Romanesque Architecture: Characteristics, Examples & History

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  • 0:05 Trends
  • 1:41 Semicircular Arch
  • 2:03 Vaulting
  • 5:09 Bulkier Construction
  • 6:05 Sculptural Decoration
  • 7:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

In this lesson we fly through the various characteristics of Romanesque architecture: the semicircular arch, various sorts of vaulting, heavier construction, and the addition of increasingly intricate exteriors incorporating towers, arcades, and decorative sculpture.

Trends in Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture focused on intricately decorated exteriors
Romanesque Architecture Characteristics

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

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.


Three types of vaulting popular in Romanesque architecture
Vaulting Types

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.

Vaulting: Barrel 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.

Vaulting: Groin Vault

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.

A groin vault is where two barrel vaults meet
Illustration of a 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.

Vaulting: Ribbed Vault

Ribbed vaults such as those at St. Etienne allowed for more impressive structures
Ribbed Vaults at St. Etienne

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.

Bulkier Construction

To solve the problem of heavy vaulting, architects alternated columns and piers
Alternating Columns and Piers

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.

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