Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The fan vault

click photo to enlarge
The builders of our medieval cathedrals and churches were men of great ingenuity. The structural problems that they had to overcome - spanning ever greater spaces, erecting ever taller buildings, bringing light into the centre of wide buildings - were challenges familiar to architects today. The difference is that now we use computers, man-made materials, electricity and high technology in designing and building: in the middle ages it was muscle power, wood, stone and chisels that did the work.

Go into any major church and look up. The chances are that somewhere in the building you'll see vaulting. Springing from the forest of columns will be arches of stone that spread across naves, chancels, aisles and transepts. Often they will form star-like patterns across the ceiling, and if you look carefully you'll see the spaces between these ribs filled with carefully crafted pieces of stone. From the humble barrels and groins of the eleventh and twelfth century, through the quadripartite, sexpartite, tiercerons, liernes and stellar vaults of subsequent centuries, the progress of English Gothic vaulting is a story of increasing complexity and beauty, the final flowering of which is the stunning fan vault of the late fifteenth century.

This type of vaulting is peculiar to English Gothic architecture, with no parallels on the continent of Europe. It seems to have developed in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral around 1350. The best examples of the fully developed form are to be found in King's College, Cambridge, in Christ Church, Oxford, in Bath Abbey and in the retrochoir of Peterborough Cathedral (seen in today's photograph). Fan vaults differ from earlier vaulting in not comprising ribs and infilling, but rather halved concave cones with blind tracery carved on their surfaces. The organic forms and complexity of the decorative patterns make the experience of walking into a space roofed in this way incomparable!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/125
ISO: 800
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On