Gothic among architectural styles at mission
by By Beth Ellis, Goliad State Park Ranger II
Aug 06, 2013 | 919 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The simple Gothic layout of the church at Espiritu Santo is representative of a classic Franciscan monastic-style church.
The simple Gothic layout of the church at Espiritu Santo is representative of a classic Franciscan monastic-style church.
Editor’s note: This is the third part of a series of stories by Goliad State Park’s Beth Ellis on the architectural features of Mission Espiritu Santo.


During the years that Spain prospered under the rule of the Muslim Moors, other influences were affecting the rest of the European continent.

By about 1100 A.D., Gothic architecture became symbolic of Christian Europe. After the Reconquest of Spain by Christian forces in 1492, Gothic elements were incorporated into Spanish architecture.

Gothic Characteristics

Ethereal towers and spires were hallmarks of Gothic religious architecture, with an emphasis on verticality as representative of reaching toward Heaven. Light, delicacy of form, exaggerated height, and airy spaciousness reflected concepts associated with the Divine. Ornamental windows began to be placed above the main façade of the church.

Rooflines and gable ends were ornamented by finials or pinnacles, arches were used to support ceilings and create window openings, and buttresses were used to support the weight of roof vaults. Gothic fortresses incorporated many of these elements, but due to their military role they retained their massive walls, battlements, limited window exposure, outer curtain walls, and many other protective features.

Both religious houses and castles included enclosed spaces open to the sky. Religious cloisters containing plantings and water features were surrounded by arched walkways, and were used as serene retreats in the same way that the Romans and the Moors used their inner gardens. Castle dwellers used the open areas enclosed by curtain walls for a variety of daily activities.

Gothic fortresses

Many Spanish Colonial frontier missions (including Espiritu Santo) incorporated elements from Gothic fortifications.

Sometimes called Fortress Monasteries, these institutions required functional safety before ornamentation. Tall protective curtain walls with limited entry points provided protection in case of attack. The buildings featured tall, solid walls several feet in thickness. Windows were usually high and covered with grillwork to protect the people within. Walls and roof edges could be embattled with merlons and crenels, which provided useful protection in the event of an attack.

The straight-forward stone and mortar construction methods used to build Gothic fortifications provided excellent hands-on experience for New World populations unfamiliar with European building techniques. Novice builders also benefited from the fact that Spanish Colonial architects preferred to use ratios during the planning and construction process. For example, rooms of a certain length were automatically assigned a corresponding width, and walls of a particular height were required to be of a specific thickness.

Mission’s Gothic influence

Aside from the box-like buildings, other Gothic influences at Mission Espiritu Santo can be noted in the cupola atop the bell tower dome, the finials on the upper corners of the church and above the doorway entablature, the stepped buttresses lining the outside of the chapel walls, and the barrel vault in the chapel.

The simple Gothic layout of the church at Espiritu Santo is representative of a classic Franciscan monastic style church. It has no aisle, no transept and no flanking chapels and the choir loft is located above the entrance. The apse is polygonal, and contains the altar screen. The simple barrel vault consists of four bays divided by three transverse arches.

The arches are mirrored by exterior stepped buttresses, which prevent the walls from sagging outwards under the weight of the barrel vault. An ornamental window above the choir loft admits light and air into the interior of the chapel, as do high clerestory windows located along the north and south walls of the nave.

The final installment in this series will address architectural development after the Spanish Conquest of the New World.
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