A flying buttress is a masonry construction that generally consists of an inclined bar held on a half arch that extends ("flies") from the upper section of a wall to a distant pier and supports the thrust of a roof or vault. The term is usually applied to large-scale architectural features, but it can also be used for smaller elements such as door frames and window headers.
In Christian churches, flying buttresses are used to convey the idea that the Holy Spirit lives within Christians (but see below: "Why do some modern buildings have flying buttresses?"). They are an important feature in the design of many Catholic churches across Europe. Flying buttresses were originally used as a means of strengthening walls during periods when masonry construction was not yet strong enough to support heavy roofs alone (the weight of the roof would push the walls out). Today, they are used to give a more open feel to the interior of a church by removing any visual barrier between the nave and the altar.
In Islam, the word "buttress" has a different meaning from its use in architecture. In Arabic, the word for "support" is "qabil". So, a mosque's minaret is called a qibla tower because it serves to orient Muslims towards Mecca during prayer.
The original qibla towers were made of wood and later replaced with stone versions because wood is prone to fire.
A buttress is a structure that is constructed against another structure to reinforce or support it. Flying buttresses are made comprised of an inclined beam borne on a half arch that projects from a structure's walls to a pier that supports the weight and horizontal thrust of a roof, dome, or vault... [more]
The image below shows how a flying buttress supports a building. The red lines show where the pressure would be if there were no buttress; any damage done to this area of the wall would cause it to collapse.
As you can see, the flying buttress protects the wall behind it. If anything was to happen to the beam, such as being hit by lightning, then it could cause the whole thing to come down.
People often think that medieval churches had huge supporting structures inside them to hold up their heavy-doored wooden doors, but this is not true. Doors in medieval buildings were usually hung on leather straps from wooden beams called "shafts." The shafts were attached to the walls with large nails or screws. Inside many medieval buildings you would only find space for the door to open about 30 degrees, which is why churches had entranceways shaped like a triangle (to make opening the door easier).
The first true steel replacements for these wooden shafts were invented in the 15th century.
The flying buttress (arc-boutant, arch buttress) is a type of buttress that consists of an arch that extends from the upper portion of a wall to a large mass pier in order to convey to the ground the lateral forces that push a wall outwards, which are caused by stone vaulted ceilings and masonry fireplaces. The flying buttress was first used in France around 1270. It was developed by French architects in response to problems they were having with their existing types of buttresses.
They needed a stronger support because heavier walls were being built and roofs were being made of steel instead of wood. The flying buttress solves this problem by transferring the weight of the building onto several piers rather than using one big one at the base of the wall. This makes the wall much more stable so it can be built thicker and taller. A flying buttress also looks nice because there's an attractive break between the strong lower part and the weaker upper part of the wall. Before the flying buttress, all parts of the wall had to bear the load of the roof or else the building would have been unstable.
In England, France, and Germany, architects quickly adopted the new design for larger churches because it allowed for greater size and complexity in the structure of the ceiling and roof designs. In smaller buildings, such as parish churches, they used the new feature but modified it so that it wasn't so dramatic or showed up better against the background wall.