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The Secon Great Transition - Romance Architecture

( Originally Published 1910 )



EACH important epoch in the history of Greece, of Rome, and of Byzantium is repeated in the history of the Frankish country; that is to say, it began with a vigorous commercial impetus, and developed its sciences and its arts under the control of a fresh and inspiring ideal which caused creative originality. This, as we have seen, is less true of Rome, as she lacked the intellectual and geographical cohesion of Greece, and because of this was content to copy rather than to create.

This great new country—which for convenience we will call France, although it did not actually become so until several centuries later—was geographically a unit, the people were practically of one race, virile and fearless, and therefore the best material for the making of a great nation.

This spirit was destined to be held in check for almost a century, but in the end it blossomed forth with an irrepressible energy that lasted for nearly three hundred years.

There was building of churches after the basilican order, of course, during the tenth century, but they were for the most part unimportant, and the reason is one of the curiosities of history.

It had become a popular superstition among the early Christians that the end of the world would come in the year one thousand. This perhaps was natural, as it was not to be expected that the revelations of St. John the Divine would then be taken other than literally.

But it seems strange to find the Church accepting the idea, and, long before the fatal year arrived, encouraging it throughout Christendom.

The effect was, of course, paralyzing. Commerce and building stopped almost entirely, people sold their lands or gave them away, often with all they had, and awaited the end in idleness and fear. It took nearly a quarter of a century for the country to recover from this paralysis, and the full tide of creative energy does not appear until about the year 1100.

The field of this movement is broadly the lower half of France, the upper half developing somewhat later a still more important architectural outburst. The growth is wide-spread, but its progress follows generally the main lines of trade. This, of course, follows the rivers. There is the Rhone, with its headwaters north of Lyons, in the middle east of France, and its mouth near Marseilles, on the Mediterranean, a two-hundred-mile stretch of navigable water; the Garonne, running from the south of France toward the west into the Bay of Biscay near Bordeaux; the Loire, draining a large area from the centre of the country westward to the Atlantic; and the Seine, running northward into the English Channel. The fact that the principal cities are along these main water-routes is more rationally explained by the parallel currents of trade than by the small child of much-travelled parents who evolved the delightful theory that "God must be truly good, as He made all large rivers run by big cities."

France then was a network of natural trade-routes, and was developing rapidly because of them. Following the traders came the priests and the builders, and we too must follow somewhat the same course, first, however, glancing briefly at political conditions.

The empire of Charlemagne, we remember, had been broken up at the end of the ninth century. It remained so until France became a nation, about five hundred years later. In the mean time the Church, in order to increase its hold on the people, had inaugurated the Crusades, for the capture of the Holy Land from the unbelievers. The crusading armies were recruited from farm and shop throughout the great European group of little principalities, and made up of followers of the small overlords, generally forced into service. These Crusaders, like swarms of locusts, travelled over land and sea, and returned, not under more complete subjection, but broadened by extensive travel and with new ideas of personal and civic liberty, to the astonishment and consternation of the powers that sent them. So we find soon afterward the plain people demanding charters and free cities, and getting them. The spirit of Christianity was effective against the corruption of it.

We are now entering on the great change. A new language is being formed from the ruins of the old. The ideals being different, the mode of expression must differ in order to conform. The formalism of pagan Rome cannot express in stone and brick the ambitions and desires of this new people but recently emerged from barbarism.

They had no traditions but those of the pungent and powerful North Country, long since softened by contact with the legions of the Roman Empire, but in no sense refined by the association. I should say, rather than softened, divided into smaller forces, and in consequence more pliable, and thus better prepared for the new re-construction which is to take place.

The Roman, you remember, did not acquire the technique, or the inventive power of the Greek, when he adopted the types and forms of the Greek architecture, and was unable, on this account, to leave his successors the inventive keenness that would have enabled them to continue the development of the post-and-lintel form of expression.

The style which we call Byzantine, offshoot of the pure Greek architecture, and colored by contact with the civilization of the East, had a far better ancestry than did the Romanesque, which was created by the people of southern France. Byzantine architecture, too, developed in a more congenial environment, the Westerners being in a sense colonizers in a new country as well as in a new form of expression.

The Byzantine type was unfortunate in that it was forced over the backward trail toward the East, while civilization consistently moved westward, and in consequence its influence did not, in any great degree, assist in the general growth or in the reorganization of the methods used by science, or constructive art, in the West.

We find these people in southern France with the architectural ruins of the Roman occupation for examples in concrete expression, and with no general or settled traditions to hold them to a consistent growth. They were forced therefore to build not only with stone and brick fragments, but with intellectual and scientific remnants. They had, however, this new ideal of Christianity as a cohesive mortar with which to fit the fragments together into a complete and expressive scientific language—a language of the common people, a patois ungrammatical, perhaps, but suggestive of great new forces, and actually the be-ginning of a new era in the form of expression.

Each section or province of this country of France had local influences that differentiated its building, so that overzealous historians now confuse us with such hair-splitting in classifications as to befog any one but a dyed-in-the-wool antiquarian.

The important thing for us to see is that here, through out this beautiful country, men were building temples to their new ideal, and that there was a harmonious, consistent development of something more than a transition from one form of expression to another. The resultant architecture we call Romanesque (Romanish), though it might truthfully be labelled Romance, as the spoken language of this country was called. Romanesque architecture marks the beginning of the constructive stone age. Here, for the first time, we find the wooden roofs of the Romans giving place to stone vaults. We must remember, how-ever, that the vault and the dome had been used by the Romans to some extent. This is not in any sense the first appearance of the vault or the arched form of roof covering. The later Greeks had used this form in the East, and the close trade affiliations of the East and the West had introduced the method to the Roman, who had, however, not adopted it to the exclusion of the wooden truss, which remained a characteristic form of the basilican roof.

The stone vault, of course, meant new problems in construction and various changes. It also marked the end of the purely post-and-lintel form and the beginning of the buttress-and-arch form, which is distinctively a Western invention. The walls grew more massive, being thickened to carry this new load of stone roof imposed on them; columns were for the first time united into groups, forming parts of the piers, which were used to support the loads at isolated points.

The round arch is used in roof, in window and door openings, and in arcades as a substitute for the lintel or entablature of the classic above the rows of columns which separated the nave and the aisles of the building, and at other points where necessary. The effect of the spring of two arches rising from the capitals of single columns was so insecure as to require an almost abnormal development of the abacus, or capping-block, to sustain the impression of adequate support. Where the arches ran to the walls they were supported there on rectangular pilasters or incipient buttresses, upon which sections of columns were sometimes imposed. The barrel-vault is the common form of ceiling, with the wooden roof above supported by trusses and independent of the vault. It is not so low at the peak, however, as the Greek pediment, showing the evolution from the flattened roofs of the blue-skyed Mediterranean shores, where snow is unknown, to the high, sharp roofs of the Northern Gothic, designed to shed snow, and used also for structural reasons and for a stronger sky-line.

The apses of the Romanesque churches are round, and generally elaborated by semicircular niches or small chapels of the same form as the apse. Around this part of the church on the exterior are frequently found bands of dull-colored stone mosaic of lava, flint, and other local stones, a Byzantine idea thus made very un-Byzantine by the absence of brilliant color.

In this period begins the custom of changing the form of the arch structure by reducing the plain rectangle with subdivisions or moldings. In other words, instead of the arch appearing as a flat band, it takes the form of two or more successive bands. The added richness of this is obvious, and the extent to which it was developed later makes its beginning significant.

It is noticeable in all these features of the Romanesque architecture that development was along structural lines. While the churches were steadily growing more elaborately lovely, they were made so by the manipulation of essential elements of construction rather than by applied ornamentation, in which this whole Western movement marks its essential divergence from the Byzantine and strikes the keynote in the evolution of scientific architectural forms.

This will all seem clearer and more vital to you if you visit with me half a dozen of the great Romanesque churches. We cannot linger long at each one as I did, and would like to do again with you, but we will try to see clearly in each the chief features that identify them as Romanesque, and that make them also distinctly local.

Beginning on the Mediterranean, we will start up the Rhone, making our first stop at Arles, which is within fifty miles of that ancient Phoenician and Greek city, Marseilles. In Arles is the wonderful old Church of St. Trophime (Fig. 40), built in the early part of the twelfth century. It is in the facade of this church that its individuality is expressed, though other parts of it are supremely fine. Dominating the facade is the large, round-arched entrance, which is lavishly enriched with sculpture and sculptured ornament. The porch projects slightly from the face of the building, and, with the exception of the curious high base on which the columns rest and the upper part of the pediment, is literally covered with apostles and saints of all sizes.

The tympanum, or half-round panel over the door, is a sculptured representation of Christ and the evangels. The story of Christianity is thus visualized in most elaborate fashion, a custom we find common in all these early churches, because in those days reading was a rare accomplishment and pictures must tell the story. The arch of the doorway itself has gained much in beauty by recessed and otherwise elaborated moldings — a characteristic Romanesque improvement that, however, was far outdone later.

The sculptures are, of course, crude compared either to our standards of today or to the standards of ancient Greece, but in the mass, with the exquisitely elaborated fret detail of frieze and cornices and incidental moldings, they, representing the highest human effort of their time, delight us beyond measure. It is interesting to refer you back for comparison of the fret ornament to the drawing of the tomb of Alexander.

Near Arles is St. Gilles, where, if our journey were in the flesh, we would spend a profitable day in an examination of the cathedral. We will, however, look only at the porch, which compares interestingly with St. Trophime. The two churches are of about the same period, but St. Gilles has three en-trances instead of one, as at Arles. The treatment is somewhat similar with the characteristic recessed arch-moldings and carved lintel, but the artist finds it less completely satisfying than the harmonious entrance of St. Trophime. The builders seem to have pilfered old columns from wherever they could (as it was a habit of the time to build on the ruins and with the ruins), and to have designed their porch within the limitations of such miscellaneous material. The columns are of most various lengths and shapes, and are used with great ingenuity, but not well enough to avoid fussiness or to be quite convincing. There is the same lavish use of sculptured saints in frieze, cap, and corbel as at Arles, and in all other respects it is of about equal interest and merit.

We must now journey northward about one hundred miles to Le-Puy-en-Velay for a brief study of a most interesting variation in church building within the general classification of Romanesque. Notre Dame du Puy, though of this same period shows a most curious Byzantine influence on the one hand and a prophetic foretaste of the Gothic on the other. You will at once notice the absence of the sculpture so lavishly used in the Southern churches we have seen, and the use of varicolored stone as decorative substitute. We can hardly do justice to the mellow harmonies of the alternating courses of warm yellow and reds. The idea is distinctly Byzantine, and the parentage is even more apparent in the treatment of the pediment at the top that marks the end of the nave and the smaller open arches at the sides, which centre over the side entrances. All are strongly suggestive of the later development of the pointed Byzantine forms in Siena and Orvieto.

Notice that the central arches of the facade are not round, but slightly pointed. Here we have the pointed Gothic arch which 'we will find of so much importance later on. The development of the pointed from the round arch is an example of purely mechanical and utilitarian evolution that carried with it, to supreme individualization, a complete art. It must be remembered, however, that the origin of the pointed form is lost in obscurity and in the claims of antiquarians. For our purpose it is just at this period coming into its own, and can be considered as an evolutionary growth, as if it had never before existed.

Notre Dame du Puy is, however, truly Romanesque, though it has not the majestic beauty of the other examples. It is large even for that day of great edifices, and to the technical student of architecture will repay careful study.

There is a very interesting example of Romanesque at Issoire, fifty miles northwest of Le-Puy, in the Church of St. Paul. It was built in the latter half of the eleventh century, and also shows traces of Byzantine influence in the free use of mosaic decoration in colored stone, both within and without. This church also has very little carving or sculpture. It is of especial interest by reason of the development of the apse and the novelty of its tower, which is octagonal and two-storied above the roof. The apse has a singularly effective arrangement of circular bays. The interior of St. Paul's is worked out with simple round arches.

Of the same period and with much the same type of decoration, making it really a sister church, is Notre Dame du Port at Clermont-Ferrand, fifteen miles away Its most distinctive features are its entrances, one of which I have reproduced. The oddity of it is obvious, and I think you will admire with me the nice balance of line and mass and the vigorously recessed moldings which shape the sculptured decorations so effectively. The influence that created this entrance is evidently that of Asia Minor and Greece.

At Perigueux, in the Garonne valley, and but seventy-five miles from the Bay of Biscay, is a most interesting and beautiful waif of the East, the Cathedral of St. Front. There are just three cathedrals in the world of this type. The first is St. Sophia (Divine Wisdom), built in Constantinople by Justinian in the sixth century (532 -537) which we have studied as a typical example of pure Byzantine. The second is the famous St. Mark's at Venice, and the third is this church of Perigueux. St. Mark's was built in the latter part of the eleventh century (1063-I071), and St. Front, so much more than a thousand today. It is almost as strange as if one were to find a Greek temple in the heart of Japan.

The probable explanation is that Venetian merchant-men, daring the dangers of the open Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and carrying with them wandering craftsmen, men probably who had been giving their years to the building of St. Mark's and had grown restless, put in to the Garonne, the first seaport beyond the land of the Saracen, for water. There they builded as they knew, and though the church is of the greatness and importance of the contemporary Romanesque, it is in most of its features of quite another ilk. The majestic group of domes with their surmounting pinnacles remind us at once of Constantinople. The plan of the church is the Greek cross, which, of course, stamps it finally and inevitably as Byzantine, though the Eastern influence is pronounced in almost every detail. There was little time used on decoration, however. The interior is undecorated, simple, and massive. The piers supporting the vaults have neither columns nor caps, gold nor jewels. Their beauty is their honest strength. The arches show the Western influence, being slightly pointed.

There is a characteristic common to these Romanesque churches that has impressed me strongly. I have sketched and measured them, made "rubbings" of their decorative detail with shoemakers' wax, attended worship, baptisms, and weddings with their congregations. I have watched the brown and wrinkled market-women buying candles for the Black Virgin, and gaining thereby such content as all the philosophies of times could not offer them. It has helped to tell the same story, the story of a Church and a people welded together with an intimacy we newer nations do not know and can hardly understand. These old cathedrals of southern France were as much part of the life around them as their kitchens were to the house-wives. They were knit into the social fabric as no similar institutions could be in America. The churches them-selves express this, and as the people were of simple, rugged, unquestioning faith, so their churches tell the story, giving a message, fearless in expression, of hope and uplifting contentment. Thus we see science interpreting the idealism of a people for them with truth and sincerity, and in so doing strengthening that idealism, as it always will. So from the fearlessness of the Romanesque period —a fearlessness to which success in trade and war continued to contribute—we will see evolved the finished glories of the Gothic. Greek architecture is intellectual and aristocratic, the Romanesque reflects the faith and hope of the newly inspired plain people, and the Gothic will proclaim the fearlessness and sublimity of human maturity.

Only the architect-student who has become familiar with the maze of mathematical formulae; that constitute the rules of proportion which were used by these people can fully understand the wonder of their achievements. Measure and analyze as he will, he will find these formulae in operation back through the periods to Athens and beyond. Every form, every curve and turn of every molding in the Greek temples and in the Gothic cathedrals is as mathematically true to the laws as scientific skill could make them. You may say that the Greeks created and that the cathedral builder adopted these laws, but they were as truly inherited laws then as now, and twenty centuries of experiment have failed to produce a single improvement. With the evolution of architecture new requirements were met and additional rules grew out of the solutions, but the old ones are never changed.

The strangest part of all this is that a great many of the formulae that we use had practically all to be discovered over again. Of ancient literature on the subject there are but the smallest fragments saved. Of plans or even of models covering the period we have so far reviewed there are almost none, though the sculpture of the churches tells us some of the story. What treasures of this sort were burned and destroyed because of war, and the looting and destruction of cities, cannot be guessed, but there seems good reason to avoid vain regrets on this score. Such things simply were not preserved except in the remarkable memories of a few men, and with them most of the secrets died.

For architecture was in those mediaeval days more or less a secret art, its mysteries were carefully guarded within a group kept as small as actual demands would permit, its primary purpose being the preservation of the secrets of the craft as well as the protection of its members. The group later came to be called a lodge, and the architect was the master of the lodge. Here we have the origin of our masonic fraternity of to-day, which, however, has become almost totally dissociated from the building craft except in elements of symbolism and ritual.

What the secrets of the ancient masons were we can only discover by study of their works. There is little doubt that it was the rule to destroy all plans and models upon the completion of the buildings, and whatever records of the ancient formulae were kept in the archives of the lodges have either been lost or are no longer identifiable as such. There is, of course, much of the beautiful masonic ritual that is of very ancient origin and it is colored by the occupation of its originators, but brother Masons will agree with me that the secrets of the order are not architectural.

The fraternity claims the building of King Solomon's Temple as its birthtime and place, and this to the archeologist seems a very modest claim of antiquity. There is not the least reason why guilds of builders should not have come into being in China, India, or Egypt, where most intricate building problems were solved long before Solomon's time, though I have been unable to find record of them.

Of the architects of Greece and their methods we know a little from the writing of Vitruvius, who lived in the first century. But modern science has shown us with what infinite care they must have determined the proportions of the building and the detail of its smallest fillet. With what fine sense of truth did they curve the profile of the column to make it seem right, overcoming by rules the optical illusions caused by parallel lines or profiles against the blue of the atmosphere.

In Rome, history tells us, the architect as an individual was highly esteemed, statues being erected to him and imperial honors conferred upon him. He also had his taxes remitted in some cases, which probably pleased him greatly.

But it is not until Christian times that we find the guilds of craftsmen becoming historically prominent. These men were inevitably saturated with the idealism of Christianity, and in seeking to give it tangible expression in the churches they built they must have been important factors in creating its intricate symbolism. This symbolism became part of the paraphernalia of their own organization, and is still to be found in Freemasonry.

These men, often in the security of special papal bulls, travelled over Europe in groups, marking their pathways by the secret symbols and stone-masons' signs of the craft on the stones they built into church and castle.

A curiosity of the unwritten history of the guilds was the evident rivalry between their members and the monks, who themselves developed much skill in building and assisted largely in the development of Christian symbolism. The grotesque caricatures of monks which ornament caps and corbels on many mediaeval churches could hardly have been done by monks themselves, for they are most ungenially and mockingly satirical. The wonder is that the monks should not have had sufficient influence to prevent their use, or that they might have had sufficient sense of humor to accept them. It is, by-the-way, to be observed that the masons were never disrespectful in their treatment of the ideals of the religion.

When we reach the Gothic period we find the ancient symbolism of numbers and geometrical forms appearing in Christian architecture, and again we divine the work of the mystery-loving masons. The odd numbers, especially three, five, and seven, were held to have peculiar significance in early times. So we find these numbers repeating themselves throughout the plan, and even the minute detail of ornamentation in the Gothic churches.

The Roman cross plan, for example, was an arrangement of squares. Five squares formed the nave and apse, and three the transept. The central square of the latter coinciding with the square in front of the apse makes the total seven, the number of perfection.

As the square is the basis of the plan, so the equilateral triangle, symbol of Justice, is the basis of the elevation, as it was in Greek times. All spacing and planning of piers and grouped columns, of cap and groined rib, of grouped window openings and rose windows can be re-solved into the equal-sided triangle. You may carry the analysis to almost any length, and it grows more surprising as you proceed.

These undoubtedly were some of the secrets of the early lodges, held, in those times of popular ignorance, to be of great import and value. And indeed they are still of value to the architect, and are obscure enough to elude the casual observation of the layman. But still more mysterious were the rules by which both perpendicular and horizontal perspective was falsified, ordinary vaults made to seem immensely high and short naves longer than they really were. These things involved the most astonishing variations from the right angle and the straight line, imperceptible to all except the most persistent investigator, and it is quite certain that many of the tricks or rules by which these things were done are still among the lost secrets of the craft.

There is no doubt, however, that many of these variations in the height and width of arches, the concave or convex curve in cornice and belt mold, the leaning in or out of the pier or wall, were the result of individual effort on the part of the architect and builder, or the craftsman employed in the construction of the building.

While the general proportion in mass and detail was subject to fixed laws, these departures from symmetrical regularity were common and personal, and were frequently the result of accident or inaccurate measurements. In spite of this it is a fact that optical illusions were recognized and scientifically provided for. Modern scientists have analyzed these laws of adjustment and correction with minute care, and as a result find a continuous and logical endeavor (a law in itself) made to overcome the cold-blooded interpretation of rules.

We thus see that the development of architectural styles through the early and middle ages, before the era of text-books, photography, or the popularization of knowledge, was dependent upon an unbroken succession of skilled craftsmen, not mere mechanics or academicians, but men of highly specialized abilities. These men, though handicapped in a hundred ways as no architect of today is handicapped, were to erect monuments of such enduring beauty and magnificence that the world will marvel as long as one stone remains upon another.

We must mention that the Romanesque style had as its chief interpreter in this country the late H. H. Richard-son, of Boston, a man of singular ability, and that no Romanesque of any consequence has been done by other men, though many unhappy attempts have been made. Trinity Church in Boston is perhaps a supreme modern example of this style. The central dome was inspired by the Spanish church in Salamanca (twelfth century), and Richardson, with his masterly freedom, showed in the details of the church not only pure Romanesque, but the later type that had lost itself in the development of the Gothic. The Gallilee porches which were added to the church by pupils of this architect were inspired by the porches of St. Trophime at Arles, in the south of France, and are pure Romanesque.

The entrances to the Pittsburg Court-House and to the City Hall in Albany, New York, are typical examples of his style. There are apartment-houses, banks, stores, and school-houses by scores in this style, most of which could only be used as horrible examples.

A sketch from the cloisters in Moissac, in the south of France. It is from these examples that Richardson developed his small parts in the composition of his Modern Romanesque.

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