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Romanesque architecture


Romanesque architecture is the term that describes the architecture of Europe which emerged from the dark ages of the late tenth century and evolved into the Gothic style during the twelfth century. The Romanesque style in England is more traditionally referred to as Norman architecture.

Romanesque architecture is characterized by its massive quality, its thick walls, round arches, sturdy piers, groin vaults, large towers, and decorative arcading. Each building has clearly defined forms and frequently has very regular and symmetrical plans. The overall appearance is of simplicity when compared to the Gothic buildings that were to follow. The style can be identified across Europe, despite regional characteristics and a range of different materials.

Although there was a lot of building of castles during this period, they were greatly outnumbered by churches, (the most significant were the great abbey churches) many of which are still standing and frequently in use. 1

Angoulême Cathedral, France.


Trier Cathedral and the Gothic Church of Our Lady.

The term "Romanesque" was first applied by the archaeologist Charles de Gerville, in the early nineteenth century, to describe Western European architecture from the fifth to the thirteenth century, at a time when the actual dates of many of the buildings so described had not been ascertained.2 The term is now used for a more restricted period from the late tenth to the twelfth century.

The word was used to describe the style which was identifiably Medieval and prefigured the Gothic, yet maintained the rounded Roman arch. The Romanesque style appeared to be a continuation of the Roman tradition of building, albeit a much simplified and less technically competent version.

The term "Pre-Romanesque art" is sometimes applied to architecture in Germany of the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. "First Romanesque" is applied to buildings in Italy, Spain, and parts of France that have Romanesque features but pre-date the influence of the monastery of Cluny.


Bamberg Cathedral presents the distinctive outline of many of the large Romanesque churches of the Germanic tradition.


Romanesque architecture was the first distinctive style to spread across Europe since the Roman Empire. Despite the nineteenth-century Art Historian's impression of Romanesque architecture as a continuation of Roman architecture, in fact, Roman building techniques in brick and stone were largely lost in most parts of Europe. In the more northern countries, the Roman style had never been adopted except for official buildings, while in Scandinavia Roman style was entirely unknown. There was little continuity, even in Rome where several of Constantine's great basilicas continued to stand as an inspiration to later builders. It was not the buildings of ancient Rome, but the sixth century octagonal Byzantine basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna which was to inspire the greatest building of the Dark Ages in Western Europe, for example, the Emperor Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen, built around the year 800 C.E. 3

The plan of the Abbey of St Gall, Switzerland.

Dating shortly after Aachen Cathedral is a remarkable ninth century manuscript which shows the plan for the building of the monastery at St. Gall in Switzerland. It is a very detailed plan, with all the various monastic buildings and their functions labeled. The largest building is the church, the plan of which is distinctly Germanic, having an apse at both ends, an arrangement which is not generally seen elsewhere. Another feature of the church is its regular proportion, the square plan of the crossing tower providing a module for the rest of the plan. These features can both be seen at the Proto-Romanesque St. Michael's Church, Hildesheim, 1001-1030. 3

Prior to the later influence of the Abbey of Cluny in the tenth century, architecture of a Romanesque style was simultaneously developing in northern Italy, parts of France, and in the Iberian Peninsula. The style, sometimes called "First Romanesque" or "Lombard Romanesque," is characterized by thick walls, lack of sculpture, and the presence of rhythmic ornamental arches known as a Lombard band.


The Cathedral of Saint-Front, Perigueux, France, has five domes similar to Byzantine churches, but is Romanesque in construction.

The Holy Roman Empire had been established by Charlemagne, who was crowned by the Pope in St Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day in the year 800 C.E., with an aim to re-establish the old Pax Romanum, to the glory of Jesus Christ. Charlemagne's political successors continued to rule much of Europe, with a gradual emergence of the separate political states which were eventually to become welded into nations, either by allegiance or defeat. In 1066, an invasion of England occurred by William, the Duke of Normandy. After the invasion, the England and Normandy unified and the building of both castles and churches reinforced the Norman presence.

Meanwhile, the east was at a time when the structures of the Roman Empire were falling into decay with its learning and technology lost. Many of the structures were being maintained in the Byzantine Empire where the building of masonry domes and the carving of decorative architectural details continued unabated and later styles greatly evolved after the fall of Rome. The domed churches of Constantinople and Eastern Europe were to greatly affect the architecture of certain towns, particularly through trade and through the Crusades. The most notable single building that demonstrates this is St Mark's Basilica Venice, but there are many lesser known examples, particularly in France, such as the church of Périgueux and the Angoulême Cathedral. 4

Much of Europe was heavily influenced by feudalism, in which peasants held tenure from local rulers over the land that they farmed in exchange for military service. The result of this was that they could be called upon, not only for local and regional spats, but to follow their lord to travel across Europe to the Crusades, if they were required to do so. The Crusades, 1095-1270, brought about a very large movement of people in addition to ideas and trade skills, particularly those involved in the building of fortifications and the metal working needed for the provision of arms, which was also applied to the fitting and decoration of buildings. The continual movement of people, rulers, nobles, bishops, abbots, craftsmen, and peasants was an important factor in creating homogeneity in building methods and a recognizable Romanesque style, despite regional differences.

At St. Andrew's Church, Kraków, the paired towers are octagonal in plan and have domes of the Baroque period.


Across Europe, the late eleventh and twelfth centuries saw an unprecedented growth in the number of churches.5 A great number of these buildings, both large and small, remain. They include many very well-known churches such as Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome6, the Baptistery in Florence7 and San Zeno Maggiore in Verona8. In France, the famous abbeys of Aux Dames and Les Hommes at Caen and Mont Saint-Michel date from this period, as well as the abbeys of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. In England, of the twenty seven cathedrals of ancient foundation, all were begun in this period with the exception of Salisbury, where the monks relocated from Old Sarum, and several, such as Canterbury which were rebuilt on the site of Saxon churches.910 In Spain, the most famous church of the period is Santiago de Compostela. In Germany, the Rhine and its tributaries were the location of many Romanesque abbeys, notably Mainz, Worms, Speyer, and Bamberg. In Cologne, formerly the largest city north of the Alps, a very important group of large city churches survives largely intact. As monasticism spread across Europe, Romanesque churches built up in Scotland, Scandinavia, Poland, Hungary, Sicily, Serbia, and Tunisia. Several important Romanesque churches were built in the Crusader kingdoms. 1112


The Romanesque Abbey of Senaque, France, is surrounded by monastic buildings of various dates.

The system of monasticism in which the mendicant become members of an order, with common ties and a common rule living in a mutually dependant community, was established by the monk Benedict in the sixth century. The Benedictine Monasteries spread from Italy throughout Europe, but were always by far the most numerous in England. They were followed by the Cluniac order, the Cistercians, Carthusians, and Augustinian Canons.

The monasteries, which sometimes also functioned as cathedrals, and the cathedrals which had bodies of secular clergy often living in community, were a major source of power in Europe. Bishops and the abbots of important monasteries lived and functioned like princes. The monasteries were the major seats of learning of all sorts. Benedict had ordered that all the arts were to be taught and practiced in the monasteries. The monasteries books were transcribed by hand and few people outside the monasteries could read or write. 1

In France, Burgundy was the center of monasticism. The enormous and powerful monastery at Cluny was to have a lasting effect on the layout of other monasteries and the design of their churches. Unfortunately, very little of the abbey church at Cluny remains; the "Cluny II" rebuilding of 963 onwards has completely vanished, but we have a good idea of the design of "Cluny III" from 1088-1130, which until the Renaissance remained the largest building in Europe. However, the church of St. Sernin at Toulouse, 1080-1120, has remained intact and demonstrates the regularity of Romanesque design with its modular form, its massive appearance, and the repetition of the simple arched window motif. 3

Pilgrimage and Crusade

One of the effects of the Crusades, which were intended to wrest the Holy Places of Palestine from Islamic control, was to excite a great deal religious fervor which in turn inspired great building programs. The Nobility of Europe, upon safe return, thanked God by the building of a new church or the enhancement of an old one. Likewise, those who did not return from the Crusades could be suitably commemorated by their family in a work of stone and mortar.

The Crusades resulted in the transfer of, among other things, a great number of Holy Relics of saints and apostles. Many churches, like Saint-Front, Périgueux, had their own home grown saint while others, most notably Santiago de Compostela, claimed the remains and the patronage of a powerful saint, in this case one of the Twelve Apostles. Santiago de Compostela, located near the western extremity of Galicia (present day Spain) became the most important pilgrimage destination in Europe. Most of the pilgrims travelled the Way of Saint James on foot, many of them barefooted as a sign of penance. They moved along one of the four main routes that passed through France, congregating for the journey at Jumieges, Paris, Vezelay, Cluny, Arles, and St. Gall in Switzerland. They crossed two passes in the Pyrenees and converged into a single stream to traverse north-western Spain. Along the route they were urged on by those pilgrims returning from the journey. On each of the routes abbeys such as those at Moissac, Toulouse, Roncesvalles, Conques, Limoges and Burgos catered for the flow of people and grew wealthy from the passing trade. Saint-Benoît-du-Sault, in the Berry province, is typical of the churches that were founded on the pilgrim route.13


Sant'Ambrogio, Milan is constructed of bricks.

The general impression given by Romanesque architecture, in both ecclesiastical and secular buildings, is one of massive solidity and strength. In contrast with both the preceding Roman and later Gothic architecture in which the load bearing structural members are, or appear to be, columns, pilasters, and arches. Romanesque architecture, in common with Byzantine architecture, relies upon its walls, or sections of walls called piers. 1

Romanesque architecture is often divided into two periods known as the "First Romanesque" style and the "Romanesque" style. The difference is chiefly a matter of the expertise with which the buildings were constructed. The First Romanesque employed rubble walls, smaller windows and un-vaulted roofs. A greater refinement marks the Second Romanesque, along with increased use of the vault and dressed stone.

San Vittore alle Chiuse, Genga, Italy, of undressed stone, has a typically fortress-like appearance.


The walls of Romanesque buildings are often of massive thickness with few and comparatively small openings. They are often double shells, filled with rubble.

The building material differs greatly across Europe, depending upon the local stone and building traditions. In Italy, Poland, much of Germany, and Holland, brick is generally used. Other areas saw extensive use of limestone, granite, and flint. The building stone was often used in comparatively small and irregular pieces, bedded in thick mortar. Smooth ashlar masonry was not a distinguishing feature of the style, particularly in the earlier part of the period, but occurred chiefly where easily-worked limestone was available. 13

Mainz Cathedral, Germany, has possibly the earliest example of an internal elevation of 3 stages.


In Romanesque architecture, piers were often employed to support arches. They were built of masonry and square or rectangular in section, generally having a horizontal molding representing a capital at the springing of the arch. Sometimes piers have vertical shafts attached to them, and may also have horizontal moldings at the level of base.

Although basically rectangular, piers can often be of highly complex form, with half-segments of large hollow-core columns on the inner surface supporting the arch, or a clustered group of smaller shafts leading into the moldings of the arch.

Piers that occur at the intersection of two large arches, such as those under the crossing of the nave and transept, are commonly cruciform in shape, each arch having its own supporting rectangular pier at right angles to the other. 13


Salvaged columns

During this period in Italy, a great number of antique Roman columns were salvaged and reused in the interiors and on the porticos of churches. The most durable of these columns are of marble and have the stone horizontally bedded. The majorities are vertically bedded and are sometimes of a variety of colors. They may have retained their original Roman capitals, generally of the Corinthian or Roman Composite style. 11

Santiago de Compostela has large columns constructed of drums, with attached shafts. pic G.Jansoone.

Some buildings, like the atrium at San Clemente in Rome, may have an odd assortment of columns in which large capitals are placed on short columns and small capitals are placed on taller columns to even the height. Architectural compromises of this type would have been unthinkable to either Roman or Gothic architects. Salvaged columns were also used to a lesser extent in France.

In Germany and other areas, small columns cut from a single piece of stone were used alternately between more massive piers.11

Drum columns

In most parts of Europe, Romanesque columns were massive, as they supported thick upper walls with small windows, and sometimes heavy vaults. The most common method of construction was to build them out of stone cylinders called drums, as in the crypt at Speyer Cathedral.1114

Durham Cathedral, England, has decorated masonry columns and the earliest pointed high ribs.pic Nina Aldin Thune

Hollow core columns

Where really massive columns were called for, such as those at Durham Cathedral, columns had to be constructed of ashlar masonry, and the hollow core was filled with rubble. These huge un-tapered columns are sometimes ornamented with incised decorations. 10


The foliate Corinthian style provided the inspiration for many Romanesque capitals, and the accuracy with which they were carved depended very much on the availability of original models, those in Italian churches such as Pisa Cathedral and southern France being much closer to the Classical than those in England. 111

The Corinthian capital is essentially round at the bottom where it sits on a circular column and square at the top, where it supports the wall or arch. This form of capital was maintained in the general proportions and outline of the Romanesque capital. This was achieved most simply by cutting a rectangular cube and taking the four lower corners off at an angle so that the block was square at the top, but octagonal at the bottom, as can be seen at St. Michael's Hildesheim.11

Paired columns like those at Duratón, near Sepúlveda, Spain, are a feature of Romanesque cloisters in Spain. Italy and souther France.

This shaped lent itself to a wide variety of superficial treatments, sometimes foliate in imitation of the source, but often figurative. In Northern Europe the foliate capitals generally bear far more resemblance to the intricacies of manuscript illumination than to Classical sources. In parts of France and Italy there are strong links to the pierced capitals of Byzantine architecture. It is in the figurative capitals that the greatest originality is shown. While some are dependent on manuscripts illustrations of Biblical scenes and depictions of beasts and monsters, others are lively scenes of the legends of local saints.4

The capitals, while retaining the form of a square top and a round bottom, were often compressed into little more than a bulging cushion-shape. This is particularly the case on large masonry columns, or on large columns that alternate with piers as at Durham.

St. Michael's, Hildesheim has alternating piers and columns.


A common characteristic of Romanesque buildings, occurring both in churches and in the arcades which separate large interior spaces of castles, is the alternation of piers and columns.

The simplest form that this takes is to have a column between each adjoining pier. Sometimes the columns are in multiples of two or three. At St. Michael's, Hildesheim, an A-B-B-A alternation occurs in the nave while an A-B-A alternation can be seen in the transepts.

At Jumieges there are tall drum columns between piers each of which has a half-column supporting the arch. There are many variations on this theme, most notably at Durham Cathedral where the moldings and shafts of the piers are of exceptional richness and the huge masonry columns are each deeply incised with a different geometric pattern. 11

Often the arrangement was made more complex by the complexity of the piers themselves, so that it was not piers and columns that alternated, but rather, piers of entirely different form from each other, such as those of Sant' Ambrogio, Milan where the nature of the vault dictated that the alternate piers bore a great deal more weight than the intermediate ones and are thus very much larger. 3

The apse of the Cathedral of la Seu d'Urgell, Spain, has a round-topped windows, an arcade with colonnettes and an ocular window.pic K.Jeaves

Arches and openings

Arches in Romanesque architecture are semicircular, with the exception of a very small number of buildings such as Autun Cathedral in France and Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, both of which pointed arches have been used extensively. It is believed that in these cases there is a direct imitation of Islamic architecture.

While small windows might be surmounted by a solid stone lintel, larger windows are nearly always arched. Doorways are also surmounted by a semi-circular arch, except where the door is set into a large arched recess and surmounted by a semi-circular "lunette" with decorative carving. 3

The interior of St Gertrude, Nivelles, Belgium, has a king post roof.

Vaults and roofs

The majority of buildings have wooden roofs, generally of a simple truss, tie beam, or king post form. In the case of trussed rafter roofs, they are sometimes lined with wooden ceilings in three sections like those which survive at Ely and Peterborough cathedrals in England. In churches, typically the aisles are vaulted, but the nave is roofed with timber, as is the case at both Peterborough and Ely.10 In Italy, open wooden roofs are common, and tie beams frequently occur in conjunction with vaults, the timbers have often been decorated as at San Miniato al Monte, Florence.1

Vaults of stone or brick took on several different forms and showed marked development during the period, evolving into the pointed ribbed arch which is characteristic of Gothic architecture.

Barrel vault

The simplest type of vaulted roof is the barrel vault in which a single arched surface extends from wall to wall, the length of the space to be vaulted, for example, the nave of a church. An important example, which retains Medieval paintings, is the vault of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France, of the early twelfth century. However, the barrel vault generally required the support of solid walls, or walls in which the windows were very small. 11

Bayeux Cathedral, the crypt has groin vaults and simplified Corinthian capitals.

Groin vault

Groin vaults occur very frequently in earlier Romanesque buildings, and also for the less visible and smaller vaults in later buildings, particularly in crypts and aisles. A groin vault is almost always square in plan and is constructed of two barrel vaults intersecting at right angles. Unlike a ribbed vault, the entire arch is a structural member. Groin vaults are frequently separated by transverse arched ribs of low profile as at Santiago de Compostela. At La Madeleine, Vézelay, the ribs are square in section, strongly projecting and polychrome. 15

Ribbed vault

At Saint-Etienne, Caen, both the nave and the tower are covered by ribbed vaults. c.1080.

In ribbed vaults, not only are there ribs spanning the vaulted area transversely, but each vaulted bay have diagonal ribs. In a ribbed vault, the ribs are the structural members, and the spaces between them can be filled with lighter, none-structural material.

Because Romanesque arches are nearly always semi-circular, the structural and design problem inherent in the ribbed vault is that the diagonal span is larger and therefore higher than the transverse span. The Romanesque builders used a number of solutions to this problem. One was to have the center point where the diagonal ribs met as the highest point, with the fill of all the surfaces sloping upwards towards it, in a domical manner. This solution was employed in Italy at San Michele, Pavia and Sant' Ambrogio, Milan.11

Another solution was to stilt the transverse ribs, or depress the diagonal ribs so that the centerline of the vault was horizontal, like that of a barrel vault. The latter solution was used on the sexpartite vaults at both the Saint-Etienne, the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, and Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen, France, in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.1

The nave of the abbey church of Saint-Georges, Boscherville, has pointed transverse ribs.

Pointed arched vault

Late in the Romanesque period another solution came into use for regulating the height of diagonal and transverse ribs. This was to use arches of the same diameter for both horizontal and transverse ribs, causing the transverse ribs to meet at a point. This is seen most notably in northern England, at the Durham Cathedral dating from 1128. Durham is a cathedral of massive Romanesque proportions and appearance, yet its builders introduced several structural features which were new to architectural design and were to later to be hallmark features of the Gothic. Another Gothic structural feature employed at Durham is the flying buttress. However, these are hidden beneath the roofs of the aisles. The earliest pointed vault in France is that of the narthex of La Madeleine, Vézelay, dating from 1130.13

Church and cathedral plan and section

The abbey church of Fongombault displays a cruciform plan, round chancel, apsidal chapels and high nave with lower aisles.

Many parish churches, abbey churches, and cathedrals are in the Romanesque style, or were originally built in the Romanesque style and have subsequently undergone changes. The simplest Romanesque churches are halls with a projecting apse at the chancel end, or sometimes, predominantly in England, a projecting rectangular chancel with a chancel arch that might be decorated with moldings. More ostentatious churches have aisles separated from the nave by arcades.

Abbey and cathedral churches generally follow the Latin Cross plan. In England, the extension eastward may be long, while in Italy it is often short or non-existent, as the church generally is built on a "T" plan, sometimes with apses on the transept ends as well as to the east. In France, the church of St Front, Perigueux, appears to have been modeled on St. Mark's Basilica, Venice or another Byzantine church and is of a Greek cross plan with five domes. In the same region, Angouleme Cathedral is an aisless church of the Latin cross plan, more usual in France, but is also roofed with domes. 111

The south transept of Winchester Cathedral is in 3 stages. pic C.Finot

In Germany, Romanesque churches are often of distinctive form, having apses at east and west ends, the main entrance being central to one side. It is probable that this form came about to accommodate a baptistery at the west end. 13

In section, the typical aisled church or cathedral has a nave with a single aisle on either side. The nave and aisles are separated by an arcade carried on piers or on columns. The roof of the aisle and the outer walls help to buttress the upper walls and vault of the nave, if present. Above the aisle roof are a row of windows know as the clerestory, which give light to the nave. During the Romanesque period there was a development from this two-stage elevation to a three-stage elevation in which there is a gallery, known as a triforium, between the arcade and the clerestory. This varies from a simple blind arcade decorating the walls, to a narrow arcaded passage, to a fully-developed second story with a row of windows lighting the gallery. 11

Church and cathedral east ends

The eastern end of a Romanesque church is almost always semi-circular, with either a high chancel surrounded by an ambulatory as in France, or a square end form which an apse projects as in Germany and Italy. Where square ends exist in English churches, they are probably influenced by Anglo-Saxon churches. Peterborough and Norwich Cathedrals have retained round east ends in the French style. However, in France, simple churches without apses and with no decorative features were built by the Cistercians who also founded many houses in England, frequently in remote areas.16


Because of the massive nature of Romanesque walls, buttresses are not a highly significant feature, as they are in Gothic architecture. Romanesque buttresses are generally of flat square profile and do not project a great deal beyond the wall. In the case of aisled churches, barrel vaults, or half-barrel vaults over the aisles helped to buttress the nave, if it was vaulted.

In the cases where half-barrel vaults were used, they effectively became like flying buttresses. Often aisles extended through two stories, rather than the one usual in Gothic architecture, so as to better support the weight of a vaulted nave. In the case of Durham Cathedral, flying buttresses have been employed, but are hidden inside the triforium gallery.10

Limburger Dom, Germany, has