The Structural System Durham Cathedral Briefing Professor Stalley Medieval Architecture

Development of the Vaulted Ceiling

When Durham Cathedral was completed in 1133 it was the first building in England to be completely covered by ribbed vaults. Whether or not it was the first in northern Europe is a more contentious issue.

By the late eleventh century various alternative ways of vaulting the main spaces of a great church were available to medieval masons: barrel vaults for example, were employed in the ‘pilgrimage churches ‘ at Santiago de Compostela and Toulouse, whereas groin vaults were used in the remodelling of the cathedral of Speyer after 1081. It is likely that some north Italian churches had already introduced domical ribbed vaults by 1090s; a building in the Lombard style, complete with ribbed vaults, was erected at Utrecht, possibly in the 1080s.

In Normandy high vaulting appears to have been restricted to the choir. where groin vaults survive in the churches of St Nicholas and La Trinit at Caen. This approach—the use of groin vaulting, but only over the choir—was found in England after the Norman conquest. most probably at Lincoln and St Albans. English practice however was far from consistent. Barrel vaults were employed in the west country (Tewkesbury and Gloucester), whereas stone vaulting was eschewed altogether in east Anglia, an area in which ecclesiastical patrons apparently preferred wooden ceilings. The ribbed vaults of Durham thus appeared amidst a rather diverse picture.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that high vaults were originally intended only for the choir at Durham, following the pattern seen in other Anglo-Norman buildings (La Trinit Caen, St Albans). The reasons for reaching this conclusion are that the clerestory is more solid in the choir (there are no mural passages), the compound piers are larger than those elsewhere, and the irregular layout of the piers in the transept implies that a vault was not envisaged. Moreover, with the choir complete, it appears that a wooden ceiling rather than a stone vault was erected in the south transept; it was only when the north transept was under construction that the decision was taken to extend ribbed vaulting throughout the church. As argued by Bony, and accepted by most historians, the original intention was for a partly vaulted church, with the high vaults being restricted to the choir as a way of emphasising the most important part of the building.

The introduction of ribs has generally been regarded as a structural innovation rather than a visual one. Ribs have frequently been regarded as a means of reinforcing the cells of a groin vault, as well as serving as a temporary skeleton during construction. It is unlikely, however, that this is why they were introduced at Durham. As a highly articulated building, the plain surfaces of a groin vault would have been out of keeping with the rest of the design, and a desire to accentuate the angles of the vault was perfectly consistent with the aesthetic aims of the Durham builders. Even in groin vaulted structures, the angles of the vaults were sometimes painted in order to give the impression of ribs (Jumiges nave aisles, St. Albans choir aisles). It has also been suggested that diagonal ribs provided a sort of baldacchino over the most sacred part of the building, much as a ribbed ciborium is known to have been located over the altar in St. Peter’s. The introduction of ribs at Durham, therefore, may owe more to aesthetic and even ‘iconographic’ considerations, than to structural concerns.

The transverse arches found inside the galleries at Durham (semi-circular in the choir, quadrants in the nave) have sometimes been interpreted in structural terms.

The view is that they acted as proto-flying buttresses reinforcing the upper walls of the building just below the springing point of the high vault. This interpretation is open to doubt. The spandrels of the arches in the choir are not filled with masonry, limiting their value as buttresses, and in the nave the quadrants arches were composed of only one order before they were enlarged in the nineteenth century. An alternative view sees these arches as a means of supporting the gallery roofs, rather than as an important stage in the evolution of the Gothic structural system.

While there is no way of telling whether the ribbed vaults over the choir were the first in northern Europe, there is no question that the Durham masons learnt to handle ribbed vaulting with increasing assurance over the course of forty years. The structure of the vaults falls into at least three technical phases, suggesting that the masons were prepared to rethink their methods as the building progressed. The final solution (in the nave) involved the construction of pointed transverse arches, which were among the first (if not the first) pointed arches to be constructed in England. The exploitation of the pointed arch in this position allowed the apex of the vault to be kept level throughout its length, while at the same time avoiding the need for stilting, as happened in the north transept. While it could be argued that pointed arches were first introduced into English architecture to solve a geometrical problem, they may also have helped to improve the stability of the vault.

Despite the spectacular appearance of the vaults at Durham, the concept of the fully ribbed-vaulted church was not exploited by English builders, at least not until the closing decades of the twelfth century.

England, Durham Cathedral, View of the nave looking east showing rib vaulted ceiling

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