An Introduction to Romanesque Art and Architecture

Detail of the romanesque walkway along the church of San Martin, Segovia, Spain / Photo by Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. Andreas Petzold and Valerie Spanswick / 08.08.2015
Petzold: Professor of History of Art, MPW London
Spanswick: Freelance writer – history of art and architecture

A Beginner’s Guide to Romanesque Art

The First International Style since Antiquity

The term “Romanesque,” meaning in the manner of the Romans, was first coined in the early nineteenth century. Today it is used to refer to the period of European art from the second half of the eleventh century throughout the twelfth (with the exception of the region around Paris where the Gothic style emerged in the mid-12th century). In certain regions, such as central Italy, the Romanesque continued to survive into the thirteenth century. The Romanesque is the first international style in Western Europe since antiquity—extending across the Mediterranean and as far north as Scandinavia. The transmission of ideas was facilitated by increased travel along the pilgrimage routes to shrines such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain (a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place) or as a consequence of the crusades which passed through the territories of the Byzantine empire. There are, however, distinctive regional variants—Tuscan Romanesque art (in Italy) for example is very different from that produced in northern Europe.

Painting + Sculpture + Architecture

Master of Taüll, apse painting, San Clemente in Taüll, c. 1123 (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – MNAC, Barcelona)

The relation of art to architecture—especially church architecture—is fundamental in this period. For example, wall-paintings may follow the curvature of the apse of a church as in the apse wall-painting from the church of San Clemente in Taüll, and the most important art form to emerge at this period was architectural sculpture—with sculpture used to decorate churches built of stone.

Last Judgment Tympanum, c. 1130-46, Central Portal, West Façade, Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun, France

Many sculptors may have begun their career as stone masons, and there is a remarkable coherence between architecture and sculpture in churches at this period. The two most important sculptural forms to emerge at this time were the tympanum (the lunette-shaped space above the entrance to a church), and the historiated capital (a capital incorporating a narrative element usually an episode from the Bible or the life of a saint).  One of the most famous tympanums is on the west entrance to Autun Cathedral (below) which represents—appropriately for this part of the church—the Last Judgment. An inscription (Gislebertus hoc fecit” “Gislebertus made me”), at the base of the giant immobile figure of Christ at the center, records the name of the artist or head of the workshop which produced it, though it has been suggested that it may refer to the original patron who was responsible for bringing the relics of Lazurus to Autun in the Carolingian period.

The Influence of Ancient Rome

Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew, c. 1160, Sant Pere de Rodes monstery, Spain

One influence on the Romanesque is, as the name implies, ancient Roman art—especially sculpture—which survived in large quantities particularly in southern Europe. This can be seen, for example, in a marble relief representing the calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew from the front frieze of the abbey church of Sant Pere de Rodes on the Catalonian coast. The imprint of the antique can be seen in the deep undercutting in the drapery folds, an effect achieved by the Roman device of the drill, and the individualization of the faces.

Classical influence was also frequently mediated through an intermediary—most importantly Byzantine art (especially textiles and painting), but also through earlier medieval styles which had absorbed elements of the classical tradition such as Ottonian art.

The Bury Bible, c.1130-1135, Bury St Edmunds, England, Corpus Christi College, MS 2, fol. 94

The illustrations in the Bury Bible have, for example, been convincingly compared to Byzantine wall-paintings in a church at Asinou in Cyprus which suggests that its artist—a certain Master Hugo (having the name of the artist is unusual during this period) had seen them or a similar source. Monasteries such as that of Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia in England (where the Bury Bible was made) were important centers of production—especially for the writing and decorating of manuscripts. The Bury Bible is a good example of the remarkable achievements of monastic scriptoria in the Romanesque period.

Monasteries were not the only centers of production. Romanesque art is also associated with towns that were revived and expanded during this period—for the first time since the fall of the Roman empire—a consequence of broad economic expansion (examples include Assisi in Umbria with its Romanesque cathedral or the newly founded town of Puente La Reina in northern Spain on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela).

Casket with troubadours, c. 1180, 21 x 15.6 x 11 cm, from the court of Aquitaine, Limoges, France (The British Museum)

Romanesque art is for the most part religious in its imagery, but this is partly a matter of what has survived, and there are examples of secular art from the period. Unusual is a casket in The British Museum, a product of Limoges craftsmanship, which is made of wood with champlevé enamels attached to it (produced by heating powdered glass set into groves hollowed out of bronze plate). This is decorated with scenes to do with courtly love inspired by troubadour poets from Provence.


Stavelot Triptych, c. 1156-8, gold and enamel, 48 x 66 cm open (The Morgan Library and Museum)

The distinction between the fine and decorative arts is one that emerges only in the Renaissance and does not apply at this earlier period. If anything the most highly valued works of art during the Romanesque period were objects of metalwork made from precious metals that were frequently produced to house relics (characteristically the body part of a saint, or—in the case of Christ who, the faithful believe ascended to heaven—objects associated with him such as fragments of the so-called true cross on which Christ was thought to have been crucified).

An example of this is the reliquary known as the Stavelot Triptych. It consists of a central panel flanked by side wings that can be closed, a design format derived from Byzantine art but made at the Benedictine monastery of Stavelot in the Mosan region in present day Belgium in the mid-twelfth century. The triptych was commissioned by the abbot, a man called Wibald, whom we know travelled extensively and who acquired, during a trip to Constantinople, the two Byzantine enamel plaques incorporated into the center of the triptych that contain what were believed to be fragments of the true cross.

A Wall Painting from San Clemente in Catalonia

Master of Taüll, apse painting, Sant Clement in Taüll, c. 1123 (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – MNAC, Barcelona)

The apse wall-painting from the church of San Clemente is a good example of the Romanesque style. The church is situated in a remote valley in northern Catalonia (north-east Spain today) and is typical of the handsome stone-built churches which sprung up in this region in the Romanesque period. The painting would have been painted onto fresh plaster applied to the walls of the church (it was transferred for safekeeping to the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona early in the twentieth century). The painting is dominated by the giant figure of Christ in a mandorla (a halo around the body of a sacred person), represented as he will appear at the end of time as described in the Book of Revelation.

Mary (detail), Master of Taüll, apse painting, Sant Clement (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya – MNAC, Barcelona)

Christ is represented characteristically out of scale to the other figures to indicate his status. His head is distorted, elongated and highly geometric, and he has piercing hypnotic eyes. To either side of him are written the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega” (the beginning and the end), and with one hand he gestures in blessing, while the other holds an open book with the words Ego sum lux mundi (I am the light of the world) inscribed on it. Below him is an equally elongated and distorted figure of the Virgin Mary who holds a chalice with Christ’s blood, a representation of the Holy Grail which predates the earliest written description of the subject. Her presence in the scheme is symptomatic of the growing cult of the Virgin Mary at this period. It would be just as much a mistake to regard the lack of naturalism found in this painting as indicating lack of artistic competence as it would be in a work by Picasso. Rather it indicates that its artist (whose real name we do not know) is not interested in replicating external appearances but rather in conveying a sense of the sacred and communicating the religious teachings of the church. Picasso (who was brought up in Barcelona) greatly admired Catalonian Romanesque, and it is significant that later in his life he kept a poster of this painting in his studio in southern France. We live in a world saturated with images but in the Romanesque period people would rarely encounter them and an image such as this would have made an immense impression.

A Beginner’s Guide to Romanesque Architecture

The name gives it away–Romanesque architecture is based on Roman architectural elements. It is the rounded Roman arch that is the literal basis for structures built in this style.

Ancient Roman Ruins (with Arches)

All through the regions that were part of the ancient Roman Empire are ruins of Roman aqueducts and buildings, most of them exhibiting arches as part of the architecture (you may make the etymological leap that the two words—arch and architecture—are related, but the Oxford English Dictionary shows arch as coming from Latin arcus, which defines the shape, while —as in architect, archbishop and archenemy—comes from Greek arkhos, meaning chief and ekton means builder).

Interior of the Palatine Chapel of Charlemagne, Aachen, Germany, 792-805 (photo: Elena, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E., Europe began to take its first steps out of the “Dark Ages” since the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The remains of Roman civilization were seen all over the continent, and legends of the great empire would have been passed down through generations. So when Charlemagne wanted to unite his empire and validate his reign, he began building churches in the Roman style–particularly the style of Christian Rome in the days of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

After a gap of around two hundred years with no large building projects, the architects of Charlemagne’s day looked to the arched, or arcaded, system seen in Christian Roman edifices as a model. It is a logical system of stresses and buttressing, which was fairly easily engineered for large structures, and it began to be used in gatehouses, chapels, and churches in Europe.

These early examples may be referred to as pre-Romanesque because, after a brief spurt of growth, the development of architecture again lapsed. As a body of knowledge was eventually re-developed, buildings became larger and more imposing. Examples of Romanesque cathedrals from the early Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1200) are solid, massive, impressive churches that are often still the largest structure in many towns.

In Britain, the Romanesque style became known as “Norman” because the major building scheme in the 11th and 12th centuries was instigated by William the Conqueror, who invaded Britain in 1066 from Normandy in northern France. (The Normans were the descendants of Vikings—Norse, or north men—who had invaded this area over a century earlier.) Durham and Gloucester Cathedrals and Southwell Minster are excellent examples of churches in the Norman, or Romanesque style.

Gloucester Cathedral, nave, begun 1089 (ceiling later) (photo: Michael D. Beckwith, CC BY 2.0)

The arches that define the naves of these churches are well modulated and geometrically logical—with one look you can see the repeating shapes, and proportions that make sense for an immense and weighty structure. There is a large arcade on the ground level made up of bulky piers or columns. The piers may have been filled with rubble rather than being solid, carved stone. Above this arcade is a second level of smaller arches, often in pairs with a column between the two. The next higher level was again proportionately smaller, creating a rational diminution of structural elements as the mass of the building is reduced.

Gloucester Cathedral, decorative carving on the nave arcade and triforium

The decoration is often quite simple, using geometric shapes rather than floral or curvilinear patterns. Common shapes used include diapers—squares or lozenges—and chevrons, which were zigzag patterns and shapes. Plain circles were also used, which echoed the half-circle shape of the ubiquitous arches.

Early Romanesque ceilings and roofs were often made of wood, as if the architects had not quite understood how to span the two sides of the building using stone, which created outward thrust and stresses on the side walls. This development, of course, didn’t take long to manifest, and led from barrel vaulting (simple, semicircular roof vaults) to cross vaulting, which became ever more adventurous and ornate in the Gothic.

Medieval Churches: Sources and Forms

Floor plan of the Roman Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, 308-312 C.E. (image: Die kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes by Dehio and Bezold)

Many of Europe’s medieval cathedrals are museums in their own right, housing fantastic examples of craftsmanship and works of art. Additionally, the buildings themselves are impressive. Although architectural styles varied from place to place, building to building, there are some basic features that were fairly universal in monumental churches built in the Middle Ages, and the prototype for that type of building was the Roman basilica.

Prototype: The Ancient Roman Basilica

In ancient Rome, the basilica was created as a place for tribunals and other types of business. The building was rectangular in shape, with the long, central portion of the hall made up of the nave. Here the interior reached its fullest height. The nave was flanked on either side by a colonnade (a row of columns) that delineated the side aisles, which were of a lower height than the nave. Because these side aisles were lower, the roof over this section was below the roofline of the nave, allowing for windows near the ceiling of the nave. This band of windows was called the clerestory. At the far end of the nave, away from the main door, was a semi-circular extension, usually with a half-dome roof. This area was the apse, and is where the magistrate or other senior officials would hold court.

View of the nave, looking toward the apse—the row of windows above the nave arcade is called the clerestory and we see an aisle on either side of the nave. Interior of Santa Sabina, an early Roman Christian church, 422-432 C.E. (photo: Dnalor 01, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because this plan allowed for many people to circulate within a large, and awesome, space, the general plan became an obvious choice for early Christian buildings. The religious rituals, masses, and pilgrimages that became commonplace by the Middle Ages were very different from today’s services, and to understand the architecture it is necessary to understand how the buildings were used and the components that made up these massive edifices.

Nave and side aisles, Durham Cathedral, 1093-1133 C.E. (photo: Oliver-Bonjoch, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Church Plan

Although medieval churches are usually oriented with the altar on the east end, they all vary slightly. When a new church was to be built, the patron saint was selected and the altar location laid out. On the saint’s day, a line would be surveyed from the position of the rising sun through the altar site and extending in a westerly direction. This was the orientation of the new building.

The entrance foyer at the west end is called the narthex, but this is not found in all medieval churches. Daily access may be through a door on the north or south side. The largest, central, western door may have been reserved for ceremonial purposes.

Church floor plan

Inside, you should imagine the interior space without the chairs or pews that we are used to seeing today. In very extensive buildings there may be two side aisles, with the ceiling of the outer one lower than the one next to the nave. This hierarchy of size and proportion extended to the major units of the plan—the bays. The vault is the arched roof or ceiling, or a section of it.

Salisbury Cathedral, top of the nave arcade, above that the gallery, and above that, the windows of the clerestory.

The major arcade (row of arches) at the ground floor level is topped by a second arcade, called the gallery, which is topped by the clerestory (the windows). In later Gothic churches, we sometimes see yet another level below the clerestory, called the triforium.

The nave was used for the procession of the clergy to the altar. The main altar was basically in the position of the apse in the ancient Roman basilica, although in some designs it is further forward. The area around the altar—the choir or chancel—was reserved for the clergy or monks, who performed services throughout the day.

The cathedrals and former monastery churches are much larger than needed for the local population. They expected and received numerous pilgrims who came to various shrines and altars within the church where they might pray to a supposed piece of the true cross, or a bone of a martyr, or the tomb of a king. The pilgrims entered the church and found their way to the chapel or altar of their desire—therefore, the side aisles made an efficient path for pilgrims to come and go without disrupting the daily services.

Transept, Salisbury Cathedral

Development of this plan over time shows that very soon the apse was elongated, adding more room to the choir. Additionally, the ends of the aisles developed into small wings themselves, known as transepts. These were also extended, providing room for more tombs, more shrines, and more pilgrims.

The area where the axes of the nave and transepts meet is called, logically, the crossing.

Ambulatory, Gloucester Cathedral

An aisle often surrounds the apse, running behind the altar. Called the ambulatory, this aisle accessed additional small chapels, called radiating chapels or chevets. Of course, there are many variations on these typical building blocks of medieval church design. Different regions had different tastes, greater or lesser financial power, more or less experienced architects and masons, which created the diversity of medieval buildings still standing today.