Arthur De Smet English Medieval Church ArchitectureIn the Collection

Early English Gothic Architecture in England

The earliest use of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses in England was in the choir and Trinity Chapel at Canterbury built from 1174-1184. Because of the mix of these Gothic elements and round arches and windows, the architectural style in Canterbury is considered to be Transitional rather than pure Early English. However, soon thereafter in the late 12th century, portions of Wells, Worcester and Lincoln Cathedrals were built in the Early English style. Although the flying buttress is a key element of Gothic architecture, they were used externally only occasionally in the Early English period. External buttresses were usual square or rectangular in cross-section projecting away from the wall in contrast to the flat buttresses of the Norman Romanesque period. A common position for buttresses was extending directly from the corner or at right angles at each side of a corner.

The most characteristic element in Early English church architecture is the lancet window, named for its tall, narrow shape and sharply pointed top resembling a lance. Originally these windows were placed singly but soon they began to be grouped in pairs and then groups of three, five or seven. When lancet windows were paired, trefoil, quatrefoil or cinquefoil-shaped windows were often placed between them. Because the foiled window opening with its cusps was cut into a large stone rather than created from thin strips of stone, this pattern is called plate tracery. When there were more than two windows, they were often stepped in increasing height from the outside to the center.

Originally the windows had alternating roll moldings and hollows in the arch only with simple chamfers in the windows jambs. Later the moldings were extended down to the window sill in multiple levels, called orders. A separate molding above the pointed arch of the window, called a hood molding, was originally placed over each window but later a single hood molding connected groups of windows. At the end of the hood molding, a hold molding stop was often decorated with a carved head.

Detached columns with narrow shafts and capitals were often placed in front of or alongside of the window jambs. Early capitals started as flaring cylinders with round molding but later elaborate foliage was added in what is now called stiff-leaf. Stiff-leaf describes the shape of the leaf stems which expanded upward from the shaft to the idealized leaves. Early stiff-leaf capitals had three large leaves per stem but the leaves became smaller and more in number over time. The shafts and capitals during the Early English period were often carved from a form of limestone from the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula in Dorset extending into the English Channel. It is often called Purbeck marble, because when it is polished, it has the appearance of marble. Its darker color contrasts with the cream to yellow colors of other forms of limestone.

Pointed arches were also used in ribbed vaulting and blind and open arcades. The use of pointed arches allowed a uniform height in church vaulting compared to the varying height resulting from groin vaulting of the Romanesque era. Vaulting was usually quadripartite but was occasionally sexpartite as in the choir at Rochester Cathedral. With quadripartite vaulting, there are transverse, longitudinal and diagonal ribs. Ridge ribs running longitudinally at the apex of the vault were uncommon until the later Decorated Gothic period. At the intersection of the vaulting ribs, there was often a foliated roof boss with stiff-leaf carving.

The vaulting ribs are supported either by vaulting shafts extending to the ground or from short shaft mounted on corbels arising from the walls. Both types of shafts have either molded or stiff-leaf capitals. In addition to stiff-leaf, the most type of ornamentation in Early English architecture is dogtooth carving which is named for the projecting points. The carving does not resemble a dogtooth but is in the shape of a pyramid with hollowed out sides. Square, four leaved flowers were also carved on both molding and flat surfaces for decoration.

On the exterior, more churches had towers and porches than in the Norman period. The towers could be on the west end of the church or at the crossing. The porches were almost always from the southern side of the western end of the church. The towers were square with half-pyramids, called broaches, used to transition from the four-sided tower to an octagonal spire. If broaches were not used, a parapet could be placed at the top of the tower to cover the awkward transition from the four sided tower to the octagonal spire.

Professor De Smet cataloged this collection and has supplied a list of subjects one can use to search the collection as well as a list of churches and cathedrals included in the collection.

Norman Medieval Church Architecture in England

William of Normandy's conquest dramatically changed England.  He brought feudalism and an administrative system that effectively ruled England throughout the 90 years of the Norman monarchy.  As part of his administrative restructuring, William replaced the Saxon clerical leaders with Norman clerics and brought the late Romanesque style of church architecture from continental Europe.

In the period from 1066 to 1100 he built 50 castles and 30 cathedrals and great monastic churches. These served as a powerful sign of the might of the Normans.  It has been estimated that during the Norman monarchy from 1066-1154, there were 7000 Norman churches built in England.  Many of these have not survived but even today one-quarter of the 8000 medieval churches in England still have significant Norman elements.

Norman churches have been characterized as powerful, massive and bold.  Unlike the early Romanesque Saxon churches which were tall but narrow buildings with thin walls and limited decoration, Norman churches were wide with thick walls and elaborate carved ornamentation.  In the cathedrals and large monastic churches, the design was primarily cruciform with a western nave for the congregation, a central crossing with north and south transepts and an eastern chancel with its altar for the priest.

This architectural period called Norman in England corresponded to the late Romanesque in Continental Europe and is characterized by use of round arches which had been perfected during the time of Imperial Rome. Both Norman doorways and windows are round arched at their tops.  All Norman doorways have rounded arches while all Gothic era doorways have pointed arches.  External doorways are richly decorated often with layers, called orders, in the upper arches.  Each layer is usually decorated.  The most common pattern of carvings is zig-zag or chevron but diamonds and the unusual beakheads are also common.  In beakhead ornamentation, bird, animal or monster heads are carved along the arch or door shafts with their beak extending down onto the moulding. Sometimes, human heads are carved with their tongues or beards extending onto the moulding.  The arch may extend directly onto the imposts along each side but often there are attached shafts of columns from which the arch springs.  The doorways contain square topped doors with a semicircular area between the arch and the door lintel.  This semicircular area, the tympanum, can be elaborately carved with a scene of the Last Judgment being a common theme.  Many other patterns of ornamentation were used including: animals, bead, billet, cable, chevron, embattled, fish-scale, flowers, fluting, heads, intersecting arcade, key, leaf, medallion, nailhead, plait, scallop, plait, scallop, spiral, star, volute and waterleaf.

Norman windows are miniature versions of the doorways with semicircular tops which pass directly down to the base or end on column shafts. Both doorways and windows often have an outer moulding which does not pass below the springing of the arch and ends either in a horizontal line or carved figure which serves as a drip moulding. The windows are not divided by tracery but are often included in a series of arches with blind arcades interspaced between the windows.  To maximize the light passing through the small windows, they are often splayed, that is sloped, being wider on the inside or outside than in the middle of the window.

Although not universally present, most Norman churches have a tower.  Early towers were often placed in a central position between the nave and the sanctuary.  However, many of these central towers collapsed due to inadequate support within the church.  As a result, later towers were constructed on the west end of the church so the tower walls could be continued to the ground on three sides.  Initially pyramidal wooden spires were placed on the tower but many have these have lost to decay.  The towers are commonly decorated with arcades applied to the walls with occasional interposed windows or louvered openings at the level of church bells.  A tower often has a turret containing stairs to provide access for maintenance.  Turrets may be square or round on their exterior.  There may have originally been plain parapets at the top of the tower but all parapets on Norman towers are now later additions.

In small village churches, there is usually only one level in the church. In larger churches the roof is higher allowing an upper level of windows, called the clerestory.  If there is an aisle on either side of the nave or sanctuary, a middle level called a triforium or tribune is present.  This middle level may or may not have exterior windows.  When a side aisle is present, there is open passage from the nave to the aisles between the piers which supported round-headed arches. These piers are square, columnar, multangular, or columnar with shafts applied to the column.  These columns may be smooth but are often decorated with flutes, spirals, chevrons, or other geometric patterns.

The capitals at the top of the piers initially had a cushion appearance with the square block with rounded off lower ends.  Later capitals were scalloped similar to a sea shell or with various volute patterns resembling a Grecian Ionic capital.  They were likely all originally painted but few remnants of that paint persist today.  The abacus at the transition point from the pier to the arch is almost inevitably square.  In fact, the presence of a round abacus is the most reliable sign of Gothic building.

The middle level, the tribune or gallery, may have a single large opening in each bay but usually consists of two or four openings separated by column shafts connected by arches.  Similarly in the clerestory, the upper windows often had a blind arch on each side.

The vaulting over the interior of a Norman church is occasionally flat and made of wood.  More commonly, the vaulting is stone and has the round arched configuration. When a round vault intersects at right angles to another, it forms a groined vault characterized by ridges.

Professor De Smet cataloged this collection and has also supplied a list of subject headingsone can use to search the collection as well as a list of churches and cathedrals included in the collection.