A Glossary of Medieval Architecture

A Glossary of Medieval Buildings Architecture, Cathedral Architecture, Medieval Castle Architecture, and Architecture Period Definations.


Acanthus:   A Mediterranean plant. The leaves are thick, fleshy, and scalloped. A stylization of the acanthus leaf began in Greek and Roman decoration, especially on the Corinthian capital.

Aisle:   An open area of a church parallel to the nave and separated from it by columns or piers.

Apse:   A large, semicircular or polygonal and usually vaulted niche, protruding from the end wall of a building in a Christian Church; it contains the alter.

Arch:   In architecture, a curved structural element that spans an open space or recess.  The wedge shaped elements that make up an arch keep one another in palce and transform the vertical pressure of the structure above into lateral pressure.

Art Nouveau:   A French term meaning 'new art,' refers to a style of architecture, decorative art and some painting and sculpture popular around 1900.  Even though the style was then thought of as new art, it was adjusted from older styles of art forms, especially from the Gothic and Rococo styles as well as from arts of Java and Japan.  The movement was inspired by Celtic manuscripts and the drawings of William Blake.

Battlement or Crenellation:   A parapet with alternating openings (embrasures) and raised sections (merlons), used here on castle towers for defense purposes.

Basilica:   A large, rectangular building often built with a clerestory and side aisles seperated from the center nave by colonnades.

Boss:   A projecting stone at the intersection of the ribs of a vault, often the keystone and frequently carved.

Bourgeois Realism:  Bourgeois is a French term used to define the middle class.  Bourgeois Realism is a term used to define the realistic style used to portray the people/values/behaviors of the middle class.

Byzantine Art:  Byzantine Art was the art of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The capital was in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) from 330 AD to 1450 AD.  Paintings and mosaics are characterized by the rich use of color and the figures seem flat and stiff, sometimes appearing to be floating in air and have large eyes.  The background is usually solid gold or toned.

Bergfried:  (1) A single defensive tower characteristic of German speaking lands, the chief function of which was as a watch tower and as a final refuge, rarely were they used as permanent living quarters. The entrance was situated on the first floor. (2) A watch tower which was used to cover the main lines of approach to a castle, normally associated with a hohenburg.

Burgus:  (1) A Roman watch-tower, which was the fore runner of the bergfried, which were erected on the Germanic border of the Roman Empire. (2) A walled suburb of a castle.

Burh:   A fortified Anglo-Saxon town which was usually surrounded by a ditch an earthen ramparts topped by a palisade. They were often built on former Roman or earlier fortifications, situated at the ends of estuaries or near fords and bridges crossing major waterways. Instigated by King Alfred the Great (871-899 A.D.) and carried on by his successors, were used to protect trade and culture from attacks, and as bases for launching assaults against Viking raiders.

Burg:  (1) A German castle. (2) A town or house with a fortified perimeter.

Catacomb:  A subterranean burial chamber used during the Roman Empire period. While catacombs were used not only by Christians, but they are usually associated with Christianity because the Christians held services in the catacombs while they were persecuted by the Romans from the first to early fourth centuries A.D. Some of the catacombs are decorated with Christian paintings.

Carolingian Period:  The dynasty named for Charlemagne (Charles the great, 768-814).  The Carolingians were Franks, a Germanic people, who had settled in northern Gaul at the end of the 5th Century.

Chevet:  The eastermost end of an oriented church, including the crossing.

Choir:  The area of the church between a transept and main apse. It is the area where the service is sung and clergy may stand, and the main or high altar is located. In some churches there is no choir, while in others, the choir is quite large and surrounded by an ambulatory.

Choir screen:  A screen, made of wood or stone, usually decorated with painting orsculpture, which separates the choir from the rest of the church.

Classical Baroque:   A form of art derived from the study of Baroque.  Baroque succeeded mannerism, lasting well into the 18th century.

Clerestory:   The topmost zone of a wall with windows, when it extends above any abutting aisles or secondary roofs.  Provides direct light into central interior.

Corbel:   A projection from a wall made of stone or wood and located near the top of a wall. They are used to support such structures as breteches, hoardings and machicolations.

Crenellation::   A parapet consisting of merlons and crenels.

Crenel shutter::   A wooden shutter which covered a crenel and was used to defend a crenel, hinged at the top it enabled the defender to open the shutter to fire at the enemy, while gaining protection from the shutter in the closed position. See crenel.

Crossing:   The space in a cruiciform church formed by the intersection of the nave and the transept.

Colonnades:   A sequence or row of columns, supporting a straight lintel or a series of arches.

Crypt:  An underground chamber for relics or tombs.

Cross-ribbed vaults:   A cross or groin vault is created by the intersection of two barrell vaults (a continuous semicircular vault) of equal size.  A ribbed vault is found when the joining of curved sides of a groin vault is demarcated by a raised rib.

Cruciform Church:   A term describing anything that is cross-shaped.  Typical plan of Gothic churches.

Danske:   The sewage tower of a castle constructed by the Teutonic Knights, which was detached from the main body of the castle, and was only accessible by a gallery supported by five large arches.

Drawbridge:   A bridge which was used to provide access to a fortification, and when in the raised position it closed the entrance. Generally, a drawbridge was hinged at the bottom and free at the top, and could be drawn up to prevent and enemy gaining entry. The drawbridge usually spanned a ditch or moat, or the part of a ditch or moat between the fortification and a causeway. Its simplest form it consisted of a movable plank; others were pulled up by chains worked by pulleys or a windlass. A later development was the ‘hinged platform’; which could be raised by pulling up chains attached to the outer corners, these chains passed through slots above the entrance and were attached to a windlass in the chamber above the entrance. The most elaborate type worked on a counterpoise system; the chains were suspended from beams which, when the bridge was drawn up, fitted into recesses provided above the entrance. Another type worked on the pivot principle, where the inner part of the bridge was moved into a pit while the outer part rose to completely cover the entry, also known as a turning bridge. See bascule bridge.

Empiricism:   The name of a broad tradition in Western philosophy.  The term comes from the Greek empeiria, meaning "experience."  The basic thesis of empiricism is that legitimate human knowledge arises from what is provided to the mind by the senses or by introspective awareness through experience.  It is distinguished from the philosophical tradition of rationalism, which holds that human reason apart from experience is a basis for some kinds of knowledge.  Aristotle is sometimes said to be the founder of the empiricist tradition.  So, art forms express experience, whether it be in painting or sculpture.

Evangelist symbols:   Symbols for the authors of the four New Testament books which are narratives of the life of Christ. These symbols were very common in manuscripts, sculpture and wall paintings, especially form the Early Medieval through the Romanesque periods. The symbols were:

Facade:   The face or front wall of a building.

Flying bridge: :  (1) A narrow wooden bridge which was used for the purpose of communication between the motte and the bailey of a ‘motte and bailey castle’. The flying bridge was usually supported on wooden piles, the bridge could be then demolished by the defenders if the enemy took the bailey.
(2) A small bridge which was used for the purpose of intercommunication between the different parts of a fortification (eg. between outer and inner defences). They could be withdrawn, thrown down or destroyed if necessary, depending on the situation. See chemise foot bridge.

Flying buttresses:   A free-standing buttress attached to the main nave, choir, or transept wall by an arch or half-arch which transmits the thrust of the vault to the buttress attached to the outer wall of the aisle. This buttress is a mass of masonry or brickwork used as a support or brace counteracting the outward thrust of the arch or vault, which is caused by the heavy stone roof of a Gothic Cathedral.

Fresco:   A painting technique in which water-based pigments are applied to a surface of wet plaster.  Murals made by this technique are called frescoes.

Gothic:   Pertaining to European art and architecture, between the 12th-15th Centuries.  The building style emphasizes pointed arches, cross-ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses.   The scope was monumental in scale, with much ornamentation.  Gothic painting emphasizes human qualities striving for classical ideals.

Gothic Revival:   A style of architecture that dominated the building activity of the mid-19th Century Europe and United States, originating in the mid-18th Century.  Vogue for 'gothick' architecture fantasies.  Considered a Christian style, Gothic was considered superior to the classical revival style popular in the early 19th Century.  Forerunners of this style: John Ruskin, Augustus Pugin and Richard Upjohn.

Grotesque:   A Gargole, a marginal figure or animal, or a combination of human and animal or plant, used frequently as an outside building decoration, and in Gothic manuscript illumination and especially in marginal illumination.

Half timbering:   A method of construction in which the wooden frame and principal beams of a building are exposed, and the spaces between them are covered with plaster or masonry. Usually used in domestic architecture.

Hall crypt:   A crypt in the form of a large space of uniform height, subdivided by columns.

Hammer beam:   A short horizontal beam, usually made of wood, extending from the top of a masonry wall outward towards the center of the enclosed space, but not completely traversing it. The projecting end is usually connected to the roof with a diagonal brace. The protruding ends of hammer beams were often elaborately carved.

Hanging arch:   An arch which has, or seems to have, no vertical supports.

Hoarding:   A covered wooden gallery built out from the parapet of a tower or curtain wall supported on corbels, used for defensive purposes. The hoardings had a major disadvantage since they were made of timber they were prone to firing, so they were eventually replaced by stone machicolations. In times of peace the hoardings could be removed.

Hochschloss:   A type of German castle.

Hohenburg:   A German castle built on a naturally strong site, usually a hill or mountain craig, all the defences were constructed on the lines of approach and the entrances. Also known as a German hill castle. See schildmauer.

Impressionism:   An art movement beginning in France in the 1870's, founded by an individualistic group of artists including, among others, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro; all concerned themselves mainly with the components of light and the immediate visual impression of a scene using unconnected colors that were to be mixed by the eye; bright colors and bold brushwork were often used to achieve these impressions.  Examples.

International Style:   A form of architecture consisting of an emphasis on volume over form, asymmetrical compositions, and avoidance of ornamentation.  These elements produced this style in response to a century-long search for an architectural style suited to modern materials (steel, glass & concrete), and engineering techniques, freed from borrowed forms.  Founders of this style include: C. Philip Johnson and Bertram Goodhue.

Ionic capital:   A capital used originally by the Greeks in a system of supports called the Ionic order. In the medieval period, the capital was often used without a strict adherence to the rest of the system. An Ionic capital has a volute, or a spiral scroll-like carving, on each side as its major decoration. Ionic capitals are relatively rare in medieval buildings.

Jamb:   A vertical element of a doorway or window frame.

Keep & bailey castle:   The castle which was developed from the ‘motte & bailey castle’ of the Normans, dating from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Consisting of a stone keep surrounded by a walled enclosure, the keep either incorporated or replaced the motte. Two types of keeps were used and they were; the shell keep and the square keep. This kind of castle however did not present a co-ordinated defensive system and thus had a noticeable military weakness. Once the bailey was taken by an enemy, the next part of the operation was to take the keep. The operation was made easier by the fact that the two components did not support each other; once the bailey fell to the enemy, all the enemy's forces could then be concentrated on the keep.

Keystone:   The voussoir at the top of an arch. In vaulting it occurs at the intersection of the ribs of a rib vault. It is important structurally since it marks the apex of the vault.

Licence to crenellate:   The granting of a royal licence or warrant of royal permission, giving permission to the holder to build a fortification or to fortify an existing structure such as a Landhaus or a manor house.

Lintel:   A horizonal element of any material carried by 2 or more vertical supports to form an opening.

Lunette:   A semi-circular wall area, framed by an arch over a door or window.

Mosaic:   Images formed by small, colored stones or glass pieces called tesserae, affixed to a hard, stable surface - usually plaster.

Narthex:   The rectangular vestibule at the main (usually western) entrance to a church.

Nave:   The central longitudinal rectangular central aisle of a bascilican church, 2 or 3 stories high and flanked by aisles. It is usually flanked on its long sides by aislas which are separated from the nave by columns or piers. In many churches, the lay congregation stand in the nave to attend religious services.

Neoclassicism:   A movement which originated in Rome in the 18th Century.  It rose partly in reaction against the excesses of Baroque and Rococo.  Neoclassicism differs from all the earlier classic revivals in that for the first time, artists consciously imitated antique art and knew what they were initiating, both in style and in subject matter.  Artists of this were James Barry, Antonio Canova, John Flaxman, and Anton Raffael Mengs.  Examples.

Neoimpressionism:   A French art movement in the 1880-1890's under  the leadership of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.  Based on scientific study of color and the systematic division of tone.  Examples.

Niche:   A hollow or recess in a wall or other solid architectural element.

Norman Architecture:   The Gothic period was marked by a reassertion of English cultural identity following the imposition of Norman French culture in 1066.  Norman architecture was characterized by imposing height, solid Romanesque walls, French Cathedral facades and tall nave arcade surmounted by short galleries.

Ottonian Art:   After the Carolingian Period broke up when it was divided among heirs of Louis the Pious.  They controled the eastern portion of the empire (modern Germany & Austria) during the 10th Century; named for Otto I (936-973), Otto II (973-983), and Otto III (983-1002).

Pediment:   A triangular space above a window or entrance. Originally the triangular space was formed by the end of a gable roof and later was used decoratively.

Perpendicular Gothic:   is the last of England's medieval architectural styles, originating in London about 1300, through about 1485.  Primarily used in church architecture, it provides an extraordinary unity of design throughout the interior, through the repetition of a single standard module - consisting of an upright traceried rectangle - that served for both wall paneling and window tracery, allowing for windows of immense size.

Pier:   An upright support, generally square, rectangular, or composite. In medieval architecture there are massive circular supports called drum piers.

Portraiture:   is the art of depicting specific human individuals as themselves.  The goal was to capture the personality of the individual as well as to get a realistic physical likeness.

Portcullis: A vertical sliding grating of iron positioned over a gateway in the gatehouse and lowered between groves to prevent passage through the gateway.

Postimpressionism:   A term generally relating to the paintings of four artists: Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat, from about 1875 to 1900;  they accepted the impressionists' use of light with bright colors and conspicuous paint handling, but rejected the casual compositional structure of the impressionists.  Examples.

Realism:   A way of painting nature without distortion; the philosophy of painting, led by Coubet, centered on unidealized, everyday subject matter.  Examples.

Refectory:   A dining room in a monastery.

Rococo:   a delicate, light-hearted and elegant style based on asymmetrical natural forms.  An 18th Century style of art and decoration with a concern for the trivial rather than the significant; colorful and capricious, closely linked historically with the fashionable reign of Louis XV of France; the style was in reaction against the oppressive formality of French classical baroque.  Artists include: Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, and Tiepolo.

Romanesque:   meaning "in the Roman manner;" medieval European style of architecture, consisting of solid masonry walls, rounded arches, and masonry vaults, characteristic of Roman Imperial buildings.

Sarcophagus:   A stone coffin, often bearing sculpture and inscriptions.

Schildmauer:   An especially strong wall provided with galleries and arrow slits, built across the only line of approach of a castle which was usually built on a mountain craig or spur. Normally associated with German speaking countries. See hohenburg.

Scriptorium:   An area in a monastery where books and documents were written, copied, and illuminated.

Spring line:   The point or line of an arch or a vault in which an arch or vault begins to curve.

Surrealism (aka: Magic realism):   A type of painting of the 20th Century where almost photographic realism is achieved.  Sometimes the realism is combined with the fantastic through strangely related subject materials and mysterious light-source treatment; creating metaphysical effects reminiscent of de Chirico and others.  Examples.

Tesserae:   The small pieces of stone, glass, or other object that is pieced together with many others to create a mosaic.

Tracery:   The thin stone or wooden bars in a Gothic window, screen, or pannel, which create an elaborate decorative matrix or pattern.

Transept:   The arm of a cruciform church, perpendicular to the nave.  The point where the nave and transept cross is called the crossing.  Beyond the crossing lies the sanctuary, whether apse, choir, or chevet.

Vault:   An arched, masonry structure covering, that spans an interior space.

Vellum:   A fine animal skin prepared for writing and painting.

Wasserburg:   A German term for a castle built on a bank or island of a river, making use of the water way in their defence. Their main purpose was to extract tolls from the trade being shipped on the water way. See water castle. (G. wasser, water; burg, castle).

Wehrgang:   A covered gallery provided with machicolations which ran around the perimeter of a castle of the Teutonic Knights, which was accessible from the chapel, the chapter-house, and the dormitories by staircases in the walls, from which the castle was defended. (Gr. wehr, defence; gang, passage)

Westwerk:   An entrance area at the west end of a church with upper chamber and usually with a tower or towers. It is normally broader than the width of the nave and aisles. Westwerk (Westwork) is sometimes used synonymously with narthex.

Wicket:   A small door in the main gate of a fortification, which could be used without having to open the main gate. See guighet, postern, sally port.

Winch:  A machine used for moving and lifting heavy objects.

Windless: A device used to increase the force to make it easier to hoist, tighten, or move objects.
A horizontal barrel supported on vertical posts and turned by a crank so that the hoisting rope is wound around the barrel thereby moving the intended object.

Yett: A hinged iron grille used to strengthen gates in tower-houses and peel towers.

For additional castle architecture terms and castle siege definition, please Click Here .
Glossary terms are in English and in German.

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