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Fantastical, winged beasts stare down from atop multi-colored columns flanking the semicircular facade. Eight emperors and kings rest for eternity in the cool, dark crypt below. This is the Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen, commonly known as the Speyer Cathedral, one of the most famous Romanesque buildings in Germany, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Speyer Cathedral, German Encyclopedia, 1891, Joseph Kürschner (editor). Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Romanesque is a period in Medieval European arts and architecture that flourished roughly between the years 1000 and 1150. The term “Romanesque” refers to its Roman inspiration. However, this style also relied on other traditions, including Carolingian, Ottonian as well as Byzantine. In some places, like Sicily, Romanesque even incorporated Arabic aesthetics.
Romanesque architecture, especially cathedrals, typically featured rounded arches, columns, decorative arcades, sculptures, and other types of ornamentation. Despite common aesthetic themes, Romanesque varied from country to country with the most notable examples located in Italy, where it originated, France, Germany, and England. Its spread across western Europe made Romanesque a truly international style.
In their heyday, art and sculpture in the Roman Empire were realistic and naturalistic. After the Roman Empire declined in the 5th century, arts changed, and realism went away for a time. This period was initially dubbed the "Dark Ages" in 18th-century Europe. At that time, Europeans generally perceived the entire millennium-long period of the Middle Ages as a time of decline in intellectual rigor and quality of the arts. By the early 20th century, historians used the term "Dark Ages" to refer to a shorter period of the 5th-10th centuries. Today this term is no longer used for many reasons. For instance, some historians emphasize the lack of interest in realistic depiction in a new Christian context in contrast to pagan Rome rather than framing it as the loss of technical skill.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Merovingian dynasty (5th-8th century) brought in its own Germanic influences and mixed them with Roman sources. This Germanic tribe preferred its own traditional patterns and geometric designs rather than the realistic depictions of humans of the Romans. Merovingian artists also focused on small metalwork.
South side of Aachen Cathedral, photographed ca. 1900, Reproduction by Photoglob AG. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain). The Cathedral includes Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel, and is a fusion of styles.
The next major aesthetic to emerge in Europe was the Carolingian style. This style was used during the lifetime of Emperor Charlemagne (768-814) until the end of the 9th century. This period became known as the Carolingian Renaissance because it revived the classic Roman aesthetics mixed with early Christian art as well as Byzantine influences from eastern Christianity. The Aachen Cathedral in Germany, where Charlemagne is buried, began as a Carolingian structure and was later modified to include other architectural styles.
Here, the term “Byzantine” refers to arts and culture of Byzantium with its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). Whereas the Latin Church of Rome and the eastern Church of Constantinople did not formally separate until 1054, the two developed separately.
Enthroned Christ with the Four Evangelists, Ottoman period, Trier, end of 10th century, ivory. Source: Bode-Museum Berlin, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
The next period (950–1050) is named after three German emperors named Otto I-III. The Ottonian period in Medieval European arts and architecture built upon the Carolingian tradition with added focus on reviving early Christian art. Ottonian craftsmen specialized in sculpture, carving ivory, and manuscript illumination. The manuscripts displayed a greater interest in bold colors and expressions rather than naturalistic depiction.
Romanesque emerged after the Ottonian period in Medieval arts and architecture and became popular throughout western Europe. Original stylistic inspiration for the Romanesque style came from Lombardy, Italy. However, Italy differed from other Romanesque variants for a number of reasons. Typically, Romanesque buildings were made of stone. In Italy, however, there also was an abundance of marble at this time, which was used to face buildings. In other words, Italy displayed an uninterrupted masonry tradition going all the way to the Roman period. This part of Europe also underwent economic growth, which resulted in the construction of many new buildings.
In England, Romanesque was known as the Norman style. Other variants of Romanesque included the Burgundian and Cistercian styles of France. Sicily displayed arguably the most unique blend of Romanesque, combining the Norman variant with Byzantine and Arabic influences.
A key reason for the overall popularity of Romanesque architecture was the growth of monastic orders, including the Carthusians, Cluniacs, and Cistercians. Larger church complexes had to be erected to house all the new members of the clergy, the monks, and the laity.
Religion dominated all parts of life at this time. However, churches were not the only type of Romanesque buildings. Castles, private homes, and secular buildings throughout Europe also featured Romanesque elements.
Sculpture and ornamentation of the Basilica of St. Servatius, Maastricht, Netherlands (11t-12th century), Philippe van Gulpen, 1844. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Romanesque cathedrals usually had a floor plan that was based on the Roman basilica. The church altar housed in the apse area usually faced east toward Jerusalem to symbolize the source of Christianity. The nave was long and vaulted. It was crossed at a 90-degree angle by a transept usually near the altar. Larger structures had smaller aisles flanking the nave. Some churches included radiating chapels around the ambulatory. Romanesque churches also featured many semicircular elements, such as arcades, windows, doors, facades as well as sculpture and ornamentation. Some cathedrals housed saintly relics (body parts) and served as a burial ground for kings and emperors.
A plan of St Austin's Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England, 1929. The plan shows the main parts of a Medieval church (nave, aisles, apse, transept). Source: Charles Cotton’s The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
A church’s ambulatory is the semicircular aisle around the apse.
An apse is a semicircular part of a church in the altar area facing east. It is usually covered with a dome on the church's exterior.
In a church, an arcade is a series of arches with each arch on top of a column.
A basilica is a building style that originated in ancient Rome with a long central aisle (nave). In Rome, basilicas usually had a secular function. Western Medieval churches were usually designed as basilicas.
A dome is the roof of a church in the apse area shaped like a hemisphere.
A facade is a front of a building with a doorway. In a cathedral, a facade usually features many stylistic elements.
A nave is the largest central aisle of a church in the west-east direction.
Radiating chapels surround the ambulatory in the apse part of the church.
A transept is a transverse part of a church that crosses the nave usually close to the altar. The transept gives a church a cross (cruciform) shape.
|Tympanum||A tympanum is a triangular or semi-circular surface over an entrance, a window, or a door. A tympanum is often decorated.|
A vault is part of a church's roof comprised of arches (ribs). Vaults differ in complexity.
Autun Cathedral showing a part of a vault, columns, and semicircular arches, Autun, France (1120-1146), 1913. Source: Wikipedia Commons (no known copyright restrictions).
It is important to note that many Romanesque structures included earlier stylistic elements, such as the 9th-century Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany, and its Carolingian and Ottonian aspects. Alternatively, many structures were modified to include later stylistic features. For instance, the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily displays a blend of Norman Romanesque, Byzantine, and Arab styles from its original construction in the 12th-13th centuries. This cathedral was modified in the 16th century and also features Renaissance and Baroque elements as a result.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, Italy (8th – early 12th century)
Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany (9th century)
St. Michael's, Hildesheim, Germany (1001–1031)
Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen (Speyer Cathedral), Speyer, Germany (1030-1103)
Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, England (11th century)
Basilica of St. Servatius, Maastricht, Netherlands (11t-12th century)
Autun Cathedral, Autun, France (1120-1146)
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Galicia, Spain (1075-1211)
Southwell Cathedral, England (1120)
Sénanque Abbey Church and surrounding monastic buildings, Gordes, Provence, France (1148)
Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle, Syria (1140-1170)
Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy (1172-1267)
Civic Hall, Massa Marittima, Italy (1200)
Santiago de Compostela, detail, photo taken in 1892. Source: Constantin Uhde, Baudenkmäler in Spanien und Portugal, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Art historians began to study Romanesque architecture in the 17th century. However, it was not until the 19th-20th centuries that true appreciation for this period emerged.
First studies focused on the way Romanesque buildings were constructed, their formal characteristics, and key differences between Romanesque and Gothic styles. Art historians also studied iconography—the meaning and interpretation of visuals in a system—of sculpture and art in this period.
As time went on, art historians began to organize Romanesque architecture into styles, chronological periods, and influences. They developed a methodology—a system of methods—to study Medieval architecture.
The Gothic style gradually replaced Romanesque starting from the middle of the 12th century until the 15th-16th centuries. Gothic produced more ornate, taller cathedrals that appeared to be weightless thanks to large stained-glass windows. Gothic achieved this weightless appearance by shifting the weight of the structure outside the building onto flying buttresses—masonry supports separate from the main building that used arches. Gothic buildings featured more complex, ribbed vaults comprised of intersecting elements, pointed arches, and exterior elements such as spires and towers. Like Romanesque, Gothic cathedrals housed many statues and displayed regional variants.
A Romanesque building is usually shaped like an elongated Roman basilica and features many elements, including circular arches, columns, a long vault over a nave, as well as sculptures, and ornamentation. Such buildings were typically constructed in Europe between 1000-1150 and included cathedrals, castles, and private homes.
Many buildings were constructed during the Romanesque period. Some famous examples include the Autun Cathedral in France and the Speyer Cathedral in Germany. Not all buildings were cathedrals. Other structures included castles, civic buildings, and private homes.
Romanesque architecture primarily relied on stone. In Italy, many buildings were faced with marble.
Many buildings were constructed during the Romanesque period. Some famous examples include the Autun Cathedral in France and the Speyer Cathedral in Germany. Not all buildings were cathedrals.
Gothic architecture was usually taller and more ornate than the Romanesque counterpart. Romanesque preferred semicircular arches, whereas Gothic featured pointed arches. Gothic buildings also sometimes used stained glass. Gothic cathedrals appeared weightless because of the large windows, as the weight of the structure was transferred onto the external flying buttresses.
When was the Romanesque style popular in Europe?
Which styles does the Palatine Chapel in Aachen combine?
Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque
What is the shape of a typical Romanesque cathedral?
What was the name of the regional Romanesque style in England?
Which way do Romanesque churches usually face?
What type of arches does Romanesque feature?
Where did Romanesque originate?
What international style gradually replaced Romanesque in Europe?
What is the central aisle in a Romanesque church called?
What part of Europe displayed the most diverse fusion of Romanesque?
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