Romanesque Architecture: 10 Things You Need to Know

Here are ten things you need to know about Romanesque, a monumental style of church architecture popular in 11th and 12th century Europe.

Aug 3, 2022By Alexandra Kiely, BA Art History (with honors)

pisa cathedral roman architecture


From roughly 1000 to 1200 CE, Romanesque was the architectural style most closely associated with church building throughout Western Europe. Drawing on classical Roman precedents, including the rounded arch and stone vault, Romanesque was the precursor to the better-known Gothic style. It accompanied a period of increased church building, religious fervor, prosperity, and population growth around the turn of the first millennium.


1. Romanesque Started Due to Fears of the Apocalypse

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The Last Judgement portal Saint-Lazare, Autun, France, photo by Allie_Caulfield, 12th century, via Flickr


As the calendar approached the year 1000, medieval Christians believed that the end of the world was drawing near. According to Christian doctrine, the apocalypse will be accompanied by the Last Judgement, and since a bad evaluation means an eternity in hell, early Christians were serious about being prepared. Accordingly, the years leading up to this milestone saw a spike in religious fervor that caused a comparable increase in church building across Europe. When the millennium turned over without incident, fears shifted to 1033, the thousandth anniversary of Jesus’ death. It, too, passed without an apocalypse, yet Christian activity did not diminish. Churches continued to spring up all over the Christian world to accommodate a population increase enabled by relative stability and prosperity. In Western Europe, those churches tended to be Romanesque.


2. It was Based on Classical Models, But Not Entirely

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Carved capitals at Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France, photo by Frédéric Neupont, 11th century, via Flickr


Romanesque architecture gets its name from its use of classical Roman structural components, particularly the stone barrel vault and rounded arch (the term Romanesque did not exist in the Middle Ages). Earlier medieval buildings had also used some Roman features, but not so cohesively or on such a grand scale.


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Scholars consider Romanesque architecture to be closer to Roman architecture than its medieval predecessors were. However, Romanesque also had several other influences, including early Christian, Carolingian, Ottonian, Byzantine, Islamic, and Insular (meaning of the British Isles) art and architecture. For example, geometric decorative motifs on English Romanesque churches may relate to Insular artistic traditions, while the use of interlocking blind arches as decoration seems derived from Islamic architecture.


Byzantine influence, especially gold-ground mosaics, commonly appeared in Italian Romanesque churches. Few people would confuse most Romanesque buildings with classical Roman ones despite their shared architectural forms.


3. It was the First International Style of the Middle Ages

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Exterior of Pisa Cathedral in Italy, photo by Ray in Manila, 11th century, via Flickr


For hundreds of years after the Fall of Rome, medieval artistic and architectural style had primarily been a local affair. Romanesque, however, achieved international usage. Examples appear in France, England, Italy, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Crusader States (areas of the Holy Land controlled by Latin Christians), naturally with some regional variation.


How did Romanesque spread so far? Simply put, the western world had become a more international place by this period, as relative peace and prosperity facilitated travel and trade. People and goods moved across land and sea, bringing ideas like Romanesque with them.  The Norman conquests, the most famous of which was over England in 1066, but also included Sicily and southern Italy, are often credited with bringing Romanesque to those areas. Romanesque churches in England are sometimes called Norman Romanesque or Anglo-Norman for this reason. Elsewhere, Romanesque spread to parts of Spain that had recently rejoined the Christian fold after centuries of Islamic rule. Finally, pilgrimage, crusades, and monasticism helped to spread Romanesque around Europe.


4. It was Closely Related to Religious Pilgrimage

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Jamb statues of the apostles from the Portal of Glory at the Cathedral of Santiago da Compostela, Spain, photo by pedronchi, 11th-13th centuries, via Flickr


Pilgrimage is the practice of journeying to places of sacred significance. For Christians, Jerusalem was the ultimate pilgrimage destination, but the Islamic-ruled Middle East wasn’t accessible to them for much of the Middle Ages. Instead, they found meaning in destinations closer to home. The shrine of Saint James the Elder at Santiago da Compostela in northern Spain was by far the most popular option, though not the only one. What all pilgrimage sites had in common was the presence of a relic — the remains of a saint or something else of holy significance — things which Christians believed capable of performing miracles. A medieval Christian might go on a pilgrimage to seek a miracle, atone for a sin, or strengthen their faith, as well as for the simple opportunity to travel.


Pilgrimage was the medieval equivalent of tourism. Pilgrimage routes developed along the major roads to Santiago, and these routes included numerous relic-holding churches to visit along the way. Relics brought in donations, so they were big business for the cathedrals and monasteries who owned them. Therefore, these churches needed to be large enough to accommodate flocks of the faithful and to allow them access to the relics without disturbing church services. Since pilgrimage increased in popularity in the years around 1000, many pilgrimage churches were built or enlarged in the Romanesque style. They tended to house relics in a series of chapels behind the apse, with aisles and a walkway called an ambulatory providing access.


5. It Brought Back the Heavy Stone Vault

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The nave of Marie Madeleine in Vézelay, France, photo by Navin75, 12th century, via Flickr


What really differentiates Romanesque from its immediate predecessors is stone vaulting. While basilicas of the early Christian, Carolingian, and Ottonian periods primarily featured wooden roofs, Romanesque churches often have stone barrel vaults. Although they have the advantage of being fire resistant, stone vaults are extremely heavy and difficult to construct. To support them, Romanesque churches have massive piers or columns and thick walls that could only be interrupted by small windows. The addition of wide galleries (like balconies) above the aisle roofs served both to buttress the vaults and to provide additional space for visitors. External buttresses helped as well, though elaborate flying buttress would not come into use until the Gothic period. Transverse arches, often in contrasting colors of masonry, reinforced the vaults like the hoops on a barrel, but they also added even more weight to the structure.


Romanesque buildings gain their impact through their monumentality and simple, horizontally-focused arrangement of architectural forms rather than through detail or complexity. The overall results are solid, castle-like church buildings with fairly dark interiors and imposing exterior facades flanked by towers.


6. Romanesque Doors Are Decorated With Intense Imagery

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The Last Judgement portal at Marie Madeleine in Vézelay, France, photo by PMRMaeyaert, 12th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Romanesque churches sported Europe’s first large-scale architectural relief sculpture since the classical world. The most significant figurative sculpture occur on the portals — entry doors and their arched surrounds. Most Romanesque churches have at least five portals, including three on the western façade and one at each end of the transept. The portal presents ample locations for sculpture, particularly in the large arched area above the door, called the tympanum.


Romanesque portals depict a mixture of imagery, but the main entry portal generally shows the Last Judgement, the event Christians had expected in the year 1000. Romanesque sculpture is bold, static, and not especially naturalistic, but it certainly packs a punch. Christ as Judge appears in the center of the tympanum in a full-body halo called a mandorla. All around him, dead souls rise from their graves, are weighed, and are sent off to Heaven or Hell. Unsurprisingly, it’s on the Hell side that things get graphic, with demons carrying off the damned, hellmouths devouring people, grotesque beasts torturing sinners, and more. Similar imagery appears in illuminated manuscripts of the same period. Clearly, Judgement Day was no joke to these people. In fact, scholars believe that this imagery was so graphic and so prominently located because it was meant to terrify viewers into being better Christians.


Not all Romanesque portal sculpture is so nightmarish. Other imagery includes the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, stories of the saints, Old Testament figures, angels, and more. The jambs and trumeau (columns beside and between the doors) typically contain full-length statues of saints, prophets, and apostles, while the archivolts (arch segments above the tympanum) often include symbolic or even secular subject matter such as zodiac signs.


7. Its Column Capitals Are Not Always Polite and Pious

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A capital at Saint-Lazare, Autun, France, photo by Allie_Caulfield, 12th century, via Flickr


After portals, capitals are the next most frequent sites for Romanesque sculpture. Capitals are decorative tops for columns or piers. In the classical world, they would have contained scrolls or dignified acanthus leaves. In the Romanesque world, capitals became sites for elaborate sculpture, often featuring people and animals.


Historiated capitals — those with narrative imagery — usually tell Biblical stories, like the Annunciation or Daniel in the lion’s den. Inhabited capitals containing figures without narrative may also be Biblical, but they frequently depict a variety of strange, quirky, or surprisingly profane imagery. Possibilities include grotesque monsters, humans and animals behaving badly, and even some sexual subject matter. Again, medieval illuminated manuscripts display similar imagery in their margins. These motifs seem naïve or humorous today, but it’s difficult to understand why they appear in religious books or structures. All we know for sure is that they have always been controversial. Some medieval clerics argued that they helped illiterate worshippers to understand religious concepts, while others considered them unseemly distractions for pious monks.


8. The Style Was Popularly Used for Monasteries

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Romanesque cloisters at the Monastery of Sant Cugat, in Barcelona, Spain, via Sant Cugat


Monasteries are communities of monks or nuns who dedicate their lives to Christ. They live apart from the world in abbeys or convents — campuses including a church, dormitories, a dining hall, perhaps a library, and other buildings necessary for communal living. Joining a monastic order like the Benedictines or Cistercians was a popular life choice in the Middle Ages. Technically, individual monks and nuns were supposed to renounce all worldly possessions, but monasteries could become phenomenally wealthy and powerful. Many owned relics that made them key stops on the pilgrimage route. Accordingly, monasteries were big patrons of Romanesque architecture.


The cloister, an open-air courtyard surrounded by covered corridors on all sides, was a characteristic monastic feature. Connecting the church and other key buildings, monastic cloisters were places for quiet study and contemplation. Rows of arches connect the cloister’s courtyard to its walkways, merging indoors and outdoors. With so many columns needed to support all these arches, cloisters abounded in quirky Romanesque capitals.


Romanesque was the architectural style of choice for the grandest monasteries of the era, like the powerful Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in France, as well as for austere orders like the Cistercians, who developed an elegant, minimalist take on Romanesque. With their increasing prominence, monastic foundations established dependent “daughter houses” throughout Europe, spreading their preferred Romanesque architectural style as they went.


9. Romanesque Slowly Developed Into Gothic

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Durham Cathedral, Romanesque nave, via Khan Academy


Introductory art history texts will have you believe that Romanesque is completely separate from the better-known Gothic style that developed out of it. While it’s true that High Gothic buildings like Chartres Cathedral look very different from most Romanesque structures, the transition was not necessarily clear cut. Two of Gothic’s most characteristic features – pointed arches and rib vaults – first appeared in a few Romanesque churches. For example, the 11th-century Durham Cathedral has both.


What distinguishes Durham from early Gothic buildings like the Saint-Denis isn’t the structural elements used, but how they were used together to create specific effects. Gothic builders took advantage of the greater strength provided by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses to build higher vaults on thinner supports and to put larger windows in between them. The resulting lofty, light-filled, delicate-looking Gothic churches contrast strongly with Romanesque’s imposing monumentality. Romanesque masons had done the earliest experiments with Gothic’s key forms, but they had not yet realized their full potential.


10. Many Romanesque Buildings Survive Today

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Interior of Santiago de Compostela, 11th century, via Camino de Santiago


Despite being as much as a thousand years old, a surprising number of Romanesque churches and cloisters survive today. Naturally, many of them have been modified over time, gaining Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or 19th-century elements and decorations. For example, the Cathedral of Santiago da Compostela acquired a Plateresque (late-medieval) cloister, two Baroque facades, and a Baroque altarpiece. These exist alongside a Romanesque nave, chevet (apse end), southern transept, and sculpture-filled Portal of Glory. Santiago is still one of Christianity’s most popular pilgrimage destinations. Romanesque also experienced its own revival alongside the more famous Gothic Revival in the 19th century.

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By Alexandra KielyBA Art History (with honors)Alexandra is an art historian and writer from New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Drew University, where she received the Stanley Prescott Hooper Memorial Prize in Art History. She wrote her honors thesis on the life and work of early-20th century art theorist Roger Fry. Her primary interests are American art, particularly 19th-century painting, and medieval European art and architecture. She runs her own website, A Scholarly Skater, is a regular contributor to DailyArt Magazine, and has written two online courses. Alexandra enjoys reading, ballroom dancing, and figure skating.