Art History for Normal People: Romanesque

This is a guest post from my friend and personal favorite medieval historian, Stephanie Coberly Pluta. Thanks, Steph!

Pilasters, tympanums, friezes, groin vaults… are we talking about architecture or medical vocabulary?  Have you happened on the wrong blog?

Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome • The Monastic Period • Romanesque

Don’t worry; we haven’t moved into a new interdisciplinary field.  Today we will analyze the stone giants that are categorized as Romanesque.  In the grand trajectory of architectural history, this era appears to have been one of the shorter ones, beginning somewhere around the mid-eleventh century and lasting until the early thirteenth, yet many of its characteristics have trickled through subsequent architectural developments, even to the modern day.  I would bet that many of you have seen, but may not have recognized, Romanesque features around your towns, even outside of churches.

As with most historical terms, “Romanesque” was coined in the nineteenth century by art historians, so no, our medieval architects did not use the term themselves.  If we were to define Romanesque, the quick and easy way would be “in the style of the Romans.” Helpful, right?

Since the Romans, everyone incorporated Roman technology, most notably the arch.

Art and Liturgy - Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna
The triumphal arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya. By Daviegunn – self-made by David Gunn, Public Domain,

We’ve heard about Charlemagne in previous posts, the great new Roman Emperor, crowned on Christmas Day by Pope Leo III in 800 AD.  Among his laundry list of accomplishments are promoting a culture of education and learning throughout his court and building as many new monasteries as possible.  If you look at his buildings that have lasted, we see “Roman” themes, especially at his palace in Aachen. (below)

Art and Liturgy - Palatine Chapel Aachen Germany Charlemagne Romanesque
Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen – Photo by HOWI – Horsch, Willy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlemagne’s great “renaissance” of Roman architecture, liturgy, and education occurred at least three hundred years before the first Romanesque churches appeared.  I’m not asking that we shift around our timetable on Romanesque but rather just pointing out a common trend with our coined terms.  Often our historical and artistic vocabulary is based on antiquated terms or incorrect assumptions (e.g. that those Middle Ages were dark times and everyone just wanted to bring back the great Roman Empire).  Sometimes the terms are even pejorative, even in the case of Romanesque.  Imagine our Victorian historians’ assessments through 21st century teenagers’ lexicon:

[observing a Romanesque church]
well… you’re kinda Roman… you’re Roman-like… not as cool, nor as vintage, but def. has some retro in it.  sweet sculptures, not the real deal though. lolz.

Funny enough, Romanesque shows influences far beyond the Romans.  Art historians point to the British Isles (use of interwoven patterns), Byzantines (mosaics!), and Islam (pointed arches) all as having an effect on the development of Romanesque art and architecture.

Art and Liturgy - San Vitale Basilica Ravenna Interior 1
Interior of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy) with Byzantine-inspired mosaics – Photo by Tango7174Own work, GFDL,

Let’s talk about the factors that led to this shift in building styles. Some scholars point to a (long and slow) industrial and technological revolution between the ninth and thirteenth centuries which created more efficient mining, quarrying, and building.  By the eleventh, most areas of Europe could employ high qualities of masonry, funded not only by the elite but also by our growing towns, i.e. to show off civic pride.  After 1000 AD Europe also saw economic prosperity, which not only helped pay for these expensive churches but also allowed pilgrimages to be possible amongst a larger percentage of the population.  At the same time, the major pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain grew in prominence, with Rome as the other significant European destination.  With more travelers on major pilgrimage roads, smaller shrines along these routes began to also experience more visitors.

Now our smaller towns needed to accommodate this influx, and the simple basilica style didn’t cut it.  One common Romanesque characteristic was the growth of side aisles and ambulatories, which allowed for the visitors to wander through the church without disrupting any liturgies, such as mass or Vespers.

Continuing on a similar theme of structure, if you looked up, another major change was the vaulted ceiling.  The simplest innovation (or re-innovation) was the barrel vault.

Art and Liturgy - Cathedral Saint-Lazare Autun France Romanesque barrel vaulted ceiling
Vaulted ceiling at Autun, France. By Acroterion – Own work by uploader, scanned slide, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Most churches prior to the eleventh century had flat, wooden ceilings, which were easier to create but also presented a fire hazard.  With a technological boom in quarrying and building with stone, our medieval contractors were able to (re)master the vaulted ceiling.  Technically, the Romans had mastered the barrel and groin vault by the time of Trajan but with the chaos of the third century Italy, the knowledge of concrete and thus vaulted ceilings died.

Barrel vaults are simply made from repeated arches.

Art and Liturgy - Abbey of Saint Mary Magdalen Vezelay France Romanesque Interior
Barrel vaults in Vezelay Cathedral. Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOISTOwn work, CC BY 2.5,

As our architects succeeded at this simple form of vaulting, they began to create more elaborate ceilings with structural and artistic designs.  Take a look at the groin vault from Speyer.  Here we have two barrel vaults intersecting each other, over and over again to create the whole ceiling.

Art and Liturgy - Speyer Cathedral Groin Vaults
Groin vaults in Speyer Cathedral. By DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0,

These were far more difficult to construct due to how the workers must cut the stone and to how our architects much figure out where to distribute the weight from the stone ceiling.

Soon they developed rib vaulting, with one of its best example in the Durham cathedral.  While the intersections are not as symmetrical, we now have a way to distribute weight and create decoration.

Art and Liturgy - Durham Cathedral - Romanesque architecture
Durham Cathedral, Durham, England – Photo by Oliver-BonjochOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As a consequence, you will notice that within our Romanesque churches the walls are thick, mainly to accommodate all of the weight being distributed from the stone ceilings.  As a further consequence, there are few windows, other than small ones to let in light.  Our Gothic architects had a solution to this weight distribution issue, but that’s for another post.

Another hallmark of Romanesque architecture are sculptures (not new but now we see more).  The most prominent and consistent locations for this three-dimensional art were the entry-ways, better known as portals. (Click to enlarge photos.)

Art and Liturgy - Romanesque Portal Diagram

Volumes have been written about the design, significance, and symbolism within our portals and the sculptures that accompany them, but just basically, they were glorified arches over each door into the sanctuary.  If you want to point to any “Roman” characteristic of Romanesque, these recall some of those Roman triumphal arches (think Constantine’s in the Roman forum).  Some were decorated with colorful marble, some were painted, and within the tympanum (or frieze around the arch if there wasn’t room) of each arch would be a themed scene, e.g. the Nativity or Christ Enthroned.  Personally, the Last Judgment scenes have created some of the most artistically interesting creatures. Remember our pilgrims: these entries not only were decorative but also instructional (or at least serve as reminders of mortality).

Art and Liturgy - Sculptural detail from Last Judgment relief in tympanum at Autun
Sculptural detail with weird demons from Autun. By Gaudry danielOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Art and Liturgy - Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Upper Church Washington DC
Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen – Photo by HOWI – Horsch, Willy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Want modern examples?  If you have ever been to the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., you can find most of these characteristics without going far!  Ambulatory and side aisles, double check (upstairs and downstairs!).  Vaulted ceiling (in the crypt), check. Big thick stone walls, check.  Portals with significant tympanums, double check.

Romanesque architecture often comes second in people’s mind to the majestic Gothic style with its stained glass and towering heights, but without the former there probably would not be the latter.