The characteristic architectural elements of the Gothic Cathedral are the rib vault, pointed arch, flying buttress, and large windows and decorative features.
The rib vault represents the greatest innovation of Gothic architecture. As the medieval masons became increasingly skilled in their mastery of stone, they found a solution to the problem of providing support to the massive ceiling vaults which covered wide spaces. Earlier, this necessity led to the building of heavy, semi-circular, barrel and groin vaults, which required extremely thick walls as support. This was now replaced by the rib vault, consisting of a series of intersecting, raised stone ribs, which supported a vaulted ceiling. The ceiling now comprised of thin panels, which could be supported by widely spaced columns and piers, instead of thick walls. The innovation of the rib vault gave the Gothic Cathedral a “new architectural grammar” (Chapuis, Heilbrunn Timeline). The rib vault led to thinner walls and large windows, transforming the architecture of the traditional cathedral.
A natural progression of the ribbed vault was the pointed arch and the flying buttress. As the pressure exerted by the vault was now concentrated at the ribs, it could be deflected downward by pointed arches. These pointed arches replaced the earlier round arches. The flexibility of the pointed arch allowed its dimensions to be adjusted in order to accommodate a large variety of openings. Next, the thrust of the roof was transferred to the outer walls by an attached outer buttress, and then to a detached pier, through a half-arch called the flying buttress. This facilitated the Gothic Cathedrals’ impression of “soaring verticality” through extremely thin, tall walls (Martindale).
The Gothic Cathedrals’ structural refinements permitted various decorative features, chiefly large windows, fitted with stained glass. The stained glass represented scenes from the Bible and