What Is a Lunette?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A lunette is a type of architectural structure often seen at the top of windows, archways, or doors. Meant to resemble a half moon, a lunette may be built in a crescent shape, pronounced arch, or a semi-circle. Lunettes have waxed and waned in popularity for thousands of years, with some historic examples dating back to Ancient Rome.

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, includes several lunette windows.
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, includes several lunette windows.

A lunette is often used to fill in the top of an archway over a rectangular structure. Doorways frequently feature lunettes set above the main frame of the door, adding additional height and grandeur to an entrance way. In particularly large doorways, such as the entrances to cathedrals, a door and lunette combination is called a tympanum, and is often highly decorated. In some cases, a lunette may be a stand-alone structure within an archway, such as a single window near the top of an arched wall.

Another use of this interesting architectural structure is in the creation of alcoves. Frequently seen in churches, a half-moon alcove is usually recessed into a wall, or is built behind an interior archway. Recessed lunettes may be used to hold statuary or relics, and are frequently painted with murals.

The materials used to make a lunette can vary extensively, depending on the type of structure and the style of the architecture. Doorways and windows often feature plain glass half-moon arches, which may be divided into several different panes. One great advantage of a glass lunette is its ability to add additional light to an interior space. To add both color and light, some designers incorporate stained glass into the archway, which can create a dazzling rainbow as light passes to the interior space. Stained glass panels may be added in single colors, or may be used to create a mural within the archway.

In addition to glass, a lunette may be filled with painted or relief murals. These typically are chosen based on the function and style of the building; many churches, for instance, will fill recessed arches with religious scenes. Mosques, including the famed Blue Mosque in Turkey, often fill archways with geometric mosaics made from colored glass or painted tiles. Relief murals use stonework on top of tile or another flat surface to create a three-dimensional design.

The use of lunettes dates back to early civilizations; one of the oldest examples is the Basilica of Constantine in Rome, which dates back to around 300 C.E. Although there are examples of archway half-moons in many other cultures, the design is frequently associated with classical Rome, and thus is popular in neoclassic design. Neoclassic 18th and 19th century homes, as well as modern neoclassical replicas, often feature at least one half-moon arch in the exterior architecture.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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