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27 Jul

Romanesque Art and Architecture

Western Europe in period from the 11th to the 13th century was marked by the Romanesque art and architecture. Romanesque architecture developed about the same time in Italy and France from where it spread throughout Europe. Ruined cities were rebuilt, while new castles and monasteries were constructed in the deforested areas and smaller churches in villages.

A photo of the Vezelay Abbey (Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, France, early 12th century

Vezelay Abbey, France

The period of Romanesque was dominated by the religious architecture. Clergy and medieval kings built massive cathedrals which followed the architecture of the Early Christian basilicas with nave separated from aisles by two arcades on each side. Besides the plan with three naves (aisles of hight and width comparable to the central nave) the period of Romanesque also saw the construction of churches with five naves (the Doumo of Pisa).

A photo of Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 11th century

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Romanesque architecture is the massive west facade with high bell towers. The towers in Italy were commonly free standing like the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, while the towers were always an integral part of the church in Western and Central Europe but the style and position of the towers in relation to the church greatly varied from country to country.

A photo of the Duomo of Pisa and the Pisa Tower, Italy, 11th century

Duomo of Pisa and the leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

 A photo of wooden ceiling, Church of Saint Michael, Hildesheim, Germany 11th century

Wooden ceiling, Church of St. Michael

The wooden ceilings like those in Church of St Michael in Hildesheim, Germany, were eventually replaced by vaults of stone or brick in several different forms. Barrel vaults of stone or brick created a great pressure on side walls and for that reason the walls of Romanesque churches were very massive and often several meters thick.

A Photo of vaulted ceiling, Vezelay Abbey, France, early 12th century

Vaulted ceiling, Vezelay Abbey

Romanesque architecture was also notable for multiple galleries. The aisles were often added semicircular vaulted or semi-domed apses known as tribunes with an altar. Under slightly raised bema (a platform with a lectern and seats for the clergy) were usually the crypts used as burial vault for high ranking church officials and nobles.

The latin cross plan, Angouleme Cathedral, France, 11th-12th century

The latin cross plan, Angouleme Cathedral

Liturgical needs and growing number of the clergy required the enlargement of the bema which was achieved by extending it laterally beyond the main meeting hall forming two arms known as the transept. Thus the plan of churches took the shape of a T which later evolved into the longitudinal plan or the so-called Latin cross. Over the transept crossing was often built a massive tower which was sometimes topped with polygonal or circular dome.

The external decoration of the Romanesque churches is primarily notable for arcading, while the facade was usually symmetrical and had a large central portal. Curved moldings of arches around the portals were geometrically ornamented or outlined with chevron, while the capitals were commonly carved with various leaves and tendrils which sometimes featured unusual animals, dragons and monsters. The capitals were sometimes carved in shallow relief and spiral patterns imitating the manuscript illuminations.

An example of Romanesque capitals

Romanesque capitals

A photo of the Romanesque tympanum, Vezelay Abbey, France, 11th century

Romanesque tympanum depicting the Last Judgement

The surrounding area of the portal sometimes featured an extensive sculptural scheme which sometimes covered much of the facade. Above the portal was usually the tympanum, a semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface depicting biblical motifs, most commonly the Last Judgement.

A photo of the Romanesque portal, Jak Temple, Hungary, middle of the 13th century

Romanesque portal

The windows and portals of the Romanesque churches were surmounted by a semi-circular arch. Only few churches had pointed arches. The Italian Romanesque churches and basilicas had a single central ocular window, while the arrangement of arched-topped windows was the most common in the rest of Europe.

The interior of the Romanesque church consisted of the central nave separated from the aisles by arcades which appear smaller at the altar and resemble the curved molding of arches around the portal. The chancel which ends the central nave is the culmination of the interior, like the tympanum of the portal.

A photo of the interior of the Worms Cathedral, Germany, 12th century

Interior of the Worms Cathedral

The arcade of massive pillars and columns, ceiling vaults and windows attract attention toward the chancel with the altar illuminated by light coming through the windows on the apse. Like of the exterior, arcading is the main decoration of the interior. Interior decoration also featured few statues and frescoes of the saints which were stiff and formalized greatly resembling the ornamentation of the tympanum.

The transition from Pre-Romanesque to Romanesque sculpture and fresco painting is less obvious than in architecture and according to some scholars the term Romanesque is inappropriate for both sculpture and painting. Besides fresco paintings and manuscript illuminations the period of Romanesque was also marked by the development of panel painting and stained glass. Romanesque art was dominated by Christian motifs and themes but geometrical ornamentation and ornamentation with leaves and tendrils that often featured unusual animals, dragons and monsters imply on the influence of the culture, tradition and religion from the Migration Period. The barbarian peoples did not create any significant artistic works like sculptures or paintings but they appreciated beautiful objects which clearly indicate numerous finds of ornamented tools, arms and jewelry in the graves from the Migration Period.

Detail from the moulding around the portal depicting tong-pocking monsters, and vine and animal motifs, Lincoln Cathedral, England 11th century

Moulding around the portal, Lincoln Cathedral

Eventually non-Christian motifs as well as worship of springs, holy trees, cliffs and celebration of the pagan feast days were forbidden. However, the old customs and tradition were very difficult to eradicate and for that reason Christian churches were often built on former holy places, while Christian feast days replaced the former pagan ones. With purpose to convert the polytheistic barbarian peoples into Christianity as soon as possible the Church also promoted various patron saints who eventually replaced the old patron gods, while the good spirits were replaced with angels and the demons with the devil. Thus the pagan motifs in ornamentation of the churches are not unusual.

To strengthen the Christianity of newly converted population the church emphasized the punishment for sins which explains the fearsome Biblical motifs like the Last Judgement which were the most common motifs during the period of Romanesque.

A photo of Durham Cathedral, England, 11th century

Durham Cathedral, England

Romanesque architecture developed differently from country to country, while Italy is the best example of regional variants of Romanesque style. However, great differences can be also noticed between England and Spain or Germany and even between the southern and northern France. Romanesque style in England is usually referred as the Norman architecture.Urnes Stave Church drawn by Johan Christian Dahl

Romanesque in Northern Europe, especially in Norway was notable for construction of the stave churches. The wooden stave churches were built with post and beam construction combining the Christian architecture with the architecture and art forms of the Viking Age including so-called Urnes style or animal-art.

The architectural activity during the period of Romanesque was mostly sponsored by the great monastic communities such as the Cluniac order who also took care for the construction works. There was a small number of master builders whose skills and building techniques were also needed at the construction of castles and fortresses, especially when the nobles began to built them from stone and brick. The medieval castles and fortresses were built for residential as well as for defensive purposes. For that reason walls and towers of castles had to be built strong and thick so that the construction could withstand an eventual siege.

A photo of Loarre Castle, Huesca province, Aragon, Spain, 11th century

Loarre Castle, Spain

The construction of castles usually stated with erection of a high residential tower with living quarters at the highest level and a base for garrison and armory store at lower levels. The residential area in the tower eventually became too small and the castle was rebuilt with additional residential areas, bases for garrison, armory stores, etc., while each castle usually also had a chapel. The structure of the castle was arranged in square creating a closed courtyard, while the castle’s exterior was strengthened by the enceinte, a fortified enclosure of castle’s precincts. The enceinte walls were surrounded by a defensive ditch with turning or removable bridge leading to the gates. However, the original appearance of the majority medieval castles was altered due to rebuilding and refurbishing over the centuries.

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