From crumbling ancient monuments to ethereal refracted light, we look at the shifting usage and form of the humble arch
The Arch: does any other fragment present a feat of structural engineering with such seemingly effortless grace? The Mesopotamians needed them for lack of stone or wood; the Romans needed them to dramatically span huge distances and to celebrate their victories; late medieval masons needed them to make their Gothic masterworks as structurally efficient as possible. Their dual purpose, bridging the rigorously pragmatic and excessively monumental featured long throughout their history, until advances in building technology effectively phased them out of everyday construction. Yet the arch’s seductive form – physical or otherwise – has made its mark across cultural disciplines and continues, undeterred, to be at the heart of some of our most awe-inspiring creations.
1. The Colosseum, Rome, 70-80 AD
The arch was used as early as the 2nd millennium BC, but it was the ever precocious Romans who began the systematic use of the arch, in their greatest engineering feats and as a means of celebrating their greatest military victories.
In the Colosseum these two functions are blended seamlessly, the largest amphitheatre in the world that housed Rome’s greatest spectacles, from battle reenactments to executions. With some 200 arches enclosing its elliptical form, the ancient landmark cements more than any Roman construct the graceful power of the arch.
2.Taq-i Kisra (Arch of Ctesiphon), Iraq, 540 AD
The Arch of Ctesiphon is all that remains of the ancient city, south-west of Baghdad, in what is now the town of Salman Pak. The largest brick-built arch in the world, its presence, while a reminder of one of Mesopotamia’s greatest cities, is now emblematic of the creeping death facing Iraq’s built heritage following decades of unrest.
With its former museum looted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the entire area abandoned and battered by heavy rains, it stands on the brink of collapse. Although the Global Heritage Fund warned of its precarious state in 2004, it was not until last year that the Iraqi government confirmed plans for its restoration; with Islamic State now destroying even more of Iraq’s historical architecture it has taken on a new urgency.
3. Tintern Abbey, Wales, 1131-1536
The style of Tintern Abbey saw the arch become not only a trope for an architectural style, but for a whole cross-cultural movement. The pointed Gothic arch, slender and sinister, reduced the horizontal thrust of the traditional Roman arch; less force on the foundations was key to creating the lightness Gothic architecture strove for. Most of the original monastery’s construction at Tintern is completely gone – it is the abbey church, consecrated in the 14th century, that remains, now a picturesque ruin.
Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ mark its place in the canon of the literary sublime and Gothic – most recently appearing in the British Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition, depicted by moonlight in a watercolour painting, its pointed arches taking centre stage.
4. Tangyue Memorial Archways, China, 1420-1820
In the Chinese Paifang, the arch becomes a conveyor of narrative, historically acting as the means of moving between fangs, similar to modern-day precincts. The Paifang dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century to 256BC), and is usually built using fine wood or stone, consisting of multi-tiered roofs and supporting posts, often celebrating the achievements of family ancestors.
The Tangyue Memorial Archway complex was created during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, spanning over four centuries, and each arch stands along the village’s main street to represent the virtues of ancient families.