Tag Archives: Prague Castle

Review of Modelling Medieval Vaults

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.

Bauer Lauterbach Website

As part of the upcoming Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium at the University of Liverpool in London, Thomas Bauer and Jörg Lauterbach will be presenting their investigations of Benedikt Ried’s deconstructive vaults at Prague Castle with Norbert Nußbaum.

Thomas and Jörg have a website of their work, where they specialise in stone historical reconstructions. The site contains a link showing 360 ° panoramas of timber reconstructions of the winding rib vaulted ceiling of the chapel in the Royal Palace of Dresden. The panoramas can be explored online, where you can rotate and zoom to investigate them further.

We are very much looking forward to hearing more about Thomas, Jörg and Norbert’s research at the symposium in July.

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/.