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Romanesque Architecture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



WE must now hark back to Italy, where the early Christians were left at work upon their basilicas.

The transference of the seat of government by Constantine to Byzantium, and the consequent decay of the Roman empire, checked intelligent building for a period in Italy. But as Christianity continued to spread, there was an increasing demand for accommodation on the part of its adherents, and builders were called upon to provide it, first in this town, then in the other. Through-out the Dark Ages—from the fifth to the tenth century—a considerable amount of building was done, but very little architecture was produced worthy of the name, except in those cities in which, as at Ravenna and Venice, it was developed under Byzantine auspices. Meanwhile, however, the Church was strengthening her authority and broadening her influences, and a new style of architecture slowly developed,—with natural modifications arising out of climatic and other local conditions—and gradually spread through-out Western Europe. This new architecture, based upon the traditions of Rome and of the early Christian builders of that city, received the name of Romanesque.

Although Rome's influence was impressed upon the Byzantine style of architecture as well as upon that which we here call Romanesque, it is desirable to keep one style quite distinct from the other. The two showed marked differences from the beginning ; and when the Churches of Rome and of Byzantium diverged upon questions affecting the ritual and the creed, the divergence became still greater in the architecture of the Eastern and the Western Churches. That of the Eastern Church—the Orthodox Church, so-called—has never departed from the Byzantine models, and the influence of Byzantium has thus spread throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and Russia. On the other hand, the Western Church has always looked to Rome for her earliest inspirations and has drawn upon the mother-city for her architecture, though different countries have, naturally, developed their own characteristic features.

To deal first with Italy. During the formative period, which may be said to have ended with the tenth century, architecture—such as it was—was almost entirely ecclesiastical. The basilican churches were the natural outcome of the situation in Rome, where basilicas were to hand to serve as models, and where on all sides classic temples, with their choice columns and marble wall-linings, were available for the Christian despoiler. But away from Rome other conditions prevailed : materials were necessarily simpler, and greater originality was required on the part of the architects, in order to invest their designs with dignity and interest. Bitter experience also had taught the need of replacing the low wooden roofs of the basilica by a more enduring form of vaulted construction.

In due course, then, it came about that in Italy three distinct styles of Romanesque architecture were developed: the Basilican, or Early Christian—which, as we have seen, continued to prevail in Rome—the Lombard, and the Tuscan, or Pisan.

The Lombard style, as the name denotes, flourished chiefly in the cities of the Lombardy Plain, in the north of Italy, from Milan on the west to Bologna on the east. These two cities, and their neighbors, Piacenza, Verona, and Pavia, all contain good examples of the style in S. Zeno (Verona), S. Ambrogio (Milan), the cathedral of Piacenza, and others.

The old church of S. Zeno at Verona, of the twelfth century, shows many characteristic features. The facade was simple in composition, with a fine breadth of flat surface, emphasized at intervals by a series of arcades filled in with slender columns and arches, or by arcaded corbels carved under the slopes of the gable. Long, slender pilasters divided the front into three parts, thus suggesting the interior nave-and-aisle division of the basilica; in other respects the basilican form was lost externally, for the vaulted roof was wholly concealed by a simple low-pitched gable. A rose-window occupied the space under the centre of the gable, and beneath this a projecting porch marked the doorway. The columns of the portico rested upon the backs of crouching lions—familiar features to all who have visited the old cities of Lombardy. Elaborate, grotesque carving enriched the entrance, and atoned somewhat for the severe treatment of the upper portion of the front. The facades were always solemn and dignified, and, with their slender columns and lightly projecting arcades, relied upon the crisp Italian sunlight for relief and for vigorous effects of light and shade; else they were inclined to gloominess and severity. Tennyson, visiting these cities under a dull sky, noted how Stern and sad (so rare the smiles Of sunlight) looked the Lombard piles ; Porch-pillars on the lion resting, and sombre, old, colonnaded aisles.

In connection with many of the churches, as at S. Zeno, Verona, and the cathedral at Piacenza, was found a square campanile or bell-tower, simple in form and always well-proportioned.

Internally the plan of the Lombard churches resembled the old basilicas, with such modifications as were required by the introduction of the massive vaulted roofs—e.g. the reduction in width of the nave and the substitution of sturdy piers for the rows of graceful columns. Sometimes a crypt and shrine were found beneath the choir, the floor of the choir being raised a few steps above the general floor level.

The Tuscan-Romanesque was not unlike the Lombard, modified by the different social conditions which existed in Florence, Pisa, and the neighboring cities of Tuscany. The finest examples are found at Pisa, where the Romanesque buildings in the Piazza—the cathedral (A.D. 1063-1100), the baptistery (A.D. 1153), and the leaning tower (A.D. 1174)—form one of the most interesting architectural groups in Italy.

The Tuscan designs are lighter and more elegant than those of the northern cities. Timber ceilings were adhered to, in connection with the basilican forms, permitting the use of columns instead of piers for the interior nave-and-aisle divisions. The facades were almost entirely covered with a lavish arrangement of wall-arcades and galleries, as seen in the Pisan buildings; or they were divided into panels of dark and white marbles, as at S. Miniato in Florence. The arcading was highly decorative, the tendency to become monotonous being in most instances averted by skilful and varied treatment of the different tiers. The tower at Pisa forms an exception, for the constant repetition of bands of arcades, all of equal height, from the base to the summit, destroys the interest of the building as an architectural design, and almost justifies Mr. Ruskin's description of it as "the one thoroughly ugly tower in Italy."

Tuscan-Romanesque was much influenced by the Byzantine methods of building and of decoration, for Pisa was a port maintaining an extensive trade with Byzantium. This fact probably ac-counts for the use of the marble panelling, which became characteristic of Florentine architecture, and influenced that of the later Gothic period.

Lucca and Pistoja, neighbors of Florence, have good examples of the Pisan style; and in many parts of Italy churches were erected to which the generic term Romanesque may be applied, in which were blended the methods and traditions of the Byzantine, the Lombard, and the Tuscan builders.

In Sicily the rule of the Mohammedans, which began A.D. 827, and lasted through two centuries, left its impress upon the island's architecture, so that we find Arabic influences mingled with those of Byzantium and of Italy. The beautiful cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo (A.D. 1175), is built upon the plan of a Roman basilica, and reveals a picturesque mixture of the different styles. The nave columns have finely carved capitals of the distinctive Byzantine form with the dosseret supporting pointed arches. A dado of white marble lines the lower portion of the walls, above which they are richly encrusted with mosaics representing Biblical stories. The timber roof is somewhat elaborate, and is richly treated with color decoration, after the manner of the Mohammedan interiors.

During the first ten centuries of the Christian era architecture made little progress in Europe, outside of Italy and of the eastern countries which came more directly under Roman influence. Spain alone, in the West, had become a flourishing centre of the art, thanks to the incursion of the Moors. Throughout this period society in Western Europe was in a state of chaos; lawlessness was rife, and progress in architecture or in any of the fine arts was impossible. The church alone, as an institution, showed some little vitality, for within its monastic walls prevailed a peace which was unaffected by the external turmoil and unrest.

Building on an extensive scale was, moreover, checked by a very wide-spread belief in the theory of the impending end of the world in the year x000; but this check was a temporary one, for the fear of the dread event led many an uneasy conscience to contribute liberally to the monasteries, or to seek refuge in them; the new century, therefore, found these institutions wealthy and powerful as they had never been before. A period of great activity ensued, and architecture at once began to make considerable progress in all directions.

Almost all the new buildings of importance were ecclesiastical, and the builders naturally looked to Rome as their centre and their source of technical help and inspiration. But, to many, Rome was a far-off country, and the new occasions taught new methods and devices which soon made the term Romanesque a very comprehensive title, for under this head may be conveniently classed all the "round-arched Gothic " which prevailed throughout the west of Europe before the introduction of the true Gothic, and which in England culminated in the " Norman" buildings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The architecture of each country, governed by local conditions and traditions, was marked by its own distinctive features, but showed at the same time a general similarity of style. Almost all the buildings were constructed with the same object, and it became a question of solving the same problem in different ways—the problem, namely, of combining the vaulted roof construction with the basilican plan. The heavy "barrel-vault" of the roof demanded massive walls and piers, and the use of the semicircular arch required piers or very sturdy columns at frequent intervals. The resulting style was of necessity somewhat ponderous, so that relief was sought in rich carving and in a multiplicity of recessed spaces; and the architects did not successfully grapple with the difficulty until the introduction—in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—of ribbed vaulting, which, with the pointed Gothic arch, revolutionized the conditions of construction, and gave the builders a happy and complete solution of their problem. What is called " Gothic architecture is in reality nothing more than the logical outcome of the progressive Romanesque; the transition is a natural one, just as, in English architecture, is the transition from the round-arched Norman to the pointed style of the thirteenth century. The name " Gothic" is an unfortunate one, for readers are apt to regard it as a foreign and distinct style, breaking in upon, and interrupting the continuity of, the architecture of the period. It is only by following the Romanesque architects in their constructive difficulties with the round arch that we are able to appreciate what the Gothic principles did for their architecture, and the extent to which they enlarged its scope.

To turn first to France. In the Romanesque buildings of that country may be traced the results of various influences. Many of the southern churches possess marked Byzantine features, the outcome of a very considerable trade which was carried on between the ports on the south coast, Venice, and the east. In the church of S. Front at Perigueux (A.D. 1047) the plan strikingly resembles that of S. Mark's, Venice: the interior is roofed over with domes in a similar manner, but they are constructed externally in stone, instead of having false wooden roofs as the domes of S, Mark's. The interior of the building is finished in stone, with none of the rich interior decoration of the Venetian church. At Cahors is a domed cathedral of the same date, undoubtedly copied from a church in Byzantium. In other parts of the country the designs were influenced by the examples of classic Roman buildings, such as those found at Nimes, Arles, Avignon, etc. In the churches of Notre Dame at Avignon and $. Trophime at Arles we find Corinthian capitals, pilasters, enrichments, and other features borrowed directly from the classic models.

Auvergne contains some excellent examples of Romanesque churches, built of the lava of this well-known volcanic district. Let us consider the church of Notre Dame du Port at Clermont, an excellent and typical example of the style. Lava is used in the construction, and some effect is gained by the use of lavas of different colors. The plan of this church shows a long nave covered by barrel vaulting, with small transepts and ah apsidal end. Round the apse is carried a series of small apsidal chapels. These small apses, built round the main apse, form what is called a chevet, which became an essential feature in French cathedral plans. Such a group of small chapels, ranged round the end of a lofty cathedral, produces a singularly interesting and dignified interior effect. The feature was introduced by the Romanesque builders, and probably originated in the Auvergne district, where it is found in the Romanesque churches at Issoire, Le Puy, Clermont, and elsewhere. The Gothic architects retained the chevet, so that it figures in the plans of most of the great French cathedrals of that period.

The chief constructional difficulty with which the Romanesque builders had, to contend was the method of support for the massive barrel-vaulted roofs which covered the naves. The old Romans, as we saw, escaped the trouble of side-thrusts and strains by building up their vaulted roofs and domes in solid concrete, so that the mass rested securely upon the walls without any lateral thrust, just as a lid rests upon a box. But stone vaulting exerted a lateral thrust, which required to be counteracted by means of heavy abutments, or buttresses. The illustration shows an outline section of Notre Dame du Port, which indicates the method of buttressing adopted. Here the thrust of the great barrel vault over the nave would tend to push apart the walls upon which it rests. This thrust is counteracted by the use of half-barrel vaults over the aisles. A glance at the section will show that such an arrangement made it impossible to light the upper part by means of clerestory windows ; the nave vault was therefore dependent upon brilliant weather to relieve it from a state of gloom. In some examples, as at Autun (A.D. 1150) clerestory windows were introduced, the nave vault being raised sufficiently high for the purpose above the roofs of the side aisles ; but the constructive methods were not equal to the task, for in almost all cases the vaults gave way and required to be reconstructed. Towards the end of the twelfth century the use of flying but-tresses to resist the lateral thrusts made it possible to combine clerestory windows with barrel vaults; but the difficulty was not satisfactorily surmounted until the introduction of groined vaults in the thirteenth century.

We cannot take leave of the Romanesque buildings of France without touching upon the works of the great Norman dukes—so intimately connected with the architecture of Great Britain.

The best-known example among the abbey churches of Normandy, and one of the noblest buildings of the time, was the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, or S. Etienne, at Caen, begun in 1066 by William of Normandy—better known to us as William the Conqueror—in commemoration of his victory at Hastings. The church is lofty in its proportions, with nave, aisles, and transept. Its east end was originally in the form of a simple apse, but this has been superseded by the chevet; the west front is finely proportioned and is flanked by two towers, between which the nave rests.

The spires which crown the towers are later additions. The nave and aisles are vaulted, and a clerestory is obtained by a series of flying buttresses. The system of vaulting is of interest as illustrating the stage which preceded the introduction of the pointed arch, and the consequent solution of the constructive difficulties which were constantly baffling the builders of this period.

Another Norman church of note is the Abbaye-aux-Dames, or S. Trinite, at Caen (1083). The fine church of Mont S. Michel has undergone many alterations in later times, and, like many cathedral and other churches in Normandy and Brittany (and in England), has lost much of its original character.

GERMANY. - Romanesque architecture in Germany followed somewhat closely on the lines of that of North Italy, as might be expected, for there was constant communication between the two countries, and a large German population in Milan. Indeed, the Lombard-Romanesque of North Italy may be said to have emanated from Germany.

Of the earlier buildings the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle, built by Charlemagne (about 800) is interesting, architecturally as an imitation of S. Vitale at Ravenna, and historically as the crowning place of the Western emperors. It is a polygonal building of sixteen sides, surmounted by an octagonal dome.

Before the thirteenth century the art of building did not make great progress in any parts of Germany other than Saxony and the Rhenish provinces. in the districts of the Rhine, however, Romanesque architecture may be said to have developed more fully than in any other country in Europe. The exterior of the Rhenish churches was characterized by picturesque grouping of octagonal turrets, the introduction of arcaded recesses to decorate the lower portions of the wall space, and of open arcaded galleries under the gable-ends and the cornices of the apses and turrets. The Church of the Apostles at Cologne 0160–1200) is a successful example of this treatment. The view in the illustration shows the arrangement of the eastern portion with three apses opening off the central space of the choir — an arrangement productive of dignified and noble effect both externally and internally. The plan of the building shows a tri-apsidal end and a broad nave, flanked on either side by aisles of half its width. The transepts are at the west end, and the crossing is covered with a Byzantine dome carried on pendentives; the nave has been vaulted at a later period. S. Maria in Capitolio and S. Martin (1150), both in Cologne, show similar characteristic features, and make, with the Church of the Apostles, one of the most interesting groups of churches which the Romanesque period produced. Other good German examples are the cathedrals of Mayence (tenth and eleventh centuries), Spires, and Worms (both of the eleventh century), each of which has a vaulted nave of the twelfth century.

SPAIN. — Comparatively little Romanesque work is to be found in Spain, for throughout this period a great part of the country was under the dominion of the Moors. The capture of Toledo in 1062 paved the way for a series of successes of the Christians; but it was not until 1492 that the Moorish rule was entirely destroyed by the fall of Granada. Such churches as were built appear to have been constructed on the lines of the French churches of Auvergne.

The church of S. Iago at Compostella (1080) is a good example, with nave and transepts, choir and chevet. In most instances, however, a departure was made from French tradition by the erection of a dome on pendentives over the crossing of the nave and transepts, as in the old cathedral at Salamanca (twelfth century). It is strange that no details of the Romanesque churches of Spain show traces of influence of the Moorish architecture which abounded on every side, though this may be accounted for by the fact that the Christians heartily hated the Mohammedans and everything that belonged to them.

ENGLAND.—The inhabitants of Great Britain appear to have troubled themselves little about architecture before the Norman conquest. Prior to this period numerous churches were erected by the Saxons and the Celts, but the remains are sufficient only to prove that these early builders—of the " primitive Romanesque " period—were endowed with little technical skill. The tower of Earl's Barton, in Northants, and the little church at Bradford-on-Avon are perhaps the best existing examples of the work of the Saxons. The rare occurrence of Saxon remains at the present time is probably due to the fact that, with the advent of the Normans, the ruder primitive buildings were destroyed to make way for the new style which swept so rapidly over the country. Possibly, too, the generous use of wood in the construction led to decay. Timber was much in vogue among the earlier Saxons, and its use appears to have influenced the details of their later stone work. Their triangular-headed window openings and "turned baluster" window mullions are certainly suggestive of timber construction.

Before the landing of William the Norman, the influence of the Normans was beginning to make itself felt, for—England's insular position notwithstanding—it was impossible that the country should be unaffected by the art which was making such gigantic strides within a few miles of its seaboard. The Norman conquest (1066), and the sub-sequent occupation of the country by the barons and ecclesiastics of Normandy, effected a rapid social revolution, and speedily transformed the political organizations of the island. As an immediate result of the change there set in a period of extraordinary activity in the building of churches, abbeys, and castles, by means of which the invaders were enabled to establish themselves more securely upon the lands plundered from the conquered Saxons. Many churches were founded by the Norman him-self, while his followers vied one with another in their efforts to surpass all that had been seen on the other side of the Channel.

The Romanesque, or—to use a more familiar term—the Norman period, during which the architecture imported by the invaders prevailed in England, lasted for a little more than a century —i.e. from the conquest until the accession of Richard I. in 1189. Between these dates building operations were carried on throughout England with almost incredible activity. Not only in many great English cathedrals do we find extensive remains of Norman work, but in a vast number of churches in every part of the country fragments and details are found, pointing to the fact that a complete Norman structure once occupied the site, from which almost every trace of the original work has disappeared. It has been computed that no less than 7,000 churches were built within a century after the conquest.

The Romanesque, or "Norman," cathedral of England is marked by features similar to those which characterize the Romanesque buildings of Normandy. Its general appearance is sturdy, with solid walls, cushion-shaped capitals, massive arches, broad and round on ponderous columns, short and low.

Compared with its Continental prototype, the typical Norman cathedral, such as that of Durham or Peterborough, is longer in proportion to its width, the length being especially marked in the choir. A square east end takes the place of the apse or chevet of French cathedrals, and the transepts are more important. A great central tower, carried over the crossing of the nave and transepts, is also characteristic of the English plan.

Internally there was generally the intention—suggested by the massive piers and columns—to vault over the aisles and the nave. The vaulted roofs, however, through lack of funds or other considerations, were seldom completed. Flat, low-pitched roofs and wooden ceilings were substituted; and as these were light and easily sup-ported, the builders were able to insert large clerestory windows, and to secure light and lofty effect at little cost. The wooden roofs, however, were liable to injury from fire, and, in many in-stances, were burned or destroyed, so that in several cathedrals, as at Gloucester, Durham, and Exeter, they were replaced at a later date by stone vaulting.

The details of the Norman churches in England, with few exceptions, are extremely simple. The piers were often perfectly plain and round, as at Gloucester; sometimes clustered, as at Peter-borough; or, as at Durham, clustered and round piers were used alternately. Doorways were simple in outline, circular-headed, and with little of the added ornamentation which appeared in the gables of the later Gothic entrances; richly carved capitals decorated the clustered columns of the opening, and a profusion of carving covered the arch-moldings. The design showed little variety; the zig-zag ornamentation, easily shaped with the axe, occurred with endless repetition, varied occasionally by the well-known "birds'-beak " molding, familiar to the most casual observer of Norman work. Window openings were treated more simply than doorways, but were sometimes enriched with the zig-zag, as at Iffiey Church, near Oxford. The cushion-shaped capitals, suggestive of the sturdy echinus of the Greek Doric column, were usually left quite plain, though the Norman mason took pleasure in carving quaint devices or grotesque faces upon the caps, or upon the projecting stones of the external corbel courses, after the buildings had been completed. In the staircase at Canterbury Cathedral, shown in the frontispiece, we have a good illustration of the Norman's method of treating the arched openings.

Portions of many of the old Norman structures have been rebuilt at a later date. The following list includes the principal monuments of the period in England. Less important, though not less interesting, are the examples found among the parish churches throughout the country :

Canterbury Cathedral Crypt.

Carlisle Cathedral Nave.

Ely Cathedral . Nave.

Winchester Cathedral Transepts.

Waltham Abbey Choir.

Durham Cathedral Galilee Porch, Nave, and Chapter-house.

Peterborough Cathedral Nave.

Rochester Cathedral . Nave.

Norwich Cathedral Nave.

Hereford Cathedral Nave.

Christ Church, Oxford Nave and Transepts.

Gloucester . Nave.

Tower of London White Chapel. S. Alban's Abbey.

Church of S. Bartholomew the Great, London.

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