What Is Romanesque, Anyway?


Romanesque is the nineteenth century name for eleventh and twelfth century architecture of Western Europe .  Building skills in this region were lost with the fall of the Roman Empire .  The name reflects the perceived influence of the architecture of ancient Rome on new building efforts following AD 800 (after Charlemagne’s rule brought a degree of freedom from barbarian raids).  This pre-Romanesque period lasted until about AD 1000. The complexity and massiveness of Romanesque express both optimism about freedom from barbarian attack and protection against its possibility.

Influences were not confined to Roman.  Art, architecture and government survived and developed in the eastern empire, centered in Constantinople .  Thus, Byzantine elements entered the Romanesque.  Muslim architecture also influenced Romanesque through their common presence in Spain .  Romanesque spread rapidly to cover much of present-day Italy , France , Germany , Spain and England (where it is termed Norman ).

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 basilica.  In Rome , this was a civic-commercial structure, the main elements of which were adapted for Christian worship.  The assembly hall – the nave – is rectangular in plan, with a height large in comparison to the width.  Windows high in the walls admit light.  To either side is an aisle, separated from the nave by a row of columns, under a low roof.  At one end of the building is a projection of the room for the worship leaders and liturgical furnishings.  This apse usually contains the altar, sometimes a bishop’s throne and access to one or more platforms (the ambo) for reading or proclaiming the Word.

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 North America .

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