Romanesque Architecture and Art - What's It All About?

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Romanesque Basics

Romanesque Church of St Climent de Taüll, Catalonia, Spain
Romanesque Church of St Climent de Taüll, 1123 AD, Catalonia, Spain. Photo by Xavi Gomez/Cover/Getty Images (cropped)

Romanesque describes medieval architecture in the Western world from around 800 AD until roughly 1200 AD. The term may also describe Romanesque art—mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, and carvings—which was integral to the design of Romanesque architecture.

Although certain characteristics are associated with what we call Romanesque art and architecture, the look of individual buildings can vary widely from century to century, from a building's purpose (e.g., church or fortress), and from region to region. The following illustrations show the varieties of Romanesque architecture and Romanesque art still intact in Western Europe, including in Great Britain where the style became known as Norman.

Romanesque Definition

"Romanesque architecture The style emerging in Western Europe in the early 11th cent., based on Roman and Byzantine elements, characterized by massive articulated wall structures, round arches, and powerful vaults, and lasting until the advent of Gothic architecture in the middle of the 12th cent."—Dictionary of Architecture and Contruction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 411

About the Word

The term Romanesque was never used during this feudalistic time period. It may not have been used until the 18th or 19th centuries—well after medieval times. Like the word "feudalism" itself, it is a post-medieval construct. In history, "Romanesque" comes after the "fall of Rome," but because its architectural detail is characteristic of Roman architecture—especially the Roman arch—the French suffix -esque denotes the style as Roman-like or Roman-ish.

About the Church of St Climent de Taüll, 1123 AD, Catalonia, Spain

The tall bell tower, typical of Romanesque architecture, predicts the Gothic spire. The apses with conical roofs are reminiscent of Byzantine domes.

Romanesque design and construction evolved from early Roman and Byzantine architecture and foretold the sophisticated Gothic period that followed. Early Romanesque buildings have more Byzantine features; late Romanesque buildings are closer to early Gothic. Most of the surviving architecture is monastic churches and abbeys. The country chapels in northern Spain are the most "pure" examples of Romanesque architecture because they have not been "renovated" into Gothic cathedrals.

Is Romanesque the Same as Romanesque Revival?

Romanesque architecture does not exist in the United States. Native American dwellings from this historical era were not influenced by Roman design, and neither was Canada's L'Anse aux Meadows, the first colony of Vikings in North America. Christopher Columbus didn't arrive in the New World until 1492, and the Massachusetts Pilgrims and Jamestown Colony were not established until the 1600s. However, the Romanesque style was "revived" in the 1800s across the United States—Romanesque Revival architecture was a prevalent style for manor homes and public buildings from about 1880 to 1900.

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The Rise of Romanesque

Basilica of St Sernin, Toulouse, France
Basilica of St Sernin, Toulouse, France. Photo by Anger O./The Image Bank/Getty Images

Romanesque architecture can be found from Spain and Italy in the south to Scandinavia and Scotland in the north; from Ireland and Britain in the west and to Hungary and Poland in Eastern Europe. The French Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse is said to be the largest Romanesque church in Europe. Romanesque architecture is not a distinct style of design that dominated Europe. Rather, the term Romanesque describes a gradual evolution of building techniques.

How Did Ideas Move From Place to Place?

By the 8th century, the Sixth-Century Plague had abated, and trade routes again became important avenues for the exchange of merchandise and ideas. In the early 800s, the continuation and advancement of previous designs and engineering were encouraged during the reign of Charlemagne, who became Emperor of the Romans in 800 AD.

Another event that led to the rise of Romanesque art and architecture was the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. This agreement proclaimed a tolerance of the Church, allowing Christians to practice their religion. Without the fear of persecution, monastic orders spread Christianity throughout the lands. Many of the Romanesque abbeys we can tour today were begun by early Christians who established communities that rivaled and/or complemented the secular fiefdom systems. The same monastic order would establish communities in many localities—for example, by the 11th century, the Benedictines had established communities in Ringsted (Denmark), Cluny (France), Lazio (Italy), Baden-Württemberg (Germany), Samos (Spain), and elsewhere. As clergy traveled among their own monasteries and abbeys throughout medieval Europe, they carried with them not only Christian ideals, but also architectural and engineering ideas, along with the builders and artisans who could make the ideas happen.

In addition to established trade routes, Christian pilgrimage routes also moved ideas from place to place. Wherever a saint was buried became a destination—St. John in Turkey, St. James in Spain, and St. Paul in Italy, for example. Buildings along pilgrimage routes could count on the continual traffic of people with better ideas.

The spread of ideas was the grist for architectural advancements. Because new ways of construction and design spread slowly, buildings called Romanesque may not all look the same, but Roman architecture was a consistent influence, especially the Roman arch.

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Common Features of Romanesque Architecture

Arched Portico of the Romanesque Basilica de San Vicente, Avila, Spain
Arched Portico of the Romanesque Basilica de San Vicente, Avila, Spain. Photo by Cristina Arias / Cover / Getty Images (cropped)

Despite the many regional variations, Romanesque buildings share many of these characteristics:

  • Stone and brick construction, avoiding the combustible wooden roof
  • Rounded arches for support and decoration, in the Classical Roman arch style
  • Barrel vaults (i.e., tunnel vaults) and groin vaults to carry the weight of stone roofs and increase interior height
  • Thick walls, often more than 20 feet at ground level, to increase interior height
  • The evolution of buttresses to stabilize thick, high walls
  • Massive entryway doors inset within stepped arches
  • Bell towers morphing into Gothic-type spires to replace Byzantine domes
  • Small windows becoming clerestory windows
  • Christian church floor plans designed around the Latin cross
  • Integration of art with architecture

About the Arched Portico at Basilica de San Vicente, Avila, Spain

Avila, Spain is a wonderful example of a Medieval walled city and the west portico at the Basilica de San Vicente displays one of the more ornate archways from the 12th to 14th centuries. The traditionally thick walls of the Romanesque basilica would allow for what Professor Talbot Hamlin calls "stepped out" doorways:

"...These successive steps not only make a large and impressive composition out of a door of very modest size, but offered extraordinary opportunities for sculptural decoration."

Note: If you see an arched door like this and it was built in 1060, it's Romanesque. If you see an arch like this and it was built in 1860, it's Romanesque Revival.

Source: Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, p. 250

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Barrel Vaults for Height

Barrel Vault at the Basilica Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay, France
Barrel Vault at the Basilica Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay, France. Photo by Sandro Vannini/Corbis Historical/Getty Images (cropped)

As the bones of saints were often entombed within the church structure, sturdy roofs that would not burn and fall to the interiors became a priority. The Romanesque period was a time of experimentation—how do you engineer walls that will hold a stone roof?

An arched roof strong enough to support stone is called a vault—from the French word voûte. A barrel vault, also called a tunnel vault, is the most simple, as it imitates the strong hoops of a barrel while aesthetically mimicking the arches common to Romanesque architecture. To make stronger and higher ceilings, medieval engineers would use intersecting arches at right angles—similar to a cross-gable roof on today's homes. These double tunnels are called groined vaults.

About the Basilica Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay, France

The vaults of this basilica in the Burgundy region of France protect the remains of St Mary Magdalene. Being a pilgrimage destination, the basilica is one of the largest and oldest examples of Romanesque architecture in France.

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Latin Cross Floor Plan

Floor Plan and Elevation Drawing of the Church of the Abbey of Cluny III, Burgundy, France
Floor Plan and Elevation Drawing of the Church of the Abbey of Cluny III, Burgundy, France. Image by Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

One hundred miles southeast of Vezelay is Cluny, a town well-known for its Burgundian Romanesque history. Benedictine monks built up the town beginning in the 10th century. Influenced by Roman design, the design of the Abbeys of Cluny (there were at least three) began to transform the central floor plan of the Christian church.

Earlier Byzantine architecture had its roots in Byzantium, a city that today we call Istanbul in Turkey. Being closer to Greece than Italy, Byzantine churches were built around the Greek cross instead of the Latin cross—crux immissa quadrata instead of crux ordinaria.

The ruins of the Abbey of Cluny III are all that's left of this magnificent time in history.

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Art and Architecture

Romanesque Portrayal of Christ, Detail Painted on the Apse of San Clemente in Taüll, Catalonia, Spain
Romanesque Portrayal of Christ, Detail Painted on the Apse of San Clemente in Taüll, Catalonia, Spain. Photo by JMN / Cover / Getty Images (cropped)

Artisans followed the money, and the movement of ideas in art and music followed the ecclesiastical routes of medieval Europe. Work in mosaics moved westward from the Byzantine empire. Fresco paintings adorned the apses of the many Christian havens that dotted the continent. Images were often functional, two-dimensional, histories and parables, highlighted with any available bright colors. Shadow and realism would come later in art history, and then a Romanesque Revival of simplicity reappeared with the 20th century Modernist movement. Cubist artist Pablo Picasso was heavily influenced by the Romanesque artists in his native Spain.

Even medieval music was evolving with the spread of Christianity. The new idea of musical notation helped spread Christian chants from parish to parish.

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Ecclesiastical Sculpture

Column Statues and Capitals in the Romanesque Style, c. 1152, in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain
Column Statues and Capitals in the Romanesque Style, c. 1152, in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain. Photo by Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images (cropped)

Romanesque sculpture that survives today is almost always related to Christian churches—that is, it is ecclesiastical. As most people were illiterate, Romanesque art was created to inform—to proselytize—to tell the story of Jesus Christ. Columns were often the characters found in the Holy Bible. Instead of Classical designs, capitals and corbels were sculpted with symbols and aspects of nature.

Sculpture was also done in ivory, as the trade of walrus and elephant tusks became profitable merchandise. Most of the metalwork art of the period has been destroyed and/or recycled, such would be the case of a chalice made from gold.

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Non-Ecclesiastical Sculpture

Romanesque Collegiate Church of St Peter in Cervatos, Cantabria, Spain
Romanesque Collegiate Church of St Peter in Cervatos, Cantabria, Spain. Photo by Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images (cropped)

During the vast period known as the Middle Ages, all statuary was not devoted to representations of Jesus Christ. The icons and statues of the Church of St Peter, a collegiate church in Cervatos, Cantabria, Spain, are a case in point. Stone-carved genitalia and acrobatic sexual positioning adorn the building's corbels. Some have called the figures "erotic," while others see them as lustful and humorous amusements for the male occupants. Throughout the British Isles the grotesques are known as Sheela na gigs. Collegiate churches generally are not associated with monastic orders or led by an abbot, which some academics find liberating.

With all of its titillating iconography, San Pedro de Cervatos is characteristically Romanesque with its dominating bell tower and arched entryway.

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Pisan Romanesque Architecture

The Leaning Tower of Pisa (1370) and the Duomo, or Cathedral of Pisa in Italy
The Leaning Tower of Pisa (1370) and the Duomo, or Cathedral of Pisa in Italy. Photo by Giulio Andreini/Liaison/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (cropped)

Perhaps the most famous or well-known example of Romanesque architecture is the Tower of Pisa and the Duomo di Pisa in Italy. Never mind that the detached bell tower leans precariously—just look at the massive rows of arches and the height achieved in both structures. Pisa was located on a popular Italian trade route, so from its 12th century beginnings until its completion in the 14th century, the Pisan engineers and artists could continually fiddle with the design, adding more and more local marble.

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Norman is Romanesque

Aerial View of the Tower of London
Aerial View of the 1076 AD White Tower Built by William the Conqueror at the Center of the Tower of London. Photo by Jason Hawkes/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Romanesque is not always called Romanesque. In Great Britain, Romanesque architecture is typically called Norman, named after the Normans who invaded and conquered England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. The initial architecture built by William the Conqueror was the protective White Tower in London, but Romanesque-style churches dot the countryside of the British Isles. The best-preserved example may be Durham Cathedral, begun in 1093, which houses the bones of Saint Cuthbert (634-687 AD).

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Secular Romanesque

Secular Romanesque Kaiserpfalz Imperial Palace in Goslar, Germany, Built in 1050 AD
Secular Romanesque Kaiserpfalz Imperial Palace in Goslar, Germany, Built in 1050 AD. Photo by Nigel Treblin / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

Not all Romanesque architecture is related to the Christian church, as evidenced by the Tower of London and this palace in Germany. The Imperial Palace of Goslar or Kaiserpfalz Goslar has been a Romanesque-era staple of Lower Saxony since at least 1050 AD. As the Christian monastic orders protected communities, so, too, did the emperors and kings throughout Europe. In the 21st century, Goslar, Germany became well-known again as a safe haven for thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors and unrest in their own land. How are medieval times so different from our own? The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Learn More About Romanesque

  • Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman
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  • Romanesque Churches of Spain: A Traveller's Guide by Peter Strafford
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  • Early Medieval Architecture by Roger Stalley
    Buy on Amazon