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stone tracery in church and cathedral construction

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stone in church and cathedral construction

Non-window tracery on the crossing tower of Bayeux cathedral

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Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

 the perpendicular or English style of cathedral  Manchester cathedral

the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

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

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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

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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



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what is tracery?
plate tracery
bar tracery and tracery design
end notes

what is tracery?

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. Another form is 'blind tracery', where stone is carved out of a stone, thin slab or 'plate', without cutting deeply enough to make holes. In contrast, this present page focuses on assembling carved stone blocks that together form tracery.

As buttressing developed to support the cathedral's structure, the outer walls between the buttresses were less necessary for carrying the loads of roof, forest, and upper stone structures. Thus, the intervening walls became curtain walls and could be pierced without compromising the cathedral's integrity. More and larger holes were cut through them, making windows.

The window shape started as a single lancet, surmounted by a pointed (Gothic) arch. Gradually, several lancets were placed together to make larger windows. The natural gaps between the tops of the lancets demanded something be done, and were prettified with increasing complications of tracery patterns.

One of the prettifications was foils, shapes based on a symmetrical presentation of leaf shapes. A foil [origin: folium - leaf, Latin] is consructed by overlapping circles make a number of cusps on a lobe. Three cusps create a trefoil, four cusps a quatrefoil (as in the labelled photo below), five a cinquefoil, six cusps a sexfoil, while seven cusps make a septfoil, and so on. [The number prefixes are a mixture of Latin, French and a sort of pig-Latin, as took the fancy of the words' inventors.]

The stained glass as a whole needed support within the windows, so thin, carved supports of stone were developed, arranged and assembled into … tracery. The individual pieces of glass within the panes were held and supported by leading and wider iron bars. You will find the normal supporting shapes in tracery such as pointed and rounded arches. In the case of the rose window the shape is the wheel, which can be viewed as a continual Roman (rounded) arch.

tracery being built. (Image:
Tracery being built. (Image:

The assembled pieces of carved stone have been secured to one another by various methods - iron rods, iron rods covered in lead, lead 'blobs' designed to stop the individual stones slipping against one another, and nowadays stainless steel pins and fine lime mortar. The result is a piece of stone tracery, ready to receive leaded stained glass.

The assembled tracery is made part of the curtain wall between buttressing that supports the building structure. Load-bearing walls are often made of interior and exterior walls, the space between being filled with building rubble. When a window is introduced into the exterior wall, there is complex stonework connnecting the exterior wall to the interior one - see the diagram just below. To enable the light entering through the window to spread, there are sloping, vertical walls, similarly to arrow slits in medieval fortifications (coloured yellow in the diagram below).

  • The diagram below shows, to the left, a cross-section of the wall from inside to outside, while on the right is a face-on view from inside.
  • The black arrows link some of the same items on the cross-section and on the face-on view.

How a tracery window is embedded in a church/cathedral wall.
How a tracery window is embedded in a church/cathedral wall.

  • The various colours match the different parts of the interior arch and wall, both on the cross-section and on the face-on view.
  • In particular, the crimson parts (see the face-on view to the right) are on the line of the cross-section.
  • The tracery and the window can be regarded as part of the exterior curtain wall.
  • The blue-coloured part on the cross-section is outside the building, and is the surround of the inset window.
    Being at 90° to the wall, this blue-coloured part does not obscure the window glass, nor can it be seen in the face-on view above.
    The exterior view of plate tracery below shows how the ridges and insets around the glass will appear to be obscuring the glass if the window is sliced through.

plate tracery

Plate tracery was the early method of providing support within a window space for the glass.

Chartres west rose,exterior Chartres west rose,exterior
Chartres cathedral west rose, exterior and interior

 Plate tracery was constructed from carefully shaped and jointed pieces of masonry. They were inserted into the surrounding wall's thick areas of stone in order to support and separate glazed areas. The window may look as if it had been filled in with glass by making a stone 'plate', and then small openings cut through the plate for the glass, but this not the case - plate tracery is formed in sections just like other tracery. With plate tracery, the stone rather than the glass dominates the window.

Exterior of south rose window at Lausanne cathedral Interior of south rose window at Lausanne cathedrale cathedral
Lausanne cathedral south rose window, exterior and interior

bar tracery and design

As the stone masons mastered cutting thinner, yet still strong, straight and curved stone sections, the more elaborate the bar tracery became. The resulting ornately designed windows were predominately glass. Notice that distinctions between plate tracery and bar tracery border on the artificial.

The stone framework that is tracery can be classified generally into two groups - geometric and curvilinear.

The early and simpler designs of geometrical tracery evolved into the more intricate curvilinear designs as the masons' skills increased and the artists became even more creative as they sort to top their predecessors.

The large windows made up of several lights (sections) developed from several lancet windows that were placed closer and closer together, until the various lancets were an integrated ensemble, divided vertically by mullions.

How geometric and curvilinear. tracery developed. How lancets became windows.

Unusually can be found stone transoms in England. I would expect the rarity to be due to the stresses on stone in bending and sheering (tension, stretching) making such structures much more unreliable and likely to fail. Here are examples from Oxford and Winchester. Notice that in the Oxford example the transom is supported by arches, as is the case with the top of almost all other windows. In the Winchester example, the short transoms are supported by the vertical mullion and the side walls. This function of transoms is usually taken by iron or steel bars, to which stained glass windows are attached using wire twists.

Transom at New College, Oxford Transom at Castle Hall, Winchester

The following two windows are regarded as amongst the best in Britain. The left window is of the geometrical style, while the right-hand one is of the decorated or curvilinear style. They are both over thirty feet wide [9.1 metres] and nearly 60 feet high [18.3 metres]. Notice that the Lincoln window (left) has eight lancets and so an even number, whereas the Carlisle window has nine lancets. See how this affects the design of the tracery. Notice also the patterns of gothic arches, within gothic arches, within gothic arches. The west window at York, which has eight lancets, has its tracery forming heart shapes.

Eight-lancet (light) window, Lincoln cathedral
Eight-lancet (light) window, Lincoln cathedral
probably late 13th century
Nine-lancet (light) window, Carlisle cathedral
Nine-lancet (light) window, Carlisle cathedral
mid-14th century
Detail of tracery in the west window of York Minster with a heart-shaped design (insert shows the full window)
Detail of tracery in the west window of York Minster with a heart-shaped design (insert shows the full window)


The so-called perpendicular style is, strangely, all about straight lines, and is confined mostly to England. This style is much admired by some vicars and others who like things very simple. This style seems to appeal to a puritanical streak in the English character, and have arrived long before Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the various Protestant movements in Britain. Others consider the perpendicular style rather mediocre and lacking imagination. Among these, you must include myself.

The churches and monasteries of England tend to be low-built and the glass built to let in the, often dull, English light, using reams of plain glass and a few characterless saints for decoration.

Thus, the imagination went to detailing tracery patterns. Several examples can be seen above.

Fashion became a considerable driver of patterns, which has often fascinated English writers attempting to trace the movements of particular architects and designers, and a change of tracery detail.

An in-depth study can be seen at the perpendicular or English style of cathedral.Manchester cathedral


A treatise on the rise and progress of decorated window tracery in England
Volume 1-2; Illustrated with ninety-seven woodcuts and six engravings on steel

by Edmund Sharpe

A treatise on the rise and progress of decorated window tracery in England by Edmund Sharoe

John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row,
hbk, 1849

Note, this is a book with two volumes, one that is mainly text, the other being mostly plate illustrations.

Modern reprints or reproductions often appear to offer just the first volume, or the book printed as one volume only.

The woodcut and similar non-photographic illustrations are taken originally from the 1849 edition of this book. Some are from vol.1 and others from vol.2.

A treatise on the rise and progress of decorated window tracery in England by Edmund Sharoe

Wentworth Pres, pbk, 2016

ISBN-10: 1374490202
ISBN-13: 978-1374490208

$12.95 (
£9.69 (

An introduction to the study of gothic arichitecture

by the late John Henry Parker C.B. , Hon. M.A. Oxon, F.S.A. Lond. etc.

An introduction to the study of gothic arichitecture by J.H. Parker

James Parker and Co., London and Oxford, 1895, hbk
[1st edition 1849]

ASIN: B00086WVK8


Storied windows - A traveller's introduction to the study of old church glass, from the twelfth century to the Renaissance, especially in France

by A. J. de Havilland Bushnell

Storied windows

William Blackwood and sons,
hbk, 1914


Storied windows

HardPress Publishing, pbk, 2013

ISBN-10: 131445367X
ISBN-13: 978-1314453676

$14.95 (
£10.95 (


The art and craft of stained glass

by E. W. Twining

The art and craft of stained glass by E. W. Twining

Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.
hbk, 1928


$94.89 (
£57.90 (


English mediæval stained glass

by J. D. Le Couteur

English mediæval stained glass by JD Le Couteur

Society for promoting Christian knowledge [S.P.C.K.], Macmillan Co., London
hbk, 1926


English mediæval stained glass by JD Le Couteur


$19.95 (


end notes

  1. transom
    the flat surface forming the stern of a boat.
    a horizontal beam reinforcing the stern of a boat.
    a strengthening crossbar, in windows or above a door.

marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
marker gothic cathedral and church construction
marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
marker Chartres - wonder of the world
marker Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
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 Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
marker the perpendicular or English style of cathedral
marker Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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