What Is Romanesque, Anyway?
Romanesque is the nineteenth
century name for eleventh and twelfth century architecture of
Influences were not confined
to Roman. Art, architecture
and government survived and developed in the eastern empire, centered in
Pre-Romanesque and early Romanesque structures must be considered crude in terms of building skills and sophistication of planning as compared to their Roman models. As the quality of these aspects increased, the demands of the mainly religious buildings caused Romanesque to become a completely new architectural style. Adapted from the Roman are elements such as the round arch, columns and the barrel vault.
Where the Romans built arches of brick or well-dressed stone, early Romanesque arches were constructed of large stones with rough faces and edges. In pre-Romanesque structures, actual Roman columns were salvaged from ruins and re-used. Romanesque columns, themselves, tend to be shorter for a given diameter than Classical columns. They are topped with capitals that are thicker and simpler than Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders. The characteristic shape yields their names, “block capitals” or “cushion capitals.”
Romanesque structures belong to a category of architecture known today as picturesque –so named for the elements that comprise a pleasing painting. “Classical” architecture, based more directly on Greek and Roman examples, follows rules of symmetry and formulaic proportional relationship. It is said that specification of a classical order and column diameter decides the shape and size of all other elements. Picturesque design, while it may use symmetry locally, permits the structure to surround the functional volumes required by use of the building. This can lead to an appealing animated roofline, a rambling plan and organic adaptability. It is often easy to “read” the internal function of a picturesque structure from its external shape and window and door placement.
Romanesque parish and abbey
churches retained and refined a Roman building configuration – the
Building skills improved along
with functional planning. Two
factors led to a proliferation of chapels – subsidiary worship spaces.
Multiple priests each had to celebrate mass each day, requiring
multiple altars. Pilgrims
wished to see relics that were stored under altars.
More pilgrims were attracted by more relics which required more
altars, and chapels. Romanesque
planners improved the flow of visitors to follow the side aisles and
encircle the main altar with access to additional chapels radiating out
from the apse.
The master masons who supervised construction learned structural techniques by trial and error. As walls grew in height, their thickness increased. The roof and wind forces that tend to topple walls were not concentrated into discrete loading points, and so the window openings remained small – and limited natural light. Although buttresses (locally thicker walls) were known in Romanesque times, techniques to carry the loads to them were not yet efficient. Gothic builders resolved this limitation in the mid-twelfth century.
Romanesque is both more than
and less than a transitional phase. It
is an accomplishment of artists and artisans that met the needs of its
time very well. And, while
many of its features were employed in the succeeding style, Romanesque did
not lead inevitably to Gothic. New
needs of the later period – an expression of the transcendent through
the use of light and unity of space – dictated a new departure.
Romanesque structures continued to be built through the 1100s and
later. The sheltering
stability and organic versatility of
Romanesque was recognized during two waves of nineteenth century revival
in Europe and
NOTE: Illustrations on this page are taken from Carolignian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 Kenneth John Conant Yale University Press & Architecture of the World - Romanesque Henri Stierlin Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH