Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
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For a thousand years since the death of Christ, most Christian architectural movements occurred from the top down. Early Christian architecture started with the vision of Emperor Constantine. Byzantine architecture was part of a building project started by Emperor Justinian. Carolingian architecture got its start with Emperor Charlemagne.
Romanesque architecture is different. The Romanesque architectural movement was not one of these top-down imperial building projects. It was more like a grassroots movement that took off independently in a variety of places from Italy to England, each with its own unique take on this new form.
Yet they all have a few things in common. They all seem fixated on the semicircular arch. They all had intricately decorated exteriors, especially on their western entrances. Unlike their predecessors, they decked out their buildings out with decorative sculpture, towers, and arcades. They all make use of a vaulted masonry ceiling rather than a wooden one. This heavy masonry ceiling required heavier construction. This meant thick walls with few windows and little light. It also meant supplementing or replacing delicate round columns with sturdier square piers. Let's have a look at each of these elements.
The semicircular arch was very popular in the Roman Empire. This similarity is likely where the term 'Romanesque' originated. The semicircular arch is strong and durable. Romanesque architects love this arch, and they use it everywhere: doors, windows, ceilings, arcades.
Romanesque architects were nothing if not ambitious. Not only did they want to build huge new churches, but they also wanted to roof those churches with masonry, not wood. Now, you can't just run masonry horizontally; you can't build a ceiling like you would a wall. The pieces would fall out.
To tackle this problem, Romanesque architects turned to their favorite form: the semicircular arch. An arch allows you to build unsupported openings out of masonry. It only took a little bit of cleverness to stretch this arch out, making a sort of tunnel. When this arched tunnel is used to roof a building, it's called vaulting. There were three sorts of vaulting popular in Romanesque times. First was the barrel vault. Next came the groin vault, which was later improved to ribbed vault.
The barrel vault is the simplest sort of vaulting. It's just a semicircular arch stretched along a single axis. The barrel vault had been around for a very long time. We see its use in ancient Egypt and Rome. Earlier Medieval churches had also made use of this technique, but its use was modest, and, with a few exceptions, underground. With the Romanesque, we see barrel vaults get pushed to their limits.
So the barrel vault works nicely for covering a long hall, like the basilicas of old. But by this time, churches didn't just have one axis but several axes. The use of a transept, or a crossing part of a church, had become a standard in the West during Carolingian times. So what happens when two barrel vaults meet at a right angle? The solution is the groin vault.
The groin vault is where two barrel vaults meet. It vaults the intervening space with a sort of square dome. The groin vault has the added bonus of setting the weight more vertically, on pillars, rather than horizontally on walls. Like barrel vaults, groin vaults are very old. The Romans used them in their baths and their indoor markets. Carolingians used them in their crypts. Romanesque architects made groin vaults even larger, grander, and more beautiful.
Toward the end of the Romanesque era, a new form of vaulting was invented: the ribbed vault. Unlike the groin vault, which is essentially two barrel vaults meeting at a right angle, with the ribbed vault, you're essentially building little arch frames or ribs and then filling in the gaps between them. These ribs do an even better job of focusing the weight of the vaulting onto a few small places. With ribbed vaults, Romanesque architects could make their churches wider, taller, and even more impressive.
Vaulted ceilings mean that there's a lot of heavy masonry hanging over your head. All that weight has to go somewhere. Romanesque architects came up with some very creative ways to handle this new burden. Probably the most mundane solution was big fat walls with few windows. Yet these fat walls severely limited the amount of light that entered the cathedral. Another solution was to alternate columns, which are good at handling vertical force, with piers, which are large, usually square supports that are much better at handling horizontal force. This alternation might be horizontal (as at Mainz Cathedral), vertical (as at Malmesbury Abbey), or both (as at Durham Cathedral). At Durham we also see another solution: the combination of piers with fake surface columns.
So far we've been focusing on the interiors of these churches. Yet there were other huge changes occurring on the exterior of Romanesque churches as well. Where earlier churches had plain exteriors and only decorated the interior, the Romanesque architects brought some of that beautiful interior decoration outside.
One way in which Romanesque architects jazzed up their exteriors was with sculptural decoration, especially around the main entrance of the church. These round, highly decorated portals, known as tympanum, became increasingly popular in Romanesque architecture. We also see the addition of decorative statues and some incredibly fancy columns. We'll cover these developments in more depth in our lesson on Romanesque art.
Another big Romanesque development was the building of towers. We can see predecessors to this trend in Carolingian westworks, or grand facades on the western entrance of the building. These trends really take off during the Romanesque on the western face of the church and at the eastern end of the church. Another sort of tower that was very popular, especially in Italy, were free-standing bell towers known as campaniles. The most famous of these campaniles is the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
At Pisa we also see the one of the best examples of the Romanesque arcade, which is a row of archways. An arcade is just like a colonnade, except with arches instead of columns.
To review: Romanesque architecture was not centralized like many of the architectural movements before it. Instead, it arose independently in a variety of locations. As a result, it is rather difficult to characterize Romanesque architecture. However, there are some trends that persist throughout these regional styles. The central fixation of Roman architecture is the semicircular or Roman arch from which this movement gets its name. This semicircular arch was expanded to roof over entire buildings in a process called vaulting.
Vaulting went through several refinements during the Romanesque age. It started with the simple barrel vault. Where two barrel vaults met at a right angle, Romanesque architects used groin vaults to vault the intersection. The limitations of groin vaults led to the development of the ribbed vault, allowing Romanesque architects to build ever taller and wider cathedrals.
These heavy vaulted ceilings required heavier-duty construction. The simple solution was to build big heavy walls with very few windows. A more complex solution was to replace columns with sturdier piers, which are just square columns better at handling horizontal pressure. Yet columns are much prettier than piers. The love of columns led Romanesque architects to alternate piers with columns both vertically and horizontally. And some later architects combined the two, adding half-columns to the outside of piers, giving their piers a graceful aesthetic while maintaining their bulky strength.
Meanwhile, the exteriors of Romanesque cathedrals were undergoing a transformation of their own. The drab exteriors of earlier churches were abandoned, and churches began to be as beautiful on the outside as they were on the inside. Some common Romanesque exterior decorations include sculptural decoration (especially around the main entrance and on columns), the addition of towers (both on the eastern and western end of the church and in free-standing bell towers called campaniles), and finally arcades, or rows of arches lining the exterior of the church.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons