Tracery in Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood in a church and marveled at a beautiful stained glass window? Was it made of many smaller windows? What helps hold them together? In this lesson, learn about tracery in Gothic architecture.

Gothic Architecture and Stained Glass Windows

If you've ever stood inside an old cathedral, you know how beautiful the massive stained glass windows can be. Well, the creation of such windows dates back to medieval times.

Some of Europe's most beautiful buildings were created during the Gothic period. Gothic refers to an architectural style during the 12th-16th centuries that emphasized vertical space. It used elements such as pointed arches and foils, which are shapes with several lobes. Two types of foils include the trefoil, with three lobes, and the quatrefoil, with four. Think of these as very stubby clovers.

Pointed arches and foils were often used in windows, and during the Gothic period, windows gradually became larger. Inside the windows, tracery was often used. In Gothic architecture, tracery in windows refers to the stone bars, ribs, or other supports between sections of glass that have decorative as well as utilitarian qualities. Tracery, which is often made of stone, gives the impression of a frame or outline and forms a pattern of interlacing or interconnected lines. In large circular windows, tracery sometimes forms shapes called petals.

How Tracery Developed

European tracery may have developed in a basic form in the Byzantine architecture of late antiquity, but it found widespread use in the Gothic style of the early 12th century. As Gothic architecture developed through several phases, tracery became more complex, conveying a sense of lightness even though it was made of stone.

One of the earliest forms of tracery was plate tracery, so called because it looked like a large plate pierced with openings. Simple tracery elements were used in areas of Gothic windows called the tympanum, the section of wall between the tops of a series of smaller arches and a larger arch above them covering the whole group. By using tracery, builders could increase the number of windows in sections of a structure.

In early Gothic buildings, the tracery was simple and geometric. By the end of the 13th century, it had become more freeform, employing curving lines and interlocking shapes. Some outstanding examples of Gothic tracery can be seen in rose windows, large circular windows that are also called wheel windows. Here's a rose window from Chartres Cathedral in Paris (the window dates to circa 1230) and a drawing of one from Lincoln Cathedral in England (the latter dates to ca. 1225). Each includes wonderful examples of tracery.

Example of a rose window with tracery in Chartres Cathedral. Note that it also has a row of stained glass windows separated by simple bars of tracery below it
window in Chartres Cathedral

Drawing with an external view of the tracery in a rose window in Lincoln Cathedral. Notice also the four trefoils in this window
tracery from Lincoln Cathedral

Another tracery style, the perpendicular style, developed in England in the 14th century. Rather than rounded and curving forms, it emphasized verticality. A good example of perpendicular tracery can be seen in this window from King's College Chapel in Cambridge.

Example of perpendicular tracery from Kings College Chapel. Notice how the tracery emphasizes the vertical thrust of the windows
perpendicular tracery from Kings College Chapel

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