Romanesque Architecture. Catalonia’s Unique Style.

Romanesque architecture is a general term covering numerous variations of architectural style that flowered in Medieval Europe from about the late 10th century to around 1200.  There are, for example, French, English (aka Norman), German, Italian, Lombardy styles etc., many of which cross fertilised thanks to the itinerant lives of architects, masons, and craftsmen.

Even within countries, there were frequent regional differences (e.g. in Spain, between Catalan Romanesque churches and those of Castile-León). Modifications also occurred over time with improved techniques and changes in taste.

Most typically, Romanesque architecture is associated with church and church related buildings (e.g. monasteries, convents, hospices) although there are plenty of non-religious works also (e.g. castles, bridges, palaces).

How is it that Romanesque architecture spread throughout so much of Western Europe? Clearly, its international nature suggests that more trans-border travelling took place than is generally credited for in the Middle Ages. 

Pilgrimages were a fundamental reason for travel, but so too were the Crusades, commerce, royal marriages, alliances, wars, ecclesiastical studies and appointments, the expansion of monasteries, and the building opportunities offered to itinerant master masons, sculptors and craftsmen.

Romanesque entered Spain largely on the backs of travellers via two principal routes: first through Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan; Cataluña in Castilian), and then through Aragón and Navarra from where it passed into Castile and León.

Romanesque architecture appeared in Catalonia around 1000 AD, and is one of the glories of that autonomous community.  It is said that there are over 2,000 Romanesque buildings in Catalonia, the stars of which are the small, beautiful churches scattered in the rural valleys of the north. Particularly striking are the churches in the narrow Vall de Boi, situated in the Alta Ribagorça region of the high Pyrenees and surrounded by steep mountains.

It is in valleys such as the Valle de Boi (declared a World Heritage Site in 2000) that we find one of the most characteristic features of Catalan Romanesque, which distinguished it from Romanesque churches in the other regions of northern Spain: the striking Lombardy-inspired bell towers. 

Typically detached from the church, these tall (up to 6 stories), slender, square belfries in natural stone rise elegantly to the sky, their bulk broken on each floor by long, columned windows on all four sides, which diffuse light throughout the interior.

Sant Climent de Taull in the Vall de Boi. Lombardy inspired bell tower.

These towers were built by Lombardy craftsmen** who entered Catalonia via Languedoc and Provence, following a long-established travel route between eastern Spain and Rome. Lombardy (in northern Italy) formed a natural link between Catalonia and the Holy City.

**So many craftsmen and artists came to
Catalonia from Lombardy and had such
an impact on its architecture that the
word “Lombard” became synonymous with
“stonemason” or “supervisor” in Catalonia.

Another feature that distinguished Catalan Romanesque churches from those of other communities in medieval Spain is the absence of an ambulatory (i.e. a semi-circular passage around the altar, within the apse) with radiating chapels (See Romanesque Background for Romanesque church plan). 

These radiating chapels were popular in, e.g. Castile and León, as depositories for holy relics, and attracted pilgrims heading to the Santiago de Compostela, after Jerusalem and Rome the most important medieval pilgrimage destination in Christendom. However, since Catalonia was not on a major pilgrimage route to Santiago, there was no important pilgrim trade to cater to.

One of the promoters of early Romanesque churches in Catalonia was the Benedictine Abbot Oliba (c. 971-1046), a man of great learning and friend of Pope Benedict VIII (1012-1024), and well known in the famous Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in France.

From 1008 to 1046, Oliba was the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery church of Santa María in Ripoll, the finest Romanesque building in Catalonia.

Santa María de Ripoll.

The monastery was built at the instance of Oliba and consecrated in 1032, replacing an earlier church that had been erected by Wilfrid the “Hairy” (Guifre el Pelós, founding father of Catalonia) around 880.

Thanks to the energetic Oliba, Ripoll became a major centre of learning in the Middle Ages, boasting one of the finest libraries in Europe. The monastery was severely damaged by a fire during political turmoil in 1835 and later extensively restored.

Although inspired by Benedictine-style architecture emanating from Cluny that typified the design of churches in Castile-Leon, Santa María de Ripoll retains the Catalan characteristics noted above: it has no semi-circular ambulatory with radiating chapels, and its multi-storeyed tower betrays the influence of Lombardy.

Portico of Santa Maria de Ripoll
Its greatest feature, however, is the magnificent west portal, a vast tableau of Biblical figures and grotesque monsters in six horizontal layers framing the multiarched, richly ornamented doorway (now protected by a glassed-in porch).

For more on Romanesque  art and sculpture in
Catalonia and Castile/León, see our Art and Sculpture.

Bango Torviso, Isidro    El románico en España Madrid 1992
Barral I Altet, Xavier ed    Art and Architecture of Spain Boston 1998
Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania, London 1990
Eaude, Michael  Catalonia: A Cultural History  Oxford 2008
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 an excellent and detailed study of Romanesque architecture in Catalonia, with numerous itineraries, fine maps and superb photos, see
Sant Climent de Taull by Núria Pueyo
Both images of Santa María de Ripoll by Canaan:
For an entertaining visit to the Romanesque churches of Catalonia, see: