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The Romanesque style

What you're looking at and what it means

In England we call our local romanesque style ‘Norman’. But that’s only one regional style – and in fact the Saxons built in this style, too. Each area of Europe – even regions within a particular country – have their own version of Romanesque.

The Romanesque can be easily characterised by its round arches, though these are also found in earlier work such as Carolingian churches. Structurally, Romanesque architecture depends on its robust walls, and often uses thick cylindrical pillars to support arcades. In some Romanesque work you can see by the splayed windows that the walls are a metre or more thick. This often gives a sense of strength and monumentality – though some very graceful buildings of this style are found, such as the Galilee in Durham cathedral, they are the exception that proves the rule.

Romanesque buildings concentrate on pure geometrical forms. For instance many churches of this date are centralised, like the octagonal churches at Eunate and Torres del Rio on the Santiago pilgrim route, or the (strictly Transitional) church of Santo Sepolcro in Pisa designed by Diotisalvi. Even capitals tend to reflect geometry, with the ‘cushion capital’ simplifying earlier styles.

Earlier Romanesque churches weren’t vaulted, but later Romanesque buildings develop a number of vaulting styles. The simple barrel vault is often found, as well as groin vaults – formed by two intersecting barrel vaults. Alternation of supports is also often found, with an alternation between square piers and round columns, or between simple columns and columns surrounded by smaller shafts.

The end of the Romanesque style is generally seen as the beginning of the Gothic, with the move from round to pointed arches being the easiest change to spot. However it’s the structural concerns of the architect that mark the most profound change – while Romanesque architecture is about space and volume, Gothic architecture concerns itself with reducing the weight of the supports and creating an effect of transparency. While the wall is the major building unit of much Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture replaces it with a skeleton of ribs and columns, making the wall a mere ‘skin’ over the structural bones. Romanesque churches often have the minimum of fenestration – tiny slits or small bull’s-eye windows – while Gothic churches expand the openings until we end up with the ‘wall of glass’. Romanesque churches therefore are often rather dark – many come alive best in the early morning or late evening, when the low slanting sun lights them up through the western or eastern windows.

Romanesque architecture is often rich in carving – though again there are exceptions such as the rather austere Norman school. Typical themes on capitals include affronted beasts and birds – symmetrical compositions showing, for instance, two lions snarling at each other or two birds pecking a single bunch of grapes – as well as religious themes. It’s in the Romanesque period that we first see great western portals with rich sculptural decoration, often showing the last judgment.


The early Romanesque first developed in northern Spain and Italy in the ‘First romanesque’ (also called the ‘Lombard romanesque’). It’s a simple, primitive style with little decoration, in which thick walls are lightened only by the presence of rhythmic blind arcading. Catalunya remained highly conservative and churches of a similar nature were still being built in the thirteenth century. The difficulty for the traveller is that many of the best churches of the early Romanesque are hidden away in the Pyrenees – though a drive tour combining Romanesque architecture and fine scenery could fill a pleasant week.

Pisan romanesqueLater on, Spanish Romanesque architecture was very much influenced by the French Cluniac style, as the monks of Cluny managed much of the pilgrim traffic on the way to Santiago and set up their own daughter houses in Spain. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, for instance, has a similar plan to that of Saimt-Sernin in Toulouse, southern France, which is also on one of the main pilgrimage routes.

Of course during this period most of southern Spain was occupied by the Moorish kingdoms who had imported their own styles of architecture from North Africa. So there’s no Romanesque architecture there. What we have instead is a rich heritage of Arab influenced architecture called Mozarabic or Mudejar – the former built by Christians living in Arab ruled Spain, and the latter by Moors who remained in the kingdoms after the Reconquest. Mozarabic architecture often uses the horseshoe arch, and tends to be plain, while Mudejar style is highly decorated, often using blind arcading in brick, and fine wooden ceilings. Geometrical ornament is rife – as we’d expect from an Arab-influenced style – with no figural content. The birthplace of the style is probably Sahagun, a small town in the middle of the province of Leon – practically in the middle of nowhere these days, but definitely worth a visit.


In the UK most of us learn to call Romanesque architecture ‘Norman’, though in fact some of the best early examples were built under Saxon rule. In fact the Norman style, strictly speaking, is an austere, very geometrical style, which favours repetitive rhythms in arcading – seen at Caen, Mont Saint-Michel and Saint Martin de Boscherville in Normandy, and in England at Norwich Castle and Cathedral. It’s a strong, masculine style.

Quite different is the elegance of the Romanesque style in Poitou and south-western France. This style uses stilted arches and has exuberantly ornamented facades, with typically elegant foliage scrolls and flower patterns. Further south, in Perigueux, Cahors, and Angouleme, we find domed churches, which might have been influenced by Byzantine building styles, again often with fine sculpture.

Burgundian Romanesque, seen at its best in Vezelay, Autun and Saulieu, uses many classical Roman forms, such as fluted pillars. Burgundian churches are high and large, Its sculpture is very fine and lively; Gislebertus of Autun, working around 1100-1150, left exceptionally fine work including a famous carving of Eve. Burgundy influenced many other styles through the expansion of the monastic order of Cluny, whose head church was in this region.

In Italy, Romanesque style developed along rather different lines. Perhaps because classical Roman influence hadn't died out completely, there is less massiveness in this style and arcades tend to be fairly light. Vaulting is unusual, most churches having timber roofs which allowed more slender supports to be used. Most impressive to the traveller are the striped churches of northern and central Italy – in Verona, red and white stripes, and in Tuscany, horizontal courses of contrasting white and green marble.

Venetian architecture is a very special case, with a unique fusion of Romanesque and Byzantine styles seen both in St Mark’s basilica, and in the early palaces. A strong horizontal emphasis is created by round-arched arcades running across the front of the building, and the detailing is fine, with rich materials such as marble and porphyry (and mosaic in San Marco, of course) often used to create an effect of wealth and splendour.

In the south of Italy, and in Sicily, the Normans met the Arabs, and this resulted in a unique style which blends both influences with some Byzantine trends. Palermo churches have little domes like oriental hats; mosaic is the main interior decoration; and the Villa Rufolo in Ravello (built 1270), with fine polylobed arches and bicoloured decoration, was fine enough to become the palace of a pope.


Cologne is best known for its fine Gothic cathedral – but it also has a unique set of Romanesque churches which embody all the solidity and rhythm of the German Romanesque style. Much German Romanesque clusters around the Rhine, with the three great imperial cathedrals of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms all dating from the 11th century. These churches are ambitious in scale and design.

A particular feature of much German Romanesque architecture is the double ended church, such as St Michael at Hildesheim. No one seems to know why the western apse developed; perhaps it brings the western baptistery into the body of the church. Multiple towers also give the German cathedral a characteristic silhouette. We find these multiple towers in France and Belgium, too – for instance at Tournai – and indeed early French Gothic cathedrals like Chartres and Laon were originally planned with seven or nine towers. (With the change in aesthetics that came with the Gothic style, the towers became unfashinonable and were never completed.)

Eastern Europe

While the strongest trends of Romanesque art were in the west, there’s some fine Romanesque art in Eastern Europe, too, with its own particular characteristics. For instance the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland have a number of rotundas – small round churches (eg at Znojmo, Prague, and Wawel Castle in Krakow). This seems to have been a highly popular form.

Croatia has a fine collection of nearly 150 small pre-romanesque churches along the coast. Many of these are built on a centralised plan, and St Donatus, a huge church in Zadar, is built in the form of a rotunda. But there’s also some fine late Romanesque work – several other churches in Zadar, and Trogir cathedral, also on the coast, which has a finely decorated portal by the sculptor Radovan, about 1240.

Secular buildings

Romanesque architecture is best known for its monastic and ecclesiastical buildings. Many secular buildings at the time were built of wood; this even included early castles with wooden palisades

But there are still some fine Romanesque secular buildings. Many are castles, of course – at Rochester, Norwich, Ludlow in England, and much further afield, the Crusader castles in Syria and the Holy Land. But there are also houses belonging to the wealthy merchants in a number of cities; at Cluny and Chartres, in Lincoln, and in the Low Countries at Tournai and Ghent.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, are the German Emperor’s hall at Goslar, and the Wartburg palace near Eisenach. These palaces, assertive and finely built, may have been added to by later centuries, but they are still authentically Romanesque in their atmosphere.