Art History for Normal People, BONUS EDITION: Romanesque 2.0

This AHFNP was written before the awesome guest post about the Romanesque period, and it has been sitting in my drafts ever since. I think most of the content is different, so I’m just going to post it now.

In our journey through the history of Christian art, we have reached a big milestone. Romanesque (or neo-Romanesque, more precisely) is still one of the popular styles for church architecture today, so this lesson will hopefully be relevant to your life. Here at Art and Liturgy, we know how to #connect with the #millenials.

Last time, we learned about the monasteries, whose residents were largely responsible for the preservation of Christianity and the deposit of Western knowledge after the fall of Rome.

Despite the monasteries’ best efforts, some things were lost. One example was a serious drop-off in engineering and architectural ability. During the “Dark Ages,” mankind was at a loss for how to build the big domes and arches that were so typical in Rome. Building technology and artistic talent seriously declined.

Around the year 800, artists and architects began to get it together again. They drew inspiration from a few remaining basilicas still in Rome, as well as some Byzantine churches that had preserved Roman traditions, like the breathtaking San Vitale in Ravenna, above. Thus, it is called the roman-esque period.

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
We can say that the Romanesque era really begins with the construction of the Palatine Chapel, the personal chapel of Charlemagne, the Emperor who re-united western Europe. It was finished in 805 AD. In many cases, early Romanesque buildings were really crude, often built from the rubble of other buildings and generally without decoration. By the year 1050 or so, there was more sophistication and refinement.

Let’s take a look at some of the general characteristics of Romanesque architecture.

Barrel vaults. Basically, this is the long, cylindrical shape of the church, formed by a series of rounded arches. When you build arches like this, it exerts a lot of pressure outward, so you need to have…

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

Massive walls. Romanesque churches had enormously thick walls of stone or brick, and tiny windows. The huge walls had to bear the immense load and outward force of the building. We can include hulking, rectangular internal columns called piers to this category. (You can see these above in the Palatine Chapel.) These buildings gave an impression of solidity and stability, a good thing after five centuries of chaos in Europe. Often, these sturdy churches doubled as fortresses during a time of marauding tribes and warring nations.

Basilican plan. The design for Romanesque churches was largely based on ancient Roman basilicas, so they were virtually always cruciform, with two side aisles, clerestory windows, and a semi-circular apse. (Click the link for a recent post about basilicas.)

Art and Liturgy - Councilman Jeremy Jamm Parks and Rec
You just got jambed.

Portal and tympanum. A Romanesque church’s main doors (those on the west façade, because, well, you know) almost always have these cascading doorways. Here’s some vocab for you: the mini-arches inside are called archivolts and the vertical little columns are called jambs. The tympanum is the half-circle of space above the door which is often sculpted with some kind of Biblical scene. The Last Judgement is the most common.

Stark decoration. In general, we can say that Romanesque churches have a stark appearance, lacking the intricate sculptural decoration that we often see in later churches. When they were built, many of these churches contained huge murals in very vibrant colors, but nearly all of these have faded or are lost to time. Even drawings, paintings, and statues of this time have a very primitive, severe appearance, compared to the classical works they tried to imitate.

These are just a few qualities, but they can at least be a useful starting point for us. Unless you are reading from Spain or Italy — lucky you — it’s not likely that you’ll encounter very many authentic Romanesque churches. You may, however, see a lot of “neo-Romanesque” or “Romanesque Revival” churches which mimic the originals in many ways. These will have round arches, cascading portals, and the same solid, massive quality to them. Advances in building technology and techniques, though, allow for some changes, like bigger windows, thinner walls, etc.

Art and Liturgy - new Saint John Neumann Church Knoxville Tennessee Neo-Romanesque
The brand-new, neo-Romanesque St. John Neumann Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of the parish.)

Romanesque architecture remained in vogue across Europe until the 13th century, when it was supplanted by the Gothic style.