At coffee yesterday morning our Director, chatting with one of our students, Francesca, asked me if I knew a building in Paris that was similar in form to King’s College Chapel, which Francesca had visited for the first time over the weekend. It seems Francesca was thinking of the Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel Louis IX built to house his passion relics on the Île de la Cité.
It is probably churlish of me to remark now that the Sainte-Chapelle and King’s College Chapel are very different orders of Gothic – separated in fact by more than two hundred years. The Sainte-Chapelle is in the so-called Rayonnant style, typical of French Gothic between roughly 1240 and 1350 (the Sainte-Chapelle itself dates from between 1239 and 1248), while King’s College Chapel, with its extraordinary fan vault, dates from between 1448 and 1515 and is a matchless example of Late Perpendicular.
We are desensitised to the difference, of course – a Gothic building is pretty much a Gothic building, and since the examples of various styles are such singular edifices (for the most part, cathedrals and major chapels), the suggested divisions are largely arbitrary: the descriptions of Rayonnant and Flamboyant, for example, or Perpendicular and Decorated, are derived from nineteenth century attempts to differentiate window tracery. Gothic evolved slowly over centuries, as did the buildings that exemplify it, each one a style or compendium of styles unto itself.
You could do worse than start an inventory of Gothic buildings in Cambridge, however, especially if you are will to take in Ely Cathedral and its Lady Chapel (mid-fourteenth century Decorated, as it happens).