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Two common forms of the quatrefoil, with more overlap (left) and less overlap (right)
Quatrefoil above the West Door of Croyland Abbey showing in relief scenes from the life of Saint Guthlac

In art, architecture, and traditional Christian symbolism,[1] the quatrefoil is a type of decorative framework consisting of a symmetrical shape which forms the overall outline of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter. The word quatrefoil means "four leaves", from Latin quattuor, four, plus folium, a leaf.[2]) and applies to general four-lobed shapes in various contexts. It is also used as a heraldic charge.

Architecture history[edit]

The quatrefoil enjoyed its peak popularity during the Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is most commonly found as tracery, mainly in Gothic architecture, where a quatrefoil often may be seen at the top of a Gothic arch, sometimes filled with stained glass. It’s probable that it has roots in Islamic architecture.[3]

Barbed quatrefoil[edit]

The "barbed quatrefoil"
Barbed quatrefoil containing relief of The Sacrifice of Isaac (1401) by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistry, Florence. Bargello Museum, Florence

The barbed quatrefoil is a quatrefoil pierced at the angles by the points of an inscribed square,[4] which gives an image akin to an heraldic rose, which is termed "barbed" due to the stylised thorns which project at the intersection of each pair of petals. The earliest example of the barbed quatrefoil appears on the south transept buttresses of 1260 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.[4] Similarly the trefoil is often combined with an equilateral triangle to form a barbed trefoil. Among the most famous works of art employing the barbed quatrefoil are the bronze panels on the south doors of the Baptistery in Florence (1330–6) by Andrea Pisano, the bronze panels of the north doors of the Baptistery in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and also Filippo Brunelleschi's competition entry for the same doors, The Sacrifice of Isaac) as well as "Head of an Angel" by Piero della Francesca.

In heraldry[edit]

In heraldic terminology, a quatrefoil is a representation of a four-leaf clover, a rare variant of the trefoil or three-leaf clover. It is sometimes shown "slipped", i.e. with an attached stalk.

In military[edit]

In the U.S. Marine Corps, quatrefoil refers to a four-pointed decoration on the top of a warrant or commissioned Marine officer's dress and service caps (see peaked caps, also known in the Marines as "barracks covers"). According to tradition, the design was first used with Marine officers on sailing ships so that Marine sharpshooters in the rigging did not shoot their own officers on the deck during close-quarters gun battles (as when crews of opposing ships attempted to board each other's ship). An official part of U.S. Marine Corps officer uniforms since 1859, the quatrefoil was said initially to have been crossed pieces of rope sewed into officers' caps before becoming officially mandated as a uniform item.


The quatrefoil is the official symbol of the Bishop James Madison Society, est. 1812 at the College of William and Mary.


The quatrefoil is also the symbol in the USA of the women's fraternity Phi Mu (a member of the National Panhellenic Conference).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Our Christian Symbols by Friedrich Rest (ISBN 0-8298-0099-9), p. 36.
  2. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary
  3. ^ "The Quatrefoil is the Fanciest Shape". Slate (magazine). The Slate Group. Retrieved 20 March 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Martindale, Andrew, Gothic Art, London, 1967, p.173
  • The Artist Blacksmith, Volume 5, Number 4. www.Artist-Blacksmith.org.
  • The Artist Blacksmith, Volume 6, Number 1, 2 & 3.
  • The Hammers Blow, Volume 6, Number 4.

External links[edit]