Rib Vault

Rib vault Gothic Architecture Free Course| Definition, History, & Architecture

Understanding Ribbed Vaults: The Backbone of Gothic Architecture

Introduction to Ribbed Vaults

Ribbed vaults are not just architectural elements; they are the keystones that have supported some of the most awe-inspiring structures in the world. Used predominantly in Gothic architecture, these vaults have captivated many with their functionality and beauty. Let's explore the intricate world of ribbed vaults, examining their characteristics, history, evolution, and examples that highlight their significance and enduring appeal.

What Are Ribbed Vaults?

The Basics of Ribbed Vaults

A ribbed vault is characterized by the intersection of two to three barrel vaults, creating a skeletal structure that supports the weight of the building's roof. This design is not only practical but also aesthetically pleasing, offering a rib-like appearance that adds depth and texture to ceilings. An exemplary case of ribbed vaults can be seen in the renowned Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where they elevate the interior's grandeur.

Vault Architecture | Overview, Development & Forms

Vaulting: How It Changed Over Time

Vaulting is an architectural technique that has evolved over thousands of years, reflecting changes in architectural styles, engineering, and materials. Here is a simplified timeline highlighting the development of various vault types throughout history:

Ancient Civilizations (3000 BCE - 476 CE)

  • 3000 BCE - 2000 BCE: Early vaults appear in Mesopotamian architecture, including corbelled arches and vaults in underground tombs and drainage systems.
  • 2500 BCE: The Egyptians use corbel vaults in the construction of tombs.
  • 2000 BCE - 100 CE: Mycenaean and Minoan cultures develop early forms of vaulting, including beehive tombs and tholos tombs with corbelled arches.
  • 8th Century BCE - 6th Century BCE: Greeks use barrel vaults in underground structures and archaic buildings.
  • 2nd Century BCE - 4th Century CE: Romans perfect the barrel vault, groin vault, and develop the segmental arch, using them in monumental structures like aqueducts, baths, basilicas, and amphitheaters.

Medieval Period (476 CE - 1500 CE)

  • 500 CE - 1000 CE: Romanesque architecture utilizes simple barrel and groin vaults made of stone in churches and castles across Europe.
  • 12th Century - 16th Century: Gothic architecture introduces the ribbed vault, allowing for higher and more intricate vaulting, evident in cathedrals such as Chartres and Notre-Dame.
  • Late 15th Century: The introduction of fan vaults in English Gothic architecture, characterized by intricate patterns and seen in structures like King's College Chapel, Cambridge.

Renaissance to Modern Times (1500 CE - Present)

  • 16th Century - 17th Century: During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, architects experiment with combining classical and Gothic vaulting elements, creating ornate and complex designs.
  • 18th Century - 19th Century: The revival of Gothic architecture brings back the ribbed and fan vaults, especially in church and university architecture.
  • 19th Century - 20th Century: The advent of iron, steel, and later concrete revolutionizes vault construction, leading to new forms and the ability to span even larger spaces, exemplified in buildings like train stations and markets.
  • 20th Century - 21st Century: Modern and contemporary architects continue to innovate with vault designs, incorporating new materials like reinforced concrete, tensile fabrics, and advanced composites, allowing for creative and functional vaulted structures in various building types.

This timeline illustrates the evolution of vaulting through different architectural periods, showcasing how each era adapted and refined this fundamental architectural feature to meet its own aesthetic, functional, and technological needs.

The Structural Benefits of Ribbed Vaults

These vaults distribute weight more effectively, allowing for thinner walls and larger windows. This structural innovation was pivotal in the construction of Saint-Denis Basilica, where ribbed vaults facilitated expansive stained glass windows, filling the sanctuary with ethereal light.

The Evolution of Ribbed Vaults

From Romanesque to Gothic

The transition from the heavy, solid vaults of Romanesque architecture to the lighter, more graceful ribbed vaults of Gothic design marked a significant evolution. The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés offers insight into this transformation, showcasing early ribbed vaults that hint at the Gothic splendor to come.

Key Developments in Ribbed Vault Design

Over time, ribbed vaults became more complex and decorative. The evolution is vividly illustrated in the shift from the simpler quadripartite vaults to the intricate tierceron and lierne vaults in King's College Chapel, which demonstrate the zenith of ribbed vault complexity.

Characteristics of Ribbed Vaults Gothic Architecture

Ribbed vaults have distinct features that differentiate them from other vault types:

  • Intersecting Ribs: The crisscrossing ribs form a web-like structure, typical of the vaulting seen in the Cathedral of Reims, where the ribs not only support weight but also create compelling patterns.
  • Decorative Caps: The points at which ribs intersect are often emphasized with decorative elements or bosses, adding artistic flair as seen in the vaults of the Ely Cathedral.
  • Versatile Designs: The rib patterns can vary significantly, ranging from simple cross shapes to complex star patterns, each adding a unique character to the architecture, like the star-shaped vaults at Gloucester Cathedral.

Detail of Characteristics of Ribbed Vaults in Gothic Architecture

Ribbed vaults, a defining element of Gothic architecture, integrate structural necessity with aesthetic sophistication. These vaults are distinguished by several key characteristics, each contributing to their iconic status in architectural history.

Intersecting Ribs

Example: Cathedral of Reims, France

In the Cathedral of Reims, the intersecting ribs create a complex, web-like structure that is not only functional but also visually striking. The cathedral's vaulting exemplifies how these ribs can be arranged in various patterns, contributing to both the stability of the building and its decorative appeal. The patterns formed by the intersecting ribs in Reims are particularly intricate, demonstrating the Gothic style's affinity for complexity and ornamentation, enhancing the cathedral's celestial ambiance.

Decorative Caps

Example: Ely Cathedral, England

The decorative caps, or bosses, at the intersections of ribs in Ely Cathedral are renowned for their elaborate designs, which often include religious iconography or natural motifs. These caps serve as focal points within the vaulted ceilings, drawing the eye upward and integrating structural elements with decorative artistry. In Ely Cathedral, the bosses are particularly notable for their diversity and detail, illustrating scenes from the Bible, figures of saints, and a variety of floral and geometric patterns, each adding a layer of meaning and beauty to the architectural fabric.

Versatile Designs

Example: Gloucester Cathedral, England

The ribbed vaults at Gloucester Cathedral showcase the versatility and creativity inherent in Gothic vault design. The cloisters feature some of the most exquisite fan vaulting, where ribs spread out like the ribs of a fan or the branches of a tree, creating a stunning, star-shaped pattern across the ceiling. This design not only demonstrates the structural ingenuity of ribbed vaults but also their capacity to transform a space into a work of art. The fan vaults in Gloucester are among the most intricate in England, demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship and an enduring testament to the architectural innovation of the Gothic period.

Through these examples, it's clear that ribbed vaults are much more than mere architectural elements; they are emblematic of a style that sought to reach new heights in both engineering and artistic expression. Each of these examples—from Reims' complex rib patterns and Ely's ornate bosses to Gloucester's elaborate fan vaults—illustrates the unique way in which ribbed vaults combine functionality with immense aesthetic appeal, defining the spaces they inhabit and inspiring those who enter them.

Understanding Different Types of Vaults in Buildings

Vaults have evolved in various forms and styles throughout architectural history. Here is a list of some common and distinct types of vaults:

  1. Barrel Vault: A simple and continuous arched shape, extending in depth, resembling a half-cylinder.

  2. Groin Vault: Formed by the intersection at right angles of two barrel vaults, creating a line or 'groin' where they meet.

  3. Ribbed Vault: Characterized by a framework of ribs or arches under the intersections of the vaulting sections, often found in Gothic architecture.

  4. Fan Vault: Consists of concave sections with ribs spreading out like a fan; mostly seen in late Gothic architecture, particularly in England.

  5. Clove Vault: A vault with sections resembling the segments of an orange, allowing for complex, curved surfaces.

  6. Dome: An architectural element that resembles the hollow upper half of a sphere, often used to roof large spaces.

  7. Cross Vault: See Groin Vault (they are synonyms).

  8. Annular Vault: A barrel vault curved in plan, often used for circular buildings or surrounding a courtyard.

  9. Sexpartite Vault: A rib vault divided into six bays by two diagonal ribs and three transverse ribs.

  10. Quadripartite Vault: A rib vault divided into four sections by two diagonal ribs.

  11. Tierceron Vault: A rib vault with additional ribs (tiercerons) branching from the main ribs to the vault's apex.

  12. Lierne Vault: Similar to tierceron vaults but with additional, non-structural ribs (liernes) for decoration.

  13. Stellate Vault: Features ribs that extend in a star-shaped pattern, often with a decorative center.

  14. Pavilion Vault: Used to roof polygonal spaces, with planes that are not necessarily symmetrical.

  15. Welsh Vault: A kind of stone vault used particularly in Wales, with a distinctive design and construction method.

  16. Bell Vault: Shaped like the lower half of a bell, often found in bell towers or as the under-structure of larger domes.

Each of these vault types has specific characteristics and applications, reflecting the architectural styles and engineering knowledge of their respective periods.

Ribbed Vault vs Groin Vault

Ribbed vaults and groin vaults are both critical architectural elements that have supported some of the most magnificent structures throughout history, especially in the context of ecclesiastical and institutional buildings. Each has distinct characteristics and was prevalent in different architectural periods, offering unique solutions to the challenges of spanning space and supporting roofs.

Ribbed Vaults


  • Ribbed vaults feature a framework of intersecting ribs that divide the vault's surface into panels, typically seen in Gothic architecture.
  • They are more decorative and complex, with the ribs serving both structural and ornamental purposes.
  • The ribs help distribute the weight more effectively, allowing for higher ceilings and larger windows.


  • Allows for greater variation and complexity in design.
  • Supports larger, taller structures with thinner walls.
  • Facilitates the inclusion of clerestory windows, enhancing natural light and interior aesthetics.


  • The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris showcases ribbed vaulting that epitomizes Gothic architecture's grandeur, using the vaults to achieve impressive heights and a sense of upward movement.

Groin Vaults


  • Groin vaults are formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults at right angles, creating a cross or groin.
  • They are simpler than ribbed vaults, with a smooth surface that intersects at sharp edges or groins, predominantly found in Roman and Romanesque architecture.
  • The design is less decorative, focusing more on function and the ability to cover a square space efficiently.


  • Provides a strong and stable structure, suitable for supporting heavy masonry or stone roofs.
  • Easier to construct than ribbed vaults, requiring less intricate scaffolding and engineering.
  • Can accommodate moderate spans without needing external buttressing.


  • The ancient Roman baths, such as the Baths of Diocletian, demonstrate the groin vault's capacity to cover expansive spaces, providing both structural support and aesthetic appeal with their symmetrical, cross-shaped design.

Comparison and Context

While both types of vaults were instrumental in their respective architectural periods, their usage reflects different aesthetic preferences, structural technologies, and spatial requirements. Groin vaults are marked by their engineering efficiency and simpler, geometric form, often used in Romanesque architecture to create a sense of stability and groundedness. On the other hand, ribbed vaults symbolize the Gothic aspiration towards the heavens, achieving greater heights and more intricate designs, enhancing the spiritual ambiance of sacred spaces.

In summary, ribbed vaults and groin vaults serve similar structural purposes but are distinguished by their design complexity, decorative potential, and historical contexts, each leaving a distinctive mark on the architectural legacy of their times.

Ribbed Vaults Images & Examples

Ribbed vaults are a signature feature in Gothic architecture, and many stunning examples exist around the world. Each of these examples demonstrates unique characteristics and the evolution of the ribbed vaulting technique through time and across different regions. Here are some notable examples:

  1. Notre-Dame de Paris, France: One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame de Paris features early Gothic ribbed vaults. These vaults, particularly in the nave, played a crucial role in the structure's vertical emphasis and the light-filled interior, contributing significantly to its majestic atmosphere.

  2. Canterbury Cathedral, England: This cathedral showcases the evolution of ribbed vaults in English Gothic architecture. The choir, rebuilt in the early 12th century after a fire, features one of the earliest examples of ribbed vaults in England, demonstrating a transition from Romanesque to Gothic styles.

  3. Reims Cathedral, France: Known for its unity of style, Reims Cathedral is a high Gothic masterpiece with elaborate ribbed vaults that contribute to its impressive and harmonious interior. The vaults here are more complex and decorative compared to earlier examples, reflecting advancements in Gothic architecture.

  4. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England: This chapel is renowned for its spectacular fan vaults, a type of ribbed vault that is particularly associated with the Perpendicular Gothic style of England. The intricate patterns and the sense of height they create are awe-inspiring.

  5. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France: Famous for its stunning stained glass windows, Sainte-Chapelle also features exquisite ribbed vaults. The vaults are painted in blue with gold stars, creating a celestial atmosphere that complements the light streaming through the windows.

  6. Florence Cathedral, Italy: The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence features Gothic ribbed vaults in its nave, although the rest of the cathedral combines various architectural styles. These vaults demonstrate the spread of Gothic architectural elements into Italy.

  7. Cologne Cathedral, Germany: As one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, Cologne Cathedral features impressive ribbed vaults that soar to great heights, emphasizing the building's verticality and the Gothic style's characteristic aspiration toward the heavens.

These examples illustrate the diversity and adaptability of ribbed vaults in Gothic architecture, showing how they were modified to fit different spaces and aesthetic goals. They also demonstrate the international spread of the Gothic style, with each region adding its unique touch to the fundamental principles of Gothic design.

Ribbed Vaults in Modern Architecture

Today, ribbed vaults continue to inspire, blending historical reverence with contemporary innovation. The Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C., incorporates ribbed vaults in a manner that pays homage to their Gothic roots while serving modern functional needs.

Explore Further

Gothic Architecture Deep Dive

Beyond ribbed vaults, explore other Gothic marvels such as flying buttresses and pointed arches. Each element plays a critical role, as seen in the Cologne Cathedral, which combines these features to create a masterpiece of Gothic design.

The Science Behind the Structure

Understanding the engineering principles behind ribbed vaults can be fascinating. The structural mechanics that allow vaults like those in the Palma Cathedral to span vast spaces are foundational knowledge for aspiring architects and engineers.

Ribbed Vaults Across the Globe

While most prevalent in European Gothic architecture, ribbed vault-like structures can be found worldwide, reflecting regional adaptations of this versatile design. The intricacies of Mughal architecture, for example, showcase ribbed vaults' influence and reinterpretation in structures like the Taj Mahal.

Questions and Answers (FAQs)

Introduction to FAQs on Rib Vaults

Rib vaults are an essential aspect of Gothic architecture, providing both aesthetic beauty and structural support. To help you understand more about these architectural features, we've compiled a series of questions and answers that delve into what rib vaults are, their role in the vault system of Gothic architecture, their function, and how they work alongside flying buttresses to define the iconic Gothic style. These answers are designed to be easy to understand, using straightforward language for clarity.

What is a rib vault in Gothic architecture?

Understanding Rib Vaults in Gothic Architecture

A rib vault in Gothic architecture is a type of ceiling or roof with a framework of arched ribs that meet at the vault's apex. These ribs divide the vault's surface into panels, adding structural integrity and decorative detail. In Gothic architecture, rib vaults allowed builders to construct higher ceilings and introduce larger windows, significantly enhancing the building's verticality and luminosity. An excellent example of rib vaults can be found in the nave of Chartres Cathedral, where they contribute to the building's majestic interior.

What is the vault system in Gothic architecture?

Exploring the Vault System in Gothic Architecture

The vault system in Gothic architecture refers to the combination of architectural elements that create the roof or ceiling structure, notably including rib vaults. This system is integral to Gothic design, facilitating the creation of expansive, light-filled spaces. The system typically includes pointed arches, rib vaults, and sometimes additional features like tierceron and lierne ribs for more complex patterns. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris showcases an intricate vault system that exemplifies the ingenuity and beauty of Gothic architecture.

What is the function of rib vaults?

The Functional Role of Rib Vaults

The primary function of rib vaults is to provide structural support. By channeling the weight of the roof down through the ribs and into the supporting columns or piers, rib vaults allow for thinner walls and larger window openings, crucial for the luminous interiors characteristic of Gothic churches. Additionally, rib vaults serve an aesthetic function, adding depth and pattern to ceilings, enhancing the overall grandeur of the space. The rib vaults in the Cathedral of Amiens, for instance, play a crucial role in achieving the building's impressive verticality and elegance.

What was the use of rib vaults and flying buttresses in Gothic architecture?

Rib Vaults and Flying Buttresses: A Symbiotic Relationship

In Gothic architecture, rib vaults and flying buttresses work together to create strong, tall, and light-filled buildings. While rib vaults distribute the weight of the roof downwards, flying buttresses provide external support, counteracting the outward thrust of the vaults. This innovative combination allowed for unprecedented height and spaciousness in Gothic structures, as well as the incorporation of large, stained glass windows. The Notre-Dame de Paris exemplifies how rib vaults and flying buttresses combine to form a stable yet awe-inspiring structure.

How do rib vaults affect the acoustics of a building?

Rib vaults can significantly impact the acoustics within a building, especially in large, reverberant spaces like cathedrals. The segmented, paneled design of rib vaults helps to distribute sound evenly, minimizing echo and allowing clear transmission of music and speech. In spaces like the King's College Chapel, the rib vaults contribute to the exceptional acoustics that enhance choral and organ music.

Can rib vaults be found in non-Gothic architecture?

While most associated with Gothic architecture, rib vaults can also be found in other styles, especially those influenced by or evolving from Gothic, such as certain Renaissance and Neo-Gothic buildings. They are occasionally adapted into modern architecture for aesthetic or nostalgic reasons, demonstrating the design's versatility and enduring appeal.

Are rib vaults purely decorative, or do they have a structural purpose?

Rib vaults serve both decorative and structural purposes. Structurally, they help to distribute the weight of the roof, enabling larger open spaces within the building. Decoratively, they add complexity and beauty to the ceiling, contributing to the space's overall aesthetic and atmosphere.

How did rib vaults evolve over the Gothic period?

Throughout the Gothic period, rib vaults evolved from relatively simple designs to increasingly complex and ornate structures. Early Gothic rib vaults were fairly straightforward, but as architectural techniques advanced, designs incorporated additional ribs, creating intricate patterns that contributed to the style's evolution. This progression can be seen when comparing the rib vaults in early Gothic buildings like the Basilica of Saint Denis with later examples like those in the Beauvais Cathedral.

What materials are used in constructing rib vaults?

Historically, rib vaults were constructed from stone, a durable material capable of supporting the considerable weight of Gothic structures. The ribs were often made from a different type of stone or finished differently to emphasize their decorative aspect. In contemporary applications or restorations, modern materials like reinforced concrete or steel might be used alongside traditional stone to ensure longevity and structural integrity.

Explore Further

Learn more about the fascinating world of architecture and its various elements that share a connection with or have been influenced by the concept of rib vaults. Here's a list of related topics and subjects to delve into, each offering a unique perspective on architectural design and history:

  1. Gothic Architecture's Marvels: Dive into the grandeur of Gothic architecture to understand its other key components, like flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows, which together create the iconic Gothic aesthetic.

  2. The Evolution of Vaulted Ceilings: Explore how vaulted ceilings have evolved over time, from the simple barrel vaults of Roman architecture to the complex ribbed and fan vaults of the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

  3. Islamic Architecture's Influence on Gothic Style: Discover the connections between Islamic and Gothic architecture, focusing on how Islamic architectural innovations, such as ribbed vaulting, influenced Gothic design.

  4. Famous Gothic Cathedrals: Investigate the design and history of renowned Gothic cathedrals around the world, such as Chartres, Reims, and Milan, to see rib vaults and other Gothic elements in their full glory.

  5. Structural Engineering in Historical Contexts: Gain insights into the structural engineering principles behind Gothic architecture, understanding how medieval engineers achieved such ambitious constructions.

  6. Renaissance and Neo-Gothic Revivals: Examine how the Renaissance and later Neo-Gothic movements adapted and interpreted Gothic elements like rib vaults, integrating them into new architectural contexts.

  7. Modern Uses of Gothic Elements: Look at how contemporary architecture incorporates elements of Gothic design, including rib vaults, for aesthetic or symbolic purposes, showing the enduring legacy of this style.

  8. Conservation of Gothic Structures: Understand the challenges and techniques involved in preserving Gothic architecture, including buildings with rib vaults, to appreciate the efforts made to maintain these historical treasures for future generations.

By exploring these topics, you'll broaden your understanding of rib vaults and their place within the vast tapestry of architectural history and design.