What’s a flying buttress? Medieval Europe

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Flying buttresses the side of a big stone cathedral: like stone bridges between the nave and the aisles - flying buttress

Flying buttress (Rouen Cathedral, 1200s AD)

Gothic cathedrals

In the 1100s AD, architects in northern France wanted to build big impressive Gothic cathedrals. They also wanted their cathedrals to be full of light, so they would be inspiring, not dark and depressing.

What’s a cathedral?
Gothic cathedrals
Lots of Middle Ages articles

But if the walls were mostly glass windows, how would they hold up the heavy stone roof?

What is a flying buttress?

So somebody (nobody knows who) invented the flying buttress. Instead of the buttress being stuck to the side of the building, it would form an arch leading away from the building.

What’s an arch?
What is a buttress?

The flying buttress would start from the places at the top of the wall where the groin vaults were directing the weight of the roof.

What’s a groin vault?

From there, the flying buttresses would carry the weight of the roof away from the building and down a column of stone to the ground. It wouldn’t matter what the walls were made of anymore, because they wouldn’t be carrying the weight of the roof.

Flying buttresses on the end of the apse: long thin stone bridges from the church to the ground.

More flying buttresses on the end of the apse

Walls of glass

Once architects began to use flying buttresses in their churches, they began to make more and more of the wall out of glass, and cathedrals looked lighter and more heavenly.

Medieval stained glass

They used flying buttresses at Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, at Chartres, at Rouen, Reims, and Amiens cathedrals.

More about the Sainte Chapelle
Inside Chartres cathedral

Where did they use flying buttresses?

Architects also used flying buttresses in England, at Westminster Abbey. But the flying buttress did not catch on so much in Italy.

What did Italian cathedrals look like?

In Italy, there were hot summers. People liked their cathedrals to have a lot of stone and not so much glass, so they would be cooler in the heat.

More about buttresses
More about cathedrals

Bibliography and further reading about flying buttresses:

Arches to Zigzags: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie (2000). Shows what an arch is, or a gable, or an eave. Easy reading.

Eyewitness: Building, by Philip Wilkinson, Dave King, and Geoff Dann (2000). Lavishly illustrated, like other Eyewitness books, and with good explanations of most architectural terms.

More about buttresses
What’s a groin vault?
What’s a nave?
And what’s a transept?

What’s a basilica?
What’s a cathedral?
Romanesque architecture
Gothic architecture
Quatr.us home

By |2018-09-26T16:45:46+00:00May 24th, 2017|Architecture, History, Medieval, Northern Europe|1 Comment
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What’s a flying buttress? Medieval Europe. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 24, 2017. Web. November 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

One Comment

  1. bob September 26, 2018 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Who am I? Who are you?

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