constructed by the hands of man. The temples of the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans had been merely the shrine of a local divinity. As no sermons were preached before the images of Osiris or Zeus or Jupiter, it was not necessary that the interior offer space for a great multitude. All the religious processions of the old Mediterranean peoples took place in the open. But in the north, where the weather was usually bad, most functions were held under the roof of the church.

During many centuries the architects struggled with this problem of constructing a building that was large enough. The Roman tradition taught them how to build heavy stone walls with very small windows lest the walls lose their strength. On the top of this they then placed a heavy stone roof. But in the twelfth century, after the beginning of the Crusades, when the architects had seen the pointed arches of the Muslim builders, the western builders discovered a new style which gave them their first chance to make the sort of building which those days of an intense religious life demanded. And then they developed this strange style upon which the Italians bestowed the contemptuous name of "Gothic"or barbaric. They achieved their purpose by inventing a vaulted roof which was supported by "ribs." But such a roof, if it became too heavy, was apt to break the walls, just as a man of three hundred pounds sitting down upon a child's chair will force it to collapse. To overcome this difficulty, certain French architects then began to re-enforce the walls with "buttresses" which were merely heavy masses of stone against which the walls could lean while they supported the roof. And to assure the further safety of the roof they supported the ribs of the roof by so-called "flying buttresses," a very simple method of construction which you will understand at once when you look at our picture.

This new method of construction allowed the introduction of enormous windows. In the twelfth century, glass was still an expensive curiosity, and very few private buildings possessed glass windows. Even the castles of the nobles were without protection and this accounts for the eternal drafts and explains why people of that day wore furs in-doors as well as out.

Fortunately, the art of making colored glass, with which the ancient people of the Mediterranean had been familiar, had not been entirely lost. There was a revival of stained glass-making and soon the windows of the Gothic churches told the stories of the Holy Book in little bits of brilliantly colored window pane, which were caught in a long framework of lead.

Behold, therefore, the new and glorious house of God, filled with an eager multitude, "living" its religion as no people have ever done either before or since! Nothing is considered too good or too costly or too wondrous for this House of God and Home of Man. The sculptors, who since the destruction of the Roman Empire have been out of employment, haltingly return to their noble art. Portals and pillars and buttresses and cornices are all covered with carven images of Our Lord and the blessed Saints. The embroiderers too are set to work to make tapestries for the walls. The jewellers offer their highest art that the shrine of the altar may be worthy of complete adoration. Even the painter does his best. Poor man, he is greatly handicapped by lack of a suitable medium.

And thereby hangs a story.

The Romans of the early Christian period had covered the floors and the walls of their temples and houses with mosaics; pictures made of colored bits of glass. But this art had been exceedingly difficult. It gave the painter no chance to express all he wanted to say, as all children know who have ever tried to make figures out of colored blocks of wood. The art of mosaic painting therefore died out during the late Middle Ages except in Russia, where the Byzantine mosaic painters had found a refuge after the fall of Constantinople and continued to ornament the walls of the orthodox churches until the day of the Bolsheviki, when there was an end to the building of churches.

Of course, the medieval painter could mix his colors with the water of the wet plaster which was put upon the walls of the churches. This method of painting upon "fresh plaster" (which was generally called "fresco" or "fresh" painting) was very popular for many centuries. Today, it is as rare as the art of painting miniatures in manuscripts and among the hundreds of artists of our modern cities there is perhaps one who can handle this medium successfully. But during the Middle Ages there was no other way and the artists were "fresco" workers for lack of something better. The method however had certain great disadvantages. Very often the plaster came off the walls after only a few years, or dampness spoiled the pictures, just as dampness will spoil the pattern of our wall paper. People tried every imaginable expedient to get away from this plaster background. They tried to mix their colors with wine and vinegar and with honey and with the sticky white of egg, but none of these methods were satisfactory. For more than a thousand years these experiments continued. In painting pictures upon the parchment leaves of manuscripts the medieval artists were very successful. But when it came to covering large spaces of wood or stone with paint which would stick, they did not succeed very well.

At last, during the first half of the fifteenth century, the problem was solved in the southern Netherlands by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The famous Flemish brothers mixed their paint with specially prepared oils and this allowed them to use wood and canvas or stone or anything else as a background for their pictures.

But by this time the religious ardour of the early Middle Ages was a thing of the past. The rich burghers of the cities were succeeding the bishops as patrons of the arts. And as art invariably follows the full dinner-pail, the artists now began to work for these worldly employers and painted pictures for kings, for grand-dukes and for rich bankers. Within a very short time, the new method of painting with oil spread through Europe and in every country there developed a school of special painting which showed the characteristic tastes of the people for whom these portraits and landscapes were made.

In Spain, for example, Velasquez painted court dwarfs and the weavers of the royal tapestry factories, and all sorts of persons and subjects connected with the king and his court. But in Holland, Rembrandt and Frans Hals and Vermeer painted the barnyard of the merchant's house, and they painted his rather dowdy wife and his healthy but bumptious children and the ships which had brought him his wealth. In Italy, on the other hand, where the Pope remained the largest patron of the arts, Michelangelo and Correggio continued to paint Madonnas and Saints, while in England, where the aristocracy was very rich and powerful and in France where the kings had become uppermost in the state, the artists painted distinguished gentlemen who were members of the government, and very lovely ladies who were friends of His Majesty.

The great change in painting, which came about with the neglect of the old church and the rise of a new class in society, was reflected in all other forms of art. The invention of printing had made it possible for authors to win fame and reputation by writing books for the multitudes. In this way arose the profession of the novelist and the illustrator. But the people who had money enough to buy the new books were not the sort who liked to sit at home of nights, looking at the ceiling or just sitting. They wanted to be amused. The few minstrels of the Middle Ages were not sufficient to cover the demand for entertainment. For the first time since the early Greek city-states of two thousand years before, the professional playwright had a chance to ply his trade. The Middle Ages had known the theater merely as part of certain church celebrations. The tragedies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had told the story of the suffering of our Lord. But during the sixteenth century the worldly theater made its reappearance. It is true that, at first, the position of the professional playwright and actor was not a very high one. William Shakespeare was regarded as a sort of circus-fellow who amused his neighbors with his tragedies and comedies. But when he died in the year 1616 he had begun to enjoy the respect of his neighbors and actors were no longer subjects of police supervision.

William's contemporary, Lope de Vega, the incredible Spaniard who wrote no less than 1800 worldly and 400 religious plays, was a person of rank who received the papal approval upon his work. A century later, Molière, the Frenchman, was deemed worthy of the companionship of none less than King Louis XIV.

Since then, the theater has enjoyed an ever increasing affection on the part of the people. Today a "theater" is part of every well-regulated city, and television and movies have penetrated to the tiniest of our prairie hamlets.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


Children are natural artists. They love to sing and paint and make sculptures in the mud and put on little plays for their parents. Many times, as they get older, academic studies and work replaces this love of art. Nations are similar in this respect. At some times, such as the Dark Ages, many are too busy working and struggling to survive to create art. At other times, such as the Renaissance, there is a resurgence of popularity of painting, sculpture, music, theater, and literature. People are inspired to create great works of art by religion and a love of God, by romantic or familial love, by poverty, by injustice, by the absurd, by the universe, and by everyday life.


Gothic: Of or relating to the architectural style favored in western Europe in the 12th to 16th centuries.
Buttress: A brick or stone structure built against another structure to support it.
Flying Buttress: A buttress that stands apart from the structure that it supports, and is connected to it by an arch (flyer).
Stained Glass: Glass that has been colored, either by painting or by fusing pigments into its structure.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 52 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

How are children natural artists?
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Answer 1

Children naturally love to draw, sing, paint, and make sculptures out of mud or other items.
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Question 2

Why do many people stop being artists as they grow up?
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Answer 2

People often become too busy and wrapped up with school and work to create works of art.
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Question 3

What inspires people to create art?
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Answer 3

Inspirations include God, love, beauty, and hardship.
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Question 4

Imagine you are about the create a vast painting about something that inspires you. What would you paint?
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Answer 4

Answers vary.
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  1. How are children natural artists? Children naturally love to draw, sing, paint, and make sculptures out of mud or other items.
  2. Why do many people stop being artists as they grow up? People often become too busy and wrapped up with school and work to create works of art.
  3. What inspires people to create art? Inspirations include God, love, beauty, and hardship.
  4. Imagine you are about the create a vast painting about something that inspires you. What would you paint? Answers vary.