The Romanesque period in Europe’s history started around the mid-10th century CE until the 12th Century CE. As an art movement, it occurred throughout Europe and had different regional styles. It was primarily a large-scale architectural style that emulated the Classical Roman styles from the Antiquity and Byzantine periods. Other art forms like metalwork, sculpture, painting, embroidery, and stained glass would act as adornments and decorations for churches.
Table of Contents
- 1 Romanesque Definition: “Debased Roman Architecture”
- 2 Out of the Dark Ages: A Brief Historical Overview
- 3 Romanesque Art and Architecture
- 4 The Romanesque Style Continues to Influence
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Romanesque Definition: “Debased Roman Architecture”
The word “Romanesque” relates to the Romans, and is often explained as having “descended from [the] Romans”. The suffix esque originates as a French term that refers to something that resembles something else. When it is placed behind a noun, like “Roman” in this case, it means it resembles the Roman style. However, this term was also utilized to indicate Romance or Romantic languages.
According to some scholarly sources, the term was first utilized by the French historian and archaeologist, Charles de Gerville, in the 19th Century CE when he wrote a letter to his colleague, August Le Prévost, who was also an archaeologist, historian, and geologist. De Gerville used the term romane in his letter as he described the architecture he saw, which spanned from the 400s to 1200s CE.
An example of Romanesque architecture; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
De Gerville’s colleague, Arcisse de Caumont, described the architecture he saw as “debased Roman architecture”. He likened it to the Romance languages that were not Latin, describing them as the “degenerated Latin language”.
The Romanesque definition was also expanded on by the English writer, William Gunn. He utilized this term in an official publication to describe the architectural style from the Medieval period before the Gothic period. This was published in An Inquiry into the Origin and Influence of Gothic Architecture (1819).
The term’s usage evolved over time to designate the architectural style during the 900s until 1100s CE.
Out of the Dark Ages: A Brief Historical Overview
Before we look at the Romanesque art period, it will help us to understand how this period evolved. The Romanesque period took place during a time in Europe’s history called the Medieval period, or Middle Ages. The Medieval period started with the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 CE and lasted to around the late 1400s, which was when the Renaissance period brought new light to a darkened Western world.
The Roman Empire fell because of the widespread disintegration of the political system, invasions from Germanic and other tribes, as well as many other debated factors related to its decline. The Roman Empire was also split into different parts, which weakened its ability to fight back against the invading tribes.
The Medieval period (which developed after the Roman Empire’s destruction) has been divided into three periods: Early, High, and Late. During the Medieval period, there was new growth in the Western world’s economy, society, religion, and cultures.
New kingdoms were being shaped and with the influx of different cultures, languages evolved beyond just Latin and Greek.
The new nations after the great migrations during A.D. 500; Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
The Migration Period was also another part of the Medieval period because, not only did various tribes invade the Roman Empire, but there was also a mass migration of these tribes into the Roman Empire. Some of the tribes were Germanic, like the Anglo-Saxons, the Goths, the Lombards, the Vandals, and some were Eurasian like the Slavs.
During this period, there was also religious discord between the Eastern and Western European countries. This was marked by what was known as the East-West schism in 1054 CE, where the Roman Catholic Church (which was run by the Pope in the West) was separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East (run by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople).
There were thousands of changes and developments during the Medieval period – developments in politics, religion, and the arts throughout many countries. What is important to understand about this vast and complex time is that religion played an important role in society. The Early Middle Ages also saw the rise of monasticism.
The “Father of Europe”
Charlemagne, otherwise known as Charles the Great, was a significant figure during the Medieval period because he was responsible for the reunification of the Western and Central European countries. His coronation as Emperor of Rome was held in 800 CE, and prior to this he was the King of the Franks in 768 and King of the Lombards in 774.
He was also the first emperor since the Roman Empire fell (estimated around three centuries prior), and with this, he reunited regions in Western Europe that had not been united since. He came to be considered as the “Father of Europe” because of his unifying force.
The Carolingian Empire gave rise to the Carolingian Renaissance, which was an important part of Medieval history because it was a period of cultural development in various disciplines like the arts, architecture, literature, music, and liturgical religious practices.
Charlemagne himself was a patron of the arts and he sought to emulate the ideals from the Classical Roman Empire by constructing various religious buildings; architecture was an important part of the Carolingian Empire.
Emperor Charlemagne, painted by German artist Albrecht Dürer in 1511-1513; Albrecht Dürer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Professor of History, John Contreni, is often quoted providing estimates of just how many buildings Charlemagne set out to build during his reign. Contreni stated that “the little more than eight decades between 768 to 855 alone saw the construction of 27 new cathedrals, 417 monasteries, and 100 royal residences”.
There were influences from Roman and Byzantine styles in Carolingian architecture, especially when we look at churches.
Churches were mostly built following the layouts of basilicas, which were public buildings during ancient Roman times. The structure of the churches was also changed to accommodate various religious ceremonies. Some of the changes consisted of the entrances becoming west-facing, otherwise known as westworks, and the eastern ends of the church housing the altars. The western fronts were usually done at monumental scales.
These Carolingian architectural structures laid the foundation for the Romanesque periods to come, and are usually described as the Pre-Romanesque period in Northern Europe. An example of this is the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (792 to 805), which has the characteristic western front.
Charlemagne’s church in Aachen; Unknown author Unknown author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The artwork produced during the Carolingian Renaissance was short-lived, however, only lasting between 800 to 900 CE. There was a resurgence of Roman influence, such as murals like frescoes, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, and sculptures. Figures were also depicted with more naturalism, as we see from the Classical Roman murals.
After the Carolingian Empire
The Carolingian Empire came to an end during the 900s CE, and the period of what seemed to be growth declined. There were various reasons for this – some of them included Viking invasions, which also saw the destruction and pillaging of many sacred churches.
The Ottonian Renaissance occurred during the reign of Otto I, or Otto the Great. His coronation as Holy Roman Emperor was in 962 CE. As another patron of the arts, art and architecture during this period were primarily for the royal courts and monasteries.
This was not a widespread artistic or cultural movement; however, it is important to place it contextually as it was a precursor to the Romanesque period.
Another important marker in Romanesque history was in 1066 when William, the Duke of Normandy, invaded England. There was an increase in buildings that acted as fortifications, like castles and strongholds, which also showed that it was Norman territory.
The Crusades during 1095 to 1270 CE also increased the spread of cultural ideas and various skills in crafts like masonry and metalworking. There was also an influence from the Eastern European style of architecture, namely architectural domes from Constantinople.
Romanesque Art and Architecture
Romanesque art certainly evolved over many different periods in Western European history, with many figures in power rising and falling. The Romanesque style can be characterized by several features, however, what is important to note is that despite there being many overall similarities, there were differences in the Romanesque architecture of different regions like Italy, the British Isles, France, and Normandy.
There were important historical factors that signified the Romanesque period too, for example, Monasticism. This became a widespread religious endeavor across Europe, and monasteries became centers where people could stay during pilgrimages. Additionally, these were sites that housed religious relics.
Below, we discuss various Romanesque art characteristics as well as some of the prominent artworks like paintings, ornaments, and tapestries from the main regional styles throughout Europe.
Romanesque Art Characteristics and Types
Romanesque architecture shares some common features regardless of the regional differences. It is often described as “sturdy” and “solid” in structure. Notable similarities across regions would be thick walls, smaller windows, and columns, which would usually alternate with piers. Columns were made in the form of stone drums, which were thick and large to provide enough stability and support for the walls, roof, and vaulting above.
Other common features included arches between the columns and piers, as well as decorative arcades – either inside or outside – in the form of “blind” arcades. These were a series of archways with no openings, and typically with a wall behind it.
The Romanesque portal of the church of Our Lady in Avy, Charente-Maritime, France; Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
There were different types of vaulting, for example, the Barrel Vault, the Groin Vault, Ribbed Vault, and Pointed Arch Vault. Domes were also characteristic features in churches, and it is here that we often see Romanesque paintings depicted as murals or mosaics, especially in the apse area.
When it comes to Romanesque paintings, not many have survived, although typical themes include that of the Last Judgment, Christ in Majesty, and various other scenes from the Old Testament. These were also painted on the arches, called the tympanum, above church entrances (these also included Romanesque sculptures).
Romanesque paintings were painted for didactic (educational) purposes due to many people being illiterate during the Medieval ages. Murals also depicted the figure of Christ within an oval frame called a mandorla, where he would be surrounded by various figures or animals from the Bible. The iconographic style from the Byzantine period also stylized the various depictions of Christ.
Christ mandorla in an illuminated manuscript, c. 1220; medieval, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When we look at Romanesque sculpture, we see it in the capitals on columns, often in Corinthian Order, as well as on the tympanums above church entrances, which were done in relief carvings. Although sculpture subject matter was often of biblical stories, there were other decorative motifs commonly used, such as spirals.
We see these types of decorative motifs in Roman architecture too, referred to by sources as “scrolling vines”.
These were also used to decorate manuscripts. An example of the elaborate sculpture and decorative motifs is on the tympanum of Vézelay Abbey (c. 1120 t0 1150), which depicts images from the First Crusade and the Apostles’ purpose to lead people towards God.
Other types of art were done with metalwork, ivory, and enamel. These would often be used to make sacred objects. For example, the famous Stavelot Triptych (c. 1156 to 1158), which is made from gold and enamel, is a mobile altar made by Mosan artists from the Meuse Valley located in Belgium. Mosan artists created varieties of metalwork, stonework, enamel work, as well as illuminated manuscripts.
Stavelot Triptych (c. 1156 to 1158); Original File Uploaded by en:User:Stbalbach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Embroidery and stained-glass windows were also different types of artworks that were often utilized as decorations within the churches. We see stained glass windows more prominently during the Gothic period, although sources suggest that remnants of the Romanesque period were used for rebuilding during the Gothic period. Stained glass also replaced the use of tapestries.
The Cluny Abbey
The Cluny Abbey was a significant religious building during the 900s CE. It began as a donation of land to form the hunting lodge of Duke William I of Aquitaine. The abbey was started as a reform of the Rule of St. Benedict. The abbey was also independently run – the Pope was the only authority over it. This enabled the abbey to build more monasteries in France, as well as to fortify the Rule of St. Benedict.
Cluny’s liturgy became well developed and because of this, it grew into an important artistic hub.
Three successive churches were built at Cluny, which also highlights the characteristic Romanesque architectural style. There was Cluny I, Cluny II, and Cluny III. Cluny I was a simple structure in design, but it was Cluny II that emulated the Romanesque designs.
Footplan and hemi-perspective elevation of Cluny Abbey church in late 17th / early 18th century; Pierre Giffart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Cluny II had the typical westworks, being the west-facing front with the two accompanying towers. Between the entrance and the rest of church inside was a narthex, which had a choir with two chapels on either side on the east-facing side of the church (we see this style in future church designs).
The transept was situated just before the choir, horizontally crossing with the vertical nave, which gave the church the cruciform plan. The layout of the church was of a rectangular basilica, which consisted of a nave (the central floor space) surrounded by aisles on both sides.
Other characteristics of Cluny Abbey were the barrel vaults and round arches, a typical characteristic of Roman architecture. Cluny III was rebuilt and finished ruing the year 1130 and was considered the largest structure in Europe.
With additional embellishments to the already existing structures, it was a monumental sight to see.
The Cistercians and Fontenay Abbey
The Cluny abbey became a complex structure and a powerful system within the reform movement – the Cluniacs were seen as too “worldly”, having become too engrossed in earthly endeavors. This period of reform is referred to as the Cluniac movement. It was succeeded by the Cistercian movement. The Cistercians were monks that split from the Benedictine orders of Cluny to continue what they believed was in accordance with St. Benedict of Nursia’s way.
Fontenay Abbey is another example of Romanesque architecture, founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118 CE.
In the plan of a Latin cross, this church was simpler in its design and construction, made from ashlar stone. There was a focus on reducing the number of decorative elements like towers and ornaments so that the monks were not distracted.
Fontenay Abbey and Cistercian architecture; Lucien Bégule (1912), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Along the east side, the apse is flat, which is in contrast to the curved apses seen in other churches. There are also two chapels on either side, both square-shaped. We still see the classical Romanesque style, however; in fact, the church has been described as a close correlation to that of Greek temple.
There is a nave with the accompanying side aisles. Along the nave and near the end of it are barrel vaults, which have slight points (indicative of the Gothic style of architecture). We also notice columns embedded in the nave columns, which extend into the above transverse arches.
The First Romanesque Style
The Romanesque architectural styles took place regionally, which means buildings had slight variations of style and building materials. When we look at the Romanesque period in art it is subdivided, beginning with the First (or Lombard style) and then the Romanesque style. The First style was coined as a term by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who was a Spanish architect. He thought the Catalonian style had similarities to the Romanesque period, although it took place during the later stages of the Pre-Romanesque period.
The First style started in Lombardy in Italy during the 1000s CE, but also occurred in Catalonia in Spain, as well as southern France. The Comacine Guild was started by stonemasons in Lombardi, also called the Magistri Comacini or Comacine masters, who pioneered this architectural style. Various sources indicate their first mention was by King Rothari of Lombard in his edict in the year 643 CE.
There are several distinguishing features of this style, namely that it was not elaborate in design or details and that there were no sculptures.
It had thick walls, often also described as “solid” in structure. The Lombard bands, also called “blind arches”, are horizontal strips of arches without any opening placed across areas on the exterior of buildings. These were common features during this period.
Sant Climent de Taüll in the Vall de Boí; Nur.ra, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There was also the use of open arches, which would be vertically placed to adorn the exterior of the buildings. An example of this is the reconstruction of the front side of the Santa Maria de Ripoll Monastery (1032). Another example includes the now UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vall de Boí, which has nine church buildings located in the villages in the valley of the Pyrenees.
The churches in the valley have been noted for their architectural placement within the rural areas of the Pyrenees. The churches were all built between the 1000s and 1100s CE. An example of one of these churches is the Sant Climent de Taüll, which was constructed in 1123. This church is also one of the best-preserved churches in the valley.
The floorplan is in the basilica design with three naves. We will notice the decorative arches, otherwise also known as “arcading” on the bell tower, or belfry, which consists of seven stories (although some sources say six stories).
There are no sculptural decorations on the exterior of the church, and it appears “solid” in its simplicity, which is characteristic of the Romanesque style.
The interior of the church has various mural paintings, which include the more famous fresco titled, Christ Pantocrator (c. 1123), by an artist referred to as the Master of Taüll. It depicts the central figure of Jesus Christ in a mandorla shape painted on the semi-circular dome of the church (a common feature for paintings in churches).
Christ Pantocrator (c. 1123) fresco in the apse of Sant Climent de Taül; David Monniaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
He sits with a small depiction of the earth below his feet. He holds up his right hand in the gesture of blessing and he holds a book in his left hand. There are various other biblical figures and animals surrounding the figure of Christ. The colors used are a variety of blues, reds, and yellow. This painting has become well-known throughout history, with modern artists like Picasso drawing inspiration from it.
Norman Romanesque Style
The Norman Romanesque style was an English style, primarily started by the Normans who were descendants of the Vikings – Normandy was also subsequently named after these groups. The Norman style developed from the resulting invasions around the year 1066, which was when the Normans took over England.
The English architect, Thomas Rickman, coined the term “Norman Romanesque” in his publication, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation (1817). This was the first usage of the term to describe the regional style among other sequential Romanesque styles.
The Norman style can be seen in churches and cathedrals, although there were also many castles and fortifications.
The style has rounded arches and is known to have large walls and proportions. The Norman arch was a common characteristic of this style, which was usually semi-circular in shape and built as large archway entrances that created a sense of grandiosity.
An 1881 drawing of Durham Cathedral; Reclus, Elisée, 1830-1905;Ravenstein, Ernest George, 1834-1913;Keane, A. H. (Augustus Henry), 1833-1912, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
The Durham Cathedral (1093 to 1140) is an example of the Norman style. It is one of the largest and most monumental structures ever built and is renowned for its scale. Various structural elements include ornamental decorations. In fact, the building is copiously decorated in what is referred to as overlapping decorative arcading as well as a characteristic band of chevron-like zigzags, spirals, flutes, and lozenges along with the thick columns and semi-circular arches.
The interior of the church has tall columns and piers as well as barrel vaulting above. The whole interior appears monumental in scale. The meaning and motivation behind the large scale of the church have been a common question among many scholars.
Another famous artwork from the Norman style is the Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1070), which depicts the historical events prior to and of the conquest of England between William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson (Harold II), Earl of Wessex. The tapestry’s length is 230 feet with over 70 scenes. There are Latin inscriptions, otherwise known as tituli, to describe the events, which are embroidered with woolen yarn into the cloth (as opposed to being weaved on tapestries, which was the norm).
A scene of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting horses being shipped to England by Normans prior to their invasion, 11th century; Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The commissioner or patron of the tapestry is reported by many scholars to have been the Bayeux Bishop named Odo (he was also the half-brother to the Duke of Normandy), who is also depicted in the tapestry. The tapestry is believed to have been created in Canterbury, England, and depicts a more biased Norman perspective of the conquering of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The “Bayeux Tapestry” is one of the more famous embroidered art pieces from the Norman art style.
On the larger macrocosm of the Romanesque art period, this tapestry goes beyond the function as just art because it is a rich and detailed depiction of war, politics, and a record of how the Normans prepared for battle, dined, and engaged with one another.
Italian Romanesque Style
The Italian Romanesque style, especially the Pisan Romanesque style (also called the Tuscan style), occurred during the 1000s CE to 1200s CE. It was characterized by more elaborate sculptural decorations, inside and outside the church. We will also notice numerous decorative arcades.
A famous example is the Piazza dei Miracoli or Piazza del Duomo (“Cathedral Square”), the architectural complex housing the Pisa Cathedral (1063 to 1092), the Pisa Baptistry (1153), and the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, also called the Campanile (1173 to 1372).
The Duomo and Tower of Pisa at sunrise; MHoser, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Duomo di Pisa, which is the front entrance of the Pisa Cathedral, is a lavishly decorated façade. There are three doorways, with “blind” arcades next to each one (totaling four blind arcades interspersed between the real doors). Some of the influences on this building come from the Lombard Romanesque style, as well as Islamic and Byzantine styles. We see the characteristic Lombard bands on the arches and columns. There are crescent-shaped Romanesque paintings above each doorway with Islamic-styled shapes described as diamonds and circles.
The levels above have arcades and columns that appear elaborately decorative when the building is viewed from afar. However, when viewed close-up, we also see the level of detail in each part of the building.
The Romanesque Style Continues to Influence
The Gothic style developed in Paris around the year 1120 CE, which then started to phase out the Romanesque period. However, the advent of the Gothic style still utilized Romanesque influences. For example, churches continued to use the cruciform design plans, including the western-facing façade with the characteristic two towers.
In the 1800s, there was a Romanesque revival in various buildings and churches. Some common examples include the Natural History Museum (1879) located in London. Other buildings in America include the Maaronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon (1844 to 1846) by Richard Upjohn.
The style has also been adapted by the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who designed buildings like the Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885 to 1887) located in Chicago. This was later known as the Richardsonian Romanesque style with various other architects working alongside Richardson and his style.
The Romanesque style became a foundational precursor to other architectural styles. Not only did it borrow from Classical architecture, but it also crossed paths with Byzantine styles. It was not only relegated to architecture but spanned across various artistic modalities like illuminated manuscripts and mosaics. From Classical to Modern, the Romanesque style has been adapted and molded to suit churches, cathedrals, department stores, and warehouses.
Take a look at our Romanesque art period webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Romanesque Art?
Romanesque art was primarily an architectural style that drew from the Classical Greek and Roman architectural styles. It also drew inspiration from Byzantine and Islamic styles. This art period did not only include architecture, however – there were other art forms like metalwork, sculpture, painting like murals and mosaics, embroidery, and stained glass.
When Did the Romanesque Period Start?
The Romanesque period occurred during the Medieval, or Middle Ages. It started around the mid-10th century CE until the 12th Century CE. It originated in different parts of Europe, predominantly France, Italy, England, and Northern parts of Europe like Germany.
What Are the Characteristics of Romanesque Architecture?
The common characteristics of Romanesque architecture are solidity, strength, thick and large-scaled walls, piers, and columns (either small or large, depending on the placement inside or outside the church). Other features include arches, commonly called “blind” arches and decorative arcades. Buildings usually had wooden roofs and vaulting in the forms of Barrel, Ribbed, Groin, and Pointed Arch. Entrances were west-facing with characteristic towers, sometimes one tower on smaller churches and two towers on larger cathedrals.