Romanesque Architecture. Characteristics.

Romanesque Architecture: Background.
The word “Romanesque” (coined in 1818, 1819 or 1824 –there is no total agreement– as a bridging term between Roman and Carolingian architecture that preceded “Romanesque,” and Gothic that followed it) embraces architecture, art, and sculpture.

** Not all scholars agree. Some argue that “Romanesque” begins with the reign of Charlemagne (b. 742-d. 814) whose political goal was to unite Europe under his rule and so revive the glories of Ancient Rome. Charlemagne ruled from 768 to 814 and was the first to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor (in 800). “Carolingian” –derived from Charlemagne– is the term used to identify the architectural style promoted by Charlemagne in imitation of Roman architecture.

It was a European cultural phenomenon promoted from the late 10th century to about 1200** by the rapid expansion of monastic orders, the most powerful of which was the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny (founded in 910) in Burgundy, eastern France.

The most widespread and magnificent expressions of Romanesque are to be found mainly in churches and church related buildings: e.g. monasteries, abbeys, pilgrim shelters, hospices.

Loarre castle, Aragón.

Nevertheless, there are also striking secular Romanesque buildings (in Spain e.g., the castle of Loarre, the bridge at Puente de la Reina, the Palace of the kings of Navarre in Estella, the fortified walls of Avila).

Most Romanesque churches are found in small towns or in rural areas, reflecting the active role of the monastic communities in Europe from the 10th to the 12th centuries. 

In some larger towns, there are bigger Romanesque churches, the superstar in Spain being the Cathedral of e.Santiago de Compostela (Galicia), the focal point of one of Europe’s major pilgrimage routes, and suitably vast to accommodate hundreds of pilgrims at a time.

Santiago de Compostela. South Portico.

Many of the churches, especially the urban ones, have undergone architectural changes over the years as additions or alterations were undertaken in response to changing needs or taste.

Such is the case of Santiago’s cathedral where the Romanesque heart is largely encased in a 17th/18th-century baroque shell. The Cathedral of Zamora, built between 1151-1174, has a late 15th-century Gothic apse, a neoclassical 17th-century portico, and a Byzantine-styled dome over the crossing.

Basic Characteristics of Romanesque Churches:

Floor plan of the Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The basic plan of Romanesque churches derived from the Roman basilica, which was adopted by the early Christian church in Rome. Normally the orientation of the church is such that the altar lies at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem.

Romanesque churches typically have a central aisle (the nave), and two narrower side aisles  separated from the nave by rows of pillars or piers (usually square). (Small rural churches, however, frequently have no side aisles.) 

At the eastern end of the nave, a transept –a division lying at 90 degrees to the nave— separates the congregation from the choir and altar where the priests conduct the service. Early in church construction, the transept was extended beyond the side walls, resulting in a cruciform (cross) shape that dominated church design in Western Europe for centuries.

The central area where the transepts meet the nave is known as the crossing. At the far eastern end, a vaulted semicircular recess called the apse contains the choir and altar. In larger Romanesque churches, it is common for the apse to contain a semicircular aisle (behind the altar) known as the ambulatory, from which radiate small side chapels called absidal (or  radiatingchapels.

These additional side chapels were useful to hold saintly relics in an age when relics were almost obligatory for any self-respecting church. And in Spain there was a ready market of saints or martyrs who had perished in the struggle with Islam, and plenty of pilgrims to view the relics as they trod their way to Santiago.

Romanesque cloister, Santillana del Mar.

Normally attached or adjoining the great churches or a monasteries and abbeys was a cloister, an enclosed, arcaded courtyard connecting the different buildings that made up the complex, and serving as a space for retreat and meditation, and for performing ablutions.

The main structural characteristics of Romanesque churches are the stone tunnel or barrel vaulting of the nave, with thick, buttressed walls to support the weight. Groin vaults, i.e. two barrel vaults joined at right angles are sometimes used.

Santiago de Compostela: Interior.

Because of the weight of the stone vaulting on the walls, there was little allowance for windows, which are quite small, leaving the interior rather dim.

Semicircular or round arches curve over windows and entrances, and between the solid pillars or piers separating nave and aisles. In the bigger Romanesque churches, the ceiling of the nave is normally higher than the ceilings of the side aisles.  The section of the nave walls above the side aisles, called the clerestory, is punctured by small windows.

In many churches, a cupola called a cimborio projects over the crossing (Zamora, Toro, the old Cathedral of Salamanca, Almazán, Frómista), and a solid, square tower stands sometimes to one side at the altar end, sometimes at the Western end.

In the larger Romanesque churches, it is common to have two towers at the west end (Santiago de Compostela). The west door, or portal/portico, is given prominence since it is through this doorway that the congregants enter the church and come immediately in view of the altar at the far end of the nave.

Monastery of Leyre. Portico.
In the larger churches, sculptures, layered mouldings and decorative motifs, immediately visible as the faithful approach the church, surround the portal and add importance to the entrance. At the same time, the sculptures –often of saints or containing biblical allusions or monstrous hellish figures—are messages the illiterate parishioners could “read” as they entered the church. And within many Romanesque churches, the faithful could “read” the frescoes that adorned the walls.  Unfortunately, in so many instances the frescoes have disappeared, succumbing to the ravages of time or whitewashed with lime to protect against plagues.

In the larger churches, the west wall is also, sometimes, embellished by a modest rose window over the portal (e.g. Santa María la Mayor in Toro).

It is important to understand that “Romanesque” is an umbrella term, incorporating a number of variations in style and  responding to national preferences (French, Italian, German, English etc.), regional partiality (e.g the arcaded galleries usually built along the south side in Castile-León), different sources of inspiration (e. g.Lombardy-style towers in Catalonia/Cataluña), later additions (a Moorish flavour, for example, in the brick, octagonal cupola of Almazán) or simply to design development over the years.

Experts can also detect similarities between churches great distances apart thanks to the itinerant life led by architects, masons, sculptors, artists, carpenters and other craftsmen who often imitated what they had done in one building in another.

San Miguel, Almazan, Castile. 12th-century church with Mudejar brick, octagonal cimborio/cupola added later.

The overall impression we get when looking at Romanesque churches is of solidity and simplicity (especially when compared to their successors, the soaring Gothic buildings).  Romanesque churches are firmly anchored to the ground; their thick, powerfully buttressed walls evoke power, the sturdy pillars supporting the barreled vaults impress us with their strength. 

They are very much part of the “church militant,” with a certain fortress-like quality, especially in Spain where their growth in the northern half of the peninsula during the 11th and 12th centuries mirrored the expansion of the Christian kingdoms of Castile, León and Aragón at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus.

Barral I Altet, Xavier ed.    Art and Architecture of Spain Boston 1998

Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania and London 1990
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda K  The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela  London 1992
Norman, Edward    The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History London 1990
White, Robert   A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York 1998
For a useful summary of church architecture, see
For added information regarding Romanesque, see
Image of Loarre Castle by Joachim Quandt
Image of Santiago Cathedral South Portico by Georges Jansoone:
Plan of Santiago de Compostela edited from Wikipedia
Image of Santiago de Compostela interior by Georges Jansoone:
Image of Santillana del Mar, Colegiate cloister:

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