Romanesque (1000-1250) - part I


Romanesque art was prevalent in medieval Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries (1000 AD through to the appearance of the Gothic style around 1140 AD, depending on the region). I’ve seen some experts include it with the Carolingian Renaissance and date the period back to the 8th C, and other experts have also noted that the style remained popular through to the early 14th C. This was the first pan-European style since Roman Imperial Architecture and examples are found in every part of Europe.

The term Romanesque is not contemporary with the art it describes, but rather, is an invention of 19th C scholarship based on its similarity to Roman Architecture in style (strong, dignified and reminiscent of a glorious past), forms (round arches and barrel vaults) and materials (stone and a type of lime-based cement).

English Romanesque architecture is often called Norman architecture, but it has the same characteristics, with massive proportions, simple geometries, fortified walls, zig-zag mouldings, blind arcading and rounded arches.

Before we delve into the details it is worth remembering that we are talking about a period which includes the Battle of Hastings (1066), the launch of the 1st Crusades (1096), the first prisoner in the Tower of London (1100), the founding of the Knights Templar (1119),  the founding of Oxford University (1168), the killing of Thomas Becket (1170), the introduction of paved streets in Paris (1184), and the signing of the Magna Carta by King John (1215).

Romanesque architecture is massive, low, and solid-looking, and is characterized by the use of semi-circular or round Roman arches (or very occasionally just slightly pointed), small windows, thick walls, sturdy cruciform piers supporting barrel and groin vaults, apses, and acanthus-leaf decoration. Mouldings and ornaments were also simple and straightforward, including the beak-head, billet, cable, chevron, double cone, nebula, and reversed zig-zag.

In the early period (1000 to 1150 AD) heavy buildings were constructed according to local influences, but by 1300 AD trade routes established by Charlemagne helped disseminate the style across Europe. Most Romanesque buildings are centered on the Roman vault, and all illustrate an obsession with defense. Churches, baptisteries, castles and public buildings were all built as strongholds, fortresses-like and impenetrable. Churches were built in the shape of a cross, using the basilica (again a type of Roman building) as the basis for the design. Another important feature of Romanesque architecture was the use of a separate bell tower, or campanile, that was built beside the main church.

While solidly built, Romanesque buildings were not concerned with the classical elements such as the orders and the proportions of the pediments, but used classical detailing as surface decoration (easily copiable from local Roman gates and amphitheaters) that resembles neither the original Greek buildings nor the revival of the Classical style seen in the Renaissance. Columns are no longer structural, but are seen as colonnettes dividing window openings or creating patterned arcades as seen on the façade of the Pisa Cathedral.

Although there were slight variations in each country, the Romanesque style dominated Western Europe until it was replaced by the Gothic style. It is relatively easy to tell the difference between the earlier Romanesque and the later Gothic styles, e.g. the most important feature of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch, along with the ribbed vault and the flying buttress.

The Romanesque arch

The Romanesque barrel vault and cruciform piers (below left), and (below right) an examples of a groin vault (sometimes called a double barrel vault or cross vault, and superseded by the more flexible Gothic rib vault)

The Romanesque apse (the semi-circular termination of a building at the liturgical east end with the altar) and basilica style (a building with a tall central east-west nave or central aisle with clerestory windows, a north-south transept, and two aisles)

Above on the right we can see the acanthus-leaf which was a common form of decoration based upon the Mediterranean species of the Acanthus genus (with deeply cut leaves a bit like a thistle or poppy). It was used from ancient Greek times as an ornament for capitals, friezes, etc., and in Roman times the ends of the leaves were curled.

The basic elements of Romanesque architecture

Mature Romanesque architecture is simple, solid, and easy to understand, but its inherent geometrical simplicity also made it powerful and impressive. So we are looking for thick walls, sturdy piers, semi-circular arches, barrel vaults, and a simple layout with clearly defined square or rectangular bays, and often a steeply pitched roof.

Above we see the church of San Martín de Tours, built in the 11th C in Frómista in the Castilla y León, in Spain (it is on the camino de Santiago). This is said to be the earliest example of Romanesque architecture in Spain, and experts believe that the decoration was inspired by those on a Roman sarcophagus located in a nearby church. It is also suggested that the pilgrimage route was the engine which drove this early sculptural school to spread all the way from Castilla back to the Languedoc in France and on to Galicia. There are 100 carved capitals in this church, following two different schools. The first inspired by the Roman sarcophagus, and the second more hieratic and simpler with static figures. On the outside the church is decorated with a total of three hundred and fifteen modillion figures, possibly the most imaginative array of profane and apotropaic images in Romanesque sculpture. Among them, androphagous monsters, acrobats, monkeys, young girls cradling strange offspring and a harp playing ass! The bell tower over the central dome dates from the 15th C.

Above we have Santa Maria e San Donato located on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon. This church was started in the 7th C, but was successively rebuilt in the 9th C and the 10th C (it‘s current form might date from 1141). Here the façade is in brick, but in many cases it would have been faced in marble. Inside you can see an impressive stone mosaic floor in Byzantine style, ca. 1140. There is also a huge and impressive mosaic of the Virgin Mary set into a dome in the apse, dating from around 1200-1250. She is in restrained colours, and unusually her hands are open rather than in the traditional prayer position. It is difficult to see in a photograph, but the mosaic is of such high quality that you can see the folds in the intense blue of her cloak, and the background of thousands of tiny golden tiles is picked up by threads that hang from her cloak.


I think everyone recognises the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa, Italy. This is a so-called Pisan Romanesque style, and the duomo was started in 1064 and consecrated in 1118. If you can look beyond the classically-inspired decoration you can see that it is still built as a kind of fortress. Some of the Romanesque features are small windows, rounded arches, many blind arches, and the overall simple geometry with a nave and two aisles with clerestory windows. Again here the dome was added later.

The Speyer Cathedral in Germany, is a very large and imposing basilica of red sandstone, and one of the noblest examples of Romanesque architecture now extant. Alongside the nearby Romanesque cathedrals of Mainz and Worms, it is one of the so-called Kaiserdome (Imperial cathedrals) of the Rhineland. A distinctive feature is the colonnaded gallery that goes around the entire building, just below the roofline.

Built in 1030-1061 by Conrad II and his successor, this church has had a checkered history, its disasters culminating in 1689, when the soldiers of Louis XIV burned it to the bare walls and scattered the ashes of the eight German emperors who had been interred in the kings choir. At the time it was built it was one of the most ambitious projects of its time (along with the building of Santiago de Compostela, Cluny Abbey and Durham Cathedral). In 1090 it was enlarged by Henry IV, the nave was raised and clerestory windows added, the flat wooded ceiling was replaced by a groin vault set on square bays, and interior buttressing was reinforced. It is said that the result was “powerful, albeit stark and prismatic when compared with French buildings, but one that conveyed gravitas”.

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham (usually known as Durham Cathedral) dates from 1093, and is a classic of Norman architecture. The building is notable for the ribbed vault of the nave roof, with pointed transverse arches supported on relatively slender composite piers alternated with massive drum columns, and flying buttresses or lateral abutments concealed within the triforium over the aisles. These features appear to be precursors of the Gothic architecture of Northern France a few decades later, doubtless due to the Norman stonemasons responsible, although the building is considered Romanesque overall. The skilled use of the pointed arch and ribbed vault made it possible to cover far more elaborate and complicated ground plans than before. Buttressing made it possible to build taller buildings and open up the intervening wall spaces to create larger windows. All this paved the way for Gothic architecture.

In part II of this discussion on Romanesque art we leave the church and look at castles and the decorative arts.