Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Church Architecture Styles: Romanesque

October 7th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series:

“House Churches”

Early Christian Style

Byzantine Style

Early medieval church architecture is Romanesque in style.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west ca. 476 and the division of the west into competing barbarian kingdoms, urban life declined and cities depopulated with the result that the demand for large church basilicas dried-up. Masonry skills declined and church architecture entered a period of small proprietary wooden structures in rural settings –usually on manors or large estates.

The rise of monasticism, the advent of pilgrimage fever due to the cult of relics, the return of economic prosperity, and the attempt on the part of Charlemagne to resurrect the glory of the Roman Empire inspired the construction of large, impressive churches once again. The ‘Roman’ in ‘Romanesque’ refers to the return to ancient Roman masonry construction and the use of the round arch as the main structural form in buildings. Detailing and the arrangement of forms, however, were not ‘Roman’ but rather expressions of local or regional tradition.

(Be sure to click on the pictures to see details)

double arches

Fig. 1 The Roman ’round arch’ is the basic structural element of the Romanesque style. Built in 1061, the three level Romanesque nave wall of “Southwell Minster” in England (on the left, above) is remarkably similar to an ancient Roman aqueduct built in the first century (on the right). Both use thick heavy supports. Almost without exception Romanesque churches make use of the Roman round arch. Notice, however, that the arcade columns in the left picture are not ‘Roman’ but, rather, heavy cylinders that are decidedly not ‘classical’. Nor are the attached clustered or ‘compound columns/piers’ on the second level. “Romanesque” means ‘Roman’ in some ways but also ‘not Roman’, in other ways.

groin vs barrel

Fig. 2 Romanesque builders resurrected the ancient Roman use of masonry vaulted ceilings.

Stone or masonry ceilings added an element of grandeur prized by both secular and ecclesiastical leaders during the 9th through 12th centuries. In addition to its symbolic purpose masonry ceilings also had a functional purpose: they were fire proof. Timbered ceilings of the early Christian period were a disadvantage during the destructive raids of some marauding barbarians. Stone vaults, however, require thick walls to keep them up. Windows were therefore kept fairly small in size and few in number until building skills and knowledge increased.

Due to having to relearn engineering possibilities, Romanesque churches tend to have a somewhat heavy appearance that conveys a feeling of strength, determination, and power perhaps calling to mind the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.

Corvey double

Fig. 3 On the left is how this church might have looked in 873-885 and (on the right) how it looks today.

It was during the Romanesque period that the west front of churches began to sport towers and impressive porches. It is not known why towers were added to churches. Monastic churches had bell towers presumably to call the monks in from the surrounding area multiple times a day for prayers.  It is possible that in ‘secular’ churches the design conjured the idea of the church as a spiritual fortress as towers were an important part of defensive systems. It may be that they were simply meant to be impressive, reflective of the power and influence of the patrons who sponsored their construction: emperors, kings, bishops and lords. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux banned the use of towers in the construction of his abbey churches because he considered them pretentious and a waste of money –too worldly. Whatever the original intent –and regardless of Bernard’s objection– towers became a standard part of church architecture beginning in the Romanesque period.

three facades

Fig. 4 (Left) Even without a tower a Romanesque church can appear strong and fortified. (Middle) Towers and a multi-level porch with a chapel above constitute what is called a ‘westwork’. (Far Right) This simple proprietary church on an English manor has a square tower over the altar end of the building.

name 2design ground plan elevation

Fig. 5 The basic Roman basilica –nave and side aisles– are at the core of Romanesque buildings. ‘Transepts’ –what appear to be arms extending out past the width of the basilica– became a standard part of church architecture during the Romanesque period. (Transepts were not an innovation as they are found in some early Christian basilicas, especially in Saint Peter’s and in Saint Paul’s in Rome.) A tower commonly sits atop where the nave and transepts cross (the ‘crossing tower’). Towers are ubiquitous in the Romanesque style as in the monastic abbey church shown above. They could be square, round, or polygonal. Even domes became popular in some regions. Some Romanesque churches have ‘opposing apses’; one on the east end where the high altar is located and one on the west end where often there is a chapel or shrine housing a saint’s tomb. The shrines are on the second level which visually communicates with the ground floor (and perhaps even a third floor) by openings in the floor (and ceiling). Note the ‘dripping arches’ under the eaves (explained in the next illustration).

double hierarchic

Fig. 6 Here is a crossing tower that illustrates two other common Romanesque features. The ‘Lombard band’ is a decorative line-up of what we might call “dripping arches” and is usually found just below eaves. “Lombard” comes from “Lombard Kingdom” where that particular decorative element apparently originated. ‘Encompassing arches’ surround one, two or three smaller arches (‘double arches’) supported by columns. They, in turn, can frame ‘recessed arches’ that are a step back into the space of the window or door from the front ones. The Romanesque aesthetic here is hierarchic: spaces are defined and then subdivided into smaller or less prominent elements. The tower in the example above is itself composed of sides divided into levels by cornices or eaves which create near square rectangles that enclose all the arch elements.

Fig. 7  In the left photo we see that the Lombard band under the eaves has become an arcade. It's called a 'blind arcade' because it's only decorative; the spaces in the archways are walled-in. The Pisa Cathedral on the right makes use of alternating tall blind arcades on the ground level and actual (although not practical) arcades on the levels above.

Fig. 7 In the left photo we see that the Lombard band under the eaves has become an arcade. It’s called a ‘blind arcade’ because it’s only decorative; the spaces in the archways are walled-in. The Pisa Cathedral in Italy, on the right, makes use of tall blind arcades on the ground level and actual (although not practical) arcades on the levels above.

A Romanesque innovation was the ‘engaged’ or ‘attached column/shaft’. This element added a sense of height to the flat nave walls that were characteristic of the early Christian basilica.

engaged column

Fig. 8 From the tops of the ‘attached columns/shafts’ spring ‘transverse arches’ which cross the vault and join up to the engaged columns on the opposite side of the nave. The entire space between two shafts and transverse arches is called a ‘bay’. A nave can be described as having 3 or 4 or 5 or any number of ‘bays’. Notice also that Romanesque churches often had two or three levels: the bottom level or ‘nave arcade’, the second level or ‘gallery’ and the top level or ‘clerestory’ (which we saw in the early Christian basilica). Nave galleries are somewhat baffling as they were apparently not used. Often they were shallow with the exterior wall so close behind the arches as to make it impossible or extremely dangerous to walk. Others screen an actual usable space. Seldom did the galleries  include any railings which also suggests they were not used except for perhaps access to the upper levels for maintenance. It is possible that galleries were an eastern influence where they were actually used for congregational space.

Column capitals, and doorways (portals) are the primary locations of Romanesque sculpture. The style of sculpture varies widely but it is generally stylized (not realistic) and, for the most part, fills architecturally defined shapes.

double cpita

Fig. 9 Romanesque capitals were often carved with figures, like the one on the left above, but not always. They could be as plain and as basic as the ‘cubic capital’ shown on the right. They could also be abstract or organic patterns similar to Byzantine capitals.

‘Recessed orders’ are typical of Romanesque doorways (and windows). Columns (usually attached) and the corresponding arches they support (‘archivolts’) step back in actual space leading the eye into the building. Portals are a prime location for Romanesque sculpture.


Fig. 10 ‘Recessed orders’ add a telescoping visual pull. The amount and sophistication of sculpture varies widely in Romanesque doorways.

web IMG_2853

Fig. 11 Often the normally empty space defined by the curve of the arch in a portal is filled in with what is called a ‘tympanum’ panel. This creates a half circle that is usually filled with sculpture.

labeled double Durham

Fig. 12 One of my favorites: “Durham Cathedral”, England. This is monumental Romanesque (which is called the “Norman” style in England). Some elements here that I haven’t yet mentioned: ‘Ribbed vaulting’ is groin vaulting with decorative ‘roll moulding’ enhancing the edges. ‘Compound piers’ are solid squarish piers with multiple engaged shafts attached around the perimeter. A ‘double bay’ is created when engaged floor to ceiling shafts alternate with piers or columns that have no floor to ceiling shafts. Note in Durham Cathedral the decorative treatment of the arches and columns.

It is a daunting task to describe the Romanesque ‘style’ as there is overwhelming variety; for every characteristic you can name you can find too many exceptions or different applications. It is perhaps better to say that there is a Romanesque ‘architectural vocabulary’ rather than a unified ‘style’.


Picture Sources: Fig.1 Pic. on Left:; Fig 2 Barrel Vault Illustration:, Groin Vault Illustration:, Pic. on Left:, Pic. on Right: interior view of aisle groin vaults, photo J. Howe, Boston College; Fig. 3, Left:, Right:; Fig. 4, Left:, Middle: Abtei Murbach by Alexander Anlicker. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –, Right:  photo Tom Marshall 13th century; Fig. 5: Bernard Dick; Fig 6: “Early Medieval Architecture”, Roger Stalley, Page 124; Fig 7, Left: “Romanesque Architecture in France”, (NY, E.P. Dutton), Digital Archive, [Images from Julius Baum: “Romanesque Architecture in France”], Right:; Fig. 8, Left: Bernard Dick, Right:; Fig. 9, Left:; Right:, Right:; Fig. 10:; Fig. 11: Bernard Dick; Fig. 12, Left:, Right: “Early Medieval Architecture”, Roger Stalley, page 216.

Tags: ,


One Response to “Church Architecture Styles: Romanesque”

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    St Bernard’s has a new director and perhaps a change in focus!! Why don’t you offer a one day seminar on church architecture?

Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-