Architecture · Art Appreciation 101 · Art Guides · Medieval Art and Architecture

A Guide to Romanesque Architecture

Charlemagne's Palatine chapel at Aachen guide to Romanesque architecture
Charlemagne’s chapel from his palace in Aachen, Germany. It was based on Byzantine models. Photo by Willy Horsch (CC BY-SA 3.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.

The Style Is Best Known For

  • Durham Cathedral in England
  • Church of St. Foy in Conques, France
  • Charlemagne’s Chapel in Aachen, Germany
  • Mont St. Michel in France
  • The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain (parts of it)

Where, When, and What?

Western Europe (especially France, Germany, and the British Isles) beginning in the 11th century AD. In France, it developed into Gothic in the late 12th century. In Britain, it stayed current for much longer. Romanesque is primarily associated with churches, although aspects of it can also be found in secular structures of the era.

Durham Cathedral Interior
Looking down the nave of Durham Cathedral, towards the apse. Notice the massive columns and founded arches. Photo by Oliver-Bonjoch (CC BY-SA 3.0) – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

How to Recognize It

  • Made of stone
  • Generally built on the basilica plan. That means they’re generally rectangular in shape, often with short arms (called a transept) sticking out near the center and one or two towers at the west end.
  • Rounded arches, often quite wide and sometimes stacked within each other.
  • Vaulted ceilings – mainly barrel vaults, but sometimes also groin vaults (two vaults crossing at a right angle to create four triangle shapes).
  • Thick, solid-looking walls.
  • Decoration via bands of differently-colored stone.
  • On the outside, doorways tend to be covered with sculptural decoration. They may appear in several layers in and around the semicircular area above the doors (the tympanum), along the sides of the door (jamb statues), or in between a pair of double doors (trumeau). This is also true of Gothic architecture, but the Romanesque versions are more like deep reliefs, while the Gothic versions are much more separate from the wall.
  • The interiors tend to be decorated with colorful mosaics and wall paintings.
  • Columns are numerous, rounded, and quite thick. They’re often decorated with carved geometric patterns like chevrons and square shapes (called “diaper pattern”). The capitals (tops of the columns) also tend to be thick and are elaborately carved – sometimes with human and animal figures (called “historiated capitals”).

Background

After the Roman Empire fell, western Europe entered a period known as the “Dark Ages”. (This term is sometimes contested, but let’s use it for now.) Many aspects of classical culture, civilization, literature, arts, etc.went into hibernation. Frankish emperor Charlemagne (742-814) wanted to bring his empire out of the these Dark Ages, so he looked back to the classical past for inspiration. He wanted his empire to be a new, Christian version of the Roman or Byzantine Empires. In fact, he went so far as to call himself the “Holy Roman Emperor”. Charlemagne did a great deal to cultivate arts and education again. The arts he sponsored formed the start of Romanesque, but it took centuries to fully take shape. The Norman ruler William the Conqueror, who conquered Britain in 1066, also played a huge roll in Romanesque style in Britain.

The foundation of many monasteries and new monastic orders also fueled the building projects of the Romanesque period. So did Christian pilgrimages, made increasingly popular by the belief that visiting the relics of a particular saint could cure ailments and other misfortunes.

Mont_Saint-Michel in August 2015 guide to Romanesque architecture
Mont Saint Michel in France. Photo by Jean-Pierre Remy (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode.

Underlying Ideas

  • Romanesque architecture is based on the Christian churches built in the late Roman Empire, particularly in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.
  • Romanesque architecture made use of the basilica plan. The earliest Christian churches were built on this plan, and some still are today.
  • During the Middle Ages, it became very common to make religious pilgrimages. The most popular was to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The road to Santiago de Compostela from cities like Rome and Paris attracted large numbers of pilgrims, who visited churches along the way. Often times, they came to specific towns to worship the relics of saints that were housed there. Relics were extremely important in the middle ages for both pilgrims (who hoped for miracles such as healing) and churches or monasteries (who gained prestige from possessing a relic and financial profit from the offerings left at it). As a result, Romanesque churches tended to spring up along the pilgrimage route. The destination was the town of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where a shrine believed to contain the body of St. James was located.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain guide to Romanesque architecture
A Romanesque portion of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This church was an important pilgrimage destination for medieval Christians. Photo by Georges Jansoone (CC BY-SA 3.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.

Don’t Confuse It With

  • Gothic Architecture: Gothic was the descendant of Romanesque, so it’s understandable that you might get confused. Remember that Gothic churches appear tall, light, and air, while Romanesque ones are solid and earthbound. Gothic churches generally have large windows, more complex vaulting, and pointed arches. Romanesque has these things much less frequently.
  • Romanesque Revival: As has been the case with most of the styles we’ve talked about so far, Romanesque had a revival in the 19th century. Date, condition, and often location will help you tell the two apart.
  • Classical Roman architecture or any revival of it: The use of the word “Roman” in Romanesque reflects the fact that it draws forms from the classical Roman tradition. But although these basic forms are the same, the aesthetic is much different. In most cases, they won’t be easily confused, but it’s worth clarifying because of the name.

Resources

Romanesque Architecture“. Durham World Heritage Site.

Christine M. Bolli, “Pilgrimage routes and the cult of the relic“, in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015.

Carol Davidson Cragoe. How to Read Architecture: A crash course in architectural styles. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.

Valerie Spanswick, “A beginner’s guide to Romanesque architecture“, in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015.

Valerie Spanswick, “Medieval churches: sources and forms“, in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015.

David Watkin. A History of Western Architecture. Fifth edition. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011.

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