Flying Buttress: Definition & Architecture

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Flying…
  • 0:50 Purpose of a Flying Buttress
  • 2:28 Underneath the Flying Buttress
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Along with ribbed vault and stained glass, nothing says Gothic architecture quite like the flying buttress. Find out more about them and how some of most famous sculptures in Gothic architectural history owe their existence in no small part to them.

Definition of a Flying Buttress

Flying buttresses get their name because they buttress, or support from the side, a building while having a part of the actual buttress open to the ground, hence the term 'flying.' Imagine trying to press up against a wall to prevent its collapse but leaving enough room to have a small child walk under your arms, and you have created a flying buttress.

In the Middle Ages, as the desire to push certain buildings, especially cathedrals, ever taller, a way needed to be found to support the extra weight. The weight of the ceilings was considerable, no matter how light they could be made through the use of ribbed vaults, vaults that used ribs of stone to support most of their weight. After all, these buildings were constructed almost completely out of stone. Additionally, the taller the wall, the more it acted like a large sail, catching more of the force of the wind. As such, buttresses became necessary.

Purpose of a Flying Buttress

In earlier churches, normal buttresses would have sufficed. However, as the cathedrals grew in height, these buttresses themselves had to be made lighter in order to be able to support more of the primary building's load and less of its own. As such, the more stone that could be taken out of supporting the buttress, the more weight each buttress could support.

This was also a special advantage due to the architectural styles of the day. One of the selling points of Gothic cathedrals over their Romanesque competitors was the fact that these buildings could allow in an incredible amount of light. This amount of light was impossible without the combination of relatively thin walls and tall stained-glass windows, which ensured that the light that shone through, was invocative of heaven itself. Windows are unable to support any real weight on their own, and while the arches that these windows were often mounted in could support some weight, more needed to be shifted to the sides. As a result, flying buttresses, which still permitted an enormous amount of light to enter the windows due to their unobtrusive nature became the element of choice for building ever-taller cathedrals.

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