1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tracery

TRACERY, a late coined word from “trace,” track, Lat. trahere, to draw; the term given in architecture (French equivalents are réseau, remplissage) to the intersecting rib-work in the upper part of a Gothic window; applied also to the interlaced work of a vault, or on walls, in panels and in tabernacle work or screens. The tracery in windows is usually divided into two sections, plate tracery and rib or bar tracery, the latter rising out of the former, and entirely superseding it in the geometrical, flowing and rectilinear designs. The windows of the Early English period were comparatively narrow slits, and were sometimes grouped together under a single enclosing arch; the piercing of the tympanum of this arch with a circular light produced what is known as plate tracery, which is found in windows of the late 12th century, as in St Maurice, York, but became more common in the first half of the 13th century. In England the opening pierced in the head was comparatively small, its diameter never exceeding the width of one of the windows below, but in France it occupied the full width of the enclosing arch and was filled with cusping, and sometimes, as in Chartres, with cusping in the centre and a series of small qua trefoils round, all pierced on one plane face. In order further to enrich the mullions and arches of the window, they were moulded, as in Stowe church, Kent; the other portions were pierced; and finally, to give more importance to the principal lights, additional depth was given to their mouldings, so that they gradually developed into bar or rib tracery, of which the earliest examples in England are those in Westminster Abbey (c. 1250) and Netley Abbey near Southampton. Henceforth that which is described in architecture as the “element” ruled the design of the window, and led to the development of geometrical tracery, in which the bars or ribs are all about equidistant from one another. In windows of three lights the heads of the windows consisted of three circular openings, but with four lights they were grouped in two pairs, with a single circle over each and a larger one at the top in the centre. This led to increased dimensions being given to the moulding of the enclosing arches and the upper circle, forming virtually two planes in the tracery. In the great east window at Lincoln, with eight lights, there was a double subdivision and three planes, and here the upper circle was filled with semicircles, so that the openings were all about the same width. In France the upper circle always maintained its predominance, its subdivisions only retaining the scale. The next development, which would seem to have taken place in Gloucester Cathedral, was the omission of portions of the enclosing circle, so as to allow the ribs to run one into the other forming therefore lines of double curvature, and giving rise to what is known as flowing or flamboyant tracery, of which the great window in Carlisle Cathedral is the most important example. In this window there are nine lights, the four outer ones in each rib being grouped together; these were not subdivided again, and consequently there are only two planes of tracery. The Perpendicular style which followed might perhaps be considered as a reaction against the abuse of the flowing lines in masonry, were it not that in the earlier examples it appears timidly. At Edington church in Wiltshire (1361), in a five-light window, the centre light is wider than the others and its mullions run straight up into the arch mould. In New College chapel, Oxford (1386), the head of the window is subdivided into narrow vertical lights, each half the width of those below, and this is followed in some counties, but not in all, in the east of England the flamboyant tracery being retained a century later. In St Mary’s church, Oxford, with seven lights, all the mullions run straight up into the arch mould, and another feature is introduced, already found in New College chapel, and at a much earlier date in domestic work and in spire-lights, viz. the transom. In the later Perpendicular work another change takes place; the pointed arch struck from two centres is replaced by one struck from four centres, and this eventually in domestic work is superseded by the flat arch.

So far reference has been made only to that which may be called the “element” of the window. The enrichment of the lights with cusping gave additional beauty to them, took away the hard wire drawn effect of the mouldings, and formed openings of great variety; in some of the windows of the Decorated period the ball flower and other foliage is introduced into the mouldings. In French work the geometrical style lasted till the 14th century, and then there was a lapse in building, so that the flamboyant style which followed, and from which at one time it was assumed that the English mason had derived the style, was apparently taken up by the French after its abandonment in England in favour of Perpendicular work. Germany and Spain have always followed in the wake of the French; and in Italy, where architects preferred to decorate their walls with frescoes, the light from stained glass interfered with their effect, so that there was no demand for huge windows or their subdivision with mullions. At the same time there are many beautiful examples of tracery in Italy, generally in marble, such as those of Giotto’s Campanile and the cathedral at Florence, in the Ducal and other palaces at Venice, and in the triforium arcades of Pisa and Siena cathedrals; but they destroyed its effect by the insertion of small capitals to the mullions, which gave horizontal lines where they were not wanted, virtually dividing the window into two parts instead of emphasizing, as was done in the Perpendicular period, the verticality of the mullions.

Among the most glorious features in the Gothic architecture of France, England and Spain are the immense rose windows which were introduced, generally speaking, in the transepts of the cathedrals; the tracery of these follows on the lines of those of the windows, changing from geometrical to Decorated and afterwards to flamboyant. In some respects perhaps the finest examples of plate tracery were produced in the rose windows of the 13th century. Thus in France in the rose window of Chartres in the west front (1225). and in England in those of Barfreston in Kent (1180) and Beverley Minster in Yorkshire (1220), plate-tracery of such great beauty is found that it is unfortunate it should have been entirely superseded by rib-tracery. The rose window of Lincoln Cathedral in the north transept is a compromise between the two, as all the lights are cut out independently and in one plane, but there are mouldings round each connected with flowers; in its design and effect this window is far superior to the flamboyant circular window in the south transept. Sometimes a rose window is arranged in the upper portion of an ordinary window, asin the west front of Lichfield Cathedral, and this is constantly found in those of the transepts of the French cathedrals. In the south of Italy, at Bari, Bitonto and Troja, and at Orvieto and Assisi, farther north, there are examples of rose windows, but inferior in design to French and English work, though elaborated with carving. The revival of the 16th century was fatal so far as tracery was concerned; in the place of the flamboyant work of the last phase of Gothic in France semicircular and elliptical curves with poor mouldings were introduced, and the elaborate cusping which gave such interest to the light was omitted altogether, as in St Eustache, Paris. There is, however, one remarkable example in the church of Le Grand Andely, in Normandy, dating from the Henri II. period, in which a return was made to the tracery of the 13th century; but the introduction of Renaissance details in the place of the cusping is not altogether satisfactory, though the general design is fine.

The tracery decorating the vault of Gothic work began on the introduction of the fan vault at Gloucester (see Vault); it was only a surface decoration, both rib and web being cut out of the same block of stone, and it received further development in the various phases which followed. In the later Perpendicular work the walls and buttresses were all panelled with blank tracery, the most complete example of which is found in Henry VII.’s chapel, Westminster Abbey.

In tabernacle work the tracery is purely of a decorative character, copied in miniature from the mullions, arch-moulds and crockets of Gothic work.

Some of the most beautiful examples of tracery are those on the rood screens of churches, either in stone as in the Jubé of the Madeleine at Troyes, or in wood as in the rood screens of the churches in East Anglia and in Somersetshire; and with this must be included that which was introduced into the panelling of church doors, choir stalls and other church fittings; this was continued, first in the early Renaissance of the 16th century, the finest examples being those of the stalls of King’s College, Cambridge, and afterwards in the Jacobean style, in the church at Croxcombe near Shepton Mallet, and the church of St John at Leeds, the two latter ranking as the best work of that late period.  (R. P. S.)