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Gothic Architecture

Washington National Cathedral may be one of the last great churches to use the labor-intensive building techniques of the Gothic style of architecture. Gothic architecture originated in twelfth-century Europe and incorporated dramatic innovations in building structure, technique, and materials. Light and space became essential elements of the interior design. The key element of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch, which permitted the building of higher walls and wider aisles.

Not only was the Cathedral built in the Gothic style, but it also was engineered and constructed in techniques keeping with the style. Using only solid masonry, no steel reinforces any part of the building, and nothing was mass-produced. The stability of the architecture is maintained by the force of gravity: the weight of the building, and the various elements of the building—buttresses, pinnacles, arches, vaulting—push against each other to keep the building intact and upright.

Interior Vaulting

A major architectural feature was the vaulted ceiling, which transmitted the weight of the roof and walls across delicate ribs and down the heavy trunks of stone piers. The Cathedral displays a range of vault styles, from simple barrel and groin vaults in the crypt to elaborate fan vaulting in Children’s Chapel. Such elements enabled Gothic cathedrals to be constructed to greater heights than ever before, with thinner walls and tall stained glass windows.

Flying Buttresses

The flying buttress is strongly associated with Gothic church architecture. The buttresses resist the force pushing a wall outward by redirecting it to the ground, resisting the outward push of the interior arches and vaulted ceiling. Flying buttresses “fly” because the buttress is not in contact with the wall all the way to the ground; the lateral forces are transmitted across an intervening space. Flying buttresses have two key parts: a massive vertical masonry block on the outside of the building and an arch bridging the gap between that buttress and the wall.


A pinnacle is an architectural ornament originally forming the cap or crown of a buttress or small turret, but afterward used on parapets at the corners of towers and in many other situations. The pinnacle looks like a small spire. In addition to adding to the loftiness and verticality of the structure, the pinnacles are very heavy and enable the flying buttresses to counteract the weight of the vaults and roof. By adding compressive stress (a result of the pinnacle weight), the building’s load is shifted downward rather than sideways.

Crockets and Finials

Finials are the topmost portion of a pinnacle, often sculpted as a leaf-like ornament with an upright stem and a cluster of crockets. Crockets are projected pieces of carved stone that decorate the sloping ridges of pinnacles. The carved shapes of these elements help move rainwater down while keeping the water from the roof or walls.

Ornamental Carvings

Exterior ornamental carvings, including grotesques such as Darth Vader, gargoyles, and the angel on the cover of this issue, also help keep water off the vertical surfaces of the walls. Gargoyles are actually overflow rain gutters, with pipes running through their bodies and out their mouths. In the case of grotesque carvings, the rain runs along a projecting part—such as a nose or wing—and drips off and away from the wall.