Visual Guide to Medieval Decorative Features

A variety of technical architectural terms are frequently used in publications such as Pevsner and Wilson’s The Buildings of England, English Heritage’s List of Scheduled Monuments and List of Buildings of Historical and Architectural Interest, and Mortlock and Roberts’ The Popular Guide to Norfolk Churches. A number of the detailed descriptions held on the Norfolk Historic Environment Record (NHER) also use these terms, which can be confusing and complicated. In order to help you make the most of our records, and to relate these to the buildings you can see, we have written the following guide.

There are a wide variety of types of architectural decoration, and these can be seen on castles, churches, cathedrals and even houses. For the purposes of this guide the decorations have been split into three main groups: arches, decorative features and windows/tracery. Each of these main categories contains the relevant associated features. Photographs from Castle Rising Castle (NHER 3307), St Lawrence's Church in Castle Rising (NHER 3309), St Peter Mancroft's Church (NHER 257) in Norwich, St Gregory's Church in Norwich (NHER 247) the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist (NHER 26095) and The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich (NHER 226) are used to illustrate the descriptions.

 

Perpendicular west window at St Gregory's Church, Norwich.

Perpendicular west window at St Gregory's Church, Norwich. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

In order to classify the following information on architectural styles and designs it is worth remembering the approximated date ranges of the prevalent architectural styles of the medieval period (1066-1540):

Norman (Romanesque): 1066-1200.

Early English: 1200-1300.

Decorated: 1300-1400.

Perpendicular: 1400-1550.

N.B. The last three styles are often referred to as English Gothic architecture. Readers should also refer to the article entitled ‘How to investigate a church’ for further information on these architectural phases.

Arches

Arches are a major structural component in historic buildings and are used to form windows, doorways, arcades and vaulting. In order to understand the complexity of arches it is important to discuss them in context with associated architectural features. Arches are often situated atop columns, which are upright supports of round or square section and composed of a base, shaft and capital.

 

Elaborate shaft formed by slender columns at St Lawrence's Church, Castle Rising.

Elaborate shaft formed by slender columns at St Lawrence's Church, Castle Rising. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

The shape of the shaft (the main body of the column) evolved over time from the simple square or circular forms prevalent in Norman times to the more elaborate forms typical of the Decorated or Perpendicular periods. These more lavish uprights (be they columns or pillars) were created by the attachment of a number of slender-shafted columns to the main body of the shaft giving a florid section. During the 12th-13th century the mid section of the shaft was occasionally adorned with a corbel-ring or shaft-ring, which in essence was a stone ring that served a decorative purpose. The shafts of medieval columns may also feature fillets; narrow, flat, bands that are purely ornamental and serve no structural purpose.

 

Norman knotwork shaft ring at Castle Rising Castle.

 Knotwork shaft ring at Castle Rising Castle. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Capitals are the ornamented tops of columns/pillars from which the arch springs. They typically have round bases and flare to a larger top which tends to be either square or circular in shape. Most vernacular buildings have Classical (a style that imitates ancient Greek and Roman architecture) capitals but a number of distinct medieval capitals are clearly visible in churches and castles.

Perhaps the most common capital types are cushion and bell. Cushion capitals are Romanesque in style and are cut from a cube with the lower parts rounded to fit a circular shaft. An adaptation of the cushion capital is the scalloped capital, where truncated cones that give a seashell-shape replace the rounded lower edges. This variety of capital is sometimes referred to as a trumpet capital. The bell capital derives its name from its inverted bell-shape, and this simple form is often enriched with carving. More elegant forms were developed as part of English Gothic architecture and designs based on foliage were popular. Capitals of this type include crocket, waterleaf and stiff leaf with the latter being of particular interest due its direct development from the crocket and the fact that it is a form unique to England.

 

Crocket capital at St Lawrence's Church, Castle Rising.

 Stiff leaf capital at St Lawrence's Church, Castle Rising. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Above these capitals are the arches themselves. A huge number of arch shapes exist so only a few of the commonest types can be detailed here. The Normans favoured semicircular and segmental arches, both of which have rounded tops. Semicircular arches are constructed from voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones) with a prominent keystone (the central stone), which is an ideal location for a moulding or carving. Segmental arches are more suited to arcades where they can incorporate a number of orders. Orders are a series of recessed arches and jambs that form a splayed opening (like a doorway or arcade arch). They often allow a variety of different decorative mouldings to be used on a single arched opening to give a lavish and characterful appearance.

 

Orders of arches at Castle Rising Castle. Note the zig-zag decoration.

  Orders of arches at Castle Rising Castle. Note the zig-zag decoration. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Early English architects favoured the pointed arch, which is perhaps the most traditional shape when considering arches. This style of arch lends itself well to having headstops. Headstops are the decorative terminals at the end of the hoodmoulds (a projecting moulding on the wall above an arch) of arches. It is frequent that such ‘stops’ are carved with human, animal or grotesque faces, hence the name of headstop. As with window tracery, the ogee shape (double curved lines or ‘S’s) was incorporated into arches in buildings in the Decorated style and was particularly in vogue during the 14th century. They are also referred to as keel arches.

 

Impressive spandrels at the west door of the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich.

Impressive spandrels at the west door of the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

By the latter part of the medieval period the Perpendicular style had risen to prominence. Arches of this period tend to be flattened and are known as four-centre arches, and these were eventually to evolve into Tudor arches by the end of the medieval period (with the Tudor period dating from 1485-1603). This type of arch is particularly suitable for decorated spandrels. Spandrels are the roughly triangular shape between an arch and its containing rectangle or the space between adjacent arches in an arcade. A huge diversity of spandrel decorations exist and include foliage, heraldic devices, geometric shapes, scenes and masks (be they human, animal or otherwise).

Decorative features

A large number of architectural decorations and embellishments can be seen on historic buildings. Many of these features relate to specific architectural styles and/or time periods, and as such they can help to date various elements of buildings. 

 

Chevron and dog tooth decoration at Castle Rising Castle.

 Chevron and dog tooth decoration at Castle Rising Castle. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Chevron decorations are V-shaped mouldings or indentations that are frequently used on arches, pillars and columns. Additionally, they can be used on flat surfaces to add character and texture. They are Norman in date and are sometimes referred to as zig-zag mouldings. Chevrons can be found in singles series or double series (which creates a diamond effect), with the latter particularly popular on arches. Other Norman decorations include billet, cable/rope and beakhead mouldings, all of which are used on similar pieces of architecture to chevrons. Billets consist of several bands of raised short cylinders or square pieces, with gaps in one band being parallel to blocks in the other. Cable/rope mouldings have the appearance of twisted rope and look impressive when incorporated into the shaft of a pier or column. Beakhead decoration takes the form of bird or animal heads that are biting into a roll moulding. Roll moulds have a circular or part circular section and adorn arches above the capitals (for capitals see earlier section).   

Early English mouldings can also be seen in churches and these take the form of nailhead and dog-tooth decoration. Nailhead consists of small pyramids that are regularly repeated whereas dog-tooth looks like small four leafed square flowers and was supposedly based on the dog’s tooth violet. Later mouldings belonging to the Decorated period are more elaborate and include the ballflower pattern. Ballflower decorations comprise globular three-petalled flowers that enclose a ball.

 

Bosses adorning Lierne vaulting at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich.

Bosses adorning vaulting at the gatehouse of the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Bosses are another common decorative feature present in buildings of archaeological interest. Bosses are ornamental knobs that cover the intersection of ribs in a vaulted ceiling. They are often carved with foliage but other designs include figure-head bosses that depict stylised human faces and religious scenes that are often carved on church roof bosses. Some grand medieval buildings feature heraldic tiles, and these stone slabs carved with devices and emblems (even coats of arms) can be used internally and externally.  

Medieval buildings, such as churches, often feature corbels. These are supports set into a wall to carry a weight from above and can be made from stone or wood. They tend to be used in the construction of roofs but can also be used to construct rough arches. They are ideal for carving, with the Normans favouring gargoyle corbels and foliage corbels being a typical 13th to 14th century style. Various other designs can be seen, and carved angel corbels are another common sight in medieval churches.

 

Gargoyle corbel at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

 Gargoyle corbel at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Arcades are often used in buildings as both structural and decorative architecture. An arcade is a series of arches supported by piers or columns, and the cloisters/both sides of the nave of ecclesiastical buildings were often arcaded. Sometimes arcades are not freestanding but are instead attached to walls, and thus known as blind arcades. Such arcades are common in churches where they form a dado (the finishing of the lower part of an interior wall from floor to waist height) beneath the windows.

 

Intersecting tracery in the cloister of the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich.

 Intersecting tracery in the cloister of the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Blank arcades are also used, and these take the form of decorative outlines on wall and tomb furnishings. Of course, some blank arcades are created when a church aisle is demolished and the arcade is bricked up leaving the pillars and arches in relief. The pillars and arches of arcades are also of interest because they feature many of the styles and mouldings mentioned above. The shape of the arches in arcades can also determine their date, as discussed in the earlier section.

 Norman blind arcade at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich. The arcade has cushion capitals.

Blind arcade at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich. The arcade has cushion capitals. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Windows/tracery

Windows are divided by mullions (vertical uprights) into a number of lights (essentially the openings between the mullions). However, many of the windows in churches, castles and listed buildings also contain tracery, which is the decorative stone or timber in the upper part of the window above the lights. This type of ornamentation originated in the early medieval period and evolved over time.

 

Early English pointed arch and headstops with inset lancet window. At the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich.

Early English pointed arch with inset lancet window. Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Norwich.

The first form was plate tracery where shapes were cut through solid masonry. This technique originated in around 1200 and was frequently used to cut lancets – slender, pointed arch windows. It was common that above plate tracery windows of more than one light a quatrefoil (four-lobed) or circular shape was cut.

 

Decorated window at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Norwich.

Decorated window at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Norwich. Note the ogee shapes. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

The next form to evolve was bar tracery where the tracery pattern was formed by the continuation and intersection of the moulded mullions. This tracery was one of the principal decorative elements in medieval churches and was prevalent from about 1250 onward. Various types of bar tracery developed over time, with the earliest type being geometric(al) which made use of simple shapes like circles and lozenges (diamond shapes). This was the first style to make use of cusps (projecting points on the curves of tracery which create leaf-shapes) to enrich the appearance of windows. It is also worth mentioning that rose or wheel windows date to this period, and take the form of a circular window with tracery radiating from the centre.

 

Rose window featured in the Norwich School.

Rose window featured in the Norwich School.© T. Sunley (NLA). 

This was followed in around 1300 by Y-tracery, with the ‘Y’ being formed by the mullion branching into two, and intersecting tracery which is formed by interlocking mullions. This intersecting tracery was soon elaborated upon to create reticulated tracery made up entirely of circles flowing downwards to make ogee shapes, resulting in a net-like appearance.

 

Perpendicular west window at St Peter Mancroft's Church, Norwich.

Perpendicular west window at St Peter Mancroft's Church, Norwich. © T. Sunley (NLA). 

Later in the 14th century a more flamboyant style was popular and this was characterised by curvilinear or flowing tracery. This elegant design comprises shapes made up of uninterrupted flowing curves between ogee shapes. The final tracery type to discuss is panel tracery, which dates to the late medieval period. This tracery is formed of upright, straight-sided panels above the lights of a window. These panels also often have cusps at the top and bottom.

Thomas Sunley (NLA) 9 October 2007

 

Further Reading

Bowood, R. 1964. The story of our churches and cathedrals (Loughborough: Wills and Hepworth Ltd)

Fleming, J., Honour, H. and Pevsner, N. 1999. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (London: Penguin)

Mortlock, D. P. and Roberts, C. V., 1985. The Popular Guide to Norfolk Churches: No.1 North-East Norfolk (Cambridge: Acorn Editions)

Pevsner, N. and Wilson, B. 1999. The Buildings of England, Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East (London, Penguin)

Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A. (eds) 2004. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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