The Celestial Vault (Dennis Aubrey)

I’m going to try here to accomplish in short form something that is almost impossible – an overview of medieval vaulting. In theory, the task should be simple, but the subject is extremely complex. It starts with the barrel vault, a continuous sequence of arches that forms a tunnel and thereby covers an enclosed space. The first example is the simple barrel vault found in the Cistercian monastery of Senanque.

Barrel vault, Abbaye de Senanque, Senanque (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Barrel vault, Abbaye de Senanque, Senanque (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Because of the difficulty of building an entire vault in one pass, the vaults were segmented by bands and built sequentially. This saved significantly in materials (framing for an entire vault instead of framing for sections of vaults that could be reused) and allowed the load to be distributed somewhat by the bands down the piers and into the ground. The result was something like this in the image of the vaults of Saint Trophime in Arles.

Banded barrel vault, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Banded barrel vault, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next step was the use of the groin vault, which is officially described as “the perpendicular intersection between two barrel vaults”. In this version of the vault, the seams between the intersecting vaults take some of the thrust and guide it down through the piers to the ground. This is a significant improvement over the barrel vault in that it eliminates the continuous lateral thrust on the side walls and allows for the insertion of windows in the walls. This can be seen in the rare groin vaulting over the nave at Vézelay.

Rare groin vault over a nave (Vézelay)

It is possible to construct a groin vault only over a squared volume. In most cases, the groin vault had to span two nave bays instead of one because the nave width was twice the width of a bay. This was a large area to cover and often resulted in weaknesses that caused the vault to collapse. To increase the strength of the groin vault, builders began adding another span between the two central pillars, resulting in a vault split into six parts, not four. This was the sexpartite vault. These two shots from the great cathedral of Laon show how the sexpartite vault looks.

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have done an earlier post on the development of the sexpartite vault in Normandy that distinguishes between the pseudo-sexpartite and true sexpartite vaults.

Springing of the sexpartite vaulting at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon

At this point, the medieval builders made the great discovery that the strength of the groin vault was the rib itself, so they started constructing the ribs and then filling them in. This broke the “square” rule and allowed oblong volumes to be vaulted. Because of construction and engineering exigencies, the art developed over time until it became the wonderful ribbed gothic vault, the quadripartite, so familiar in its simple and its flamboyant multiple ribbed versions.

Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is a story that becomes increasingly complex and difficult to sequence. I used to think that the Romanesque vaults were the records of the failure of medieval engineers, and that when they succeeded in overcoming the limitations of their early efforts, they evolved the quadripartite. But there is more to this story than mere engineering and construction. It is also the story of artistic vision and rhythm, of creating an effect that contributed to the overall visual design of the house of God. Its message was as important as its structure.

28 thoughts on “The Celestial Vault (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. That was a clear and concise explanation which has been of great help in allowing me to visualise the descriptions of churches in a book I’m currently reading about the Ile de France.
    Many thanks.

  2. I am as intrigued by the fascinating image capturing process as the historical explanations of engineering and constructions.

  3. Thanks, Dennis. It’s enormously helpful to rank amateur enthusiasts like me to have the basic terms explained and illustrated so clearly in this way. You pick up a lot over the years, but what you think you know isn’t always correct. Could we persuade you to summarise and illustrate the other key parts of church anatomy for us one day?

    1. Peter, we have done a number of different posts about the elements of the churches. Maybe I should do something that makes it easy for people to select them. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.

    1. Kalli, ok, we made a start. At the top of the page you will see three headings: Church Structure, Featured Churches and About Via Lucis. If you click on the first heading, there is a menu featuring Groundplan and Elevation of the churches. We will use this to collect the posts that you requested.

  4. Simply beautiful. I never thought of showing these images straight on like that in order to show how the arches “work.” The ongoing dialogue between the arch vault is one of the most beautiful expressions of humankind’s pilgrimage. Thank you for this!

  5. I happened upon this site by luck one day and it gives me the greatest pleasure every time a new edition arrives. It is simply wonderful. Thank you!!

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