The Development of Vaulting in Architecture

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  • 0:38 The Arch
  • 1:13 From Arch to Vault
  • 2:02 The Ribbed Vault
  • 2:53 Gothic Arches & Vaults
  • 3:45 The Fan Vault
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

The vault is a major element of medieval architecture. It was often used to support the great weight of large buildings like churches. Learn more about how the vault evolved and contributed to medieval engineering.

Development of the Vault

Initially in history, as buildings became increasingly large, their ceilings were supported by columns. As you can see in this illustration of an ancient Egyptian temple, the room is dominated by support columns, creating a cluttered appearance.

Egyptian temple
Sketch of Egyptian temple

However, there was a strong desire to create spaces that were not only large, but also open. In order to do this, new technology needed to be invented. This encouraged the use of curved surfaces to help redirect the weight of building materials. This concept is the basis of a vault.

In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at the development of vaulting in medieval architecture.

The Arch

The development of vaulting in architecture began with the barrel vault, which became widely used in Europe for large structures such as cathedrals. The basis of the barrel vault is the arch. Arches were first widely used in ancient Rome, then re-adopted around the 11th century as part of the Romanesque style. The Romanesque arch is a semi-circular construction that can hold much more weight than a horizontal beam. Instead of the weight bearing straight down, the arch directs the weight to the piers, the vertical elements of the arch.

From Arch to Vault

A barrel vault is created by extending the arch into a three-dimensional space, creating a curved ceiling held up by series of piers. Also, note the additional arches that run between the piers, providing even more support for the structure.

A barrel vault requires additional arches for support
Example of barrel vault

The drawback of vaults based on the Romanesque arch is that forces are directed both downward into the piers (which is the goal) and also outwards, putting great pressure on the walls. The solution is a buttress, or outer support the helps support the wall.

Unfortunately, buttresses can give the outside of the building a very heavy look, and may limit the number and size of windows installed in the wall. Here is the church of Saint Etienne in France, a Romanesque church supported by heavy buttresses. Note the small size and number of windows.

Saint Etienne Church in France
Saint Etienne Church

The Ribbed Vault

Tall buildings with larger and more numerous windows were a major goal of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The use of a barrel vault was the first impressive step, but engineers wanted to continue to grow their creations.

The next invention was the rib vault, which is created by crisscrossing arches. The result is both decorative and functional, forcing more of the weight downward onto the piers with less outward thrust. This example is a quadripartite ribbed vault. 'Quad' means four. Each intersection involves two arches, producing four sections radiating from the central point.

Example of quadrapartite ribbed vault

A ribbed vault created by three intersecting arches is known as a sexpartite vault. 'Sex' in this context means six and a sexpartite vault involves six sections radiating from the central point.

Gothic Arches and Vaults

In the 12th century, the round, Romanesque arch started to be replaced by a pointed arch, known as the Gothic arch. The Gothic arch much more efficiently channels downward forces into the piers, allowing buildings to grow increasingly taller. The largest Gothic arches were over 120 feet in height.

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