Looking at Buildings

Building Types

The West Front

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Exeter Cathedral, Devon. West Front

The grand west front was a sign of status, particularly for a cathedral. The west door, providing the principal ceremonial entry to the church was frequently emphasised by sculpture, and this might extend as an external sculptured screenGlossary Term across the whole of the west front, complementing the reredosGlossary Term behind the high altar inside. Sculptured screenGlossary Term fronts such as those at Wells, Salisbury and Exeter were a particularly English solution. The west front at Exeter, begun 1329, was the final addition to a rebuilding campaign that had started in the 1270s.

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Exeter Cathedral. Canopied niches with figure sculpture.

Its richly sculptured screenGlossary Term was an afterthought and may originally have been lower, so as not to interfere with the great west window; the top tier of statues was an addition of the 15th century. The screenGlossary Term stands forward from the main building, to the extent that there is room behind it for a tiny chapel with the tomb of its builder, Bishop Grandison, who died in 1369.

Study of Salisbury Cathedral during recent repair work revealed how the west front had a role in cathedral ceremonies. Stairs and passages in the thickness of the wall enabled the choristers to stand high up within the west front, their music audible outside be means of holes behind the exterior sculpture.

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Salisbury Cathedral
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Lichfield Cathedral, West front

At Lichfield the principle of the screenGlossary Term front is combined with the older tradition of twin west towers, and the sculpture appears subordinate to the impressive skyline. Although much restored in the 19th century this is essentially a 14th century creation, each tower has a stone spireGlossary Term rising above corner pinnacles, complemented by a third spireGlossary Term over the crossingGlossary Term.

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Beverley Minster. West front

The two-tower front, though found more frequently on the Continent than in England, was a frequent ideal throughout the Middle Ages, seen in its simplest RomanesqueGlossary Term form at Southwell Minster or in the early GothicGlossary Term Ripon Minster. As well as forming prominent landmarks, towers had a practical function in housing bells. West towers, out of the way of the main liturgical activity, could be more convenient for this purpose than a central tower. Because of the expense, towers were often constructed over a long period and so rarely finished to a unified design. By the fifteenth century the building of pairs of west towers was uncommon, but at Beverley Minster they form part of an unusually complete and unified composition in the PerpendicularGlossary Term style. The buttresses have sculpture, but ornament is kept firmly under control with much of the walling decoratedGlossary Term only by stone panellingGlossary Term.

Ely Cathedral

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Ely Cathedral, West front

Ely Cathedral demonstrates both the diversity to be found in the west front design, and how its character could be substantially changed by later alterations. The west end planned in the late 12th century was a broad composition with central tower between western transepts. Only the SW transeptGlossary Term remains, the NW transeptGlossary Term having collapsed in the 15th century. The gatehouse-like central tower was given a 14th-century spireGlossary Term, later replaced by the present octagonal top storey which echoes the form of the 14th-century octagonal crossing.



In a church, the central space at the junction of the nave, chancel and transepts. Crossing arch: an arch spanning piers at a crossing. Crossing tower: a tower above a crossing.


A distinctive phase of English Gothic which developed at the end of the 13th century and continued into the later 14th; sometimes abbreviated to Dec. Named from its elaborate window tracery, which abandoned the simple circular forms of Geometric in favour of more varied patterns based on segments of circles. Dec tracery makes much use of ogee or reversed curves, which were combined in the 14th century to produce reticulated and flowing tracery composed of trefoils, quatrefoils and dagger shapes. Similar inventiveness is seen in the patterns produced by the lierne and tierceron vaults of the period, in the three-dimensional handling of wall surfaces broken up by canopy work and sculpture and in imaginative spatial planning making use of diagonal axes.


The style of the Middle Ages from the later 12th century to the Renaissance, with which it co-existed in certain forms into the 17th century. Characterized in its full development by the pointed arch, the rib-vault and an often skeletal masonry structure for churches, combined with large glazed windows. The term was originally associated with the concept of the barbarian Goths as assailants of classical civilization.


Wooden lining to interior walls, made up of vertical members (muntins) and horizontals (rails) framing panels; also called wainscot. Raised and fielded: with the central area of the panel (field) raised up. Also used for stonework treated with sunk or raised panels.


English version of late Gothic, developed from the 1320s, which continued into the early 16th century; sometimes abbreviated to Perp. Characterised by large windows with a grid pattern of mullions and transoms, with the mullions continuing to the head to the arch, which is often of flattened or four-centred form. This motif of panel tracery is used also for wall decoration, and on the fan vaults that were used for the most prestigious buildings.


Painted and/or sculpted screen behind and above an altar.


The dominant style of Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is associated especially with the expansion of monasticism and the building of large stone churches, and is characterized by massive masonry, round-headed arches and vaulting inspired by ancient Roman precedent, and by the use of stylized ornament. In England it is commonly known as Norman.


In a medieval church, usually set at the entry to the chancel. A parclose screen separates a chapel from the rest of the church. A rood screen was placed below a representation of the Crucifixion (called a rood).


Tall pyramidal or conical feature crowning a tower or turret. Broach: starting from a square base, then carried into an octagonal section by means of triangular faces. Splayed-foot: variation of the broach form, found in England principally in the south-east, in which the four cardinal faces are splayed out near their bases, to cover the corners, while oblique (or intermediate) faces taper away to a point. Needle spire: thin spire rising from the centre of a tower roof, well inside the parapet.


Transverse portion of a church.