David Wendland and his ‘Late Gothic Vaults’ team have produced a film exploring the vaults of St Anne Church in Annaberg-Buchholz, which feature complex double curvatures. Using total station surveying as well as original drawings, the team replicate the design process that medieval masons would have used via a plaster tracing floor, then experiment with stonework to create a replica of the final voussoirs. you can watch David’s film here:
Before the start of the teaching year, we just managed to fit in a day’s scanning at Norton Priory, the site of a ruined Augustinian priory near Runcorn in Cheshire. The vaults in the undercroft here are earlier than most of those we’ve scanned before (other than the eleventh-century crypt at Gloucester Cathedral) and offer an instructive example of the so-called late Romanesque and ’Transitional’ styles of the twelfth century, in which both round and pointed arches, groin and rib vaults could be used as appropriate to the situation.
Some of the groin vaults look to have been built (or rebuilt) in the nineteenth century when the site was part of a Victorian mansion, adding to our data on revival approaches to vaulting. Here, instead of the groins being created by a herringbone junction of stones, individual blocks are shaped to face in two directions, suggesting the use of stereometric methods unknown in the middle ages. In the original vaults, visual analysis suggests that many of the webs and arches have settled, pushing the side walls off from vertical and presenting a new challenge for us in terms of analysis: how can we ascertain their original, or intended, form?
Settlement is sometimes associated with poor construction, but although the vaulted area is the west range of the cloister, a service area usually used for storage, some of the sculpted capitals and bases are of high quality. The early Gothic passage into the cloister even offers a jaunty syncopation of rib profiles: in one direction filleted, in the other keeled, showing the masons’ love of variety. These vaults were taken down at a later period, giving us the exciting challenge of identifying their original form from the surviving springing stones. There is also an interesting series of masons’ marks, which we hope to document on a later visit.
As well as the intrinsic interest of the vaults, we are excited to be working with Norton Priory because of its impressive new visitor facilities (opened in 2016) and proactive approach to outreach. The curators have already used digital methods, including scanning their magnificent fourteenth-century statue of St Christopher to enable visualisation of his original colouring (as well as helping him to come to life with the aid of the booming voice of Brian Blessed!). We hope that our scans can be used for future interpretation work, such as enabling walk-throughs and visualisation of how the the buildings might have looked and been used at different times in their history.
We also hope to work with the curators in presenting our research to the public via talks and possibly an exhibition, and developing resources for use by teachers and schools. The geometric methods that our research has revealed were used by medieval masons offer a very visual approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, even for students who lack confidence with numbers.
We are therefore very grateful to Arts Council England and Paul Sapple of the Knowledge Exchange team at the University of Liverpool for introducing us to Norton Priory and for facilitating the initiation of our work there.
Our article investigating the creativity and imagination used to design the choir aisles at Wells cathedral has now been published in ‘British Art Studies’. This article is free to view here.
This paper explores the topics of creativity and imagination in relation to the design and construction of the lierne vaults in the presbytery aisles of Wells Cathedral, erected around 1330. It explores the potential of digital scanning and analysis for forensic investigation of the structure in order to identify the processes involved. Four different processes were employed and we compare those used in the three eastern bays of the north and south aisles. These are shown to share characteristics with the retrochoir but to involve different approaches to 3-D projection and stone-cutting. We conclude that the basic geometry of the vaults was defined in advance of construction, using full-scale drawings worked out on a tracing floor. In both sets of vaults the 3-D geometry continued as a sequence of steps and was derived from measurements ascertained from existing elements (including the drawings) but was not consistent across the two aisles. The processes reveal different priorities, whether for level ridges (north aisle), different choices in terms of rib radii or apex heights, and different sequences of design steps. This demonstrates the potential for experimentation at every stage of construction.
Buchanan, A., & Webb, N. (2017). ‘Creativity in Three Dimensions: An Investigation of the Presbytery Aisles of Wells Cathedral’, British Art Studies, Issue 6.
In July 2017, we travelled to Tewkesbury Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral to create digital surveys of their respective vaults. First, we surveyed the abbey at Tewkesbury using our standard methods of laser scanning and photogrammetry, with the additional method of total station for the choir vaults. Total station surveying enables us to manually capture specific points of the vault ribs, as opposed to laser scanning which captures all points. Searching for specific points to document using total station is very labour intensive, particularly when trying to capture the vaults above. Based on advice from our friend David Wendland, who is carrying out exciting research on vaults in continental Europe, we worked in a pair with one of us roughly locating points using the total station’s laser, and the other laying on the floor looking up at the vaults through a pair of binoculars to locate the precise point that needed to be documented. This was a particularly long and arduous task over a day and a half, however, the resulting points mean we can very quickly and efficiently use the specific points documented to trace the vault rib geometries. Laser scanning, on the other hand, is much more time consuming in locating the required points amongst many million others to trace them. Both methods create accurate results and therefore having two sets of data ensures an even higher level of confidence in our methodology and findings. Once we completed our surveying, we backed up our data and travelled to Gloucester Cathedral to start the second phase of our field trip. We also found time in between to visit Pershore Abbey, where we already have access to a laser scan survey to investigate the vault geometries there. This scan data was very generously given to us to use by the abbey to use for our research, and we hope to be able to show are results of this in the next year. The Pershore Abbey laser scanning was particularly high in its quality, surveyed by CDG Ltd.
At Gloucester we continued with our primary method of laser scanning to survey the majority of the cathedral’s vaults, with particular attention given to the west end, transepts, crossing, choir and presbytery vault bays. Whilst at Gloucester, we were able to use our scan data to assist the cathedral architects in the installation of a new disabled platform to the east end as part of HLF funded Project Pilgrim, by linking scans from the crypt to those above to build up a very detailed picture of how the spaces connect, which was previously not accurate enough. This demonstrates how our survey data can be used by other stakeholders for mutual gain.
We are very grateful for the Liverpool School of Architecture’s David Foster Wicks endowment fund, which funded the field work and has enabled us to continue developing our research for Tracing the Past.
On Friday 2 June, we’ll be sharing our latest research on St Mary’s church, Nantwich on the first day of a conference at the Courtauld Institute entitled Towards an Art History of the Parish Church. Further details of the programme and how to book are available here.
Our session will be chaired by Prof Paul Binski, who has recently published an article in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association on a miniature vault at St Andrew’s church at Irnham in Lincolnshire, which he identifies as a copy of the high vault of Wells Cathedral (also dedicated to St Andrew). Also on the programme are Andrew Budge, who spoke at our ‘Modelling Medieval Vaults’ conference in 2016; Jon Cannon, who has published on Bristol Cathedral, which has wonderful lierne vaults, and Prof Sandy Heslop, who organized the ‘Invention and Imagination’ conference at the British Museum in 2014, at which we first presented our project. It will be very exciting to find out about so much new research being undertaken on the parish church and to be able to demonstrate what our methods can add to this discussion.
On Saturday 8th April, we presented a paper to the 4th Annual Conference of the Construction History Society, which took place in the congenial surroundings of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Robert Willis argued that Queens’ was a perfect example of a medieval college, although we were meeting in the more modern buildings on the other side of the Cam, reached by the famous ‘Mathematical Bridge’, designed by James Essex, who also worked on the lantern of Ely Cathedral which we scanned last year. The medieval fabric of Queens’ includes a beautiful example of a lierne vault in its gate-house – perhaps a future scanning project?
Our paper ‘Tracing Tiercerons: an evaluation of the significant properties of thirteenth and fourteenth-century tierceron vaults in England’, is available here: https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3006059/.
It was good to catch up with old friends, including Santiago Huerta, and to hear the latest news from our friend David Wendland’s project ‘Design Principles in Late-Gothic Vault Construction’ ). On this occasion, Dr Wendland presented with his collaborator Frédéric Degenève, one of the stonemasons working at Strasbourg Cathedral. Their paper ‘How to order fitting components for looping ribs: Design procedures for the stone members of complex Late Gothic vaults’ was a fascinating reconstruction of the methods used to prepare the voussoirs and bosses required by geometrically complex vaults such as the ‘Hall of Arms’ in the Albrechtsburg Meissen, built in 1521 by Jakob Heilmann. Wendland’s digital analysis of such vaults has demonstrated that all the ribs are formed using circular arcs in three dimensions. In this paper, he provided a convincing explanation of how the essential information could be transferred from the tracing floor to the block of stone using copper templates, ‘baivels’ (or square edges) and a rod to record key dimensions. The proposed method has been tested by and found to meet all the stonemason’s requirements, without any need for stereometric projections.
It was also useful to have the opportunity to meet and discuss our project with others who have also used digital recording methods, including Elizabeth Shotton, from Trinity College, Dublin, who shared her Irish Research Council funded project Minor Harbours, which has used digital methods to identify and analyse changes to the smaller Irish harbours over time.
The full conference programme is available here: http://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/Downloads/fourth-annual-chs-conference-programme.pdf and proceedings are available in print from the Construction History Society.
Our article investigating the use of digital techniques to analyse the choir aisles at Wells cathedral has now been published in ‘Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage’. This article is free to view until 7th May 2017 through the following link:
Architectural historians have identified Wells cathedral as a key monument in the transition between high and late Gothic, a move in part characterised by the rejection of simple quadripartite or tierceron rib vaults for more complex vaults. Here we will show how digital methods are used to reopen questions of design and construction first posed in 1841 by pioneer architectural historian Robert Willis. Digital laser scanning documents vaults accurately, thereby establishing their geometries to a high degree of certainty and, at Wells, highlighting differences between the choir aisle bays which have previously been treated as a single design. Significantly, we will show how digital techniques can be used to investigate these differences further, using point cloud data as a starting point for analysis rather than an end point. Thus we will demonstrate how modern technologies have the potential to reignite historic debates and transform scholarly enquiries.
Webb, N., & Buchanan, A. (2017). ‘Tracing the past: A digital analysis of Wells cathedral choir aisle vaults’, Digit. Appl. Archaeol. Cult. Herit., 4, March 2017, pp. 19–27.
We are delighted that our symposium ‘Modelling Medieval Vaults’ was reviewed in the first issue of The Construction Historian (the magazine of the Construction History Society). With the kind permission of the author and editor (David Yeomans), it is reproduced here.
‘The life of a Gothic vault begins with a design, which exists as plan. This has then to be projected into three dimensions, not just to determine the overall geometry but also to enable individual stones of the ribs to be cut to shape so that they fit together. Once assembled the structure of the vault has to be stable and so must transmit the thrusts safely to the supporting walls and buttresses. They will then move in resisting the thrusts and so cracks will develop in the vault ribs and in the vault surfaces that they support, cracks that might seem to be signs of failure but which will have been there for hundreds of years. Sometimes, of course, the building might be destroyed and the vaults will then only survive as rubble, but rubble that might contain clues to the original form of the vault. Each of these stages provides material for different kinds of scholarship and all were represented in this one-day symposium.
There were speakers to cover every stage of the process. Those dealing with design aspects showed clearly the difference between approaches to architectural history and construction history. The former sometimes seemed to involve a special language. I simply cannot imagine what ‘visual space perception in micro and macro cosmological dimensions” could possibly mean, but perhaps it lost something in translation. It was a phrase used by Thomas Bauer in reference to vaulting in Prague with curved non structural ribs, typical of late vaulting in other Northern European countries. I am not sure about their designers ‘contributing to a new space discourse’. The idea that masons devised the elaborate, non-structural pattern of ribs that we were shown to compete with flat decorative ceilings that were coming into fashion seems simple and convincing.
My doubts are how well we can see into the minds of medieval designers. What we do know is that the designers of the more elaborate rib patterns were playing with geometry and that given an accurate survey of the rib pattern it is possible to reconstruct the geometrical process that was used. While Bauer demonstrated the very complex geometry of the vaults in Prague our hosts demonstrated it for the much simpler geometry used in the aisles of the choir at Wells. There vaulting with slight differences in the plans also had differences in section, some being flatter than others. Thus we saw how accurate survey methods now possible might show subtleties that had previously been unrecognized.
Once the geometry had been decided it needed to be marked out on the tracing floor. There is some evidence in the form of putlog holes in the walls that there was a scaffold immediately below the vault, which might have been used as a tracing floor. The masons could then have used plumb lines to the drawing immediately below the vault itself to mark up the stones, much as carpenters use plumb lines to scribe timbers to fit.
Of course the vault has to stand once built although there is often movement over time. Santiago Huerta delighted everyone with a model arch, which demonstrated the formation of cracks within both the ribs and the surfaces of vaults that result from the inevitable movement of supporting walls and buttresses. But while he described the attempts from the eighteenth century onward to understand the behaviour of medieval vaults there was no discussion of how they might have been structurally designed at the time. One speaker’s assertion that the columns of Mallorca cathedral could be as slender as they as because of loading built above the vault ribs simply raises more questions than it answered.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for the outsider was the way in which archaeologists may be able to reconstruct the appearance of collapsed vaults based on material in the rubble. In vaulting with intricate patterns of ribs, stones forming the connections indicate the directions of the connecting ribs and may make it possible to determine the overall pattern.
Much of all this new work on vaulting depends upon modern surveying methods: the use of photogrammetry and laser scanning. One paper compared the use of these two techniques while others described the process of making use of the data from laser scans. Different software packages appear to offer different advantages, or are it disadvantages. RHINO is not it seems a huge horned herbivore but just one of the packages available. There was much discussion of these systems and it was clear that the specialists in these aids needed to be brought in to help the communities of archaeologists or historians.
The last talk addressed what we normally think of as a model because Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla had used digital printing to construct physical models of the vaults of the churches in Mexico that he had studied. Because the ribs of these are made of separate components they need to be held in pace while being assembled. The students helping with this process were able to gain an appreciation of the delicate balance of forces involved. It seems that what can be learnt about medieval vaults and what can be learnt from tem is far from exhausted. It also seems that from archaeologists to computer specialists there is something in medieval vaulting for everyone.
For anyone wishing to know more about the work being done by The Liverpool School of Architecture on vaulting see www.tracingthepast.org.uk. There is also to be a two-day event at Cambridge to look at the work of Robert Willis at www.robertwillis2016.org.’
We shall be presenting more about our work in a paper at the next conference of the Construction History Society in April 2017. Further details are available here: http://www.constructionhistory.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Fourth-annual-CHS-Conference-Draft-Programme-4.0.pdf.
This week Nick presented at Digital Past 2017 in Newport, Wales. The paper focussed on the digital surveying and subsequent analysis of the fourteenth century medieval vaults in the chancel and north transept of Nantwich St Mary’s Church, Cheshire. This produced two distinct discussions; the first investigating the chancel, which offered an opportunity to hypothesise the medieval design process of the in-situ vaults using reverse engineering. The second, the north transept, contains an incomplete (or possibly destroyed) vault and therefore a series of simulations were developed to postulate the design process, and how the vaults may have looked if completed. 3D digital models of the postulated designs for the north transept can be found on the Nantwich vaults page.
The conference presented numerous exciting and innovative digital heritage projects in Wales and beyond, such as Nick Hannon’s investigations into the Antonine Wall, as well as the Welsh Chapels project which is using games engines as a way of educating the public about heritage.
At eCAADe 2016 (Education and research in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe) in Oulu, Finland, Nick presented a paper co-authored with Alex and JR discussing the advantages of different digital surveying methods for the project. The paper can be found via CUMINCAD here.
A contextualised digital heritage workshop led by Danilo Di Mascio was also organised, with help from Anetta Kepczynska-Walczak and myself, the details of which can be found here. We were very grateful for the support given by the University of Oulu, and were encouraged by the discussions held with participants, which provided an enjoyable couple of days leading up to the main conference. We hope to run the workshop again at eCAADe 2017 in Rome!