Romanesque vs. Gothic Architecture

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  • 0:00 Medieval Architecture
  • 0:24 Romanesque Architecture
  • 1:56 Gothic Architecture
  • 2:55 Stylistic Differences
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood in a large church, looked up and wondered about its architecture? Maybe it was done in one of several medieval styles. In this lesson, you'll learn about the differences between Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

Medieval Architecture

As medieval Europe emerged from the fighting and turmoil of the Dark Ages (a period of widespread unrest and invasion that lasted from roughly 500 - 800 AD), two major styles of architecture developed: Romanesque and Gothic. Let's look at their backgrounds and distinguishing traits and then explore how they differ.

Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture developed around 800 AD and remained prominent through roughly 1200 AD. It was a blend of influences, including classical Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture, with the latter related to the Crusades, a series of wars in the near-east.

Three primary types of structure developed during the Romanesque period: cathedrals, castles, and monasteries, large and imposing structures used as fortifications and for worship. Large-scale Romanesque structures were partially the result of monasticism, a movement in which members of religious groups, like monks, lived and worshiped apart from the general population. As religious orders grew in size, they needed larger structures to contain them. At the same time, Europe still faced threats from outside invaders, so monasteries doubled as defensive structures.

As a result, Romanesque buildings often resembled a fortress, with stone barrel vaults instead of timber roofs. A vault is an internal support structure composed of a series of connected arches, usually for ceilings. Barrel vaults were so-named because they were made of rounded Roman arches and resembled half-barrels. Building interiors were in the shape of crosses with large piers, load-bearing walls between arches, or columns and thick stonewalls with few windows. Entrances to Romanesque buildings featured rounded arches. Structural elements, like arches, piers, and vaults, gave Romanesque architecture a very earthbound quality.

Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture evolved from Romanesque architecture; it first developed in France around 1140 and incorporated many new elements that resulted in larger churches with an increased vertical emphasis. New and improved building techniques included the ribbed vault, a lighter, balanced style of vault that reduced ceiling weight and allowed for taller structures. Walls were supported by flying buttresses, freestanding external masonry supports that combined elements of piers and half arches.

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