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Spire of Salisbury Cathedral (completed 1320) (404 feet (123 metres), with tower and spire) SalisburyCathedral-wyrdlight-EastExt.jpg
Spire of Salisbury Cathedral (completed 1320) (404 feet (123 metres), with tower and spire)

A spire is a tall, slender, pointed structure on top of a roof or tower, especially at the summit of church steeples. [1] A spire may have a square, circular, or polygonal plan, with a roughly conical or pyramidal shape. [1] Spires are typically built of stonework or brickwork, or else of timber structure with metal cladding, ceramic tiling, shingles, or slates on the exterior. [1]


Since towers supporting spires are usually square, square-plan spires emerge directly from the tower's walls, but octagonal spires either called for a pyramidal transition section called a broach at the spire's base, or else freed spaces around the tower's summit for decorative elements like pinnacles. [1] The former solution is known as a broach spire. [1] Small or short spires are known as spikes, spirelets, or flèches . [1] [2]

This sense of the word spire is attested in English since the 1590s, spir having been used in Middle Low German since the 14th century, a form related to the Old English word spir, meaning a sprout, shoot, or stalk of grass. [3]

Gothic spires

Chartres Cathedral. The Flamboyant Gothic North Tower (finished 1513) (left) and older South Tower (1144-1150) (right) 20050921CathChartresB.jpg
Chartres Cathedral. The Flamboyant Gothic North Tower (finished 1513) (left) and older South Tower (1144–1150) (right)

The Gothic church spire originated in the 12th century as a simple, four-sided pyramidal structure on top of a church tower. The spire could be constructed of masonry, as at Salisbury Cathedral, or of wood covered with lead, as at Notre-Dame de Paris. Gradually, spires became taller, slimmer, and more complex in form. Triangular sections of masonry, called broaches were added to the sides, at an angle to the faces of the tower, as at St Columba, Cologne. In the 12th and 13th centuries, more ornament was added to the faces of the spires, particularly gabled dormers over the centres of the faces of the towers, as in the southwest tower of Chartres Cathedral. Additional vertical ornament, in the form of slender pinnacles in pyramid shapes, were often placed around the spires, to express the transition between the square base and the octagonal spire. [4]

The spires of the late 13th century achieved great height; one example was Fribourg Cathedral in Switzerland, where the gabled lantern and spire reached a height of 385 feet (117 meters). In England, a tall needle spire was sometimes constructed at the edge of tower, with pinnacles at the other corners. The western spires of Lichfield Cathedral are an example. [4]

Spires were particularly fragile in the wind, and a number of English Gothic spires collapsed; notably that of Malmesbury Abbey (1180–1500); Lincoln Cathedral (which had been the tallest in the world) 1349–1549; and Chichester Cathedral (1402–1861). The spire of Salisbury Cathedral, completed in 1320 and 404 feet (123 meters) tall, without the tower, required the addition of buttresses, arches and tie irons to keep it intact. Finally, in 1668 the architect Christopher Wren designed reinforcing beams which halted the deformation of the structure. [5]

Openwork spires were a notable architectural innovation, beginning with the spire at Freiburg Minster, in which the pierced stonework was held together by iron cramps. The openwork spire, represented a radical but logical extension of the Gothic tendency toward a skeletal structure. [6]

Crown spires

Crown spire on the High Kirk, Edinburgh. The crown spire on St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.JPG
Crown spire on the High Kirk, Edinburgh.

Crown spires have a fully exposed structure of arches not unlike the arches of a mediaeval European crown. The spire itself is supported by buttress structures. [1]

Needle-spires and Hertfordshire spikes

A needle-spire is a particularly tall and narrow spire emerging from a tower surrounded by a parapet. In general, the term applies to considerably larger and more refined spires than the name Hertfordshire spike. [1]

A Hertfordshire spike is a type of short spire, needle-spire, or flèche ringed with a parapet and found on church-towers in the British Isles. [1]


The roofs of splay-foot spires open out and flatten off at their base, creating eaves above the tower supporting the spire. [1]


The fleche of Rouen Cathedral (centre), (151 meters), the tallest fleche in France Rouen Cathedral as seen from Gros Horloge 140215 4.jpg
The flèche of Rouen Cathedral (centre), (151 meters), the tallest flèche in France

A flèche (French : flèche, lit. 'arrow' [7] ) is name given to spires in Gothic architecture: in French the word is applied to any spire, but in English it has the technical meaning of a spirelet or spike on the rooftop of a building. [1] [2] In particular, the spirelets often built atop the crossings of major churches in mediaeval French Gothic architecture are called flèches. [2]

On the ridge of the roof on top of the crossing (the intersection of the nave and the transepts) of a church, flèches were typically light, delicate, timber-framed constructions with a metallic sheath of lead or copper. [8] They are often richly decorated with architectural and sculptural embellishments: tracery, crockets, and miniature buttresses serve to adorn the flèche. [8]

The most famous flèche was the Neo-Gothic 19th-century design by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc for the Notre-Dame de Paris, 100 feet (30 meters) tall and richly decorated with sculpture. The original flèche of Notre-Dame was built in the 13th century, and removed in 1786, shortly before the French Revolution. The famous replacement by Viollet-le-Duc with an abundance of sculpture was destroyed in the 2019 Notre-Dame de Paris fire. It will be rebuilt in the same form.


The octagonal tower of Burgos Cathedral (1221-1260), with an array of pinnacles Burgos - Catedral 164 - cimborrio.jpg
The octagonal tower of Burgos Cathedral (1221–1260), with an array of pinnacles

A pinnacle is a miniature spire that was used both as a decorative and functional element. In early Gothic, as at Notre-Dame de Paris, stone pinnacles were placed atop flying buttresses, to give them additional weight and stability, and to counterbalance the outward thrust from the rib vaults of the nave. As an ornament, they were used to break up the horizontal lines, such as parapets and the roofs of towers. In later Gothic, they were sometimes often clustered together into forests of vertical ornament.

Traditional types of spires

Clad spires can take a variety of shapes. These include:
Pyramidal spires, which may be of low profile, rising to a height not much greater than its width, or, more rarely, of high profile.
Rhenish helm : This is a four-sided tower topped with a pyramidal roof. each of the four sides of the roof is rhomboid in form, with the long diagonal running from the apex of roof to one of the corners of the supporting tower; each side of the tower is thus topped with a gable from whose peak a ridge runs to the apex of the roof.
Broach spires : These are octagonal spires sitting on a square tower, with a section of spire rising from each corner of the tower, and bridging the spaces between the corners and four of the sides.
Bell-shaped spires: These spires, sometimes square in plan, occur mostly in Northern, Alpine and Eastern Europe, where they occur alternately with onion-shaped domes.

Notable spires

The spire of Burghley House (1555-1587) is an example of a spire on non-religious building. Front of Burghley House 2009.jpg
The spire of Burghley House (1555–1587) is an example of a spire on non-religious building.

Religious symbolism

In Gothic architecture, where the spire is most commonly used, and particularly in Gothic cathedrals and churches it symbolised the heavenly aspirations of churches' builders, as well as offering a visual spectacle of extreme height. [4] It also suggested, by its similarity to a spear point, the power and strength of religion. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Gothic architecture Architectural style of Medieval Europe

Gothic architecture is an architectural style that was particularly popular in Europe from the late 12th century to the 16th century, during the High and Late Middle Ages, surviving into the 17th and 18th centuries in some areas. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. It originated in the Île-de-France region of northern France as a development of Norman architecture. The style at the time was sometimes known as opus Francigenum ; the term Gothic was first applied contemptuously during the later Renaissance, by those ambitious to revive the Grecian orders of architecture.

Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris, referred to simply as Notre-Dame, is a medieval Catholic cathedral on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. The cathedral was consecrated to the Virgin Mary and considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Its pioneering use of the rib vault and flying buttress, its enormous and colourful rose windows, as well as the naturalism and abundance of its sculptural decoration set it apart from the earlier Romanesque style. Major components that make Notre Dame stand out include its large historic organ and its immense church bells.

Cologne Cathedral Church in Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral is a Catholic cathedral in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and of the administration of the Archdiocese of Cologne. It is a renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996. It is Germany's most visited landmark, attracting an average of 20,000 people a day. At 157 m (515 ft), the cathedral is currently the tallest twin-spired church in the world, the second tallest church in Europe after Ulm Minster, and the third tallest church in the world. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second-tallest spires. The towers for its two huge spires give the cathedral the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir has the largest height to width ratio, 3.6:1, of any medieval church.

Architecture of cathedrals and great churches

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A pinnacle is an architectural ornament originally forming the cap or crown of a buttress or small turret, but afterwards used on parapets at the corners of towers and in many other situations. The pinnacle looks like a small spire. It was mainly used in Gothic architecture.

Strasbourg Cathedral

Strasbourg Cathedral or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, also known as Strasbourg Minster, is a Catholic cathedral in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Although considerable parts of it are still in Romanesque architecture, it is widely considered to be among the finest examples of Rayonnant Gothic architecture. Architect Erwin von Steinbach is credited for major contributions from 1277 to his death in 1318, and beyond through his son Johannes von Steinbach, and his grandson Gerlach von Steinbach, who succeeded him as chief architects. The Steinbachs's plans for the completion of the cathedral were not followed through by the chief architects who took over after them, and instead of the originally envisionned two spires, a single, octagonal tower with an elongated, octagonal crowning was built on the northern side of the west facade by master Ulrich von Ensingen and his successor, Johannes Hültz. The construction of the cathedral, which had started in the year 1015 and had been relaunched in 1190, was finished in 1439.

Tracery Type of window design

Tracery is an architectural device by which windows are divided into sections of various proportions by stone bars or ribs of moulding. Most commonly, it refers to the stonework elements that support the glass in a window. The term probably derives from the tracing floors on which the complex patterns of windows were laid out in late Gothic architecture. Tracery can also be found on the interior of buildings and the exterior.

Flèche Spires in Gothic architecture

A flèche is the name given to spires in Gothic architecture: in French the word is applied to any spire, but in English it has the technical meaning of a spirelet or spike on the rooftop of a building. In particular, the spirelets often built atop the crossings of major churches in mediaeval French Gothic architecture are called flèches.

Rouen Cathedral Church in Normandy, France

Rouen Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church in Rouen, Normandy, France. It is the see of the Archbishop of Rouen, Primate of Normandy. It is famous for its three towers, each in a different style. The cathedral, built and rebuilt over a period of more than eight hundred years, has features from Early Gothic to late Flamboyant and Renaissance architecture. It also has a place in art history as the subject of a series of impressionist paintings by Claude Monet.

Flamboyant Florid style of late Gothic architecture

Flamboyant is a form of late Gothic architecture that developed in Europe in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, from around 1375 to the mid-16th century. It is characterized by double curves forming flame-like shapes in the bar-tracery, which give the style its name; by the multiplication of ornamental ribs in the vaults; and by the use of use of the arch in accolade. Ribs in Flamboyant tracery are recognizable by their flowing forms, which are influenced by the earlier curvilinear tracery of the Second Gothic styles. Very tall and narrow pointed arches and gables, particularly double-curved ogee arches, are common in buildings of the Flamboyant style. In most regions of Europe, Late Gothic styles like Flamboyant replaced the earlier Rayonnant style and other early variations.

Crossing (architecture)

A crossing, in ecclesiastical architecture, is the junction of the four arms of a cruciform (cross-shaped) church.

French architecture Overview of the architecture in France

French architecture consists of numerous architectural styles that either originated in France or elsewhere and were developed within the territories of France.

English Gothic architecture Architectural style in Britain

English Gothic is an architectural style that flourished from the late 12th until the mid-17th century. The style was most prominently used in the construction of cathedrals and churches. Gothic architecture's defining features are pointed arches, rib vaults, buttresses, and extensive use of stained glass. Combined, these features allowed the creation of buildings of unprecedented height and grandeur, filled with light from large stained glass windows. Important examples include Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. The Gothic style endured in England much longer than in Continental Europe.

French Gothic architecture Architectural style

French Gothic architecture is an architectural style which emerged in France in 1140, and was dominant until the mid-16th century. The most notable examples are the great Gothic cathedrals of France, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, Reims Cathedral, Chartres Cathedral, and Amiens Cathedral. Its main characteristics were the search for verticality, or height, and the innovative use of the rib vault and flying buttresses and other architectural innovations to distribute the weight of the stone structures to supports on the outside, allowing unprecedented height and volume, The new techniques also permitted the addition of larger windows, including enormous stained glass windows, which filled the cathedrals with light. The French style was widely copied in other parts of northern Europe, particularly Germany and England. It was gradually supplanted as the dominant French style in the mid-16th century by French Renaissance architecture.

Architecture of the medieval cathedrals of England Architectural style of cathedrals in England during the middle ages, 1040 to 1540

The medieval cathedrals of England, which date from between approximately 1040 and 1540, are a group of twenty-six buildings that constitute a major aspect of the country’s artistic heritage and are among the most significant material symbols of Christianity. Though diverse in style, they are united by a common function. As cathedrals, each of these buildings serves as central church for an administrative region and houses the throne of a bishop. Each cathedral also serves as a regional centre and a focus of regional pride and affection.

Church of Notre-Dame de Louviers

The Church of Notre-Dame de Louviers is a parish church located in Louviers, a town in the Eure department. It is a notable example of Gothic church architecture in northern France. The north façade, and, especially the south façade and porch, are some of the best examples of late Flamboyant Gothic architecture in France.

Hertfordshire spike Type of short spire or flèche

A Hertfordshire spike is a type of short spire or flèche found on church-towers surrounded by a parapet. It is defined in the Buildings of England as a "flèche or short spire rising from a church-tower, its base concealed by a parapet". As the name suggests, it is common in Hertfordshire, but the same type of structure can be found in other English counties. The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Wendens Ambo, is a good example in Essex, and in Buckinghamshire is St Mary the Virgin, Ivinghoe.

Gothic cathedrals and churches

Gothic cathedrals and churches are religious buildings created in Europe between the mid-12th century and the beginning of the 16th century. The cathedrals are notable particularly for their great height and their extensive use of stained glass to fill the interiors with light. They were the tallest and largest buildings of their time and the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture. The appearance of the Gothic cathedral was not only a revolution in architecture; it also introduced new forms in decoration, sculpture, and art.

Perpendicular Gothic Third historical division of English Gothic architecture

Perpendicular Gothic architecture was the third and final style of English Gothic architecture developed in the Kingdom of England during the Late Middle Ages, typified by large windows, four-centred arches, straight vertical and horizontal lines in the tracery, and regular arch-topped rectangular panelling. Perpendicular was the prevailing style of Late Gothic architecture in England from the 14th century to the 17th century. Perpendicular was unique to the country: no equivalent arose in Continental Europe or elsewhere in the British Isles. Of all the Gothic architectural styles, Perpendicular was the first to experience a second wave of popularity from the 18th century on in Gothic Revival architecture.


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  2. 1 2 3 Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan, eds. (2015), "flèche", A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199674985.001.0001/acref-9780199674985-e-1827, ISBN   978-0-19-967498-5 , retrieved 2020-05-27
  3. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  4. 1 2 3 Encyclopædia Britannica on-line, "Spires" (retrieved May 13, 2020)
  5. Ross, David. "Salisbury, Wiltshire". Britain Express. Archived from the original on 14 May 2019. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  6. Robert Bork, "Into Thin Air: France, Germany, and the Invention of the Openwork Spire" The Art Bulletin85.1 (March 2003, pp. 25–53), p 25.
  7. "Definition of Spirelet". collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved 2020-05-21.
  8. 1 2 "Flèche | architecture". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2017-12-14.
  9. "UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cologne Cathedral". Whc.unesco.org. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  10. Robert Odell Bork, Great Spires: Skyscrapers of the New Jerusalem, 2003, explores the complex layering of religious and political significance in spires.