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Gothic rib vault ceiling of the Saint-Séverin church in Paris

As we move closer to Halloween, it is time to present some more beautiful Gothic imagery…but there is a problem. Ferrebeekeeper has already featured posts about Gothic clocks, gates, gazebos, houses, gingerbread houses, beds, mirrors, Christmas trees, literature, fonts and, uh Goths. What is left?

The great Gothic churches and cathedrals of yesteryear were built in an age before elaborate & inexpensive steel work. While it is easy to understand how stone columns, tall stone arches, and flying buttresses could be used to give height to the great cathedrals of the middle ages, what is harder to grasp is how these huge halls had ceilings! Timber has certain limits of size & strength. Stone, though strong, is heavy! How did the great architects of medieval Europe surmount these limitations so that they didn’t have to pray in the rain?

Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen (15th century)

The answer is that they designed elaborate and beautiful rib vaults. These structures utilized crossed or diagonal arched “ribs” of stone as a supporting framework for thin stone ceiling panels. The results are as stunning as the outside of the cathedrals–but in a more functional way.

Lierne vaulting of Gloucester Cathedral (1331)
Canterbury Cathedral vaulted nave (late 14th century)
Exeter Cathedral has the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England
Vault at Bern Cathedral (mid 15th century)
Decorated vaulted ceiling in Salisbury Cathedral showing three different patterns and design.

To show what I mean, here is a gallery of famous Gothic vaults. Some are plain whereas others are complex. A few are even ornamented (although the ceilings seem to have been left less encrusted with statues, paintings, and mosaics than other parts of the cathedral because they were a weak point and they needed to be functional. The beauty of these structures is thus more like the beauty of diatoms and less like the beauty of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling…although…come to think of it…

The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the vault in relation to the famous wall murals

There are whole architectural treatises detailing the fans, crosses, liernes, groins, stars, and domes of such cathedrals (and all of the ways they can be combined) but for now let’s just savor the beauty and artistry of stone made into sky.

Bath Abbey

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