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The term "Gothic architecture" originated in the 16th century and was originally very negative, suggesting something barbaric.

Giorgio Vasari used the term "barbarous German style" in his 1550 Lives of the Artists to describe what is now considered the Gothic style, and in the introduction to the Lives he attributed various architectural features to "the Goths" whom he held responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style.

The Capetian Kings and their bishops wished to build new cathedrals as monuments of their power, wealth, and religious faith.

The church which served as the primary model for the style was the Abbey of St-Denis, which underwent reconstruction by the Abbot Suger, first in the choir and then the facade (1140–44), Suger was a close ally and biographer of the French King, Louis VII, who was a fervent Catholic and builder, and the founder of the University of Paris.

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The first important example is generally considered to be the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 11.

Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass, and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior.

Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners.

Suger remodeled the ambulatory of the Abbey, removed the enclosures that separated the chapels, and replaced the existing structure with imposing pillars and rib vaults.

This created higher and wider bays, into which he installed larger windows, which filled the end of the church with light.

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