Romanesque and Gothic architecture,







By Rohit Tripathi





A discussion of the development of architecture during the Middle Ages
































Romanesque and Gothic Architecture


           Art and architecture during the medieval period is remembered because of several reasons, one of which is the way it changed after the Roman Empire disintegrated.  Architectural development ceased in Europe and construction was determined by practical needs--primarily limited to houses of worship, and hence the large scale creation of churches.

            Architecture went through a metamorphosis during a period from 700 AD to 1400 AD, during which great churches and palaces were built in an attempt to recreate the glory of the past. There was a widespread belief throughout Christendom that the world would end a thousand years after the birth of Christ.  When this did not happen, a new devotion to the church came into existence.

             Another reason for the creation of churches at large scale was the social and economic condition during the medieval times. A large church in a locality would easily attract people passing by, and generate revenues for the people. Churches were not only centers of religion but also of economy and culture. The Roman Catholic Church was the heir to the Holy Roman Empire, and it inherited a large share of the political shrewdness and wisdom associated with an empire. The Roman Catholic Church would send emissaries to far away lands in the same manner as the Roman Empire sent armies to conquer foreign lands. Great monastic orders were thus born. For example the one of St. Benedict, which required the spread of Christianity and its arts throughout Europe. These missions were reflected in the art and architecture of the period, as the buildings grew in size and magnificence.


How churches were built during medieval ages                               

With the fall of the Roman Empire, a sharp decline in knowledge of the building arts had occurred. Churches during middle ages were intended to be as great past buildings, but they didn’t exactly use the same techniques to achieve their aim. Medieval architects did not quarry marbles like the Greeks or created large concrete vaults and domes. They worked with poor quality stones, mortar, and rubble. Their zeal to construct large churches led to an altogether new style of creation where one part of a building owes its support to another part. 

                  Though the church building styles were derived from Roman ones, there was a particular difference. The Roman buildings were large and open air. The church however had a need to contain members within its walls. Roman buildings that were best suited to satisfy this need were the small halls called Basilicas. Cato built the oldest known basilica in Rome in 184 BCE. By the 4th century AD, Christians began to build edifices for worship that were similar to the Roman basilica.

                  Thus, with the basilica started the medieval Christian art of building churches. A Basilica was built as an oblong hall, with an entrance called facade at one end and a semicircular recess known as apse at the opposite end. The person addressing people in the basilica would be seated in the apse. Larger buildings had two rows of columns running along the length of the building. In such cases, the span of the roof in the center would be kept the widest, and was called the nave. The nave was often open to the sky.


The two side spans would be narrower and were called the aisles. The nave ended in the apse, and the aisles too ended in smaller apses. A regular feature that developed by the 5th century was the orientation of the apse at the east end, and an atrium with a porch at the west end giving entrance. This area was called the bema and it housed the sanctuary of the church. The church architects were soon dissatisfied with such simple plans and decided to add two arms to the bema of the church that ran vertical to the entire length of the basilica. These arms (known as transepts) gave the church the look of a Latin Cross, and soon became a regular feature among all major constructions.

              The church also needed to place its deep toned bell (the Campana) somewhere in the building such that it could be heard from afar. A tower, called the Campanile, was thus constructed and it became a new feature of the church.  This completed the basic ground plan of the basilica of the Christian church in the middle ages—and was developed along with the development of medieval sculpturing and building knowledge. These phases of growth are known as the Carolingian period, the Ottonian period, and the Romanesque and Gothic period. The ones being discussed in this paper are as following, (with rough approximation of dates)




800 AD to 950 AD


950 AD to 1050 AD


1050 AD to 1140 AD

Early Gothic

1140 AD to 1194 AD

High Gothic

1194 AD to 1300 AD

Late Gothic

1300 AD to 1400 AD







Carolingian architecture:


A tribe called the Franks established control in France, West Germany, and the Netherlands for a few years during the middle ages. The word Carolingian originated from a Frankish ruler Charles Martel, who defeated the Moors at Poitiers in 732. Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, grandson of Martel, on Christmas Day, 800 as ‘The Emperor of the Romans’ in St. Peter’s, Rome. As the Carolingian Empire expanded, Renovatio—or a deliberate revival of Roman culture became popular. Renovatio focused on ‘Constantine the Great’, the first Christian Emperor. Charlemagne was held by his people as the ‘New Constantine’, and he was determined to recreate the glory of classical Roman art and culture in the west. Created by the architect Odo of Metz, Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, itself was a model for the new Roman style. 

Charlemagne frequently visited ancient Roman sites, specially Ravenna. Drawing inspiration from his observations, he designed the chapel of his own palace. It was called the Palatine Chapel (named after Palatine Hill in Rome) based on the church of St. Vitale in Ravenna.

 The cathedral of Charlemagne  The Palatine Chapel

 The Palatine Chapel-exterior

Contributions of the Carolingian era include the west works (the facade) and the bell towers, which were features used widely in Romanesque and Gothic period.  

Some important constructions of Carolingian art are:


Saint-Denis (near Paris) -- Abbey Church, begun after 754.

This church contains the shrine of St. Denis, the ‘Apostle’ of the Gauls. It was consecrated in 775, and was replaced in the 12th century by Gothic abbey church of Abbot Suger.

Fulda -- Cathedral (originally Abbey Church).

Church built 779-802; enlarged by the addition of the large transept at its west end in 802-17 under Abbot Ratger. Church completely re-built, 1704-12.

The purpose of the transept was to enclose the shrine of St. Boniface, the `Apostle' of the Germans. In its form, proportions, physical dimensions, orientation, and function, the transept emulates the transept of St. Peter's in Rome. The accompanying chapel of St. Michael was presumably a copy of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Rome -- S. Prassede













Rome -- S. Prassede


A half-scale copy of St. Peter's built by Paschal I, 817-24





















Ottonian art and architecture:

The reign of Charlemagne lasted for 30 years. After his death his empire was divided into three kingdoms among his sons. The western region, the present day Germany had a new line of emperors – the Ottos. During the years 950 to 1050 Germany saw an upcoming of a style called the Ottonian architecture. The first three Saxon rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were called Otto, and hence the name. The Ottonian style was inspired from Carolingian, and Byzantine styles. Ottonian architecture laid foundations for much of the Romanesque styles later adopted. The most often used style during the Ottonian period was an adaptation of the Carolingian basilica: a nave with three aisles, a prominent transept, and a single apse. Ottonian builders developed this basic design by increasing the size and tweaking the proportions of the western entrances. They changed the pier and column supports to divide the interior into a system of cells. For example, the church of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, where the structure is build as a number of rectangular areas in the nave, the crossing, and the transepts.  Ottonian Churches were decorated with sculpture well knows for their story telling, and animation.


















The Bronze Door at St. Michael’s Hildesheim, Germany (1001-1031)

Modelled after early Christian doors found on churches.

Above are some images from the interior of St. Michael’s










Romanesque architecture:


The Romanesque architecture is a style that developed in Europe during the 10th century AD, but the structures of Romanesque era are generally placed between 11th and 12th century AD. The name 'Romanesque' is a word for 'Roman-like' buildings. However much Romanesque style bears similarities to the Carolingian forms.


The Romanesque era was prominent due to the following:

·        Relief that the world did not ended at the turn of the millenium.

·        Upsurge of cities and trade.

·        Extension of the Pope’s authority

Besides this, foundations for the present day Europe were laid during this time, and the middle class emerged along with the merchants.

Monastic orders evolved with major developments in: Cluniac –dealing with education and art; and in Cistercian –manual labor and self-denial. Religion became a major cultural force, and it affected the society in many ways.

Churches were important not only because of the reasons mentioned earlier, but also because they often housed the relics of saints and martyrs.  Pilgrims would often travel large distances to visit these because of the curative and sanctifying powers that such relics were supposed to have. 

The need to host large number of people led to creation of massive churches. Thus, an important church would not only contain the relics, but would also have enough space to contain its visitors within its walls. For inspiration to create massive cathedrals, people turned to their past, and hence the name Romanesque.

Some important features of a Romanesque structure are :

·        Thick and large walls supporting stone roofs

·        Relatively simple design, but bulky

·        Similarity in external and interior appearance

·        Small windows (to avoid weakening of walls)

·        Vaults

The last feature is worth discussing. Vaulting was an important achievement in the medieval period. Development in the Romanesque period owes much to developed vaulting. They were of several types, the major ones being the barrel vault, the groin vault, and the rib vault. Vaulting in Christian buildings was usually limited to smaller buildings and to crypts. Larger structures were covered not with masonry but with wooden roofs. When Norsemen burnt some wooden churches, it was time to switch to stone.




















Barrel vault

This was a semi circular vault unbroken by ribs


A barrel vault with small perpendicular vaults underneath



A vault formed by the intersection of two vaults


A four-part vault



A six part vault


A vaulting rib starting from the intersection of two vaults


A group of ribs springing from a point to form a vault.




A prominent feature of many Romanesque churches is the addition of multiple chapels called ‘radiating chapels’ containing different relics. This was done more due to economical reasons. Each chapel would contain a relic funded privately by a donor.

Another beautiful development of the Romanesque period was the aisled basilica. The aisles were created either by towing or in three stages

1.      The nave was created. It was often higher than the side aisles.

2.      The nave was supported by two rows of columns that separated the nave from the aisles. Sometimes classical buildings, or ruins of the past were a good source of such columns. These columns were placed close together to support a continuous entablature as was done in the past. However they soon found it easier to construct arches from one column to another to arrive at the structure now known as the nave arcade. One famous example is of the Old St. Paul’s (drawn before the Great fire of 1666). Earlier architects made arches spring from the capitals of the columns themselves and they were built over the entablature. However they soon started building arches over columns. Thus a change in the shape of the capital was required. This gave rise to the cushioned capital, which was to become the most characteristic feature of the Romanesque style. St. John’s Chapel in Tower of London is a building where this has been used.

3.      Roofs of the nave and the aisles were vaulted next. Semi circular barrel vaults of stone were constructed for it. This worked well for smaller aisles, but was less frequently used in the nave. To ensure that the large stone roof of the nave be supported, walls were constructed beneath the main vault that contained small rounded windows. If the height allowed, the wall between them and the nave arcade was again divided by another set of openings into the aisle roof. These two ranges of openings are respectively called the clerestory (clear story) and the triforium, but are more identified with the Gothic period.

The nave arcade, clerestory and the triforium were the three divisions into which the height of the nave walls was divided during the late Romanesque and Gothic period. The external walls of the aisles had to be of great thickness to support the stone vault, and windows were kept small to ensure that the strength of the walls did not diminish.

There was however another problem to roof the portion that lay in the intersection of the transepts and the nave. This problem was solved either by evading it altogether or by creating a square tower over the crossing and covering it with lead and wood.


An ambulatory was another feature of churches built during this time. It was an aisle that ran around the apse, either on the inside or outside of a building. The term is sometimes applied to a covered way round a building, or around an open space as the cloisters of a monastic church.

 The ambulatory itself was created as one of the three kinds:

·        With tangential chapels

·        Without chapels

·        Variants of the above two

The most common ambulatory is the one in which chapels radiate towards north east, east, and south east. An ambulatory without radiating chapels is extremely rare in Romanesque churches.


Some famous examples of Romanesque churches.

The floor plan and the nave of St. Sernin at Toulouse

 Aerial view of St. Sernin














Top left is the view of the Pisa Cathedral with the Monastery in the foreground; top right is the aerial view, with the famous leaning tower of Pisa.

To the left is the nave of the Pisa cathedral.












Norman architecture

Norman architecture is a variant of the Romanesque style and is generally taken into consideration while discussing the latter. Its a term applied to the buildings created by the Normans mainly in England, Northern France, South Italy, and Sicily. This style flourished chiefly from 1066 to 1154 AD. It was quickly introduced to England upon arising from Normandy. In both Normandy and England, the basic floor plan was that of a cross, but the Norman feature that is prominent is the square tower over the crossing of the transepts and nave. Blind arcades,  sometimes with interlaced arches occurred inside. Animal forms, and sculptures created with chisel distinguish the Norman style from the Romanesque. Certain such features of Norman architecture led to the Gothic style. The Norman facade with twin towers was passed on to the Gothic generation of churches. Fortified walls and castles too, are usually identified with the Norman style.







Gothic Architecture

The beginning of the Gothic era is attributed to the Abbot Suger, advisor to King Louis VI in France. Suger redesigned the Abbey of St. Denis, and rebuilt the apse end of the abbey using new vaulting, and enhanced lighting in the ambulatory. Unlike the Romanesque churches, the new radiating chapels were not divided into separate compartments, but were unified. The parts that supported the area were reduced. Light was introduced using stained glass windows—which soon became a regular feature of the Gothic cathedral.


The bishop of Chartres being a friend of Suger used his ideas to rebuild the Chartres cathedral beginning in 1145. Chartres was the first church where a feature called flying buttress was used, and which became yet another unique feature of Gothic construction. 

Thus began an era known as the Gothic period that is well known for its massive and complex creations.


The term Gothic was first used during the Renaissance as a term of contempt. Says Vasari, "Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic", while Evelyn writes, "The ancient Greek and Roman architecture answered all the perfections required in a faultless and accomplished building" -- but the Goths and Vandals destroyed these and "introduced in their stead a certain fantastical and licentious manner of building: congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use or beauty."

Romanesque culture is generally considered a rural culture. Gothic is considered primarily urban. Cathedrals during the Gothic became much important than the past. Paris became the intellectual capital of Europe, the Cult of the Virgin Mary became popular, women gained power in society, and the Gothic style of building introduced major advancements in existing ones.


People during both Romanesque and Gothic period were obsessed with heights. Buildings were desired to reach the limits of heights. Romanesque buildings were hampered by the size of the walls and stone vaults. The Gothic buildings found reinforcements in the form of flying buttresses, which allowed them to grow as tall as they could be, and yet allowed construction of large stained glass windows to permit light in. Unlike their Romanesque counterparts, Gothic buildings were well lit, and were relatively hollow. Ornamentation in the form of gargoyles was often found on the walls, on doors, and towers. Gothic buildings were adorned with spires—tapering (often octagonal in cross -section) structures atop towers that contained a lantern. Sometimes the towers were themselves designed as spires.   The pointed arch was introduced, perhaps because of the advantage in flexibility that it provides over the rounded arch.

Its easy to spot a church built in Gothic style if such elements are visible, and a discussion of a typical Gothic cathedral would be helpful.

The Notre Dame de Paris

The most famous of all Gothic buildings, this cathedral has been referred to as being ‘the world ambassador of Gothic Cathedrals’. So many key elements of the Gothic style are identified with this cathedral that often the notion of what a Gothic structure should look like is derived from the Notre Dame de Paris.

The cathedral is built on an ancient ground that first held the services of the Celts. Romans then created a temple to Jupiter on the very ground. In the early days of Christianity, a basilica devoted to St. Etienne was created by Childebert at its place in 538 AD. A Romanesque church replaced it which stayed there till 1163, and which provided the base for the Notre Dame de Paris.

The choir, apse, and chancel were completed first. Then, the vaults were created. Triangular ribs were used with subtle transverse arches. Thus the interior of the cathedral was opened up without letting the supporting elements come into view.

The north rose, the transept facades, and the chapels of the ambulatory were all completed during the latter five decades.

Some unique features in Gothic buildings are as follows:

·         Antependium a decorated frontispiece to an altar, featuring allegorical figures in tapestry or carved forms.

·         Canopy an overhanging shade or shelter over an artwork or statue, sometimes situated over pillars

·         Column figure a statue or sculpted figure which acts as a supportive shaft

·         Gargoyle originally water outlets, they were shaped like monsters and adorn the parapet of the Notre Dame and other such churches

·         Iconography religious imagery painted upon wooden panels

·         Lady Chapel found in the Notre Dame, as well as many other cathedrals, the Lady Chapel is usually located behind the Sanctuary. These places are usually assigned to the Virgin Mary.

·         Maesta artwork showing the Madonna with Christ, a child upon a throne usually attended by angels

·         Pieta Mary cradling the lifeless body of Christ upon her lap

·         Rose window stained glass windows, evolved from the simple Romanesque ones. These windows were created out of metal, glass, and stone—representing the known Universe in art.

·         Tympanum the vertical space between the arch and the lintel of a doorway. This contains artwork

Some unique features of a Gothic structure are:

·         Abutment  a reinforcing block or wall adding support to the vaults and arches

·         Corbel  a stone abutment projecting from a wall supporting vaults, arches, and roofs

·         Lancet window  a tall, narrow window which terminates in a pointed apex

Among some expressionistic styles used in the Gothic buildings are dog tooth moulding, fresco, impasto, intaglio, intarsia, mandorla, polychrome, relief, stucco, tapestry, tempera, tracery etc.





The gargoyles at the Notre Dame de Paris

The stained glass window at Notre Dame de Paris, and External view


External views of the Notre dame de paris

Left, a spire

Various Images in this paper are taken from sources on the Internet, especially from university websites. Attempt was made not to use copyright material.

Rohit Tripathi (December 2001)