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cathedrals and churches -
an illustrated glossary

an ongoing project

construction of the clerestory

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new! the tour de france 2018 - celebrating france, celebrating the tdfillustrated graph

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

stained glass and cathedrals in Normandy illustrated graph

fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes

cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

Germans in France
cathedral destruction during the French revolution, subsidiary page to Germans in France

Click for an introduction to cathedrals and stained glass in France.

on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
paying at the péage (toll station)

Click for motorways and motorway aires in France.

Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
Gustave Eiffel’s first work: the Eiffel passerelle, Bordeaux
a fifth bridge coming to Bordeaux: pont Chaban-Delmas, a new vertical lift bridge

France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals
short biography of Pierre (Peter) Abelard

Marianne - a French national symbol, with French definitive stamps

la Belle Epoque
Grand Palais, Paris

Click to go to pages about Art Deco at

Click to go to 'the highest, longest: the viaduct de Millau'

Pic du Midi - observing stars clearly, A64
Carcassonne, A61: world heritage fortified city

Space City, Toulouse

the French umbrella & Aurillac

50 years old: Citroën DS
the Citroën 2CV: a French motoring icon

the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
Les Landes, places and playtime
roundabout art of Les Landes

Hermès scarves

Hèrmes logo

bastide towns
mardi gras! carnival in Basque country
country life in France: the poultry fair

what a hair cut! m & french pop/rock

Tour de France 2018
Le Tour de France: cycling tactics illustrated


New translation, the Magna Carta

To find a word, click on its first letter in the list below

A flat slab forming the uppermost member or division of the capital of a column.
An abacus is sometimes called an impost or impost-block, but it is really an impost-block from which arches spring.
Another name for springer.

Walking area around the chancel.

Apse [Fr. abside]
Semi-circular or polygonal ending to the chancel. The apse can be further extended by apsidal chapels.

plan of a gothic cathedral - interior
sometimes the side aisles are doubled Also named the choir, from its French name, choeur vestibule, found in earlier churches plan of a Gothic cathedral - interior

Floor plan of Saint-Sever abbey churchAbsidiole - French for a minor apse or 'apselet'.

The plan of Saint-Sever abbey church (on left) has a central apse and six absidoles that form a complex, parallel and stepped system that make up the chevet of Saint-Sever-sur-Adour Abbey church.

Arch, pointed arch
An arch supports the stonework of a building above an opening such as a window or a door.
Roman and Romanesque arches are rounded.
Gothic arches are pointed, enabling them to support loads over varying spans.
Roman arches, église de Beylongue
Roman arches, église de Beylongue
   Gothic arch, Pontonx church
Gothic arch, Pontonx church
(See also net; key stone)

Another name for the lintel above a doorway. The architrave or lintel supports the tympanum.
[See porch.]

Archivault / archivolt
A decorative moulding around and under an arch, on its under surface, which follows the extrados of an arch, forming an arch-like frame for an opening.
[See porch.]

This is the name given to the lower thickening of a column or a pillar that provides the column's foundation and support.
Note that an ancient Roman column had at its lower end a projection consisting of a a decorative, convex strip used for ornamentation or finishing and a scroll. With a few exceptions, mediæval columns have no lower projection or embellishment on its base.

Thus, with the scroll and other decorations removed, monumental stone cutters were spared considerable work. As a result, the 'cornice' could be part of the capital instead of being rebated into the column.
[Derived from Viollet-le-Duc.]

Although the words ‘bell’ and ‘belfry’ seem related, the bel- portion of belfry was not connected with bells until comparatively recently.

Etymology: The word ‘belfry’ goes back to a prehistoric Common Germanic compound. The second part of the compound is the element *frij-, meaning “peace, safety”; while the first element is either *bergan, meaning “to protect”, giving a compound meaning of “a defensive place of shelter”, or *berg-, meaning “a high place”, and giving a compound meaning of “a high place of safety, a tower”.

The Old French word derived from the Common Germanic compound is berfrei. First this meant “siege tower”, and later “watchtower”. Warning bells were used in these towers, thus the word was also applied to bell towers.

In Old North French, berfrei mutated to belfroi. This, in turn, caused English speakers to think of the native Old English word belle (Modern English, bell), and in Middle English became belfry meaning “bell tower”.

Bell wall / clocher-mur
A bell wall is an architectural element, a vertical, flat wall at the top or front of a building, usually churches, built to to accommodate bells. On a church, the bell wall is placed as the west facade.
[For more, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes]

Bifurcating flying buttresses
Each of the sloping flyers splits in two (bifurcates), presenting a 'Y'-shape in a bird's-eye view.
[See Le Mans cathedral]

A bréteche is a small, rectangular, structure that juts out from the fortified building, overhanging an entrance way, so defenders can throw down, or let fall, projectiles onto approaching assailants.
[For more, including illustrations, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes]

Butter Tower / Tour Beurre
Named because the tower’s construction is said to have been paid for out of the dispensations granted to those who did not wish to fast during Lent. As part of the dispensation, these people were allowed to drink milk and eat butter.
Butter towers are part of Rouen and Bourges cathedrals.

half cross-section of Amiens cathedral to show buttressing and roof.Buttresses are stone bracings that prevent cathedral walls collapsing from lateral and vertical pressures. As well as the weight of the roofs and walls, pressure can come from winds pushing against these tall and bulky structures.

Flying buttresses are stone ‘bars’ that apply a horizontal force inwards towards the cathedral wall. This force counter-acts the tendency of the walls to bulge out from the lateral pressures.

The upper flying buttress redirects the wind forces from the roof and the clerestory wall, guiding them downwards into the pier buttress.

The lower flying buttress performs the same duty, but for the outward lateral forces being exerted by the nave vaulting.

The pier buttress blocks the equivalent force from the vaulting of the side aisle. The pier buttress also supports the flying buttresses, bracing them so the cathedral wall does not move outwards. The pier buttress also transforms the still sideways forces into downward ones.

The pinnacle adds further weight to the pier buttress, helping to anchor it against sideways pressure.

For much greater detail, see buttressing and chainage.

Cagot / cagotte (fem.)
Wretched and poor person belonging to a group banned for ill-defined reasons (orginally, perhaps those affected by leprosy or other disease), once established in Pyrenean valleys of Béarn and in Gascony, as well as other parts of Western France and North Spain. The word was then applied derisively to bigots[(semantic evolution: leper > hypocrite > bigot].

Cagots were shunned, unable to mix socially or commercially, forced to form separate communities. They entered the church by a separate door, often deliberately made low so those entering had to bow as supposedly fit their lowly social station. Cagots were either banned from receiving communion or receiving it from the end of a long wooden spoon.  Cagots were often only permitted to be a carpenter, butcher, or rope-maker.

The top protruding stones of a column.
The capital at the head of a column spreads the load to the structures above, providing the transition from column to lintel or arch (see below left). For thousands of years, the capital has been an excuse for all manner of artistlc decoration. Originating in ancient Greece, different styles are named after the period when they were prevalant.

The two main styles of Greek capital are:
Corinthian - With three superimposed rows of carved foliage (acanthus leaves)  and small volutes (spiral scrolls) at the corners.
Ionic - a Greek style with the major decorations being large volutes on either side. These capitals are not common in gothic buildings.
[A very comprehensive page of different capital types.]

By the 11th century A.D., historiated or figured capitals appeared, decorated with humans, animals, birds and foliage.
t-Bertrand-en-Comminges    Smiling lions on a column's capital 

This is the part of the church to the east of the transept. The word choir is sometimes used sloppily for this area, but more sensibly just applied to the area where the choir sings. The chancel includes the high altar at its eastern end.

A name used in France for the eastern end of the church in general, this we would call the apse. The chevet comprises an apse with radiating chapels beyond the aisle around the choir, the ambulatory. The resulting, more complicated structure became known as the chevet from the beginning of the 13th century.

Individual shaped stones in an arch, other than the keystone. Also known as a voissoir.

Also clerstory, clarestory, clerestorey, clarester, cleer story, clear story, clearstory.
[Etymology: Commonly believed to be from the French, clere, clear + story, stage of a building or ‘floor’ of a house.]
Clere must here have meant ‘light, lighted,’ since the sense ‘free, unobstructed’ did not yet exist. This assumed derivation is strengthened by the parallel blind-story, although this may have been a later formulation in imitation of clere-story. The great difficulty is the non-appearance of story in the sense required before c. 1600, and the absence of all trace of it in any sense in 14th, 15th, and chief part of 16th c. At the same time there is a solitary instance of story in the civic Rolls of Gloucester [R. Glouc.] (1724), which may mean ‘elevated structure’ or ‘fortified place’.
The noun estorie in Old French [OF]. had no such sense, but the past participle estoré meant ‘built, constructed, founded, established, instituted, fortified, furnished, fitted out’, whence a noun with the sense ‘erection, fortification’ might perhaps arise.]

The upper part of the nave, choir, and transepts of a cathedral or other large church, lying above the triforium (or, if there is no triforium, immediately over the arches of the nave, etc.), and containing a series of windows, clear of the roofs of the aisles, admitting light to the central parts of the building.

Clearstory is now more common in the USA, whereas European usage prefers clerestory. It is interesting to note that large numbers of the more useful monographs on the architecture of medieval France originate in the USA, while many of the more philosophical studies originate in the United Kingdom.

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A single, slim, vertical support with a cylindrical or a polygonal cross-section to its shaft (see on the right). A column always has a base and a capital. Because columns are of relatively small diameter, they are only capable of supporting vertical down force and unable to support much oblique load, like those generated by arches or vaulting.
[See buttressing.] [See pillar.]

A projection jutting out to support a weight, such as a balcony, a corniche, or the first level of a roof. (There are also non-load-bearing versions.)
The carved version is called a modillon in French.
a row of modillons at Beylongue church, Les Landes
a row of modillons at Beylongue church, Les Landes
[Etymology: The word corbel devised from the Latin word, corbellus - diminutive of corvus, a raven; or from corbeau - a crow, with a corbelet being a small corbeau.]

On a vertical surface such as a wall, the highest horizontal area that juts or sticks out, such as mouldings along the top of a wall or just below a roof line.
[Etymological origin : ledge]

Walls with lower and higher parts that provide cover for defenders protecting a building. The cut-out, lower parts are called crenels. Found on fortified churches such as that at Beaumont-du-Périgord.

A subterranean room or vault, especially one beneath the main floor of a church, used as a burial place or for, frequently secret, meetings.
[Etymology: From Greek kryptḗ (n., f.) - a hidden place, kryptós - hidden (adj.),krýptein - to hide (vb.) 1375-1425 for sense "grotto"; 1555-65 for current senses. Thus related to cryptology or code-making. ]

[Public architecture] The lower part of a wall; or the part of a pedestal between the base and the cornice.
[Domestic architecture] The wall below the dado rail and above the skirting board.

This word was originally written as de lit, but the two words have elided over time, acquiring an acute accent. De lit means 'out of bed', in this context not lying parallel to how the sedimentary strata were laid. In architecture, this term refers to the cutting and placing of a stone for construction. Délit contrasts with au lit, 'in the bed'. Traditionally, the stone is cut and laid down in accord with the geological strata of the quarry bed of which the rock is constituted, which strata are substantially horizontal. Laid this way, the stone resists the pressure of the loads that are exerted on it.

In contrast, la pose en délit (posing or placing against the grain) consists in placing the stone so the strata (bed) are vertical. Placing en délit causes a risk of vertical cracking or disintegration. This is why it is prohibited (in France) when using "laminated" materials such as certain limestones and shales; vertical placing/en délit being more suitable for homogeneous materials. However, construction en délit was much used by the Romans, and later by the builders of the flamboyant Gothic cathedrals - for aesthetic reasons (the visual smoothness of the stone, achieving great heights without joints) and, in fact, as demonstrations of technical virtuosity.

Although stone cut en délit is prone to shattering under compression, by cutting en délit, much longer pillars, tracery and other slender structures may be achieved. Compressive shattering can be mostly avoided by ensuring that the stone concerned is not significantly load-bearing.

The architectural use of the word délit is pretty obscure. Nowadays, the word délit in France is much more commonly encountered as meaning a minor crime. The three levels of crime are contravention, délit and crime. A contravention is the least serious offence: irregular parking or light violence, for example. Next is a délit: theft, abuse of public property, discrimination, moral harassment, sexual touching, manslaughter ... Crime is the most serious offence: murder, rape ...

These two usages of délit are not etymologically related in any way. Délit, a minor crime, comes from the same root as delinquent and delinquency.

Pattern created by repeating small, often geometrical, designs. Used to decorate walls, and as backgrounds in illuminated documents, such as books.

[See spandrel.]
Great tower or innermost keep (bailey) of a castle. Originally the word dungeon was used in this sense (see, for instance, Chaucer). Later, the word was changed from the sense of great tower to the modern usage of dungeon, while donjon is now used for the original sense.

Supplementary cubical block or super-abacus, [super, Latin for over], which is often taller than the capital itself, placed over an abacus of Earl Christian, Byzantine, and Romanesque capitals.

An opening for a portal or window built into a thick wall. An embrasure often has angled sides, so that the opening is larger on the inside than the outside. These were used to allow archer or gunnery fire. This type of opening was flared inwards, thus the embrasure was very narrow on the outer side but broad inside, so that the archers had freedom of movement and sighting, and of their assailants, who had the greatest difficulty in seeing the defenders.
[Etymology: Old French: embraser - to cut at a slant.]
[See meurtiere.]

Engaged column
A curved shaft built directly into a wall. It is like any other column, but it is physically connected to the wall, being a part of it. An engaged column is load-bearing, helping to hold the ceiling as well as providing support buttressing to its surrounding wall.

Exterior or upper curve of an arch

Literally, flaming. This refers to the way flamboyant shapes in church and cathedral windows often are reminicent of flames.

As gothic architecture developed, there was less satisfaction with the great gains in size of window alone. The result was the development of the Flamboyant window and its greater complexity, as can be seen in the south rose window at Amiens.
South rose at Amiens cathedral - external view
South rose at Amiens cathedral - external view

Until very recently, the roofs of the great cathedrals were framed in massive and complex structures of wood, often known as ‘the forest’.
the forest supporting Soissons cathedral roof
the forest supporting Soissons cathedral roof
credit: Ministère de la Culture (France)
Due to its vulnerability to fire, the‘forest’ has been a great bane for gothic cathedrals from the earliest times. This regularly caused much damage to the cathedral at large, by damaging the stone work, as well as setting fire to the cathedral structure and furnishings.

Now, restoration is turning to reinforced concrete for roof framing as, for instance, at Noyon. Iron and steel has also been used on occasion in the past (see Chartres - roof space: le charpente de fer).

Fortified church
A church built with sufficient reinforcement and size that it can provide shelter to the town or bastide’s population in times of trouble. See also Beaumont-du-Périgord.
[For comprehensive, illustrated essay, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes.]

Another name for a tribune.

A purposeful decoration of a rainwater sprout projecting from a gutter take the water away from the building, usually in the form of a fantastic or grotesque figure. In the Middle Ages, gargoyles were utilitarian.

In the 19th century, the French architect who restored (some may say over-restored) many public buildings in France, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc added the ‘gargoyles’ to Notre Dame de Paris in a fanciful, romantic notion, more akin to Disneyland than reality.

“These gargoyles ... were not mere avatars of the Middle Ages, but rather fresh creations—symbolizing an imagined past—whose modernity lay precisely in their nostalgia.”
[Quoted from The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame]

This a gargoyle:

And this is what a gargoyle looks like from above. Note that the rain runs into the beastie’s head to spurt from its mouth, so projecting the water away from the building.

These are not gargoyles, they are grotesques. They are not conduits for rainwater:

Etymology: The word ‘gargoyle’ comes from Old French gargurl or gargolle, meaning ‘throat’, or ‘gullet’, or even ‘gutter’. ‘Gargle’ has a similar etymological origin - the root gar-, ‘to swallow’.

A funerary sculpture of Christian art depicting a recumbent person (as opposed to a praying or supplicant position) generally on the back, alive or dead with a blissful or smiling appearance (as opposed to being 'chilled to the bone'). The image is usually placed on top of a cenotaph or, more rarely, a sarcophagus. When it exists, the gisant is the main element of decoration for a tomb or funerary niche. By extension, a carved or engraved gisant in bas- or half-relief on a tombstone can also represent the effigy of a great personage or noble.
Tombs of Richard I and Isabella, wife of John
Tombs of Richard I [Richard the Lionheart] and Isabella, wife of John Lackland [Richard's younger brother]

Etymology: Gisant is the present participle of the verb gésir [Fr.] : lying down, lying (usually sick or dead). The same verb is used in the phrase "ci-gît" ("here lies"). Gésir is a defective verb that is only used in the present, the imperfect, and the present participle.

Almost monochrome glass, each piece shaped as a square or diamond and painted with black enamel paint. From a distance, grisaille windows have an overall greyish tint; hence the name grisaille, meaning greyness in French.

A grotesque is a fanciful statue, created in the 19th century or later, placed high on an cathedral or church. Unlike a gargoyle, a grotesque does not direct rainwater away from the building, it is merely decorative.

Light spilling from one section of glass to another. However, these old craftsmen knew their trade, thus thickening the leading where this is most likely to occur. They even could take foreshortening into account, as you stare up at human figures placed on high.

Impost / imposte (Fr.)
Slab, or row of stones, above a column capital at the point of the spring of an arch. The arch rests on the impost.
Another name for springer.

Inner curve of an arch.

Jesse tree
A tree of Jesse is a tradition in stained glass windows, giving a visual representation of the genealogy of Jesus. The name ‘Jesse Tree’ comes from the Book of Isaiah 11:1, where Jesus is described as a shoot coming up from the ‘loins’ of Jesse, the father of David. As with most story windows, a Jesse window is read from base to top.

In stained glass depictions, the tree comes from the side, or the navel, of Jesse lying on a bed. The lineage shown includes the following list, but may be longer, including other ancestors such as Solomon.
The characters in the list below of a typical Jesse tree are accompanied by symbols, which may decorate the Jesse tree. Bible sources are also included.
Adam and Eve, symbol : apple (Genesis 2:4-3:24)
Noah : ark or rainbow (Genesis 6:11-22, 7:17-8:12, 20-9:17)
Abraham : knife (Genesis 12:1-7, 15:1-6)
Isaac : ram (Genesis 22:1-19)
Jacob : ladder (Genesis 27:41-28:22)
Joseph : colorful coat (Genesis 37, 39:1-50:21)
Moses : tablets of the law (Exodus 2:1-4:20)
David : harp (1 Samuel 16:17-23)
Isaiah : lion and lamb (Isaiah 1:10-20, 6:1-13, 8:11-9:7)
Mary : lily (Luke 1:26-38)
Elizabeth : small home (Luke 1:39-55)
Joseph : hammer or saw (Matthew 1:18-25)

The lineage shown at Le Mans comprises only five characters of a much greater possible list:


The various parts of cathedral arches and columns labelled
Arches and pillars labelled (at Notre-Dame de Saint-Denis)
Arches and pillars labelled (at Notre-Dame de Saint-Denis)



The various parts of cathedral arches and columns labelled

The links in the key below go to the relevant glossary entries. The cathedral is Notre Dame de Saint-Denis, Paris.

  1. Pillar
  2. Respond
    (note that here there are several responds against the pillar and the wall.)
  3. Column
  4. Impost
  5. Springer
  6. Socle
  7. Base
  8. Capital
  9. Key stone
  10. Rib

See also labelled capital diagram.


Key stone, keystone
The top, central stone of an arch is called the keystone. It is the last stone put in place, locking the other stones in position.
See also voussoir.
According to Viollet-le-Duc, clef (in English, key) when applied to masonry, means the central arch stone that closes an arch, positioned on the vertical line from the top centre of this arch.
For rounded [Roman] arches, there is a single, central keystone. The Roman/rounded arch also has other arch stones, and at its base on each side there is a springer, (E on the labelled photo above).
Roman arch in l'église de Taller
Roman arch, église de Taller

For pointed [Gothic] arches, the arch's apex meets at a joint between the two highest stones. In these cases, in fact, the keystone is two half keystones, which can also be regarded as arch stones, one each side of the joint at the arch's apex. A pointed/Gothic arch is shaped from two part circles, and is composed only of springers and arch stones. It is probable that if a Gothic arch keystone is made of only one stone, it would probably shatter from the pressures involved.
[See also the two Ks to the right in the labelled photo further above.]

Gothic window, Beverley Church, England    Gothic arch, Pontonx church
Gothic arch, Pontonx church

Left : Gothic window, Beverley Church, England, drawing from
Decorated Windows, E. Sharp M.A, publisher: J van Voorst,
1841 [plate 43, vol. 2 of 2 vol.s]

And here is a composite illustration, with the keystones marked in orange, from Viollet-le-Duc
composite illustration of keystones from Viollet-le-Duc
Viollet Le-Duc, entry for Voûte (enhanced)
Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle [1854 - 1868], Tome 9, p.508
Labyrinth / maze
"What is the difference, it may be asked, between a maze and a labyrinth? The answer is, little or none. Some writers seem to prefer to apply the word "maze" to hedge-mazes only, using the word "labyrinth" to denote the structures described by the writers of antiquity, or as a general term for any confusing arrangement of paths. Others, again, show a tendency to restrict the application of the term "maze" to cases in which the idea of a puzzle is involved. It would certainly seem somewhat inappropriate to talk of "the Cretan Maze" or "the Hampton Court Labyrinth," but, generally speaking, we may use the words interchangeably, regarding "maze" as merely the northern equivalent of the classic "labyrinth." Both words have come to signify a complex path of some kind, but when we press for a closer definition we encounter difficulties."
[From Introduction, Mazes and Labyrinths by W. H. Matthews, 1922]

A 'simply connected' maze has just one path that leads from its entrance at the exterior, that winds its way to eventually reach the centre, as can be seen at Amiens, Reims. A simply connected maze may include dead ends, though this is not so at Amiens or Reims. A maze or labyrinth with dead ends can be solved - finding one's way to the centre or out again - by keeping a hand touching one wall while going along the paths. Eventually, the goal will be reached. The labyrinth at Knossos in Crete was said to be of this type.

A 'multiply connected' maze has walls which are detached one from another, making separate closed circuits. The hedge maze at Hampton Court in England is a well-known example. Such a maze requires a more complex set of rules to reach the centre, or exit. These were determined by Pierre Charles Trémaux [active in the late 1800s].
  1. Mark on the right continuously any path you take. At a junction, continue to mark, taking any path you wish.
  2. If you encounter a previously marked (old) path or a dead end, turn around and continue marking back the way you came.
  3. If when walking on an old path (marked on the left), you arrive at a previously marked juncture, take and mark any new path if available, if not take an old path.
  4. Never take a path marked on both sides.

    Note that Trémaux only proposes making a mark at the start or end of a path, but making a continuous line could be more obvious and reliable.
related document:
cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France illustrated
Pointed, as seen in the arches and windows with a pointed head introduced in the Gothic period of architecture. [Etymology: From the point of a lance - a spear.] Also see Ogive.

Where the nave and transepts cross, that crossing can be surmounted by a dome or a tower, straddling the four corner pillars of the crossing.
If the tower has glassed openings that let in light down to the floor of the crossing, it is called a lantern or lantern tower.
Lantern tower forms include
• in stone - as at Coutances, Normandy in France,
• in wood - as at Eely in Eastern England, and
• domed lantern, also called a cupola - as at Burgos in Spain.

related document:
lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere illustrated graph

Horizontal stone bar supporting a tympanum.
Also the structural support above a door or a window.
[See Porch.]

Openings in floors that project beyond the castle wall. Missiles can be dropped on unwanted visitors below.
Boiling oil was not used - oil was an expensive product, and heating it would use wood in short supply in a seige situation.
Machicolations are found on fortified churches such as that at Beaumont-du-Périgord.

In stained glass, a medallion refers variously to a circular; oval, square or diamond shaped space, a section in a window, generally one of many within the overall window design, that contains a figure or figures.
Yoked medallions are two medallions partially joined together.

A meurtrière is the generic name for arrow-slit or loophole. They can be further divided into archières, cannonières and archière-cannonière.
[For more, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes.]

A little ledge on which priests and monks could rest their bottom while appearing to be standing, they not being allowed to sit in “the presence of the Lord” and ceremonies could continue for hours on end. These ledges are called misericords (also spelt misericorde, misercord = mercy, Fr.), and were justified by being the location for fancy carving on religious topics or stories from the bible.

The choir stalls at Amiens are considered to be among the best anywhere. They certainly are splendid, but I prefer the choir stalls at Auch. They are an extraordinary treasure hidden at the heart of that cathedral, with primitive naive energy, both in the subjects and in their implementation.
Two choir stalls at Amiens cathedral with their misericords marked.
Two choir stalls at Amiens cathedral with their misericords marked.

In the long past, many village churches in Les Landes were built on higher points, including the artificial heights of a major heaping of mud, rocks, and stones called a motte.
[For more, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes]

Sharp, hairpin-like folds in clothes, seen in stained glass windows and statues.
How lancets became windows-window with eight mullions
window with eight mullions
The vertical stone bars that divide the lights (sections) in larger windows.
[Left: window with nine lights and eight mullions, Carlisle cathedral.]

A vestibule, found in some earlier churches. This is usually archaic now.
In the early church, there was a split between the Catechumens, that is the unbaptised faithful, and the Initiates. Thus, baptisms were held in the narthex, before entry into the church proper to be with the baptised faithful. On occasion, the narthex would be a colonnaded porch in front of the main church. Sometimes, this was called a 'galilee'. In England, such entry porches can still be seen at Durham, Ely, and Lincoln cathedrals.

Thus, the Catechumen would attend the first part of the service and then leave. After prayer and sermons would come the communion and the creed for the Initiates. The Church was almost in two parts, some even call it two Churches. As the Church grew in size, it gradually merged and became the enormous cathedrals and churches coping with the increasing populations.

However, the choir and the nave remained as a distinction between priests and people. This was adjusted quite recently, as Vatican II changed services to the vernacular and turned the altar so the priest faced the people.

Another purpose of the narthex, remembering that British cathedrals were mostly monastic foundations, was where the monks could meet with local dignatories ('civilians') or females.

Main body of a church or cathedral. From the french word for a ship, the nave looking similar to frame of an upturned ship.
[Etymology: Nef is the French word for ship or vessel]

The spaces enclosed by the framework of ribs supporting vaulted ceilings.
3-D diagram to indicate position of different vaulting
The net is the web of stone between the arches of the vaults. These continuously curved shapes, like a spider’s web or an eggshell, have both redundancy and surprising strength. (If a spider’s web or an eggshell is broken, the main structure remains functional.) I am told that the web at Notre Dame de Paris is only about 6 inches thick, yet it has held up for 800 years. In the photograph below, you can see the web at Reims cathedral pierced by a German shell in 1915. See also Spoila.
For much more technical detail, see Sexpartite vaulting.

Vaulting net at Reims cathedral
Vaulting net at Reims cathedral

a round hole in the wall. [Illustrations]

A pointed or Gothic arch.
One of the diagonal groins or ribs of a vault.

Orientation of a cathedral
It is conventional to refer to the apse end of cathedrals as the east, and the other three points as west, south and north. It is also common to refer the the ‘east’ end of the cathedral as being oriented towards Jerusalem.

In fact, many of the cathedrals were built on sites which had long been the place of previous cathedrals. These had often been burnt or otherwise damaged, or overtaken by changing fashions and growing congregations. And going beyond that into the past, they were sites of Roman and pagan temples.

The demands of site and geography could also be a consideration. Thus, if you check, you will often find that cathedrals are not reliably oriented east-west, but their orientation is quite variable. The magnetic compass was only being introduced in Europe in the late 12th century, by which time the sites of most cathedrals were well established. So maybe the cathedral builders had used the North Star.

However, the convention remains. The main altar/apse is at the ‘eastern’ end, the prime public entrance is at the ‘west’, with side entrances at ‘north’ and ‘south’.

The area in front of a cathedral. [See Cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees]

In preparation - Pendentif, pedentives and squinches
pedentives, squinches, drums, domes and lanterns
Bridging the difference
Cathedrals are built as a series of square 'rooms' without internal walls and with columns at the corners of each 'room'.
Adding an circular or octagonal drum or a hemicircular dome above such a square 'room' needs a three-dimentional solution to join the the two together.
Pendentives are one such solution, squinches are another.  Pendentives are simpler in appearance but more complex in their geometry.

Pendentives are triangular segments of a sphere, tapered to a point at the base and spreading at the top, that create the continuous circular base needed to support a dome above a square room.
Another, earlier solution is the squinch, a wedge of masonry, often hollowed-out, filling in the corner space at the top of the square walls and below the base of the dom or drum.
squinch - a straight or arched structure across an interior angle of a square tower to carry a superstructure such as a dome.
wiki - A squinch in architecture is a construction filling in the upper angles of a square room so as to form a base to receive an octagonal or spherical dome.
wiki -Construction
Squinches may be formed by masonry built out from the angle in corbelled courses, by filling the corner with a vise placed diagonally, or by building an arch or a number of corbelled arches diagonally across the corner.

Viollet: Squinch, s. f. Stacked wedges, having the shape of a shell, which is used for corbeling, either a projecting angle on a cutaway, or a straight facing on a re-entrant angle. The builders of the Middle Ages made great use of squinches to carry the eight-pointed stone spires on the square towers, watch-towers on siding, corbelled turrets; they used squinches instead of pendentives to build cupolas on doublet arches resting on four piles.

Squinches are stacked, either by means of a series of concentric arches or cone-shaped.

 shallow, rectangular pillar attached to a wall. A pilaster is not load-bearing, it is a decorative addition to a wall.
On the other hand, an engaged column is a curved shaft built directly into a wall. It is like any other column, but it is physically connected to the wall, being a part of it. An engaged column is load-bearing, helping to hold the ceiling as well as providing support buttressing to its surrounding wall.

Pillar, column, pier.....
Here, I am following the definitions and descriptions of Viollet-le-Duc. I shall treat columns and pillars as not being the same thing, in that I take pillars to be composite and part of the Gothic structural innovation.

All of these are upright posts of various heights, thicknesses, and so of differing substance. Then you can also read of posts, struts and stanchions! Here we will look only at pillars made of stone.

The words pillar, column, and pier are interchangeable, but some like to use them more specifically as the following illustrates:
• Pillar - a large, vertical post or similar tall structure, often used for supporting a building or parts of it.
Column - An upright pillar, usually a cylinder, designed usually to support a larger structure or part of a building above it, such as a roof or horizontal beam, but sometimes used for decoration.
• Pier - one of the pillars supporting a bridge or arch, a rectangular pillar or similar structure that supports an arch, wall or roof, a large column, or a squat or short one.

Because columns are of relatively small diameter, they are only capable of supporting limited vertical down force and unable to support much oblique load, like those generated by arches or vaulting.

Composite or compound pillars have one part that rises and supports a lower arch, while another part continues higher to, say, support an arch or some vaulting. A pillar is made up of a principle support, with several subsidary shafts and half-columns (or responds). In the photograph below, the various component pillars are coloured to show which higher parts of the cathedral's structure are being supported. Only one compound pillar has been marked (to the left of centre, with two purple lines enclosing a blue line). You can follow similar paths on other pillars to see how they contribute to this support of the cathedral's ceiling..
Illustrating complex/composite columns at Amiens cathedral: south transept, facing west
Illustrating complex/composite columns at Amiens cathedral: south transept, facing west


Illustrating complex/composite columns at Amiens cathedral

Key for illustration to the left

cyan: supporting transept main vaulting.
green: supporting diagonal ribs of main vaulting
blue: supporting arches
purple: supporting diagonal ribs of lower vaulting



The part of a portal that extends outwards beyond the cathedral portal, its extrados. The archivolts of the porch are supported by statuary and a lintel.

Portal and porch labelled (at Chartres cathedral, north transept, east side)

A : tympanum
B : lintel or architrave
C : archivaults
D : statuary (the statue between the doors is a trumeau)

The ensemble of a cathedral door, its surrounding statuary, lintel, typanum and archivaults.
See image just above [Porch.].

When a bishop (or archbishop) held one or more secular titles concurrently with their religious office, their title was prince-bishop and their religious domain was called a prince-bishopric. As well as being a bishop or archbishop, they may have been a prince (or other powerful person, like a duke) of a local secular territory (which for a prince was called a principality). The secular territory may be coincident partially or totally with their diocesian jurisdiction.

Quadrapartite vaulting
a vaulted ceiling with four ribs. For much more technical detail, see Sexpartite vaulting.
[For illustration, see Net.]


rayonnant rose window, south transept, Notre Dame de Paris
rayonnant rose window, south transept, Notre Dame de Paris

Here, the glass is constructed as rays spreading out from the window's centre. In the example above, the rays mimic lancet windows. Such windows can be seen in the south rose at Laon, the south rose at Rouen cathedral, and also the north rose of Ouen Abbey Church in Rouen.

Half-pillar attached to a wall to support an arch, or the rib of a vault. (Can also be an half-arch). [illustration]

Weight-bearing, curved columns of piped masonry, the armature [framework] of vaulting.
[See Net.]

Rood screen
Also known as choir screen, chancel screen, or jube (un jubé).
An ornate stone or wood partition dividing the nave from the choir.

Small room, usually leading from the east end of a church, used by the priest to don his ceremonial vestments and prepare for a service. Also used from counting up moneys donated.

Safe room
Imitated in in current times, this room of last resort was constructed under the eaves, close to the military walkway on high. Safe rooms are often marked by openings in the church wall close under the roof's eaves.
[For more, see Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes.]

Sexpartite vaulting
a vaulted ceiling with six ribs. [See Lyon cathedral.]
Bourges sexpartite roof vaulting. Credit: AEngineer
Bourges sexpartite roof vaulting. Credit: AEngineer

“The Bourges sexpartite vault is estimated to weigh 370,000 kg (820,000 lb), that is approximately 400 imperial tons. Whereas, Mark estimates that the Cologne quadrapartites to weigh 270,000 kg (600,000 lb), that is going on 300 imperial tons. [Primarily from Mark, p.115.]
[An imperial (long) ton is 2,240 lb or 1,016.05 kg.
A short or American ton is 2,000 lb or 907.18 kg.
Increasingly used is the metric tonne of 1000 kg, or 2,204.6 lb.]

Comparing one Bourges sexpartite with two quadrapartites, a Bourges sexpartite covers an area of about 92.2% of two Cologne quadrapartites. Thus, 400 tons at Bourges matches to about (300 tons x 2 x 92.2%), that is 553 tons. You can see from the figures that the sexpartite formation is more efficient in supporting and spreading the load than the quadrapartite configuration [Abstracted from Mark, p.117, note 15].

The vaults also have rubble, or fill, to increase pressure and to help stabilise them. This included in the weights quoted. Mark estimates that the horizontal outward thrust on the main piers as 28,100 kg (62,000 lb) at Bourges, and 31,300 kg (69,000 lb) at Cologne. The secondary, lighter pier at Bourges, Mark estimates at 11,300 kg (25,000 lb).

Side aisles
These can sometimes be double.
The space between four pillars is called a bay or a transverse section. The vaulting goes diagonally across between the piers of each bay.

The socle is the first row of stones above the base, in a wall, or a pillar, or a column. The base always provides emphasis to the projection just above, a more or less pronounced thickening or broadening - the socle. In the constructions of the Middle Ages,the profile of the projecting socle was never left horizontal. In Romanesque architecture, the profile that crowns the socle is usually a bevel 45º to 60º. Later, during the Gothic period, the profile of the socle was often a moulding (bead) carved so as not to present sharp edges that could injure passers-by. There is no need to say that for socles, the builders of the Middle Ages have chosen the toughest materials.
A socle is a type of torus that is at times decorative as well as functional (helping to spread a pillar's weight.)
[Derived from Viollet-le-Duc.]

Definitions of socle by others are often sloppy :
lower panels of a portal, or
stone carving on which a statue stands, such as a lion, donkey, angel, book.

Etymology: French; from Latin socculus, probable diminutive of soccus - a sort of shoe or slipper (related English word, sock). Also possibly Italian zoccolo - wooden shoe".

Triangular-shaped area of stone between two arches that are in a row. Below, the spandrels are highlighted in pink. Spandrels may be decorated with diapers, as in this illistration.
Part of the south transept at Westminster Abbey, England showing spandrels with diaper decoration.
Part of the south transept at Westminster Abbey, England, showing spandrels with diaper decoration.
[1870 lithograph]

Reused material. Rubble, or fill, used to increase pressure on vaulting and to help stabilise them. [See sexpartite vaulting.]
Reused old glass is also sometimes referred to as spolia.

Springer, springing, springing point, spring
Occasionally, you will see terms like"springing from" and "springer". They all refer to where the arch arises from a pillar. In particular, the first stone is called the springer. The top, central stone of an arch is called the keystone. The top stone of a pillar is called the capital.

Springers are the first, the lowest, stones of a vault rib or arch above the springing point (the level at which a vault or arch rises from its supports, such as pillars). In Gothic vaulting, it is the lowest stone of a diagonal or traverse rib.

In preparation -Squinch
squinch in architecture is a solution to the structural problem of making the transition from a square room supporting an octagonal or spherical dome above it. Another solution to this structural problem is the pendentive (article includes illustrations).
squinch in architecture is a construction filling in the upper angles of a square room so as to form a base to receive an octagonal or spherical dome.
Story window
Stained glass window which tells a story, from the Old or New Testament of the Bible, or the life of a saint.
has made a detailed analysis of the story window of Saint Julian the hospitaller in Rouen cathedral.

The talus, a sloped portion at the base of a fortified wall, provided an effective defence in several measures.
Conventional siege equipment was less efficient against a wall with a talus.
Scaling ladders may be unable to reach the top of the walls and the ladders were more easily broken because the large angle of slope caused bending stresses.
A Siege tower could not approach closer than the base of the talus, with its gang plank often unable to reach across the horizontal span of the talus, making them useless.
Defenders could drop rocks over the walls, shattering on the talus and spraying stone shrapnel at attackers at the base of the wall.
[See Fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes.]
Lesgor church from eastern end showing the rounded apse

Colossal male figures used as columns.

Censer of incense [see Le Mans cathedral]

A ring, often like an inflated inner tyre or a doughnut.

Going across the main body of the cathedral, with north and south arms, sometimes with side doors. See cathedral plan.

Tracery is a decorative method of providing the stone framework, and so the support needed, in windows of great spans. Tracery can also be found in rose windows Stone tracery is also a common form of decoration in towers, as chapel dividers, and even garden walls, where glass is not inserted. Similar patterning appears with other materials, such as wood.
See also stone tracery in church and cathedral construction.

Transverse arch
Supporting arch which goes across a longitudinal vault, from one side to the other, and so divides the bays in a side aisle. A traverse arch usually projects out and downwards from the surface of the vault.

A tribune is a much wider area than a triforium, extending across the width of the aisle below. The tribune is more like a room, lit by windows to the outside. Also known as a gallery.

The word triforum has no reliable etymology, but has come to mean the arcaded gallery below the clerestory windows and above the nave aisles and side bays. More effectively, I would use triforium as describing a minor gallery somewhere above the nave aisle level. This word was first used by Gervase of Canterbury, c. 1185, to refer to a gallery at Canterbury Cathedral, and was used only in the context of Canterbury Cathedral until about 1800.
The triforium and tribune at Bourges cathedral Interior of Laon cathedral, showing its four levels. Image credit: Michael Leuty
Bourges cathedral
A: Upper triforium; B: Lower triforium
Four colonnade levels at Laon cathedral
Image credit: Michael Leuty
Showing trifriums and tribunes
simplified schematic showing the relationship between the pillars, aisles, triforia, tribunes and roofs
in Bourges and Laon cathedrals

Bourges cathedral has two walkways [A and B] between the upper, middle and lower rows of stained glass windows. On the external view of the cathedral, these triforia are beneath a sloped roof protecting them as the roof extends outwards beyond the row of windows above.
The technical term for such a walkway is triforium. But beware, there are columned walkways that look rather similar but which are called tribunes.

What’s the difference? The triforium is a relatively narrow walkway without windows. The triforium and the outside roof hide the space above the vaults. In that space, rubble was placed to to increase pressure and so to help stabilise the vaults below. The triforium also provides another row of colonnades and so contributes to the coherence of the cathedral interior.

Notice that the triforia come opposite protective roofs on the outside. This hiatus is the meeting between levels of aisle arches. You can see a tribune glazed at the second level between the low-level windows and the clerestory at Laon - see the two cathedral cross-sections above. The triforium does not have a walkway in some cathedrals, or parts of cathedrals. In this case, it is often referred to as a blind, or false, triforium. [Le Mans/Bourges]

There are one or two glazed triforia, for example at Tours and at Saint-Denis, Paris, the latter being often regarded as the first of the true Gothic structures.
Part of the tribune level at Troyes cathedral In the Tours triforium walkway
Part of the triforium level at Tours cathedral In the Tours triforium walkway

A pillar statue, for example between doorways. See Noyon cathedral.

Tympanum (in French, tympan)
the half-moon shaped space above the exterior doors of a cathedral, shaded by the archivaults above. The tympanum often illustrates events in the life of Christians, or events in the Bible or in the life of a saint. A Latin word, the plural is tympani.
[For illustration, see Porch.]

Literally, a bladder. In stained glass, an ovoid shape with pointed end.
A vesica in a window of Beauvais cathedral
This can be constructed from two intersecting circles with the same radius.
Construction of a vesica

Voissoir / voussour / voussure
An arch is built of voissoirs, or stones shaped like wedges. The voussoir at the top and centre of the arch is the keystone.
See claveau.

A spiral scroll, usually part of the decoration on a capital.
outline marking the positions of events in the associated story window.
key to the story panes in the St Julian the Hospitaller window


Experiments in gothic structure by Robert Mark Experiments in gothic structure by Robert Mark
MIT Press Five GoldenYak (tm) award

pbk 0262630958
reprint: 1984 /

The gargoyles of Notre-Dame by Michael Camille

The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity by Michael Camille

University Of Chicago Press, hbk, 2009
ISBN-10: 0226092453
ISBN-13: 978-0226092454 / £30.88 []

Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle by Eugène Viollet Le-Duc. regards Viollet-le-Duc as definitive for architectural terms. Definitions from other sources are often inconsistent

end notes

  1. triforia
    Triforia is the plural of the Latin word triforium. In Latin, words that end in -um are most often neuter words in the Second Declension, and decline (change) to -a in the plural.

    Many will remember declining bellum - war:
    Bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello
    Bella, bella, bella, bellorum, bellis, bellis.
    Of course, this degenerated in schoolboy/girl fashion to
    B’lum, b’lum, b’lum, b’li, b’lo, b’lo
    B’la, b’la, b’la, b’lorum, b’lis, b’lis!

    So - one triforium, several triforia.
  2. Composite is often used to describe an object made by combining two different materals, such as steel and cement, or two different grades of material. 
    Composite is also used to describe a particular type of capital to a column that combines elements of the Corinthian and Ionic-style capitals.

marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
marker gothic cathedral and church construction
marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
marker Chartres - wonder of the world
marker lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere
marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
marker Auch cathedral choir and stalls
marker Rouen and Monet
marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
marker Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
marker Poitiers, neglected masterpiece marker photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
marker Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire marker photographs, Angers
marker Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen marker photographs, Laon
marker Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
marker Notre Dame of Lausanne
marker Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
marker Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees

marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
marker Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
marker Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
marker Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
marker Germans in France - Soissons cathedral

marker cathedral plans, and facts
marker stone in church and cathedral construction
marker using metal in gothic cathedral construction
marker cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
marker cathedrals and cloisters of France by Elise Whitlock Rose
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