Tag Archives: Peter Parler

Scanning at Lincoln Cathedral

On 29th to 31st July, we visited Lincoln cathedral to laser scan the interior. The cathedral is something of a magnet for vault enthusiasts, featuring a magnificent range of mainly thirteenth-century examples which were hugely influential throughout Britain – we’ve already scanned some of their offspring at Chester and Ely.

Most famous is the so-called ‘crazy vault’ over St Hugh’s choir, one of the earliest surviving high vaults in the cathedral. There is evidence that the Romanesque cathedral had vaults, specifically in the nave, but we don’t know what they looked like. An eastwards extension of the cathedral, begun in 1193/4 under Bishop Hugh of Avalon (1135-1200), canonised St Hugh of Lincoln in 1220. As part of this project, the new presbytery was vaulted with a design involving an additional rib in an asymmetrical arrangement. This, along with other peculiarities of design and a name, Geoffrey of Noyers, described as ‘constructor of the noble fabric’ in the Greater Life of St Hugh, encouraged Robert Willis to identify the designer as ‘a mad Frenchman’ in a lecture given to the Archaeological Institute in 1848. At a time when Lincoln was venerated as a gem of Early English architecture, this comment was considered heretical, both by Anglophiles and by the French: having been invited to comment on the issue, French architect Viollet-le-Duc pronounced that the architect could not have been French (whose architecture he characterised as wholly rational) but might possibly have come from Normandy. In fact, whatever his ethnicity, Geoffrey was probably unlikely to have been the designer but was probably a clerical administrator.

Although Willis never published his lecture, which is now known only from contemporary journalists’ reports, the ‘mad Frenchman’ epithet entered the historiography, ‘mad’ being transformed along the way into ‘crazy’ and being applied to the vaults as opposed to their designer. A famous article by Paul Frankl cemented this usage and framed the terms of a debate which has continued to the present day.

So what is so ‘crazy’ about the vaults over St Hugh’s choir? Before this, rib vaults were designed either in a quadripartite (divided by diagonal ribs into four parts) or a sexpartite (divided by diagonals and with an additional transverse rib to create six parts) form. We have already scanned quadripartite vaults at Westminster Abbey and there are sexpartite vaults in the transepts of Lincoln cathedral. Both quadripartite and sexpartite vaults have a single central boss per bay of vaulting, marking the junction of the diagonal ribs. As in the transepts and nave at Westminster Abbey, English designers started to use ‘ridge ribs’ to join the bosses longitudinally. Frankl suggested the earliest example of a ridge rib was at the abbey of Montivilliers in Normandy, where the Romanesque church has transepts covered with a form of sexpartite vault. In a number of Norman or Norman-influenced churches, what have been termed ‘semi-sexpartite’ vaults were constructed – these are basically a single quadripartite vaults over two bays, the division between the two bays being marked by a ‘diaphragm arch’. The plan therefore resembles that of a sexpartite vault but the transverse rib which intersects with the diagonals at the centre of the vault bay carries a wall rather than a three-dimensional vault conoid. This type of vault can be seen in the nave of La Trinité, Caen. What we see at Montivilliers is this type of vault turned by 90 degrees, so that the diaphragm arch springs from the end wall of the transept. Once the arch reaches its apex it cannot descend, as if it did, its springing point would be mid-air in the transept. Instead it is therefore continued horizontally to meet the apex of the next transverse arch and then the crossing arch, thus forming a ridge rib. This experiment had no immediate progeny. Other early ridge ribs have been claimed for the Priory of St Mary at Airaines, where they exist alongside diagonal ribs but have a different profile, suggesting a subordinate status and, in a more typical form, in the church at Luchueux. Both these churches are in the Departement of the Somme in northern France. In England, we find early ridge ribs in the north transept chapels of Ripon Minster (probably 1170s), a building which can be related both to local Cistercian architecture and its French sources and to the great cathedral Archbishop Roger was erecting at York (now rebuilt, but elements survive in the crypt). Ridge ribs also flourished in Angevin and Poitevin architecture and were used in the similarly domical high vaults of Münster cathedral in Germany. In all cases, their aesthetic effect is rather different, so even if they do share a common ancestor, they were readily assimilated into a varied range of regional styles.

At Lincoln, St Hugh’s choir has a ridge rib which runs east-west, whose directionality was originally emphasised by painted decoration. Instead of the typical single central boss per vault bay, however, here there are two bosses. This makes the vault ‘eccentric’ (as it was described by John Bilson), meaning that it has no defined central point. Instead of converging on a central boss, the diagonals of the south side of the building converge on the more easterly boss and those on the north side converge on the more westerly. An additional rib from the other side also meets the boss, making each boss mark the conjunction of three ribs in addition to the ridge rib. This additional rib does not mark a change in plane as ribs had previously done and has been described as the first ‘tierceron’, a medieval word usually translated as meaning ‘third rib’. It is as though the diagonal extending from the north-east to the south-west corner of the bay has been split and stretched in two directions along the ridge rib. This sets up an asymmetric, sawtooth rhythm to the vault, further emphasising its longitudinality. Nothing like this had been seen previously in Gothic architecture and, as its form was not replicated elsewhere, it may not have met with contemporary approval. The great transepts at Lincoln reverted to sexpartite vaults and the nave has the first tierceron star vault.

The patterns can also be seen as being formed from pairs of ‘tri-radials’, arrangements of three ribs converging on a single boss. Frankl, a German scholar, was certainly aware that both the use of tri-radials and the asymmetric quality of Lincoln’s vault would form important elements of early fourteenth-century German and Swabian architecture, developed further in the later fourteenth century by Peter Parler at Prague cathedral and forming a key feature of late Gothic. He thus described Lincoln as a proto-late Gothic building, disrupting all standard stylistic chronologies. Whether, and how, the vaults of Lincoln might have influenced Continental Gothic became a topic of much debate – we look forward to the relevant Continental vaults being scanned so that their three-dimensional geometries can be compared with what we find in England.

There are many other current debates about Lincoln, relating to original design intentions, chronologies and extent of repairs after the collapse of the crossing tower in 1237 or 1239. We look forward to seeing what our data can add to these discussions and, indeed, whether it can offer new ways of looking at a building which has puzzled and delighted generations of scholars.

Scanning at Ottery St Mary

For the final day of our visit to Devon we travelled from Exeter to Ottery St Mary Church to scan the vaults there.
Ottery St Mary was built by Bishop Grandisson of Exeter, whose tomb chapel in the West Front of Exeter Cathedral we visited two days earlier. He established Ottery as a college of priests in 1337 and the church is correspondingly impressive, a miniature cathedral on a similar plan to Exeter, with vaults clearly modelled on the high vault of the choir at Wells Cathedral. It is therefore widely assumed that Grandisson worked with the designer responsible for the Exeter West Front, William Joy, and possibly also Thomas of Witney, also employed at Exeter, claims we hope our research may help to substantiate.
Our research will also provide data for investigating the international transmission of design ideas. Ottery’s international significance has already been mentioned in an earlier blog post (link). Like Wells (another building associated with both Witney and Joy), it transforms Gothic architecture in ways picked up by Peter Parler, the designer of Prague Cathedral and other late Gothic architects. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century Gothic churches are generally designed in modular form, as a sequence of identical bays consisting of an arcade arch, with a window above and, in grander churches, a middle story in between. Vaults likewise may be analysed as bays, divided one from the next by a transverse rib and intersected by diagonals which criss-cross  the bay, their junction marked by a boss. The high vault of Wells Cathedral is of international significance as the earliest ‘net’ vault, with diagonal ribs extending across more than one bay. The vault design also includes ‘cusping’, subsidiary mouldings added to the ribs, a design concept originating in window tracery. Ottery follows this model, with the additional development that the diagonals curve in three dimensions rather than two, again like the flowing lines of window tracery. The cusping stands proud of the surface of the vault, adding to the visual conceit that the ribs form a net thrown over the surface of the vault rather than directly relating to its geometry. The church also has vaults with ribs of multiple curvatures, domical vaults and a sixteenth-century fan vault with hanging pendants, making it a very rich resource for our research.
Our trip to Ottery St Mary was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre.

What links Prague and Ottery St Mary in Devon?


2016 marks the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV, eldest son and heir of King John of Bohemia, who died at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Charles succeeded his father as King of Bohemia, was later elected King of the Romans and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355.

Under John and, especially, Charles, the city of Prague was transformed into a capital worthy of the most powerful ruler in Europe. Architectural additions including a new cathedral within the royal castle, a new university and a bridge across the river Vltava, linking the castle with the old city. Both the symbolism and the structural forms of these buildings have long been of fascination to architectural historians and have most recently been studied by Dr. Jana Gajdošová, currently based in the History of Art Department at the University of Cambridge.

Peter Parler was the architect responsible for the most innovatory aspects of Charles IV’s buildings. Since the mid-20th century, the work associated with William Joy at Wells Cathedral has been identified as one of Peter Parler’s sources. This makes Wells a key site in the development of European Late Gothic. We were therefore very interested in a recent lecture by Dr. Gajdošová to the British Archaeological Association, which (amongst other things) discussed the architectural parallels between the vaulting of the Charles IV Bridge and that at Ottery St Mary Church in Devon, another building linked with Wells Cathedral and William Joy. In particular, she drew attention to the ‘triradials’, ribs which form a ‘Y’ shape and criss-cross the bays, emphasizing the tunnel shape of the vault. The vault in the Old Town Tower of the Charles IV Bridge is the earliest example of these intersecting triradials in Parler’s work, which make it the region’s earliest ‘net vault’, a form which was to dominate Central European Gothic for the next 150 years. Dr. Gajdošová also discussed the distinctively elegant form of the springing of the Prague vault, which was also to prove influential, reoccurring in buildings such as the church of Kutná Hora in Bohemia.

We hope that our research will support future research into such parallels, moving beyond two-dimensional and visual analysis into further investigation of such vaults’ three-dimensional forms.


Modelling Vaults at the University of York

On Monday 1 Feb Nick and Alex went to the University of York to an event organised by Professor Tim Ayers, which brought together three leading experts on European late Gothic to discuss issues of vaulting, specifically international transfer of ideas and the design processes involved. The opening seminar was led by Paul Crossley, Professor Emeritus of the Courtauld Institute and Dr Zoë Opačić of Birkbeck College, offering a reflection on Professor Crossley’s work on late Gothic in Eastern Europe. It was encouraging to hear one of our case studies, Wells Cathedral, described as a clear influence on the work of Peter Parler in Prague Cathedral and discussion of Lincoln Cathedral’s tierceron vaults as an apparent influence on Polish examples of a similar form, for example the Cistercian church of Pelplin. We’ve already identified Lincoln’s nave as an influence on the vaults we’ve scanned at Chester, which share the feature of a ridge rib which does not extend to the side walls. Stuart Harrison was also in the audience and keen to share with us his discoveries about the plan of the now-lost east end of Lincoln Cathedral, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. We can’t wait!

Next, Professor Norbert Nußbaum from the University of Cologne gave a lecture entitled ‘Benedikt Ried’s Vaults in Prague Castle and the question of Formative Inventiveness’. Professor Nußbaum is co-author with Sabine Lepsky of Das Gotische Gewölbe (Darmstadt, 1999), a foundational text for the study of Gothic vaulting. Using a series of digital models, Professor Nußbaum showed how the seemingly chaotic designs of the Rider Staircase and the Chancery involved a series of geometrical manipulations based on a two-dimensional plan which could be shifted sideways across a grid or rotated to deconstruct its original logic. He argued that these feats of architectural ingenuity could be compared with the contemporary phenomenon of the ‘Wunderkammer’ (cabinet of curiosities) and were intended to provoke the question ‘How did they do that?’ These were highly sophisticated designs demonstrating the learning of an architect sufficiently confident in his knowledge of the rules to be able to break them – but in contrast to the architects of the Italian Renaissance, the ideas were presented in built form rather than in a textual treatise.

We came away very excited by both the presentation and by the ideas involved, particularly the methodology used to discover the results and the use of colour in the digital models to make clear the hypothetical process enabling the vault design to be accomplished. We saw some clear parallels between the geometries discussed and the vaults we have scanned, but also some significant differences which we look forward to exploring further.

Further information about the event is available here: https://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/news-and-events/events/2016/modelling-vaults/.