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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 buttressesbuttress,
mass of masonry built against a wall to strengthen it. It is especially necessary when a vault or an arch places a heavy load or thrust on one part of a wall. In the case of a wall carrying the uniform load of a floor or roof, it is more economical to buttress it at
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 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 domesdome,
a roof circular or (rarely) elliptical in plan and usually hemispherical in form, placed over a circular, square, oblong, or polygonal space. Domes have been built with a wide variety of outlines and of various materials.
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 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. A.D. 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 stylePerpendicular style,
term given the final period of English Gothic architecture (late 14th–middle 16th cent.) because of the predominating vertical lines of its tracery and paneling. It is also called rectilinear for the prevailing angularity of the designs.
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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).


An arched roof or ceiling or a continuous semicircular ceiling that extends in a straight line over a hall, room, or other partially enclosed space.

barrel and groin vault

A vault formed by two identical tunnel-shaped vaults that intersect in the middle.

barrel vault

A masonry vault resting on two parallel walls having the form of a half cylinder, sometimes called a tunnel vault.

compound vault

Any vault formed by the intersection of two or more vaults; types include cloister vault, domical vault, groin vault, and segmental vault.

conical vault

A vault having a cross section in the form of a circular arc, which is larger at one end than the other.

corbel vault

A continuous corbel arch over a space, used by the ancient Mayas of Yucatan; also known as a Mayan arch.

cross vault

A vault formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults which meet at right angles.

domical vault

A dome-shaped vault, where the ribs or groins are semicircular, causing the center of the vaulted bay to rise higher than the side arches.

double vault

A vault, usually domical, consisting of an inner shell separated from a higher outer shell.

fan vault

A concave conical vault, whose ribs, of unequal length and curvature, radiate from the springing like the ribs of a fan.

groined vault

One covering a square bay where two barrel vaults of equal diameter and height intersect.

hemispherical vault

Masonry dome with a semicircular cross section.

net vault

Vault where the ribs form a network of lozenges.

panel vault

A rib vault having a central square panel connected with diagonal ribs to the corners of the larger square it covers.

polygonal vault

A vault with more than four intersecting vault surfaces; typically octagonal in plan.

rampant vault

A vault whose two abutments are located on an inclined plane, such as a vault supporting or forming the ceiling of a stairway; the impost on one side is higher than the impost on the other side.

ribbed vault

A vault in which the ribs support, or seem to support, the web of the vault.

stellar vault

A vault where the ribs are so arranged as to form a star-shape.

tracery vault

A type of solid vaulting with decorative ribs forming patterns on the surface.



in architecture, an arched roof or ceiling. When used to support a load, a vault, like an arch, usually works on the principle of compression, transferring vertical stress to the supports. In many types of vaults horizontal stress is also transferred.

The simplest and most common type of vault is the barrel, or tunnel, vault, which rests on parallel supports, such as walls, rows of columns, and arcades. In cross section the barrel vault forms part of a circle, ellipse, or parabola.

A groin, or cross, vault is formed by the intersection at right angles of two barrel vaults of equal height. Groin vaults are often supported at the corners by freestanding columns. The parts of a barrel vault that rest on walls, arches, or beams along the entire perimeter of a vaulted building form a cloister vault. A mirror vault differs from a cloister vault in that its upper part is a flat slab.

The dome is derived from the vault. A sail vault is formed by the truncation of parts of the rounded surface of a dome along vertical planes.

Numerous variations of these basic forms of vaults may result from differences in the curves of intersection and in the number and shape of the pendentives. Such variations include pointed, inclined, annular, and honeycomb vaults.

The oldest type of vault is the corbel vault, consisting of horizontal rows of masonry that project one above the other and do not transfer the thrust (for example, the vault of the casemates of the acropolis of Tiryns, 13th century B.C.). Barrel vaults appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the fourth and third millennia B.C. They were widely used in ancient Roman architecture, as were cloister vaults (for example, in the arcade of Tabularium, Rome, 79 B.C.) and groin vaults (for example, the basilica of Constantine, Rome, c. A.D. 315).

Barrel, sail, and groin vaults were used in Byzantine architecture, particularly in cruciform-domed churches. Pointed vaults were used primarily in the architecture of Azerbaijan, India, China, Middle Asia, and the Middle East. In medieval Western and Northern European architecture groin vaults were popular and acquired a pointed look owing to a basic structural element—the rib.

Since ancient times vaults have been constructed of natural stone and brick. In post-and-lintel construction the transverse strength of stone limited the span to about 5 m. The introduction of the vault made it possible to increase the span significantly, since in a vault, stone—working on compression rather than flexure—exhibits greater strength.

Since the late 19th century vaults have frequently been made of metal. The 20th century has seen the introduction of various types of reinforced-concrete monolithic and sectional thin-walled vault shells of complex construction, which are used as roofs for large-span buildings. Since the mid-20th century wooden vaults of bonded construction have come into wide use.


Kuznetsov, A. V. Svodyiikhdekor. Moscow, 1938.
Hart, F. Kunst und Technik der Wölbung. Munich [1965].

What does it mean when you dream about a vault?

A vault in a dream is an indication of wealth and success. This could be an indication of prosperity, the fulfillment of one’s creative urges, or a future of great happiness.


An arched masonry structure usually forming a ceiling or a roof.
An anatomical structure that is arched or dome-shaped.


vault: 1, barrel vault, 2, intersecting vault, 3, domed vault, 4, stilted vault
1. A structure based on the principle of the arch, often constructed of masonry; typically consists of an arrangement of arches that cover the space below; also see barrel vault, cradle vault, cylindrical vault, fan vault, groined vault, lierne vault, rampant vault, ribbed vault, segmental vault, sidewalk vault, stilted vault, tunnel vault, wagon vault, Welsh vault.
2. A burial chamber, especially one under a church.
3. An underground chamber especially designed for maintaining electrical equipment.
4. A room for the safekeeping of valuables.


1. an arched structure that forms a roof or ceiling
2. Anatomy any arched or domed bodily cavity or space


Dressage a low leap; curvet