Flying buttresses are one of the most iconic features of Gothic architecture style of masonry building characterized by cavernous spaces with the expanse of walls broken up by overlaid tracery .

A flying buttress is an architectural feature commonly found in Gothic architecture. It serves a crucial function by providing structural support to the walls and roof of a building.

The flying buttress in civil engineering is designed to transfer the lateral forces from the roof and upper walls to the ground, allowing for the construction of taller and more spacious structures.

These beautiful stone arches allowed medieval builders to construct cathedrals and churches with soaring ceilings and walls of stained glass, revolutionizing ecclesiastical design.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the history, structure, and iconic examples of the flying buttress.

Flying Buttresses Gothic Architecture

Flying exterior buttresses became a key feature of Gothic architecture during the Middle Ages. The architectural purpose of a flying buttress is to counteract the outward thrust created by the weight of the roof and the high walls.

In Gothic churches, these supports are placed on the outside wall for support, enabling the construction of larger windows and more open interiors. The difference between a buttress and a flying buttress lies in their placement and design. While a traditional buttress is directly attached to the wall, a flying buttress is connected to the wall by an arch or a half-arch.

These exterior braces allowed cathedrals to reach unprecedented heights by channeling and bearing the weight from walls and vaulted ceilings.

They were critical innovations that enabled the soaring towers, walls, and arches of Gothic cathedrals.

flying butters

Gothic architecture pioneered the use of flying buttresses in cathedral design during the Middle Ages.

Flying buttresses provided essential structural support that allowed Gothic cathedrals to feature taller walls and vaulted ceilings than previous Romanesque buildings.

They transferred the weight and structural stresses of walls and roof vaults to large pillars outside the building. This support system was a signature achievement of Gothic architecture.

Cathedral Buttress

Cathedral design evolved dramatically in the Middle Ages with the inception of Gothic architecture and flying buttresses.

These elegant and slender arched exterior braces enabled the construction of Europe’s great Medieval cathedrals.

Flying buttresses provided structural stability by bearing the weight of high walls and ceilings, allowing Gothic cathedrals to achieve unprecedented heights and volumes of space.

The remains are an iconic feature of Gothic cathedrals to this day.

What is a Flying Buttress?

A flying buttress is an arched exterior support featured on Gothic cathedrals, abbeys and churches. The flying buttress is comprised of a stone arch exterior to the building that transmits the thrust of the roof downwards to counteract the outward push of the vaults inside.

This allowed medieval architects to open up the interior walls of cathedrals to maximize space and light.

Flying buttresses usually consist of a segmental arch, a solid pier known as the buttress core, and a thin connection to the wall known as the fly. The arch extends outward from the side of the building, spanning the open space between the buttress core and the structure being supported.

The arch absorbs and transmits the downward and outward thrust forces exerted by the roof and ceiling vaults, directing them through them down to the ground. This takes the weight off the walls, allowing them to be built thinner, higher and contain larger windows.

In summary, a flying buttress is an external architectural support that transmits the thrust of the roof and ceiling vaults across open space to the ground, allowing thinner, higher walls and greater interior space in Gothic churches and cathedrals.

flying buttress

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Examples of Flying Buttresses

Examples of flying buttresses can be found in many iconic Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre-Dame de Paris and Westminster Abbey. These structures demonstrate how flying buttresses were used to achieve incredible heights and create expansive, light-filled spaces. The flying buttress parts consist of the buttress core, which is the main vertical support, and the arch or half-arch that connects it to the wall.

Some of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture featuring flying buttresses include:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris) – Notre Dame’s flying buttresses are the most iconic, immediately recognizable from a distance by their semi-circular arches. The cathedral has ten of them supporting the nave and four more reinforcing the choir.
  • Chartres Cathedral (France) – This 13th century Gothic cathedral has the earliest surviving of these structures. Its flying buttresses have a simple, heavy design with a steep pitch.
  • Reims Cathedral (France) – A High Gothic masterpiece, Reims has some of the most elegant flying arches built from 1231-1275. Its buttresses have a gentle curve and help support an expansive interior.
  • Durham Cathedral (England) – This Norman cathedral added Gothic style in the late 12th century to support its nave. The interior wooden roof trusses were replaced by stone rib vaults.
  • Cologne Cathedral (Germany) – At the time of its completion in 1880, Cologne Cathedral had the tallest flying buttresses in the world at 98 feet.

Structural Design

The flying buttress evolved alongside Gothic architecture in the 12th century as cathedrals and churches grew taller and builders sought ways to support ever-higher walls and vaulted stone ceilings.

Since a masonry vault exerts an outward thrust at the base of the arch, the walls resist this force and allow the vault to stand. However, this required extremely thick walls, limiting the height they could reach and window space.

These are provided an exterior structure that could transmit the vault’s thrust to the ground outside the building’s walls.

The flying buttresses absorb the thrust from the nave vaults and transmit the force safely to enormous buttress piers, secured in the ground outside the church. This support role allowed medieval architects to build walls as ribs rather than thick, solid masonry, opening up cathedral walls to stained glass artistry.

Later Gothic buttresses were built with a gentle curve rather than a sharp angle. This distributed the thrust gradually and enhanced stability. Builders also angled buttresses in relation to each other, developing sophisticated geometries to handle complex forces.

Architectural Significance

The flying buttress defines Gothic architecture more than any other element.

Along with the pointed arch and ribbed stone vaults, flying buttresses enabled the breathtaking heights, expansive windows and grand proportions of great medieval cathedrals.

While flying buttresses originated out of structural necessity, they quickly became an important decorative feature as well. Their beautiful stonework complemented the elaborate exteriors of cathedrals.

The arches often contained ornate carvings, pinnacles and gargoyles. Their exposed placement also naturally drew attention to the engineering sophistication behind their design.

Flying buttresses created a majestic silhouette for cathedrals when viewed from a distance.

Their sloping arcs highlighted the building’s verticality, creating a dramatic contrast between low horizontal lines and prayerful vertical lines lifting the eye and spirit towards the heavens. This conveyed core ideas of Gothic religious architecture.

Beyond their functional and aesthetic impact, flying buttresses had a tremendous influence structurally and culturally.

Their audacious engineering allowed medieval masons to achieve unprecedented architectural feats, complementing new intellectual and spiritual ideas flourishing in the late Middle Ages. The flying buttress will forever symbolize the breathtaking verticality, light, and spatial harmony of Gothic design.

Architectural significance

Why are they called “flying” buttresses?

There are a few theories behind the poetic and evocative name given to these external Gothic supports. One is that, unlike earlier buttresses that were built right up against the exterior wall, flying buttresses stand apart from the walls they support.

The shadowy, open space beneath their soaring arches contributes to their light, wing-like appearance.

The French term is arc-boutant, which directly translates to “arch buttressing” or “buttressing arch.” In Old English translations, the term evolved into “flying arches” or “flying buttresses,” eloquently conveying their apparent weightlessness as they span the open air.

Some art historians cite a Biblical verse referring to flying buttresses indirectly: “He has broken my walls like a dam overflowing” (Ezekiel 13:13). This metaphor envisions collapsed walls after they could no longer resist overwhelming outward pressure, like broken dams wash away in overflowing water.

Whatever the exact origin, the striking label perfectly matches the astonishing innovation and artistry of Gothic flying buttresses. Their name conveys why these stone arches both structurally and visually defy gravity.


From an engineering perspective, the flying buttress rank among the most important innovations in architectural history. Their graceful yet massive arcs exemplify the astonishing artistry and structural capabilities of medieval Gothic stonemasons.

Flying buttresses enabled the spacious, luminous interiors, delicate stained glass, and celestial verticality that define Gothic cathedrals. Their forms are weighted with symbolism, from aspirations of spiritual transcendence to appreciation of rational design.

No structure better encapsulates the engineering and architectural imagination of the Middle Ages than the timeless flying buttress. Their continuing awe-inspiring beauty is a testament to the visionary builders who dreamed them into being.

Instead of the heavy lateral buttressing found in Romanesque churches, the pointed arches found in Gothic churches allowed for thinner lateral, or flying buttresses.” This innovation revolutionized architecture, allowing for the construction of some of the most magnificent buildings in history.

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