Tag Archives: Viollet-le-Duc

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.

Fire at Notre-Dame

We were shocked and saddened at the scenes from Paris as Notre-Dame Cathedral blazed in the night. Today’s news that the structure of the building seems to be safe has come as a great relief, given its importance both as a symbol and as a monument of Gothic architecture.

The word-famous cathedral was started in around 1160 and the west front dates from the early years of the thirteenth century. Later in that century, the upper storeys were remodelled to introduce a larger clerestory with traceried windows and the transept facades, with their celebrated rose windows, were added. As the mother church of Paris, the building has undergone many alterations and additions over its history, most significantly at the Revolution, when religious images were attacked, and in the nineteenth century, when architect Viollet-le-Duc undertook a major restoration, including the rebuilding of the wooden spire whose dramatic fall became one of the defining moments of the inferno.

Thoughts are already turning to the possibility of reconstruction, to which President Macron has stated his commitment and many millions of euros have been pledged from around the world. This is where research such as ours can be particularly valuable. Thanks to years of surveying and a recent laser survey by the late Professor Andrew Tallon, Notre-Dame is probably one of the best documented medieval buildings in the world. The level of detail provided by a laser scan, consisting of millions of digital points recorded in space to create an exact 3-D digital model, could enable a reconstruction to produce a stone-by-stone replica of a destroyed building. That is not to say that laser scanning would provide all the answers: scans can only record what is visible and cannot identify what is going on under the skin of the building. In particular, wooden roofs of the kind that has been destroyed at Notre-Dame are particularly difficult to document by digital means. Nevertheless, laser scan data would make it relatively easy to interrogate the geometries of the parts of the vaulting that have been lost, in order to accurately recreate their three-dimensional form. The geometries used would thus be based on an understanding of the design methods originally used by the medieval masons. There is a wealth of expertise that the reconstruction team could draw upon to assist in this work, with researchers in Spain, Germany and the United States (as well as us in the UK) all using digital techniques for documentation, interrogation and reconstruction purposes.

Paradoxically, it has often been the case that disasters have helped to enhance our understanding of buildings. The nineteenth-century architectural writer, Robert Willis, who has inspired our research, explored the debris surviving after the collapse of one of the western towers of Canterbury Cathedral and found a stone from the fourteenth-century vault still inscribed with the setting-out lines used by the masons when cutting the vault ribs. He used this as evidence for understanding how their designs were projected into three dimensions. Viollet-le-Duc used his experience of very thoroughgoing restorations to draw conclusions about medieval vaulting techniques, including at Notre-Dame. Some of his theories about the structural behaviour of vaults were challenged by the destruction of some of the northern French cathedrals during the First World War: at times the ribs collapsed, leaving the webbing, supposedly supported by the ribs, still standing without them. It may be hoped that the damages at Notre-Dame might be equally enlightening for further research on early Gothic vaulting, which can then inform the rebuilding.

Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (more famous in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) called for the restoration of the cathedral, spoke of three agents of change: time, revolution and fashion. To this should be added disaster. He understood all works of architecture as social products, the sediments of ages – as he put it ‘Time is the architect; the nation is the mason’. The future reconstruction of Notre-Dame should be seen in this light. It cannot return Notre-Dame to how it was before the fire, still less to any ‘original’ medieval state. Indeed, even if timber on an adequate scale were available it could be questioned whether there is value in replicating a less visible part of the building whose significance lay in the original timber and medieval carpentry techniques. Nevertheless the reconstruction work of the twenty-first century, which will doubtless use both traditional skills and cutting-edge technologies, will form the latest chapter in the biography of this beautiful building.

Image credit: Antoninnnnn


Tracing the Past was inspired by the work of Robert Willis (1800-1875), a famous Cambridge polymath. He was Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and taught engineering in the early years of that subject.

Willis’s research and teaching was spread over a wide range of
subjects. Our particular interest is in his pioneering study of medieval vaulting, presented as a lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1841 and published in the first volume of their Proceedings in 1842. Willis proposed a number of hypotheses about the design of medieval vaults which he hoped contemporary architects would be able to test. However the difficulties of gathering suitable data were huge and it’s only now, with the introduction of laser scanning that his ideas can be more fully explored, through projects such as ours.

On 16-17 September 2016, both Nick and Alex will be giving papers in the Robert Willis: Technology, Science and Architecture symposium taking place at Willis’s own college, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Alex will be speaking on Willis’s networks of knowledge and Nick will be presenting a digital update of Willis’s 1842 paper, for which the digital content can be found here. Other speakers will also be discussing Willis’s work on vaults, including Prof Santiago Huerta, Javier Giron, Martin Bressani (speaking on Willis and Viollet-le-Duc) and Antonio Becchi. The full programme is available here: willis-program-a4

The Symposium website includes a digital library of Willis’s publications, making it an incredibly useful resource for those sharing his interests. The Symposium proceedings will be published – further details available soon.