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French Romanesque - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )


Southern France was divided into the provinces of Aquitaine, Auvergne, Provence, Anjou, and Burgundy, each with its special architectural peculiarities, the extent of which can be traced in the examples which follow.

S. Sernin, Toulouse (A.D. 1080), in Aquitaine, has a cruciform plan with nave, double aisles, and transepts. The nave is crowned by a round-arched barrel vault, with plain square ribs, supporting the roofing slabs direct, and the high triforium chamber has external windows which light the nave, for there is no clear-story. The central octagonal tower belongs to the Gothic period.

S. Front, Perigueux (A.D 1120) (p. 233), in Aquitaine, is a Greek cross on plan, and, as already mentioned (p. 237), closely resembles S. Mark, Venice. The nave is covered with five spheroidal domes, elongated towards the top, indicating an Eastern influence, due to the trade with Byzantium. The internal arches have recently been changed from pointed (p. 233 F) to semicircular. Attached to the church is a magnificent campanile, 200 ft. high, consisting of a square shaft, surmounted by a circular ring of columns carrying a conical dome. S. Front was a prototype of other churches with cupolas in France.

Angouleme Cathedral (A.D. 110528) (p. 273), in Aquitaine, has a long aisleless nave, 50 ft. wide, transepts with lateral chapels, and an apsidal choir with four chapels, forming a Latin cross on plan. The nave is covered with four pointed stone domes on pendentives, and that over the crossing is raised above a lantern and crowned by a pointed dome with finials. Both transepts originally had towers, but the southern one was destroyed in A.D. 1568. The west facade (p. 273 D) is exceptionally rich with tiers of arcades divided into five bays by lofty shafts. Over the entrance is a high window framed in sculpture, and there are two flanking western towers.

Cahors Cathedral (A.D. 1119), also in Aquitaine, is an aisleless church crowned by two domes on pendentives, and somewhat resembles S. Irene, Constantinople (p. 230).

Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand, and S. Austremoine, Issoire, both in Auvergne, have a local character imparted to them by the light stone vaults, and by the inlaid decoration formed of different-coloured lavas of the Puy de Dome.

Notre Dame, Avignon, in Provence, is one of the numerous churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in which pointed barrel vaults were used, and which show Classical influence.

S. Trophime, Arles (A.D. 1150) has beautiful cloisters with coupled carved capitals (p. 285 F) and a fine porch (p. 285), based on a Roman triumphal arch, but with modifications, such as deeply recessed jambs and columns resting on lions, behind which are sculptured saints ; the entablature carries a row of figures and the sculptured tympanum represents Christ as Judge of the World.

The Church at S. Gilles (c. A.D. 1150), near Arles, has probably the most elaborate sculptured facade in Provence (pp. 282 A, 286 L), with three porches connected by colonnades which may have suggested the facade of S. Mark, Venice (p. 235).

Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (A.D. 11th century) (pp. 274 c, 275 A), in Anjou, has a fine sculptured west front and imposing conical dome over the crossing, while the interior (p. 275 A) has neither triforium nor clear-story, but is covered with a barrel vault having highly pronounced trans-verse ribs.

Fontevrault Abbey (A.D. 110119), also in Anjou, resembles Angoulme Cathedral in its aisleless nave and general arrangement, and is interesting to Englishmen as the burial-place of the English Kings, Henry II and Richard I.

The Abbey Church, Cluny (A.D. 1089-1131), the most famous in Burgundy, formed part of one of the many monastic establishments in that province, which influenced the architecture of the churches, many of which have been destroyed. It was the longest in France, with double side aisles to the main body of the church, and a chevet of five apsidal chapels. The pointed arch was employed in the nave arcades, the nave was covered with a great barrel vault and the aisles probably had groined vaulting, but little now remains.

Autun Cathedral (A.D. 1090-1132), another Burgundian church, has a nave covered with a pointed barrel vault on transverse arches which spring so low down as almost to squeeze out the clear-story windows. At the east end there are three apses, and the portals of the west front are rich in the Burgundian style of sculpture.

S. Madeleine, Vezelay (A.D. 1100) (pp. 274, 282), in Burgundy, is interesting for its remarkable narthex (A.D. 1130) with nave and aisles crowned, it is believed, by the earliest pointed cross-vault in France ; this leads into the church, which also has nave and aisles, while transepts, choir, and chevet were completed in A.D. 1220. The nave has no triforium, but a clear-story with small windows between the immense transverse arches of the highly domical, groined intersecting vault (p. 274 B). The central portal (p. 274 A), with two square-headed doorways, separated by a Corinthianesque column, is spanned by a large semicircular arch containing a relief of the Last judgment, while left and right are side portals, and in the upper part of the facade is a large five-lighted window richly sculptured and flanked by towers, that on the left rising only to the height of the nave.

S. Philibert, Tournus, in Burgundy, once the Abbey Church of the Benedictine monastery, has arches which span the nave from pier to pier, and support a barrel vault under which windows were formed in the nave walls.

Northern France comprised the provinces of Normandy, the Ile de France and Brittany.

The Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen (A.D. 1066) (pp. 276, 281), also known as S. Etienne, is one of the many fine churches in Normandy of this period, which were the product of the prosperity and power of the Norman Dukes. It was commenced by William the Conqueror, and is of the vaulted, basilican type which was developed into the complete Gothic in the thirteenth century, and may have been founded on the Romanesque church of Spires (p. 293). Its original eastern apse was superseded in A.D. 1166 by the characteristic chevet (pp. 276 D, 281). The west facade, flanked by two square towers, crowned by octagonal spires which with angle pinnacles were added in the thirteenth century,was the prototype of later Gothic facades. The nave vaulting illustrates the difficulties of spanning oblong compartments without the aid of the- pointed arch, where two bays are comprised under one vaulting compartment, which is approximately square, and so the height of the transverse, diagonal and wall ribs is nearly equal, resulting in a system known as " sexpartite " vaulting (pp. 248, 276 F). This method was superseded on the introduction of the pointed arch, when each compartment, whatever its shape, could be vaulted without reference to the neighbouring one, because the difference between the width of the nave and the distance longitudinally between the piers could easily be surmounted by pointed arches of different radii manipulated so as to equalise the height of the ribs. The thrust of this nave vault, one of the earliest, was counteracted by a semi-barrel vault over the triforium gallery; protected externally by a timber roof, and forming, as it were, a concealed flying buttress, which later in the thirteenth century was emphasised externally as a feature of the design. The Abbaye-aux-Hommes is a remarkable instance of the use of spires as architectnral features ; for there are no less than nine spires, giving the vertical expression which became characteristic of Gothic architecture (p.305).

The Abbaye-aux-Dames, Caen (A.D. 1083) (p. 275 B, c), founded by Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, has a fine western facade with two square towers in arcaded stages, strengthened at the angles by flat but-tresses and formerly crowned by spires. The massive walls of nave and aisles with slightly projecting buttresses and the square tower over the crossing complete this homogeneous design. The interior (p. 275) has a remarkable intersecting sexpartite ribbed vault, as in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, in which two bays are included in each vaulting compartment, with semicircular diagonal and transverse ribs and intermediate ribs which support a vertical piece of walling.

S. Nicholas, Caen (A.D. 1084), and the Abbey Church of Mont S. Michel (p. 453), are other churches which illustrate the difficulties of vaulting before the pointed arch provided the solution.

The Abbey of S. Denis (A.D. 1132), near Paris, erected by the great builder Abbe Suger, is one of the few buildings in this style in the royal domain of the Ile de France, which during this period comprised only a small territory, and it was not until the Gothic period that the great outburst of building activity occurred in this district. The Abbey church is of great interest as the burial-place of the French kings. The original choir and west front with two interior bays still remain, and a fourteenth-century nave has been wedged between them. This west front, with its mingling of round and pointed arches, is an early instance of the use of the pointed arch in design.


Buildings other than ecclesiastical have not been well preserved, because they were not sacred against attack, also because they were generally actually built for military purposes and so were specially liable to destruction, besides the risk of injury by fire and their adaptation to changed requirements. Fortified towns, like Carcassonne, which dates from Roman times ; bridges, like the Pont d'Avignon (A.D. 1177), built by the freres-pontifes or sacred guild of bridge builders ; castles, such as the Chateaux de Chateaudun and the picturesque fortified Abbey of Mont S. Michel (p. 453), and the stone houses of the twelfth century still found at Cluny and elsewhere, are types of buildings which started in the Romanesque style, but were much altered or extended in the Gothic period. The Monastic Kitchen, Fontevrault (A.D. 1115) (p. 285 D), with its fine roof, and the fireplace and chimney from S. Gilles (p. 285 B), are remnants which show the character of the secular work of this period.

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