A brief but affectionate history of the arch

I have a crush on arches.  Technically an arch is any rounded architectural structure that spans an opening.  The curve of the arch disperses the vertical weight it holds horizontally to allow for greater distance between supports.  But let’s leave the technical details to the engineers–what you need to know is this: arches are practical, arches are beautiful, arches tell a story about architecture and it’s a story I can’t stop reading.


Luxor Temple, Egypt, c. 1400 BC.  The Egyptians were masterful artists and builders, but without the arch, they needed huge, closely spaced pillars to support their temples.


Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, built 440-430 BC.  The ancient Greeks constructed marvelous temples and their engineering was advanced enough to know how to build two tiers of columns (exterior and interior) to make their structures lighter, but they were still dependent on columns because they hadn’t discovered the arch.


Colosseum, Rome, built 70 – 80 AD.  The Romans discover the arch!  (Too bad they used it to build a giant theater where animals and people were killed for public entertainment).


Porta Nigra, Trier, built 186 -200 AD.  Once those Romans had it figured out they churned out an Empire’s worth of arches in their unrelenting way.


Basilica of Saint’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.  The early Christians kept the Roman half-circle arch.


Great Mosque of Corboba, built 756 – 987.  Islamic architects made a mesmerizing pattern of horseshoe-shaped Moorish arches.


Aachen Cathedral, c. 796.  Glorious Carolingian arches, supporting an octagon-shaped dome.


Vézelay Abbey, nave built 1120 -1132.  Classic French Romanesque arches.

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Cefalu Cathdral, c. 1131.  Norman style pointed (ogival) arches.


Duomo di Siena. 1215 – 1263.  Lavish Gothic arches.


Rathaus, Stralsund, c. 1271 -1278.  Pointy and funky Brick Gothic arches.


Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini.  Early Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti rediscovered classical architecture.  These arches on the side facade of Tempio Malatestiano were meant look like Roman aqueducts.


Porta Napoli, Lecce c. 1548.  A late Renaissance/early Baroque arch modeled after Roman triumphal arches.


Palazzo del Te, Mantua, c. 1524-1534.  These playful Mannerist arches are more about fun than function.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, c. 1865 – 1877.  Grand Neoclassical arch entrance to what is basically a fancy-pants shopping mall.


St. Maria im Kapitol, Cologne: modern/contemporary stained glass depiction of Pentecost inside arches.


Harold Washington Public Library, Chicago, completed 1991.  Postmodern arches worthy of a fine library.






  1. Just finishing up a trip to Spain and I get what you mean about the Romans and arches, they sure loved them! I didn’t realise it was a way to have bigger spaces between columns, thanks for the info.


  2. Thanks for reading, Nicole. I hope you had a super trip to Spain!


  3. I’ve been looking up Visigothic achitecture before I go to Spain – fingers crossed that Leo’s health is up to it – and it is suggested that the Moors copied the horseshoe arch from the Visigoths….

    I’m looking forward to investigating!

    That library has a stunning facade!


    1. Thanks Helen–I don’t know that much about Visigoth architecture but you are inspiring me to investigate too. I do hope you are able to make it to Spain so my best wishes for Leo’s health.

      I am quite proud of our library system in Chicago!


  4. Your examples are wonderful, I want to visit all of these places. I never looked at the arch this way but it is so true, the arch is extremely important, even today. Thanks for the insight!


    1. Thanks netherlandishmus! Please visit as many as you can and write about them–I’ll be curious what you have to say.


  5. I just love all the different architecture in Spain! The mosque in Cordoba is really impressive 🙂 I remember having this kind of ‘graphic confusion’, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the Catholics went ahead and just built their cathedral on top of the mosque arches…


    1. Yeah, that church plunked in the middle of the mosque made me kind of angry. I had to remind myself that most religious structures have a long and complicated history….


  6. I too love arches. And domes. They are my architectural crushes.


    1. Ah domes: kiss kiss kiss!


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