creation of gothic architecture


  • John James
  • University of New South Wales
  • Chris Henige
  • University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Mission and Methodology

About This Project


The Creation of Gothic Architecture (COGA) Project explores the emergence of the Gothic style through analysis of nearly 1600 buildings in the greater Paris Basin constructed all or in part between 1060 and 1250. From obvious stylistic changes from one part of a building to another, to subtle changes in detailing, it is the anomalies that point to changes in design direction, and most likely, changes in master mason. The on-site survey of these buildings yields a variety of resources, from handwritten notes to panoramic photographs. Analyzing these we can generate a great variety of visual products that express the diversity of the development of Gothic architecture in countless ways. Users are invited and encouraged to use these resources to draw their own conclusions about whatever interests them. These are the core of the Creation of Gothic Architecture Project.


All access to the data begins with a search, made possible through an advanced search filtering system. Users can choose any combination of dates, priority, department, region and affiliation. Results can be viewed in many different ways, including sortable lists, thumbnails, timelines and maps. These powerful search features provide innumerable possibilities for research.

Each building has a "synopsis", which includes basic geographical and historical information. Navigation buttons allow the user to see all of the different resources available for that building. Below that, a timeline shows when construction was occurring, integrated with a bar graph that shows the relative amount of expenditure during each decade. Then follows a list of phases, again by decade, where the work is located within the building.

The synopsis is a preliminary snapshot of the construction history of the building, and more detailed analysis will refine both the construction history and its timeline. You can start looking at buildings by clicking on the "Search for Buildings" button on the left, and throughout the site.

Using the information provided in the synopses, the map interface allows us to show the geographical relationships among buildings. Colors represent various regions whose boundaries are determined by political histories, commonalities in details and contemporaneity of construction. Maps can be viewed by region or by decade of construction. As the data is analyzed and integrated into the database, opportunities for additional modes of presentation reveal themselves. Buildings might be mapped by other factors such as affiliation, cost, and individual details.

Costing analyses show the relative expenditure of each phase of construction using quantity surveying techniques and based on an arbitrary costing unit. Six units would pay for one small vaulted bay in an aisle about 3 metres square, or a small first-floor gallery. Such a bay would consist of an external wall with a small window, half of two columns about 3 meters tall, the floor and footings under them and the vault and roof overhead.

The costing analyses provide a clear visual presentation of building activity over time. Buildings within regions can be compared, and cumulative expenditures for each region can be viewed and compared using similar costing timelines.

Panoramic imagery allows us to look around the interior of buildings as if we were actually there. No other technology provides a similar experience of the feeling of space within a building. The synopses for buildings which were surveyed in 2014 and 2015 provide access to numerous panoramas within each building, allowing the user to wander around almost every nook and corner, seeing the details in context. Gross stylistic differences between various parts of buildings are evident, and even the more subtle building joints are often discernible.

The site surveys of each building also included systematic photographic documentation of exterior elevations and interior details. These were meant as mnemonic devices for those doing the surveys, and as documentary devices for those charged with making 3-D models of the buildings. They are provided to the user as archival materials, and allow the user to locate the breaks in construction for themselves. For practical reasons, these are not systematically indexed in any way, but are provided as additional resources. We hope to be able to index the photos to locations in the buildings in the future.

The documentation of building activity in the medieval period is frustratingly spotty. Where we have identified primary source material relevant to the construction history of any building, we have provided that documentation with the original Latin, a translation, and identification of the source. The elements and details in buildings with documented dates may be compared with those in undocumented buildings and so allow us to calibrate the timeline of construction activity throughout the Paris Basin.

During numerous visits to each of the sites over many years, John James has accrued an extensive archive of notes, drawings, and documentary photographs. These contain sketches, notations, observations, preliminary building sequences and other invaluable information. A primary goal of the COGA project is to take these archival materials and digitize them, both by translating the information they store into digital form in the database, as well as scanning them for the reference of interested users. In this way, we hope to ensure the lasting utility and value of these rare resources.

It is our goal to allow users to experience the space of these medieval buildings by creating navigable 3-D models of each building. These will convey information about building joints and construction campaigns in clear, visual form. Users will also be able to click on elements within the building to view inventories of the individual details used in that campaign of construction and search on combinations of elements, profiles and carving to assemble dossiers that may be used to distinguish individual masons.

The models also provide the ideal opportunity to generate plans, elevations, and sections of each building.

Another product of the site surveys has been the documentation of sculpted capitals. Over many years John James has studied these capitals and has used their evolution as the basis for establishing a firmer chronology for medieval building. These have been published in his five-volume work, The Ark of God, and when available are indicated in the navigation tabs with a green tab labeled "Capitals".

We determined that including these in this resource provides both additional confirmation for judgments about dating, as well as a means to more effectively visualize the evolution of capitals, and to track their distribution across time and space.

To see a complete list of the portals we have documented to date, click on the "Search for Portals" button at the bottom of the panel on the left.