What is a Flying Buttress?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A flying buttress is a type of architectural support which is designed to bear the load of a roof or vaulted ceiling, ensuring that the architectural integrity of the structure is preserved. Various forms of the flying buttress were used in architecture as far back as Greek and Roman times, but this unique architectural feature really came into its own in the 12th century, when it flourished under the design trends of Gothic architecture. For a classic example of flying buttresses in action, bring up an image of Notre Dame de Paris, the famous French church, which has some formidable flying buttresses.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris uses flying buttresses as part of its architectural design.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris uses flying buttresses as part of its architectural design.

A buttress is any sort of architectural support which transfers weight from the walls to a solid pillar. By bearing the bulk of the weight and relieving pressure from the walls, buttresses free up walls for more interesting things, like latticework and windows. Without a buttress, a wall with large windows or ornate latticing could potentially collapse under the strain of a heavy roof and ceiling; as one might imagine, architects invented the buttress at a fairly early stage.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which uses flying buttresses in its design, is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which uses flying buttresses in its design, is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.

What sets the flying buttress aside from ordinary buttresses is that it literally flies through the air; the buttress is made by building an arch which connects a standard pillar-style buttress with a roof. Originally, these masonry arches were concealed, but in Gothic architecture, they became free-standing, allowing people to clearly see them. In some cases, multiple flying buttresses were actually stacked on top of each other to support an especially heavy structure.

The development of free-standing flying buttresses allowed ceilings to soar in the Middle Ages. The classically huge stained glass windows which many people associate with this period would also not exist without the flying buttress, which is why these architectural features have become so famous. They are also known, incidentally, as arc-boutants.

Depending on the designer, a flying buttress might be left simple, or it might be ornamented with elaborate stonework and sculpture. Some were capped with gargoyles, hideous stone creatures with concealed water spouts which promoted drainage. The construction process for buttresses and the structures they supported was quite complex, as each piece of stone had to be individually cut out, and it was important to cure the masonry slowly, to ensure that it would hold once the structure was completed. Typically, people built flying buttresses on the ground and then raised them into place, a delicate and very dangerous task.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@wander - I am a big fan of architecture and it was amazing seeing how the flying buttresses changed cathedrals. If you look at a flying buttress diagram, you will notice that the concept is really simple, though if you have ever tried to make a model of a cathedral, you will quickly find that the execution of flying buttress architecture isn't so easy.

I have a miniature that is quite similar to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims that you spoke of. I tend to take ideas from various sources and try to make my own architectural ideas come to light, even if it is on a small scale.


When I was traveling in France there were some Gothic flying buttresses that really made the cathedrals gorgeous. The older Romanesque architecture was just much boxier in my opinion, and they didn't have the soaring features that made the use of the flying buttress so important.

The high ceilings of the cathedrals in a sweeping arch is something that you see a lot in photos of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims. While not as famous in pop culture as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with its hunchback, the Notre-Dame in Reims also offers some stunning architecture for those interested in really seeing the flying buttress at work.

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