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Architectural trefoil

Trefoil (from Latin trifolium, "three-leaved plant", French trèfle, Italian trifoglio, German Dreiblatt and Dreiblattbogen, Dutch klaver same as clubs) is a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings used in architecture and Christian symbolism. The term is also applied to other symbols of three-fold shape.



Trefoil is a term in Gothic architecture given to the ornamental foliation or cusping introduced in the heads of window-lights, tracery, panellings, etc., in which the center takes the form of a three-lobed leaf (formed from three partially overlapping circles). One of the earliest examples is in the plate tracery at Winchester (1222–1235). The fourfold version of an architectural trefoil is a quatrefoil.

A simple trefoil shape in itself can be symbolic of the Trinity,[1] while a trefoil combined with an equilateral triangle was also a moderately common symbol of the Christian Trinity during the late Middle Ages in some parts of Europe. Two forms of this are shown below:

A dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, is sometimes depicted within the outlined form of the trefoil combined with a triangle.

Architectural layout

In architecture and archaeology, trefoil describes a layout or floorplan consisting of three apses in clover-leaf shape, as for example in the Megalithic temples of Malta.

Particularly in church architecture, such a layout may be called a "triconchos".


The heraldic trefoil is a stylized clover. It should not be confused with the figure named in French heraldry tiercefeuille, which is a stylized flower with three petals. It differs from the heraldic trefoil in being not slipped. It could be translated as threefoil.[2]


Symmetrical Trefoils are particularly popular as warning symbols. If a box containing hazardous material is moved around and shifted into different positions, it is still easy to recognize the symbol.[4] Easily stenciled symbols are also favored.

While the green trefoil is considered by many to be the symbol of Ireland, the harp has much greater officially recognized status. Therefore shamrocks generally do not appear on Irish coins or postage stamps.

A trefoil is also part of the logo for Adidas Originals, which also includes three stripes.

Other meanings

  • A trefoil formation is a cross-sectional arrangement of electrical cables that minimises electrodynamic forces during fault conditions. Also, the magnetic field of each phase conductor in a 3-phase system is negated when the other two phase conductors are nearby to form a trefoil.

See also


  1. Our Christian Symbols by Friedrich Rest (ISBN 0-8298-0099-9), p. 17
  2. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.. The French terms quartefeuille and quintefeuille are translated as quatrefoils and cinquefoils.
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

External links