Multifoil arch

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Multifoil arch in the Aljafería, Zaragoza, Spain

A multifoil arch (or polyfoil arch), also known as a cusped arch,[1][2] polylobed arch,[3][4] or scallopped arch,[5] is an arch characterized by multiple circular arcs or leaf shapes (called foils, lobes, or cusps) that are cut into its interior profile or intrados.[2][1][6][7] The term foil comes from the old French word for "leaf." A specific number of foils is indicated by a prefix: trefoil (three), quatrefoil (four), cinquefoil (five), sexfoil (six), octofoil (eight). The term multifoil or scalloped is specifically used for arches with more than five foils.[8][9][10] The multifoil arch is characteristic of Islamic art and architecture; particularly in the Moorish architecture of al-Andalus (Iberian Peninsula) and North Africa and in Mughal architecture of the Indian subcontinent.[11] Variants of the multifoil arch, such as the trefoil arch, are also common in other architectural traditions such as Gothic architecture.[2]: 132 


The first multifoil arches were developed by the Umayyads and can be found in a small mosque at Qasr al-Hallabat, one of the Umayyad Desert Castles, in present-day Jordan.[12][13] The architects of this structure experimented with both hollow/concave lobes and protruding/convex lobes in the relieving arches above the doors.[14]: 513-514  Multifoil arches also appear early on as decorative niches in the Qasr al-'Ashiq in Samarra, present-day Iraq, and in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Egypt, both of which were built under Abbasid (and Tulunid) rule in the 9th century.[1][15][16]: 87  These examples have been used to support the hypothesis that multifoil arches originated in the Middle Eastern regions of the Islamic world, although Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar have called this hypothesis into question.[16]: 87-89 [14]: 513 

Other early examples of multifoil arches are found in the Great Mosque of Cordoba in al-Andalus (present-day Spain), in particular the arches of the maqsura area added to the mosque in the 10th century by al-Hakam II.[17]: 232–234  Ettinghausen and Grabar argue that the form of these arches probably developed locally in al-Andalus, noting that in Cordoba they occurred as structural elements while in the eastern Islamic world they occurred mostly as decorative elements.[16]: 87-89  Another scholar, Ignacio Arce, notes that Ettinghausen and Grabar did not take into account the earlier occurrences at the Qasr al-Hallabat mosque, where polylobed arches are used as structural elements.[14]: 513-514  Jonathan Bloom also argues that the intersecting cusped arches of the Great Mosque of Cordoba were a local development, likely the result of a deliberate elaboration from the older two-tiered round arches that were part of the mosque since its initial foundation in 785.[18]: 72 

Later developments[edit]

Islamic world[edit]

The typical multifoil arches that appear in later buildings of Al-Andalus and North Africa also have precedents in Fatimid architecture in Ifriqiya and Egypt, for example at Bab Zuweila (dated to 1091). Georges Marçais argued that both the Great Mosque of Cordoba and Fatimid architecture in Ifriqiya were probably the most relevant precedents which led to the adoption and development of multifoil arches in the western regions of the Islamic world.[17]: 232–234  Multifoil arches appear prominently in the 11th-century Aljaferia palace of the Taifas period in al-Andalus. In the Almoravid and Almohad periods (11th–13th centuries), this type of arch was further refined for decorative functions while horseshoe arches continued to be standard elsewhere.[17]: 232–234  They appear, for example, in the Great Mosque of Tlemcen (in present-day Algeria) and the Mosque of Tinmal (present-day Morocco).[17]: 232  The motif of intersecting multifoil arches also gave rise to the sebka motif which is frequently employed in the art and architecture of the region.[17]: 257–258  In Egypt, the cusped trefoil or trilobed arch became a characteristic decorative feature of portals in late Fatimid architecture and Mamluk architecture (from approximately the 12th to 16th centuries).[19]: 191 [20]: 89  Later on, multifoil arches also became a characteristic feature of Mughal architecture on the Indian subcontinent during the 17th century.[21][22]: 1062 [23]

Christian Europe[edit]

In the architecture of Christian Europe, multifoil arches appear occasionally in Romanesque architecture, with some early examples in France such as the chapel of Saint-Michel-d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, France (10th–11th century) and the Abbey of Cluny (circa 1100).[1][25]: 272  In the Christian territories of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain), the earliest examples are from the early 12th century and found in the Collegiate Church of San Isidoro in Léon and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.[25]: 272  These early Iberian examples were highly similar to the multifoil arches of contemporary Islamic/Moorish architecture in al-Andalus and were probably directly appropriated from the latter.[26]: 105–107 [25]: 272  Scholars Francine Giese and Sarah Keller argue that this initial appropriation from Muslim architecture was likely intended to express a sense of triumph and superiority over Islamic al-Andalus at the time, but that over the course of the 12th century the motif became acculturated to Romanesque art and then developed independently from al-Andalus in both Christian Iberia and France.[25]: 272  As a result, multifoil arches became more common and developed multiple variations in the Romanesque architecture of these regions during the later 12th century.[26]: 105–107 [25]: 272  In Toledo, after its conquest by Castile in 1085, the new churches and synagogues which were built in the 12th century and after were designed in a Mudéjar style that frequently incorporated polylobed arches as part of its visual repertoire.[25]: 273  The Cathedral of Toledo, whose construction began in the 13th century, was built primarily in a Gothic style but also incorporates polylobed arches (most notably in the triforium of the ambulatory), suggesting that this motif had by then become thoroughly assimilated to local Christian architecture.[25] Multifoil arches, particularly trefoil arches, became common in Gothic architecture for portals and decoration throughout Europe.[2] Cusped forms (not necessarily as arches) were also common to form the motifs used in Gothic tracery.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "cusp | architecture | Britannica". Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  2. ^ a b c d Hourihane, Colum (2012). The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-539536-5.
  3. ^ "Qantara - Fragment of wood ornamented with arches". Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  4. ^ Llorente, Margarita Sánchez. "Arch". Discover Islamic Art - Virtual Museum. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  5. ^ Ragette, Friedrich (2003). Traditional Domestic Architecture of the Arab Region. Edition Axel Menges. p. 37. ISBN 978-3-932565-30-4.
  6. ^ Society, National Geographic (2012-09-14). "Cusped Arches". National Geographic Society. Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  7. ^ Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan (2015). The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-967498-5.
  8. ^ "Definition of MULTIFOIL". Retrieved 2022-05-16.
  9. ^ "Multifoil". Retrieved 2022-05-16.
  10. ^ Davies, Nikolas; Jokiniemi, Erkki (2012-05-04). Architect's Illustrated Pocket Dictionary. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-44406-7.
  11. ^ Lookuparchitecture: Moorish arches Archived 2012-04-04 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 21 November 2011
  12. ^ Alexander Sarantis, Enrico Zanini, Luke Lavan. (2008). Technology in Transition A.D. 300-650, Brill, p. 513.
  13. ^ Diana Darke. (2020). Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe, Hurst, p. 166.
  14. ^ a b c Arce, Ignacio (2008). "Umayyad Building Techniques and the Merging of Roman-Byzantine and Partho-Sassanian Traditions: Continuity and Change". In Lavan, Luke; Zanini, Enrico; Sarantis, Alexander (eds.). Technology in Transition A.D. 300-650. Brill. pp. 491–538. ISBN 978-90-474-3304-0.
  15. ^ Petersen, Andrew (1996). "arch". Dictionary of Islamic architecture. Routledge. pp. 24–25. ISBN 9781134613663.
  16. ^ a b c Ettinghausen, Richard; Grabar, Oleg; Jenkins, Marilyn (2001). Islamic Art and Architecture: 650–1250 (2nd ed.). Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300088670.
  17. ^ a b c d e Marçais, Georges (1954). L'architecture musulmane d'Occident. Paris: Arts et métiers graphiques.
  18. ^ Bloom, Jonathan M. (2020). Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 700-1800. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300218701.
  19. ^ Graves, Margaret S. (2018-07-31). Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-069592-7.
  20. ^ Behrens-Abouseif, Doris (2007). Cairo of the Mamluks: A History of Architecture and its Culture. The American University in Cairo Press. ISBN 9789774160776.
  21. ^ M. Bloom, Jonathan; S. Blair, Sheila, eds. (2009). "Architecture; VII. c. 1500–c. 1900; D. India". The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195309911.
  22. ^ Dadlani, Chanchal; Sharma, Yuthika (2017). "Beyond the Taj Mahal: Late Mughal Visual Culture". In Flood, Finbarr Barry; Necipoğlu, Gülru (eds.). A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture. Wiley Blackwell. pp. 1055–1081. ISBN 9781119068662.
  23. ^ Nath, R. (2006). "Monuments: Mughal". In Wolpert, Stanley A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of India: Vol. 3. Thomson Gale. pp. 156–165. ISBN 978-0-684-31352-8.
  24. ^ "Qantara - Gates of Bāb al-Nasr, Bāb al-Futūh, and Bāb al-Zuwayla". Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g Giese, Francine; Keller, Sarah (2021). "The Limits of Otherness: Decoding the Entangled Heritage of Medieval Iberia". In Giese, Francine (ed.). Mudejarismo and Moorish Revival in Europe: Cultural Negotiations and Artistic Translations in the Middle Ages and 19th-century Historicism. Brill. pp. 269–279. ISBN 978-90-04-44858-2.
  26. ^ a b Martin, Therese (2006). Queen as King: Politics and Architectural Propaganda in Twelfth-Century Spain. Brill. ISBN 978-90-474-1851-1.

External links[edit]

Media related to Multifoil arches at Wikimedia Commons