Sophie Dentzer - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Sophie Dentzer

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Sophie Dentzer

PhD student

Thesis: English Decorative Vaulting: Design, Invention and Integration in Gothic Architecture c. 1300

Supervised by Tom Nickson

Funded by PhD scholarship by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain

This thesis focuses on decorative vaults in England around 1300, a period rightly celebrated for its outburst in architectural inventiveness. Although the scholarly literature has long recognised the importance of vaulting, there have been no studies dedicated exclusively to this architectural element. This study explores the rich variety of vaulting forms in this period, locating the innovation in vaulting patterns in specific architectural circumstances. Case studies of Pershore and Malmesbury abbeys establish that unusual ground plans and elevations prompted the introduction of new decorative ribs, such as liernes, and the emergence of new rib arrangements, such as diagonal ribs that cross over two bays to make net vaults. Vaults built over pre-existing elevations provide an excellent opportunity to understand design processes. Detailed architectural and archaeological analysis forms the basis for a wider discussion about how such expensive constructions resonated with aesthetic concerns. The insertion of a new vault in a building that predated it helped to rejuvenate the edifice, allowing patrons and communities to keep up with current architectural trends. However, in some cases, by inserting the rejuvenating element of the vault within an older structure, the community also affirmed its links with the past.  The tendency in traditional scholarship to focus on buildings in ‘centres’, attributing only a marginal significance to those in the ‘peripheries’, is challenged by showing that innovation in vaulting often occurred in these so-called peripheries. Finally, design processes surrounding the construction of decorative vaults are explored, in particular the role of drawings in the transition between the two-dimensional rib pattern and the three-dimensional erected structure. More generally, the thesis contributes to the field of English medieval architecture by including extensive comparative material from Continental Europe, as well as a deep engagement with Continental scholarship. 


  • The Courtauld Institute of Art

PhD candidate, supervised by Dr Tom Nickson

First year completed at the University of York

  • Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense (formerly Paris X)

2008- 2010: Master in history of art by research, ‘mention très bien’. Dissertation on “Kilmalkedar, une église romane en Irlande” supervised by Professor Jean-Pierre Caillet et Panayota Volti. Second year completed in Trinity College Dublin as an exchange student.

  • Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg-im-Brisgau

2007-2008: year as a free mover student

  • Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg II (now Université de Strasbourg)

2003-2007: Licence (bachelor) in history of art, ‘mention assez bien’. Third year completed in Trinity College Dublin with the Erasmus programme.


  • Autumn Term 2015: BA1 Topic: Westminster Abbey
  • Starting October 2012 –on-going: French tutor at Languages For All, The University of York
  • Autumn Term 2013: Teaching Assistant (Foundation Course: Medieval Art and Architecture), Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Summer Term 2013: Tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, The University of York. Designing and teaching ‘The Beginnings of Gothic Architecture in England’

Research interests

  • Gothic architectureRomanesque architecture
  • Architectural drawings
  • Architectural sculpture
  • Revivals of medieval architecture
  • history of construction
  • centre and periphery

Conference papers and lectures

  • (with James Hillson), ‘Do ‘architectural firsts’ really matter? The earliest lierne vaults (c. 1290-1340)’, DUKY Annual Medieval Conference, The University of York, July 2013.
  • ‘Vaults and Patronage: some thoughts and questions’, Student Work in Progress, Courtauld Institute of Art, October 2013.
  • ‘Beyond Geographical and Stylistic Boundaries: an Approach to the Study of English Decorative Vaulting’, Courtauld Postgraduate Colloquium February 2014: Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture, February 2014.
  • ‘Are Decorated Vaults English Vaults?’, University of Cambridge Medieval Art Seminar Series 2013-14. Decorated: English Architectural Style, 1250-1350, 10th March 2014.
  • ‘Rejuvenation in Architectural History: the Example of Late Medieval Vaults’, Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, Graduate Student Forum, University of Cambridge, 2ndMay 2014.

Recent publications

  • ‘Decorated Vaults: geographical, terminological and chronological limitations’ in Decorated Revisited: English Architectural Style in Context, 1250-1400, ed. by John Munns (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming)

Other academic activities

  • Co-organiser of the 20th Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium: Movement in Medieval Art and Architecture, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, 7th of February 2015.
  • Co-organiser of the Student Work in Progress for the academic year 2014-2015 at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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