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Trefoil in Architecture: Definition & Design

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

Trefoils have been used as symbols and imagery for thousands of years. In this lesson, learn about the origins of the trefoil and its role in architecture.

Origin and Similar Symbols

What do the Mercedes-Benz Museum, the Adidas logo and Christian churches have in common? They all have used the imagery of a trefoil.

So what is a trefoil? A trefoil is commonly thought of as a symbol of three intersecting circles, such as the bio-hazard symbol. The trefoil comes from the Latin trifolium, meaning 'three-leaved plant'. It was adopted as ornamentation to churches during the Middle Ages. The symbolism of three fits with Christian imagery associated with the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Foils come in many shapes and sizes; also popular and widely used in architecture is the Quatrefoil, which has 4 leaves.

Trefoil
Trefoil

Triconchos

The Triconchos used the trefoil as a plan in early Christian churches. The cruciform cross plan, which most churches follow, came later. One can imagine elongating the foils of the triconchos to create the Transepts, Alter, and Nave of the traditional cruciform church.

Triconchos
Triconchos

Gothic Architecture

Since the 1200s, the most widely used form of the trefoil has been found in Gothic tracery. Tracery is a form of ornamentation around a window or door frame that is filled with carved interlacing bands. This exquisite craftsmanship done in stone creates a delicate balance of stone and stained glass.

Tracery and the trefoil can be seen on both the Triforium and Clerestory windows in Gothic churches. These windows allowed light to pour into the nave of the cathedrals. The Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral is perhaps the finest example of French Gothic architecture, and has many examples of trefoils in its tracery.

Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral
Notre Dame De Reims

Trefoil Arch

The Trefoil Arch took the imagery of the trefoil and adapted it to an arch. Many arches and portals used these lobes as ornamentation of Gothic structures. The trefoil arch of New York's Central Park, completed in 1862, is an excellent example of the trefoil being applied to a bridge. However, the arch of this bridge is not an efficient form, as the lobes disrupt the structural continuity of the arch and are purely ornamental.

Trefoil Arch in Central Park
Trefoil Arch Bridge

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