Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
Medieval Europeans soon took to the design and began using it to make their own castles and cathedrals taller and more spacious an airy. This led to an architectural revolution known as the Gothic era, which lasted from the 12th to the 16th centuries. In European history, the pointed arch is almost exclusively identified with Gothic architecture - it was that integral to it. Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame were tall and spacious, defined by the extraordinary amount of light that permeated through massive stained-glass windows contained within pointed arches. This towering architecture was meant to symbolize humanity reaching toward God, and pointed arches made it possible.
The Italian Renaissance that followed the Gothic era saw a revival of all things Greek and Roman; as a result, the Islamic pointed arch - now considered vulgar and ugly - was abandoned. It would make a comeback in the neo-Gothic style of the 19th century, however, as France and England sought to celebrate their medieval heritage through architecture.
The pointed arch was one of the most important features of neo-Gothic architecture, used solely for aesthetic purposes instead of structural support, while giving modern structures a dramatic and medieval appeal. This style caught on in the United States, as well. In fact, the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic is so named because the house in the background is of American neo-Gothic design. How do we know? Check out that window - it's a pointed arch.
A pointed arch is an archway with curved sides that meet at a point, rather than a smooth semi-circular curve. This design was first used in medieval Islamic architecture, where engineers realized it concentrated the stress of the building and allowed for taller arches, thinner walls, and much more interior space. The trade-off was that walls featuring pointed arches generally required using flying buttresses, or exterior supports. The pointed arch made its way to Europe and became a definitive feature of Gothic era architecture of the 12th to the 16th centuries. While it disappeared in the Renaissance, it re-emerged as one of the most important aesthetic details of neo-Gothic style in the 19th century. The pointed arch is an architectural feature that really gets to the point.
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