Rib vaulting in the nave of Reims Cathedral (begun 1221)

A rib vault is an architectural feature used to cover a large interior space in a building, usually the nave of a church or cathedral, in which the surface of the vault is divided into webs by a framework of diagonal arched ribs. It is also called a "ribbed vault".[1] It was a key feature of Gothic architecture. The thin stone ribs of the vault meet in a pointed arch, and carry the thrust of the weight of the roof outward and downwards to pillars on the ground floor, and to heavy flying buttresses outside the walls, rather than to the walls themselves. The use of rib vaults permitted the construction of much higher and thinner walls, and of stained glass windows of enormous size, which flooded the cathedrals with light.[2][3]

The rib vault was an improvement upon the earlier barrel vault, with semicircular arches, widely used by the Romans. An early version of the rib vault was used in the 8th century in Islamic Architecture, at the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba in Moorish Spain[4][5][6], though it was decorative, not bearing the weight of the structure. They were also frequently used in later Romanesque and Norman architecture. Beginning in the 11th century, they were used in all of the major Gothic Cathedrals in Europe. Their form gradually changed from complex sexpartite vault to the simpler but stronger quadripartite vault, allowing the building of much higher cathedrals. By the thirteenth century, they had again become highly ornamental and complex, in such forms as the fan vault.[7]

History and developmentEdit

In Islamic and Moorish architectureEdit

An early form of rib vault was used in Moorish architecture in the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, begun in the 8th century, to decorate the two smaller domes of the Mosque. Unlike the later Gothic rib vaults, the ribs were thick, and did not extend outside the edges of the vault. The ribs intersect one another off-center, forming an eight-pointed star in the center which is topped by a pendentive dome.[5] The pendentive dome was adapted from Byzantine architecture; The dome itself was supported not by the ribs but by the pendentives. The massive dome of Hagia Sophia (6th century) was a prominent example of a pendentive dome.[8]

The ribbed vaults of the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba served as models for later mosque buildings in the Islamic West of al-Andaluz and the Maghreb. At around 1000 AD, the Mezquita de Bab al Mardum (today: Mosque of Cristo de la Luz) in Toledo was constructed with a similar, eight-ribbed dome. Similar domes are also seen in the mosque building of the Aljafería of Zaragoza. The architectural form of the ribbed dome was further developed in the Maghreb: The central dome of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, a masterpiece of the Almoravids built in 1082, has twelve slender ribs, the shell between the ribs is filled with filigree stucco work.[5]

From Norman and Romanesque to the Gothic rib vaultEdit

A new variation of rib vault began to appear in England and in Normandy in the late 11th century. Romanesque churches traditionally covered the nave with a barrel vault, with round arches, or a groin vault, formed when two barrel vaults met at right angles. The newer churches and cathedrals used a Gothic rib vault, with a network of thin ribs that divided the vault into compartments. The ribs reached downward and outward to supporting columns and pillars, and later, outwards to buttress outside the walls. These vaults had an additional feature; they met in a pointed, or broken arch, rather than a rounded arch, which gave them greater strength and spread the thrust both outwards and downwards, like an open ladder.[9] Since these vaults were essentially supported by the columns and buttresses, not the walls, the walls themselves could be higher and thinner, and could be filled with stained glass. The combination of the three elements; the broken, or pointed arch, which carried the directed the thrust outwards as well as downwards; the ribs, which carried the thrust downward to the pillars and outward to the buttresses; and the flying buttress which counterbalanced the thrust against the walls, were together the three crucial elements of Gothic architecture.[10]. The earliest of the Gothic rib vaults are generally considered to be in the nave of Durham Cathedral, built between 1093 and 1104.[11] The domed ceiling of the Romanesque Round Church, Cambridge in England, begun in 1130, has a similar system of ribs. The Norman-Romanesque Cefalu Cathedral in Sicily, begun in 1131, built after Sicily was conquered by the Normans, featured a similar kind rib vault, as did the Romanesque Lessay Abbey (11th century), in Normandy (destroyed in World War II but rebuilt.[12]

Other variations of ribbed vaults, usually with rounded arches, appeared in Lombardy in Italy, in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan, at the end of the 11th century, and in Southwest France at Moissac Abbey (11th-12th century). These were essentially groin vaults, composed by joining two barrel vaults at right angles.

The Sexpartite VaultEdit

In the 12th century, the momentum of the development of the rib vault shifted to France, particularly to Paris and the Ile-de-France. The sexpartite vault, with six compartments divided by thin ribs and a crossing arch, appeared, almost simultaneously in England and France.[13] Early examples of sexpartite rib vaults are found at the Abbaye-aux-Hommes (begun 1066) and Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen. Most notably, it then appeared in Noyon Cathedral (begun 1131); the square Gothic porch of the Romanesque church of Vézelay Abbey in France (1132); Sens Cathedral (begun 1135); The Choir of the Basilica of Saint-Denis (begun 1140); Notre Dame de Paris (begun 1160); Bourges Cathedral, and Laon Cathedral, It soon appeared in England, where it was used by William of Sens at Canterbury Cathedral, and in St Faith's Chapel in Westminster Abbey (1180)[14][15][16]

In the early sexpartite vault, like those Sens Cathedral and Notre-Dame Cathedral, the thrust of the weight was transferred via the ribs to alternating columns and pillars. A new innovation appeared during the High Gothic: the four-part rib vault, which was used in Chartres Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral and Reims Cathedral. The ribs of this vault distributed the weight more equally to the four supporting pillars below, and established a closer connection between the nave and the lower portions of the church walls, and between the arcades below and the windows above. This allowed for greater height and thinner walls, and contributed to the strong impression of verticality given by the newer Cathedrals.[17]

The Quadripartite VaultEdit

The use of four-part vaults allowed cathedrals to be built much taller. The 11th century Durham Cathedral (1093–1135), with the earlier six-part rib vaults, is 73 feet (22 meters) high. The 12th-century nave of Notre Dame de Paris, also with six-part rib vaults, is 115 feet, or 35 meters high. The later Amiens Cathedral (built 1220–1266), with the new four-part rib vaults, has a nave that is 138.8 feet (42.30 meters) high. The tallest nave of all the Gothic Cathedrals is Beauvais Cathedral, though only a single bay was completed. It is 47.5 m (156 ft) in height, taller than the nave of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Late Gothic rib vaultsEdit

In the later period of the Gothic style, the rib vaults lost their elegant simplicity, and were loaded with additional ribs, sculptural designs, and sometimes pendants and other purely decorative elements.[18] The use of the rib vault was not limited to cathedrals. It was also used in the ceilings of the large halls of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité in Paris. The surviving 13th-century vaults can be seen in the Hall of the Guards, the former dining room for the Palace guards and staff, on the lower floor the Conciergerie.

Decorated Gothic, Perpendicular Gothic and the fan vaultEdit

In the last period of Gothic architecture, beginning in about 1350, particularly in England, the rib vaults lost their simple functional appearance and were loaded with decorative elements, to match the rest of the extremely ornate interiors. This style was called Perpendicular Gothic. The vaults retained their function, but they were covered with stonework resembling ivy, vegetation, arrangements of fans, or starlike patterns.

Another type of rib vault particular to England is the Lierne. It features a tertiary rib, called a lierne, connecting one rib to another. The resulting construction is called a lierne vault or stellar vault (named after the star shape generated by connecting liernes). This type of rib vault appeared during the 14th century in the Decorated period. Examples are Gloucester Cathedral in England, and the Church of Saint-Pierre in Caen in France. The fan vault was a type of rib vault particular to England. The ribs are all of the same curve and spaced equidistantly, in a manner resembling a fan. The ceiling of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, has the world's largest fan-vaulted ceiling.

Functioning of the Gothic rib vaultEdit

The development of the rib vault was the result of the search for greater height and more light in the naves of cathedrals. In Romanesque cathedrals, the nave was typically covered by a series of groin vaults, which were formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults. The vaults pressed down directly onto the walls. The groin vaults were bombée, or roughly dome-shaped. To support the weight of the vaults, the walls had to be particularly thick, and windows were absent or very small. This problem was resolved in the early 11th century by the introduction of the Gothic rib vault.[19][20]

The first Gothic rib vaults were reinforced by a network of thin stone ribs, or ogives. In the first six-part vaults, the vault was supported by two diagonal crossing ribs, plus an intermediate rib, which together divided the vault into six sections. The diagonal ribs were in the form of semicircular arches, which raised the center of the vault above the level of the transverse arches and wall ribs, and gave it the appearance of a small dome. (This kind of vault can be seen in the nave of Sant' Ambrogio, Milan). In some new churches, the architects dealt with the problem by raising the upper part of their arches was raised. This was tried in some of the earliest Gothic churches, notably the Abbaye-aux-Hommes at Caen, and the Abbey of Lessay, in Normandy.[21]

The problem was ultimately solved by the introduction of the pointed arch for the transverse and dividing ribs of the vault. The pointed arch had long been known and employed, on account of its much greater strength and of the lessened thrust it exerted on the walls. When employed for the ribs of a vault, however narrow or wide the span might be, by adopting a pointed arch, its summit could be made to match the height of the diagonal ribs.[22] The ribs carried the weight of the vault outwards and downwards. The ribs were bundled into columns, each combining four ribs, which descended the walls to the arcades of pillars on the ground floor. Outside, the walls were given greater strength by the addition of heavy stone buttresses. The strength of rib vaults made it possible to have thinner walls, which in turn made it possible to have larger windows on the upper levels, filling the nave with light. They eventual made possible the enormous rose windows of Gothic cathedrals.[23]

This six-part vault was successfully introduced in Noyon Cathedral, Laon Cathedral, and Notre-Dame de Paris. A single six-part vault could cover two traverse sections of the nave of Notre-Dame. However, the six-rib vault had its problems. The weight was not distributed evenly to the columns on the ground floor. When a vault covered two traverses, more massive pillars were needed to bear the weight from the doubleaux, the diagonal ribs, than for the intermediate ribs. This problem was solved by simplifying the vault and eliminating the intermediate rib, making a four-part or quadripartite rib vault. Under this system, which was promptly used at Amiens Cathedral, Reims Cathedral and many others, each traverse section had just one four-part vault. This innovation, along with the use of the flying buttress, saw Gothic cathedral walls go higher and higher, with larger and larger windows.[24]

The simplification of the rib vault was soon followed, particularly in England, by another tendency, to make them more complicated. One of the earliest examples of the introduction of the intermediate ridge rib is found in the nave of Lincoln Cathedral; This element, called a ridge rib, was not connected to the walls. Architects in England began adding new ribs, largely for decoration. In the nave of Exeter Cathedral three intermediate ribs were provided between the wall rib and the diagonal rib. In order to mask the junction of the various ribs, their intersections were ornamented with richly carved bosses, and this practice increased on the introduction of another short rib, known as Lierne vaulting. the lierne, a term in France given to the ridge rib. English Lierne vaulting uses short ribs that cross between the main ones; these were employed chiefly as decorative features, for example in stellar vaults, one of the best examples of which is in the vault of the oriel window of Crosby Hall, London. Ribs came more and more numerous and more and more decorative leading to the extraordinarily elaborate and decorative fan vault, first used in the choir of Gloucester Cathedral.[25]


Keystone of a vault Church Notre-Dame in Morienval, Oise, (12th century)

The first step in the construction of a vault was a wooden scaffold up to the level of the top of the supporting columns. Next, a precise wooden frame was constructed on top of the scaffold in the exact shape of the nervures, or ribs. The stone segments of the ribs were then carefully laid into the frame and cemented. When the ribs were all in the place, the keystone was placed at the apex where they converged. Once the keystone was in place, the ribs could stand alone, supported by their weight pressing downwards and outwards. Workers then filled in the compartments between the ribs with small fitted pieces of brick or stone. The framework was removed. The masonry of the compartments was about 15 cm thick. Once the compartments were finished, their interior surface was plastered and then painted.[26]

The construction of a Gothic rib vault was a complex operation involving a team of specialized workers. The French Gothic builders included taileurs, who cut the stone (hewers in English cathedrals); poseurs, who set the stones in place (layers in English); morteliers, who cemented the pieces together; as well as the carpenters who built the complex scaffolds and models.[27]

Notes and citationsEdit

  1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition (2016)
  2. ^ Ducher, Robert, La Charactéristique des styles, Flammarion, (2014), pp. 40–42, (in French)
  3. ^ Mignon, Olivier, Architecture des Cathédrals Gothiques (2015), p. 10
  4. ^ Giese, Francine; Pawlak, Anna; Thome, Markus (2018-06-25). Tomb – Memory – Space: Concepts of Representation in Premodern Christian and Islamic Art (in German). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 9783110517347.
  5. ^ a b c Giese-Vögeli, Francine (2007). Das islamische Rippengewölbe : Ursprung, Form, Verbreitung [Islamic rib vaults: Origins, form, spread]. Berlin: Gebr. Mann. ISBN 978-3-7861-2550-1.
  6. ^ Harbison, Robert (2009-06-30). Travels in the History of Architecture. Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781861896902.
  7. ^ Ducher, Robert, La Charactéristique des styles, Flammarion, (2014), pp. 40–42, (in French)
  8. ^ "pendentive (architecture) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  9. ^ Bechmann, Les Racines des Cathédrales (2017), pp. 163–71
  10. ^ Mignon Architecture des Cathédrales Gothique, (2015), p. 10
  11. ^ Bechmann (2017) p. 188
  12. ^ Bechmann, Les Racines des Cathédrals (2017), pp. 188–190
  13. ^ Ching, Francis D.K. (1995). A Visual Dictionary of Architecture. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 263. ISBN 0-471-28451-3.
  14. ^ Saint Faith's Chapel - Westminster Abbey
  15. ^ Gardner's Art Through the Ages, (2006), Ch. 13. Gothic Art: "Architectural Basics" p. 352.
  16. ^ Ducher (2014), p. 40
  17. ^ Renault and Lazé (2006), p. 34
  18. ^ Ducher 2014, p. 46.
  19. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rib Vault" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  20. ^ Ducher, La Charactéristic des Styles (2014), p. 40
  21. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rib Vault" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  22. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rib Vault" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  23. ^ Ducher (2014) pg. 40
  24. ^ Ducher (2014) p. 40
  25. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rib Vault" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  26. ^ Bechmann, (2017), p. 206
  27. ^ Bechmann, (2017), p. 206