Page C2.2 . 03 March 2010                     
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Gothic Kaleidoscope


This tendency toward increasing vault complexity in Central Europe over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries is even more apparent in the Holy Cross Cathedral (1315-1521) in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. The church was begun as early as 1315, probably by Peter Parler's father, Heinrich, who along with his son, may also have designed the choir. The choir vault was rebuilt later (1497-1521) after a collapse of the towers, possibly by another great German architect of the period, Burkhard Engelberg.

The English lineage of these decorative vaults is apparent in the nave, where the design is close to that of the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral, Ely, England. The choir is more complex still, with a dense net vault reminiscent of the Gloucester Cathedral choir.

In Vienna, the huge St. Stephen's Cathedral (1359-1467) is a modified hall church design, with the nave only slightly higher than the aisles, and no clerestory. Construction continued over a century and a half, with the net vault over the nave completed to a design by Hans Puchspaum.

Similar designs from the same time period can be seen in the Church of St. George (1448-1499) in Dinkelsbühl, Germany, built by Niclaus Eseler the Elder and his son Niclaus Eseler the Younger, and in the Frauenkirche (1468-1494) in Munich, built by Jörg Ganghofer (also known as Jörg von Halsbach).

Ganghofer was the city architect in Munich, where he also worked on the old town hall. Little is known of him, except that he was born near Moosberg, Germany and died in 1488, at which time the Frauenkirche, his most important building, was complete (except for the tower). The Frauenkirche is one of the most beautiful examples of the German hall church type, achieving a highly refined sense of balance and harmony with its very high interior, lines of octagonal piers, and stellar pattern vault.

Late English Style (1480-1550): Pendant Vaults and Fan Vaults

Late Gothic architects in England continued to experiment with new vault forms throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. The late Perpendicular vaults (1472-1499) over the choir of Norwich Cathedral designed by Robert Everard, master from 1440 to 1485, show an arrangement of liernes that creates star patterns down the apex of the vault.

The transition from the rounded Norman arcades is handled in an interesting manner: the rounded arch forms and attached half shafts are echoed by the double compound columns of the clerestory, joined at the top by arches from which the ribs spring.

Another solution to the transition from a Norman lower elevation to a late Gothic vault can be seen in Christ Church Cathedral (1158-1529), in Oxford. Here the architect (probably William Orchard, active at Oxford from 1475 until he died in 1504) built the vault (1478-1503) with an even more complex star pattern of liernes than at Norwich Cathedral.

The ribs spring from pendants attached to ridged brackets that curve up and out from the heavy Norman arcades. These hanging pendants have no function whatsoever but are purely decorative embellishments and lead directly to the pendant fan vaults of the Tudor period.

The fine curvilinear motifs of fan vaults, whose carved ribs are equally spaced and of the same curvature, signal the end of the Perpendicular style and the beginning of the Tudor period in English architecture. By the 16th century, the carving of standardized components was well established in the masons' workshops, and fan vaults are partially a reflection of this.

In traditional Gothic vaults, the ribs were separate components constructed first as a permanent centering for the webs, which were composed of individual cut blocks overlaid subsequently on the rib structure. With fan vaults, the ribs are an integral blind tracery pattern carved into large, shell-like curved plates. These could be carved in the workshop as standardized modules, which were then fitted together on site to form the vault.

Among the most extraordinary examples of this type of vault are those found in Bath Abbey (1501-1539), designed by Robert and William Vertue, the sons of Adam Vertue, who was employed as a mason at Westminster Abbey.

The Vertue brothers both had appointments as master masons for the king and were the preeminent designers of late Gothic fan vaults in England. They are associated with the designs of the vaults of Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey and St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.

Fan vaults were also used by John Wastell in the Bell Harry Tower (1493-1507) built over the crossing of Canterbury Cathedral. Wastell was one the most significant masons of the late Gothic period in England who did not hold a royal appointment and is attributed with the fan vaults in King's College Chapel (1448-1515) at Cambridge, added in 1508-1515.

The interior of King's College Chapel is extraordinarily beautiful, with the delicate tracery of the enormous stained glass windows of the aisleless choir taken up perfectly by the fan vault's delicate blind tracery.   >>>

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David Stephenson is an associate professor in the School of Art at the University of Tasmania, Hobart. His work has been exhibited throughout the world and published in numerous publications. He is also the author of Visions of Heaven.

This article is excerpted from Heavenly Vaults by David Stephenson, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.



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The ceiling of the Church of St. Martin in Landshut, built from 1385 to 1480.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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At Holy Cross Cathedral in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, Heinrich Parler designed a vault with complex detailing.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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The nave of the Frauenkirche, in Munich, Germany, designed by Jörg Ganghofer (also known as Jörg von Halsbach).
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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Ornate detailing on the gothic ceiling of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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Designed by Robert and William Vertue, Bath Abbey in Bath, England, employs fan vaulting.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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Fan vaults on the ceiling of Bell Harry Tower at Canterbury Cathedral.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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Intricate tracery and high windows in the King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England, combine to create dramatic visual effects.
Photo: © David Stephenson Extra Large Image

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Heavenly Vaults by David Stephenson.
Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image


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