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1. Arch the depth of which exceeds the span, i.e. an elongated arch covering a space, or a structure composed of various curved elements in various combinations, built of brick, concrete, stone, etc., and sometimes of plaster and wood to suggest something heavier. It is primarily a ceiling over a space, but may also be a roof, and it may carry a floor or roof. As with an arch, it is constructed so that the stones or other materials of which it is composed support and keep each other in their places. Any volume covered by means of a vault or voussure is said to be vaulted, while a system of vaults on a ceiling is called vaulting. A vault bay is defined by transverse ribs.

Types of vault include:annular: barrel-vault springing from two concentric walls. See annular;barrel, cylindrical, tunnel, or wagon: simplest variety of vault, really an elongated or continuous arch like half a cylinder (i.e. with a semicircular section and a uniform concave soffit), spanning the distance between parallel walls or other supports. It can also be segmental in section, or with a profile like a half-ellipse;cloister: see domical-vault below;cross: see groin-vault below;cylindrical: see barrel above;domical: rises from a polygonal or square base, and is not a true dome, having curved surfaces (cells, severies, or webs) meeting at precise lines (groins). Also called a cloister-vault (USA);fan: late-Gothic form of the Perpendicular style, only known in England during the Middle Ages (though widely copied later), and consists of inverted half-cones or funnel-shapes with concave sides, (like trumpet-bells), their rims touching at the top of the vault and Fan-vault (cloister of Gloucester Cathedral (late C14)). their visible surfaces covered with blind panel-tracery rising from a capital or corbel and diverging like the folds of a fan over the entire surface of the distorted cones. The areas between the circular tops of the fans are flat and form concavesided lozenge-shapes. At King's College Chapel, Cambridge (1508–15), there are large pendent bosses in the centres of the distorted lozenges, and at Henry VII's Chapel, Westminster Abbey (1503–c.1512-strictly speaking an ingenious fantasy suggesting the form of fan-vaulting, but actually with ribs only used decoratively, as the vault is essentially of the groin type), the distorted lozenges are covered with blind panel-tracery and there are pendants under the points of each cone as well as in the centres of the lozenges;groin: formed by the intersection at 90° of two identical barrel-vaults (also called cross-vaults) creating groins where they join (see previous page):handkerchief: as sail see dome;hyperbolic parabola; see hyperbolic paraboloid;lierne: ribbed vault with some ribs (tertiaries or liernes) not running from one of the main springing-points, but from rib to rib, usually joined to them at bosses;net: rib-vault with the ribs forming a net of distorted lozenges all over the surface of the vault, common in late-Gothic work in Central Europe;parabolic: vault of parabolic section, resembling a cone cut along a line parallel to its surface angle, usually constructed of a light shell of reinforced concrete;ploughshare: with wall-ribs springing from points higher than those of the diagonal ribs (therefore called a stilted vault) so that more light can be admitted from a clearstorey window, thus distorted and twisted;quadripartite: bay divided by diagonal and transverse ribs into four cells or webs;rampant: barrel-vault with one springing-line higher than the other;rib: with ribs framing the webs and concealing the groins;sail: see dome;sexpartite: bay resembling that of a quadripartite vault, but further divided by an extra transverse rib so that there are six cells instead of four;shell: thin self-supporting structure. See shell;stellar: with ribs, including liernes (ribs running from rib to rib) and tiercerons (rib rising from one of the main springing-points to a position on the ridge-rib), forming a star-shaped pattern of ribs;stilted: see ploughshare above;surbased: with a section less than a semicircle (i.e. a segment);surmounted: with a section greater than a semicircle;tierceron: see stellar above;tripartite: on a triangular plan with three parts;tunnel: see barrel above;wagon: see barrel above.

2. Room or enclosed space of any kind covered by a vault.

3. Any strong place or place of safety.

4. Burial-chamber or crypt, vaulted or not.

5. Cellar.


Gwilt (1903);
Nicholson (1835);
W. Papworth (1892);
J. Parker (1850);
Sturgis et al. (1901–2);
Jane Turner (1996);

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vault, ceiling over a room, formed in any one of a variety of curved shapes.

Nature of Vaults

A vault is generally composed of separate units of material, such as bricks, tiles, or blocks of stone, so shaped or cut that when assembled they form a tightly wedged and stable construction whose weight can be concentrated upon the proper supports. Vaults are also formed in a homogeneous material, as when built in concrete. In modern work ceilings in the form of masonry vaults are often merely of plaster applied against a curved framework of wood or metal. Since antiquity vault surfaces have been enriched at various times in diverse ways—with coffers, carvings, plaster decorations, mosaics, or frescoes.

Engineering Considerations

Vaults constructed of numerous blocks of material pressing against one another exert not only the accumulated downward weight of the material and of any superimposed load but also a side thrust or tendency to spread. To avoid collapse, adequate resistance against this thrust must thus be concentrated at the haunches (lower portions) of the vault. The resistance may take the form of thickened walls at the haunches; of buttresses placed at points of concentrated thrust as in Romanesque and Gothic architecture; or of vaults so placed that their thrusts oppose and counteract. This necessity has controlled the evolution of masonry vaulting and its use in buildings.

History of Vaults

The Ancient World

In ancient Egypt brick vaulting was used, chiefly for drains. The Chaldaeans and Assyrians used vaults for the same purpose but seem also to have made architectural use of high domes and barrel vaults. The Greeks made no use of vaults.

Roman and Romanesque Styles

The vaulting technique of the Etruscans was absorbed by the Romans, who started in the 1st cent. AD the development of a mature vaulting system. Casting concrete in one solid mass, the Romans created vaults of perfect rigidity, devoid of external thrust, and requiring no buttresses. Thus vaults and domes could be easily erected over vast spaces, producing impressive and complex thermae, amphitheaters, and basilicas.

Roman vaults were the basis on which more complex and varied forms were developed in the Middle Ages. The tunnel (or barrel) vault spans between two walls, like a continuous arch. The cross, or groined, vault is formed by the intersection at right angles of two barrel vaults, producing a surface that has arched openings for its four sides and concentration of load at the four corner points of the square or rectangle. The semicircular arch was universally employed in Romanesque vaulting throughout Europe, and the Roman cross vault was the type used for covering square or rectangular compartments.

Gothic Vaulting

Ribs to strengthen the groins and sides of a cross vault were first employed in the Church of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (11th cent.). When the system of using ribs to form a complete organic supporting skeleton was developed, it became one of the basic principles of perfected Gothic architecture. The use of ribs led to increasing complexity, beginning in the 12th cent., in vault forms.

The pointed arch, which was dominant in medieval architecture from the 13th cent. onward, helped to overcome the difficulties of vaulting oblong compartments exclusively with semicircular sections and to bring the various ribs of unequal spans to a crown at the same height. Some vaulting compartments or bays were divided by ribs into six segments and were known as sexpartite vaults, but the four-part vault generally prevailed. In England the multiplication of ribs for structural and decorative purposes culminated in the 15th cent. in the elaborate fan vault of the Perpendicular style.

Renaissance and Later Vaulting

The architects of the Renaissance and baroque periods abandoned Gothic methods and returned to Roman vault forms. New devices were added to these basic forms, including barrel vaults of semi-elliptical section, domes mounted on drums, and cross vaults with groins of elliptical section. In modern times reinforced concrete produces lightweight vaults devoid of thrust.


See J. Fitchen, The Construction of Gothic Cathedrals (1961).

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vault1 / vôlt/ • n. 1. a roof in the form of an arch or a series of arches, typical of churches and other large, formal buildings. ∎ poetic/lit. a thing resembling an arched roof, esp. the sky: the vault of heaven. ∎  Anat. the arched roof of a cavity, esp. that of the skull: the cranial vault. 2. a large room or chamber used for storage, esp. an underground one. ∎  a secure room in a bank in which valuables are stored. ∎  a chamber beneath a church or in a graveyard used for burials. • v. [tr.] [usu. as adj.] (vaulted) provide (a building or room) with an arched roof or roofs: a vaulted arcade. ∎  make (a roof) in the form of a vault: there was a high ceiling, vaulted with cut slate. vault2 • v. [intr.] leap or spring while supporting or propelling oneself with one or both hands or with the help of a pole: he vaulted over the gate. ∎  [tr.] jump over (an obstacle) in such a way: Ryker vaulted the barrier. • n. an act of vaulting. DERIVATIVES: vault·er n.

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vault •gestalt • asphalt •belt, Celt, dealt, dwelt, felt, gelt, knelt, melt, misdealt, pelt, Scheldt, smelt, spelt, svelte, veld, welt •fan belt • seat belt • lifebelt • sunbelt •rust belt • Copperbelt • heartfelt •underfelt • backveld • bushveld •Roosevelt •atilt, built, gilt, guilt, hilt, jilt, kilt, lilt, quilt, silt, spilt, stilt, tilt, upbuilt, wilt •Vanderbilt • volte •assault, Balt, exalt, fault, halt, malt, salt, smalt, vault •cobalt • stringhalt • basalt •somersault • polevault •bolt, colt, dolt, holt, jolt, moult (US molt), poult, smolt, volt •deadbolt • Humboldt • thunderbolt •megavolt • spoilt • Iseult •consult, cult, exult, indult, insult, penult, result, ult •adult • occult • tumult • catapult •difficult • Hasselt

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vault Curved roof or ceiling usually made of stone, brick or concrete. The simple barrel vault is semi-cylindrical; the groin vault consists of two barrel vaults intersected at right-angles; the ribbed groin is the same as the groin vault except that it has ribs to give the edges extra support; the so-called Gothic vault has four pointed compartments; the fan vault has a delicate, fan-like appearance. In the 15th century, English masons developed the fan vault, using tracery to make it more elaborate, as in King's College Chapel, Cambridge.

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vault1 arched roof or ceiling XIV; burial chamber XVI. ME. voute, vaute — OF. voute, vaute (mod. voûte):- Rom. *vol(vi)ta, pp. fem. (for volūta) of L. volvere turn.
So vault vb. XIV. — OF. vouter (mod. voûter). The sp. with l appeared XV (after later OF. usage).

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vault2 †leap on to (a horse) XVI; leap with the support of the hand XVII. — OF. vo(u)lter turn (a horse), gambol, leap:- Rom. *voltāre, *volūtāre or *volvitāre, frequent. f. L. volvere roll; assim. to prec.