Romanesque Architecture

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"The architecture of the Romanesque era has been admired for many things - its monumentality, its rhythm, its sense of order - but its fundamental aesthetic quality lies in the fact that the architectonic framework was never subverted by decoration."
--Early Medieval Architecture, p.211

"Romanesque is appealing for the way in which the various parts of the building - the nave, aisles, transept, apse and bell-tower - are combined to form a harmonious whole, both outside and in, and for its use of decoration - sculpture, painting and even mosaics."
--Romanesque Churches of France, p.1

What is "Romanesque" Architecture?

The term "Romanesque" was coined in 1818 by Charles-Alexis-Adrien de Gerville to describe the form of art and architecture that preceded Gothic. The term is Roman in French; Romanish in German; Romaanse in Dutch, Románico in Spanish and Romanico in Italian.

As the name indicates, Romanesque is ultimately inspired by Roman architecture. Similarities between Roman and Romanesque include round arches, stone materials, and the basilica-style plan (used for secular purposes by the Romans).

But the influences that led to the Romanesque style are far more complex than that. Romanesque architecture also shows influences from Visigothic, Carolingian, Byzantine and Islamic architecture.

The Romanesque period cannot be precisely defined – history is rarely as neat as historians' terminology – but Romanesque architecture generally dates from 1000 to 1150, when Gothic began to take over. Romanesque was at its height between about 1075 and 1125.

In some conservative regions, Romanesque-style churches continued to be built well into the 1200s, and there was considerable overlap between the styles. Features that lie somewhere between Romanesque and Gothic are called "Transitional."

For an index of some of the most notable Romanesque churches, please see our category page: Romanesque Churches.

Characteristics of Romanesque Architecture

Most Romanesque churches (the primary type of Romanesque architecture) have the following characteristics:

  • harmonious proportions
  • stone barrel vault or groin vault
  • thick and heavy walls
  • thick and heavy pillars
  • small windows
  • round arches supporting the roof
  • round "blind arches" used extensively for decoration inside and out (especially out)
  • nave with side aisles (though some modest churches are aisleless)
  • galleries above the side aisles, separated from the nave by a triforium
  • a transept (section crossing the nave at a right angle, giving the church a cross shape)
  • an apse (semicircular niche, usually in the east end)
  • an ambulatory (often with radiating chapels) around the apse
  • multiple towers, usually at the west end and over the transept crossing
  • sculptured decoration on portals, capitals and other surfaces (except in Cistercian monasteries)
  • painted decoration throughout the interior (little of which survives today)

Gothic architecture adopted many of these characteristics, but the major development that marked the beginning of the Gothic style was the ability to support heavy stone vaults on much thinner walls. This provided the opportunity for large glass windows, thinner walls and pillars, and generally more delicate and more vertical architecture.

Regional Variations of Romanesque

Romanesque architecture was employed all across Europe in the early Middle Ages, from the German north to the Spanish and Italian south. Not surprisingly, the availability of materials, aesthetic tastes, and practical needs led to significant regional variations within the Romanesque style.

Burgundian Romanesque

Some of the most splendid Romanesque churches were built in the Burgundy region of France under the influence of the great Abbey of Cluny. Burgundian Romanesque flourished from about 1075 to 1125 and in many ways anticipated the Gothic style.

Distinctive features include tall proportions, elaborate sculptured decoration, pointed arches in the barrel vaults, grouped piers, and early forms of rib vaulting and flying buttresses. Burgundian Romanesque art is also distinctive, with a "majestic severity" achieved by the elongation, angularity, drastic flattening, and hierarchical size of figures and by the swirling lines of extensive drapery.

The style is evident in all churches controlled by Cluny as well as numerous churches along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (and Santiago Cathedral itself). Notable examples of Burgundian Romanesque churches can be seen at:

  • Cluny (1088-c. 1130; only a small section survives)
  • Vézelay (c. 1104)
  • Paray-le-Monial (c. 1109)
  • Saulieu (c. 1119)
  • Beaune (c. 1120–40)
  • Autun (c. 1130–40)

Cistercian Romanesque

A diametric opposite to the Burgundian Cluniac style is Cistercian Romanesque. The austere Cistercian order strongly disapproved of the time and money spent on decoration that would only be a distraction to monks and worshipers.

Cistercian abbey churches are therefore very simple, with round arches, shorter ceilings, and no sculptures at all. It might be plain but this simplicity has a beauty of its own, allowing the purity and harmony of the Romanesque architecture to shine through. Notable examples of Cistercian Romanesque include:

  • Cîteaux Abbey, France (founding abbey; 1125–93; little survives)
  • Clairvaux Abbey, France (1133–74; little survives)
  • Fountains Abbey, England (founded 1132; in ruins)
  • Rievaulx Abbey, England (founded 1132; in ruins)
  • Fontenay Abbey, France (begun 1139)
  • Noirlac Abbey, France (begun 1150)

Norman

The Norman style of Romanesque architecture developed almost simultaneously in the Normandy region of northern France and in England, which was conquered by the Normans in 1066. Before long, however, Anglo-Norman architecture took on characteristics of its own, while architecture back in Normandy increasingly conformed to the typical French Romanesque style.

Norman churches in England are characterized by exceptionally long plans, a massive scale (especially in great round columns in the nave), use of carved geometric decoration.

Figurative sculpture is fairly uncommon in Norman churches, but where it appears it is a fascinating fusion of typical Romanesque art with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.

Some of the most important Norman churches (some of which received partial Gothic renovations) are:

Article Sources

  1. "Romanesque art" - Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. "Western architecture: Romanesque" - Encyclopaedia Britannica
  3. "Burgundian Romanesque style" - Encyclopaedia Britannica
  4. " Norman style" - Encyclopaedia Britannica
  5. Early Medieval Architecture (Oxford History of Art).
  6. Peter Stafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide.

Article by Holly Hayes. Last updated: May 12, 2014.

Medieval stained glass depicting the first scene of the Parable of the Sower, in which seeds scattered on... © Holly Hayes
Nave (c. 1100-18) looking west. Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse, Midi-Pyrenees, France. © Holly Hayes
The beautiful 12th-century west facade of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, Poitiers. © David Joyal
The "Mystic Mill," probably the highest quality and most interesting of the Romanesque capitals in Vezelay... © Holly Hayes
View from above. Saint-Martin-du-Canigou Abbey (c.1009), Roussillon, France. © David Joyal
The mountain village of Conques nestles around the Church of St. Foy, seen here from the northwest. © Holly Hayes
West facade, 11th century. It is imposing and austere, with thick walls and arrow-slit windows indicating its... © David Joyal
The west entrance of the church leads into a dark narthex (late 10th or early 11th century) with a low, heavy... © David Joyal
View of Maria Laach's abbey church from the east, with HDR effects. An exceptional example of German... © Holly Hayes
Romanesque west facade aglow at sunset. © Holly Hayes