According to Francis D.K. Ching's "A Visual History of Architecture," a vaulted ceiling is an arched structure of stone, brick or reinforced concrete, called a "vault," that encloses a space.
Vaulted ceilings come in several varieties, including semicircular "barrel" vaults; "conical" vaults, in which one end is narrower than the other; the complex "groin" vaults, in which two vaults intersect at a diagonal; and the dome.
Jevon Vella, in his "Introduction to the History of Architecture," writes that vaulted ceilings were used as far back as the ancient Egyptian civilization, which dates to 2900 B.C., and that they remain in common use today.
Vaulted ceilings are an efficient, aesthetically pleasing use of space that represent a technological advance over the simpler post-and-lintel system.
According to Ching, vaulted ceilings require buttressing on the supporting walls to counteract the thrust that their arch shape exerts outward.
According to builder Joseph Fusco, different kinds of vaulted ceilings have different advantages: the dome is simple to construct; the barrel vault is quick to fabricate; and the groin vault, although more complicated, is especially beautiful.
Famous uses of the vaulted ceiling include the dome of the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC; the barrel vault in the nave of the Lisbon Cathedral in Portugal; and the groin vault of the New Orleans Mint in Louisiana.