A Timeline of European Architecture in the Middle Ages

From the late Roman period across Carolingian architecture to the international styles of Romanesque and Gothic, medieval architecture shows a great variety that is rarely recognized.

May 7, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art
medieval architecture europe timeline


After the Fall of Rome in 476, the grip of Roman culture on Western Europe diminished. Non-Roman states were formed and developed distinct architectural styles, somewhat modeled after Rome as an ideal. Another essential point for early Medieval architecture was Justinian’s reconquering of Italy, which left elements of Byzantine art behind. These elements furthered architectural development in the 8th and 9th centuries into the masterpieces of Carolingian architecture and their imperial successor dynasties. The grand scale came with two international architectural styles, Romanesque and Gothic. Romanesque architecture, as the term implies, refers to Western Europe’s ancient Roman heritage. On the other hand, the Gothic, originally a derogatory term, made such an influence that even modern architecture looks up to it for inspiration.


Leading Up to Carolingian Architecture

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San Vitale in Ravenna, via Smart History


It is hard to pinpoint where the timeline of medieval architecture begins. The widespread but perhaps wrong consensus is that Greco-Roman culture disintegrated between the 6th and early 8th centuries and caused the decline in monumental art. During the 4th and 5th centuries, Western Europe degraded into a mosaic of regional and tribal states. Visigoths ruled over almost all of Spain from the 5th to the 8th century, and their only surviving building is the Church of San Juan Bautista at Banos de Cerrato. In northern Italy, Lombard kings commissioned buildings (mostly destroyed now) characterized by references to Classical art and echoes of the contemporary Ravenna.


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Mausoleum of Theodoric, 526, via Flickr


With Rome diminished, the Roman re-conquest of Italy made cities like Ravenna and Milan new centers of architecture. The tomb of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric shows the ambivalent political and cultural status in 6th century Ravenna. It is an eclectic synthesis of Roman two-storied structure, Syrian massive ashlar construction, and Ostrogothic masonry traditions seen in the monolithic dome. The presence of Constantinopolitan buildings in Ravenna defined the future of Medieval architecture. The Basilica of Saint Vitale was finished under the direct patronage of Emperor Justinian. Its architectural elements, two-storied octagonal plan, massive piers, marble pavement, and mosaics play a vital role in the development of Carolingian architecture.


Carolingian Architecture

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Christ Enthroned from the Palatine chapel, 804, via Smart History


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The first glimpses of a united and unique style of Western Europe came with the crowning of the new Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 800. The new Frankish emperor strove for a great revival of ancient culture with a unique political character. The form of Carolingian architecture is generally Roman since it depended on the agenda of emulating Roman Christian buildings. With some additions of Byzantine influence, it continued Rome’s architectural legacy into the Middle Ages. At the court of Charlemagne, intellectuals of the period had been organizing an ambitious imperial patronage system that prompted a flourishing of monumental architecture. The Palatine Chapel of Aachen is an octagonal plan building with mosaic decoration and a two-story interior framed by massive arches, recalling the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. It clearly exemplifies Charlemagne’s wish to emulate the centrally-planned Early Christian buildings.


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Photograph of Saint-Riquier by Édouard Baldus, ca. 1855, via the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City


Another Roman element that Carolingian architecture revived was the use of a basilica. At the end of the 8th century, the reconstruction of Centula, or Saint-Riquier, near Abbeville had begun. Charlemagne generously funded the project and ordered bases, columns, and moldings to be transported from Rome. Its grandiose westwork, or the west façade of the basilica, was one of the earliest examples of the architectural element. The west façade of Saint-Riquier, as well as its plan, was the forerunner of Romanesque architecture.


Ottonian Architecture

saint cyriakus at gernrode ottonian architecture
St. Cyriakus at Gernrode, 961, via Quedlinberg Official Site


The Carolingian proclivity towards Roman culture and art had been taken up by the Ottonian Dynasty and carried into the second millennia. Ottonian rulers came from a ducal family from Saxony (eastern Germany) and, by the 10th century, had mustered power to claim royal standing. As Charlemagne in 800, Otto I was crowned by the Pope as the first official Holy Roman Emperor in 962. From then on, each Ottonian king defined himself as a Roman Emperor in the style of Constantine and Charlemagne. By taking up the imperial tradition, Ottonians needed to affirm it through the use of Carolingian architecture.


Otto I’s period is well-represented in middle Germany by the convent Church of St. Cyriakus at Gernrode, inaugurated in 961. Its relation with Carolingian architecture and Saint-Riquier is seen in the exterior, with a rhythmic alteration of columns under arches with substantial masonry piers.


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Saint Michael in Hildesheim, 11th century, via Flickr


The design of Saint-Riquier had enduring success in Germany, where its influence can be traced from generation to generation throughout the centuries. The most well-known Ottonian building is Bishop Bernward’s Church of Saint Michael at Hildesheim. The building was complete by 1033 and, after multiple destructions, was rebuilt based on its original arrangement. It is a three-aisled basilica with two transepts and two pairs of towers. Capitals of columns in the interior are modeled with Byzantine elements, recalling the capitals of Saint Vitale. Scholars have recognized the Church of Saint Michael as some of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture.


Romanesque Architecture in Burgundy

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Reconstruction of Cluny III, via Smart History


The beginning of Romanesque architecture is closely related to the revival of monasticism in Western Europe and the development of monastic networks of Cistercian, Cluniac, and Carthusian churches.


The Cluny III (numbered by art historians to mark the third reconstruction of the abbey) was the best example of how this style began and spread throughout Western Europe. Since it was established, the Burgundian abbey had unprecedented independence, subject only to the Papacy. This unique position in Western Christianity made it important enough to transfer Saint Peter and Paul relics to be housed there. Around these relics emerged a five-aisle basilica with two transepts and radiating chapels. It was modeled after the plan of the ancient Roman basilica, and more precisely, it replicated the dimensions of the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.


Other Roman elements include using Vitruvian proportions and the barrel vaulting system. Using these forms, elements, harmony, and proportions marked the beginning of Romanesque architecture. Using two transepts and a westwork from the tradition of Carolingian architecture shows the building’s relation to its region’s past. With more than a thousand churches and monasteries in its network, its visual identity was an example for other architects and artisans to follow, as seen in the Vezelay Abbey and Autun Cathedral.


Romanesque Architecture Beyond France

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Santiago de Compostela, 11-13th centuries, via UNESCO


The Romanesque architecture style developed in France spread throughout Europe, contributing to the great diversity of medieval architecture. Some medieval states never emerged from their early Romanesque phase; others produced a different Romanesque architecture altogether. Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain leads us back to the Cluny Abbey since it is stylistically indistinguishable from its sister pilgrimage churches in France.


speyer cathedral romanesque architecture
Speyer Cathedral, 11th – 12th centuries, via UNESCO


In Germany, the center of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, Romanesque architecture became a part of the imperial tradition. The Cathedral of Speyer, begun under Emperor Konrad II around 1030 and completed in its first form around 1060, is one of the most monumental Romanesque churches. Its serene grandeur and massive walls are Roman in conception. The cathedral exterior, with articulated masonry, an apse with blind arcading and a dwarf gallery, and the towers, is no less overpowering.


Medieval Italy had the richest variety of Romanesque architecture, developing multiple versions throughout different regions. In northern Italy, ideas and architects were constantly exchanged between the Holy Roman Empire and autonomous city-states. The relationship is seen in elements such as the windows on the towers that multiply with their height, pilaster strips, decorative arcading, and blind galleries on the facade exterior. A great example of this exchange is the Pisa Cathedral.


Beginnings of Gothic Architecture

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Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, 11th century, via University of Pittsburgh Images of Medieval Art and Architecture


The roots of the Gothic style date back to 11th-century Normandy and Norman England. The Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen first changed into mass-dissolving double shells and gathered into linear columnar elements. The development of the Gothic passed south to the Ile-de-France, where the first coherent examples of Gothic architecture appeared in the middle of the 12th century.


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Saint-Denis in Paris, 12th century, via Flickr


The beginnings of Gothic architecture are associated with the abbot Suger and his restoration of the Saint-Denis Abbey near the city of Paris. The ideological basis of the reconstruction was the writing “On the Heavenly Hierarchy” by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a text popular in the 12th century. Dionysius the Areopagite was the first archbishop of Athens, martyr, and disciple of St. Paul, who was mistakenly conflated with Saint-Denis, or Dionysius, in the 12th century. At the time of Abbot Suger, construction was only contained to the west façade and choir of the church. The facade is divided into three parts with three entrances. Above the central part, there is a rosette, which became a symbol of Gothic architecture.


Slender columns separate the ambulatories into two concentric aisles. The outer aisle is covered by five-part rib vaults and the inner aisle by four-part rib vaults. The effect is one of clear spatial distribution. The bays are opened on all sides, and the walls of the radiating chapels have large openings filled with stained glass filling the church with a great amount of light.


The same elements would soon be seen in the churches in Soissons, Chartres, and Notre Dame de Paris.


Late Gothic Architecture

salisbury cathedral england romanesque architecture
Salisbury Cathedral, 13th century, via Khan Academy


In the 12th century, Ile-de-France was the seat of the French monarchy, and Paris was the intellectual capital of Europe. Within the confines of the French monarchy, Gothic architecture and art spread quickly. England, whose kings held parts of France in the 12th century, was the first country to adopt Gothic architectural styles. The 13th-century Salisbury Cathedral shows how Gothic architecture was woven into the existing architectural milieu. Its plan extends horizontally instead of following the typical verticality of Gothic architecture, with the tower above the crossing being the only exception. The exterior is characterized by buttresses which have a primary function as decoration.


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Coronation of George in Westminster Abbey by George Cruikshank, 1865, via British National Museum, London


Westminster Abbey was built over the tomb of King Edward the Confessor between the 13th and 16th centuries. Its radiant chapels, ambulatory, ribbed vaulting, and vertical elevation follow French imperial architecture, as seen in the Reims Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle. Unlike Salisbury, its height and narrow aisles break the elongated building tradition of England to highlight its verticality. The four-part ribbed vaults cover the choir, the transept, and the side aisles of the nave, while the nave is vaulted with a more linear and ornamental rib vault.


Though Gothic architecture is seen as the last of the medieval architectural styles, its importance for the future of architecture is seen by its revival during the 19th century, when the neo-gothic style emerged throughout Europe. It played a crucial role in the idea of the “Golden Age” and as an inspiration for Art Nouveau.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.