Summary of Romanesque Architecture and Art
Capturing the aspirations of a new age, Romanesque art and architecture started a revolution in building, architectural decoration, and visual storytelling. Starting in the latter part of the 10th century through the 12th, Europe experienced relative political stability, economic growth, and more prosperity during this time and coupled with the increasing number of monastic centers as well as the rise of universities, a new environment for art and architecture that was not commissioned solely by emperors and nobles was born. With the use of rounded arches, massive walls, piers, and barrel and rib vaults, the Romanesque period saw a revival of large-scale architecture that was almost fortress-like in appearance in addition to a new interest in expressive human forms. With the Roman Church as the main patron, Romanesque metalwork, stonework, and illuminated manuscripts spread across Europe, from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, creating an international style that was adapted to regional needs and influences.
19th-century art historians who coined the term Romanesque thought the weighty stone architecture and the stylized depiction of the human form did not live up to the standards of the classical ideas of humanism (manifested later and powerfully in Renaissance Humanism), but we now recognize that Romanesque art and architecture innovatively combined Classical influences, seen in the Roman ruins scattered throughout the European countryside and in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts and mosaics, with the decorative and more abstract styles of earlier Northern tribes to create the foundation of Western Christian architecture for centuries to come. While an immediate precursor to the Gothic style, the Romanesque would see revivals in the 17th and 19th centuries, as architects (masons) came to appreciate the clarity and formidable nature of the Romanesque façade when applied across a range of buildings, from department stores to university buildings.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Along with the new political and economic security, the spread of the Roman Church and the codification of rituals and liturgy encouraged the faithful to undertake pilgrimages, traveling from church to church, honoring martyrs and relics at each stop. The economic boon of such travel to cities led to rapid architectural developments, in which cities vied for grander and grander churches. Lofty stone vaulting replaced wooden roofs, main church entrances became more monumental, and decorative architectural sculpture flourished on the façades of the churches.
- While many churches continued to use barrel vaulting, during the Romanesque period, architects developed the ribbed vault, which allowed vaults to be lighter and higher, thus allowing for more windows on the upper level of the structure. The ribbed vault would be more fully developed and utilized during the subsequent Gothic period, but important early examples in the 11th century set the precedent.
- During the Romanesque period, the use of visual iconography for didactic purposes became prevalent. As most people outside of the monastic orders were illiterate, complex religious scenes were used to guide and teach the faithful of Christian doctrine. Architects developed the use of the tympanum, the arched area above the doors of the church, to show scenes such as the Last Judgment to set the mood upon entering the church, and other biblical stories, saints, and prophets decorated interior and exterior doors, walls, and, capitals to shepherd the worshippers' prayers.
Overview of Romanesque Architecture and Art
The many Viking invasions of Europe and the British Isles marked the era before the Romanesque period. Beginning in 790 with raids on Irish coastal monasteries, the raids became full-scale military excursions within a century as shown by the Sack of Paris in 845 and the Sack of Constantinople in 860. For the next two hundred years, the Vikings raided and sometimes conquered surrounding areas. With the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, the era ended around 1066 when the Normans, themselves descended from Vikings, conquered England.