What is a Pointed Arch? - Definition & Architecture

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

While the Roman arch is pretty popular in Western architecture, it's not the only design we use. In this lesson, we'll check out the pointed arch and see what makes it unique.

Pointed Arch

The Romans are often credited as being the first civilization to truly appreciate the potential of the arch. That's true, as long as you're only talking about one kind of arch. When most people think of an arch, they picture the semi-circular versions we find all over Rome; but that's not the only kind of arch. Other cultures, most notably Islamic ones, relied on a pointed arch, which forms an archway where the peak concludes with a sharp point, exactly as the name implies. It's a different kind of arch, with a history all its own.

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Purpose & Use

The purpose of an arch is to distribute the weight of a ceiling or superstructure outwards, rather than straight down. This lets builders rely on fewer supports like columns or walls, and allows for more spacious interiors. A single arch can be used for a window or wall, while an elongated arch can form an entire hallway, called a vault.

A semicircular arch is great for distributing weight. Its curved top and absence of a point means that the weight is distributed evenly without too much stress being placed on a single point. So, why change it? A pointed arch places more stress on the very tip of the arch, where the point is, which actually concentrates, rather than evenly distributes, the pressure. As a result, pointed arches can exceed the height of the average Roman arch, allowing for much taller buildings and therefore more interior space. This system also places less stress on the walls, which can be made thinner (Roman walls were pretty thick) and lighter, which again allows for even greater height.

However, while most semicircular arches are basically self-supporting, tall pointed arches generally require extra reinforcement. The most common way to do this is with flying buttresses, large supports on the exterior of a building. If you've ever seen the skeleton-like ''ribs'' on the sides of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, a building that makes significant use of pointed arches, then you've seen perfect examples of flying buttresses.


The pointed arch was not popular in Greece or Rome, so where did this design come from? Some historians think the pointed arch originated in India, but it really made its debut in the Middle East and West Asia. The pointed arch as we know it is a product of Islamic architecture. At the same time that medieval European engineers were designing heavy, stuffy buildings with low ceilings and thick walls, Islamic architecture was becoming taller and lighter. If the Romans were the first to truly appreciate the semi-circular arch, then medieval Muslims were the undisputed masters of the pointed arch.

Pointed arches are everywhere in Islamic architecture

Eventually, this design made its way into Europe. Some historians have found evidence of it in Sicily, but its strongest presence was most likely in Spain. Islamic armies from North Africa invaded Spain in the 8th century and held onto most of the country for almost 800 years. Islamic architecture - including the pointed arch - took root in Islamic Spain.

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