Above: Burg Frankenstein, overlooking the city of Darmstadt, Germany, may have helped inspire Mary Shelley with its legend of an eccentric alchemist's experiments to raise the dead.
A Gothic novel tells the story of a place just as much as it does the people in it. The characteristic gloominess of Gothic castles, mansions, and churches provides an expressive stage for drama to unfold, the isolated and eerie buildings acting as the most important supporting character in the novel.
The history of Gothic as a style is storied and complex, a narrative of how architecture affects art and how art affects architecture. The style began as a technological marvel in the Middle Ages, the epitome of stone construction and decoration, but was later shunned and abandoned in the Renaissance. The isolated, dilapidated, and haunting ruins of abandoned structures inspired Gothic stories of isolation, dilapidation, and the supernatural. Those dark romances then started a Gothic Revival in architecture, producing buildings to echo the eerie grandeur of the stories that came before and the ruins that came before them.
Though its definition has mutated over the centuries, the Gothic style has always pursued the sublime. It seeks to impart viewers with uncontrollable emotions, to humble them with stories of something beyond humanity, to awe and inspire with gargantuan designs and intricate detail. In seeking to move its audience as powerfully and indelibly as possible, Gothic appeals to the most powerful and simple of human emotions; fear.
All aspects of Gothic architecture and art can be traced back to this central goal, from the cavernous, skeletal halls of buildings to the unnerving blending of reality and fantasy in novels. While perhaps not conventionally beautiful, the Gothic style possesses an undeniable attraction that has endured for centuries.
Fear, more than any other emotion, begs to be conquered, whether it is in the dusty halls of a gothic cathedral or the brooding pages of a gothic novel. We keep coming back to scary stories for the catharsis of conquering a threat. Gothic pieces make us appreciate life by showing us the complete opposite. Horror allows us to think critically about what is beautiful, what is meaningful, and what is terrible.
Gothic buildings and Gothic novels are analogous with one another, and studying one produces innumerable revelations about the other. The inextricable link between architecture and art can be seen throughout world history, but nowhere is it stronger than with the Gothic style. Almost a millennium after its inception, the spirit of Gothic is still alive in the buildings and art around us.
The next time you are out walking, look a little more carefully at the buildings around you. The next time you are admiring art, think a little more critically about its meaning. Dig a little deeper in the world around you, and you may just find fragments of stories centuries old, stories that have waited their entire life for just the right person to unearth them and bring them back to life.
The body of work covering Gothic architecture is as vast as it is varied. With numerous regional variants, revivals, and associated paintings, books, sculptures, and gardens, the study of the Gothic style can carry a scholar through every library on campus and beyond. The following is a list of books held in the architecture library for those wanting to learn more than what this guide alone could cover. The architecture library is open from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from Monday through Thursday every week.
We encourage anyone who is interested to come and explore our numerous volumes on architecture, planning, preservation, and real estate as well as our extensive special collections room. For more information on the Architecture Library's hours, spaces, and resources, please visit our website at www.lib.umd.edu/architecture.