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After the Roman Empire began falling apart in the 5th century, the Christian church spread Roman culture including, of course, architecture. From this time to the time of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who tried to re-establish the original Roman Empire, creating what he called "The Holy Roman Empire," we have what should be called the early Romanesque period. Some historians call it the "pre"-Romanesque period, but that belies the fact that construction during all of this period followed Roman architecture, thus: “Romanesque.” It couldn't be "pre" or before the manner of Rome because it was the manner of Roman work. Here we will call it “early Romanesque.” There were early infusions of Byzantine design and structural elements; we have already seen that. An intermediate period came with Charlemagne during the 8th and 9th centuries. Then authorities do agree on what we're going to call "true" Romanesque, a time in which everything that had gone before coalesced into a new variation on the earlier Roman themes. All of this was to lead, of course, to Gothic development. Everyone does agree that Romanesque means "in the manner of the Roman."

Architectural development that occurred with the advent of the officially recognized Christian religion was given its form by several factors which separated it from earlier Roman construction, yet was like the Roman. We will discuss the following factors in this period:

1. Lack of masonry skills

  1. New church rituals

  2. Relics leading to pilgrimages

  3. Fire

But first, a little summation to avoid confusion:


4thCentury B.C.E.


4thCentury C.E.


4th Century C.E.


15th Century


4th Century C.E.


8th Century


8th Century


10th Century


11th Century


12th Century


12th Century


16th Century

In the beginning of Christian church development, existing Roman structures, basilicas, were either used for expediency in providing places for worship, or were copied in plan, if not in structure. The atrium (entrance forecourt), narthex (front porch), and nave with ambulatories (side aisles – not evident in early designs, but prevalent as churches grew in size), all culminating in the apse (semi-circular end of the nave), were standard. Transepts were added, often to accommodate additional worshippers, or to provide smaller, more intimate chapel-like areas, with their own entrances. Towers were erected to provide for bells, often at the entrance, flanking the portals, but just as often over the crossing.

The major Roman basilicas, that of Maxentius and Constantine, for example, and the Baths of Caracalla as another space maker, were built with groin vaults. As time passed, the skill necessary to emulate those structures in large-scale building was lost.

Roof construction was again of wood, usually rafters / trusses. So for a while, Roman vault construction faded from the scene, though the plans continued. The illustration is the nave of the Cathedral of Pisa.

Church architecture developed new rituals requiring new design elements. Monasteries sprung up, and often priests wished to conduct their own mass, all at the same time, so additional altars and their architectural places were necessary. In this latter, transepts developed into their own little churches, or chapels, often with apses at their ends (north and south). At some point, apses were added along the side walls of transepts, as well as in the original apse itself.

When there was a grouping of apses within the original apse, that area became known as a "chevet." The illustration above is a plan of the Cathedral of Nevers in France.

These areas were usually dedicated to a particular saint, making each new apse its own tiny chapel. This image is in the Cathedral of Autun, France.

Choirs began to develop, built right in the nave, at first defined by low railings, then later with tall choir screens, as here in St. Hilaire-Le-Grande, in Poitiers. These enclosed and separated the choir from the rest of the nave, but usually designed so that vision into and through them was possible. This allowed special services to be held without disturbing the rest of the church, and vice versa, yet was integrated within the whole of the church.

Typical Choir stall, this located in Notre-Dame-La-Grande, also in Poitiers.

Relics of religious significance came to be stored in churches. Often miraculous attributes were applied to these relics, resulting in their becoming a mecca for pilgrimages. The following church, Notre-Dame du Puy, is located in Le Puy-en-Velay in southern France. While it has been a pilgrimage stop on the route to Santiago de Compostela, it has recently become a stop in the Tour de France bicycle race.

The cloister, shown above, is to the side of the cathedral, but is indicative of what an atrium/forecourt would have looked like. This cloister dates from the 11th to the 12th century, and features a protective arcade. The church owes its spot on a pilgrimage route to miraculous healings attributed to a visitation on its site by the Virgin Mary in the early years of Christianity. The church itself was begun in 430 C.E.

Of special interest is a statue known as “The Black Virgin.” Made of Cedar, its exact origins are unknown, except that it was created in the 17th century, and replaced a previous figure burned in 1794, during the French Revolution. Rebellions and revolutions usually go after figures of authority in their quest to “change” things, and religious symbols have always been targets, dating back to decapitation of Roman sculptures deemed “pagan” by religious zealots. As I write this, the assault on God and religious symbolism is rather rampant in this country.

Routes for pilgrimages were developed, with pilgrims making a circuit often from one country to another. Large numbers of pilgrims entering a church at the same time began to disturb the normal services being held. This resulted in the designing of the side aisles to wrap around the main apse, allowing visitors to circumnavigate the church without interfering with its regular activities. Sometimes the apses in the chevet would contain relics.

Considerable movement developed within these religious structures, at complete variance with the classical forms developed by the Greeks, then the Romans, in which few were admitted, and movement was static. Suddenly, there was axial movement, from narthex to apse, be it in the nave itself or through the ambulatory side aisles. The long, relatively narrow nave required minimal spanning. Rows of columns on either side allowed beams or trusses to cross, while the columns themselves created a staccato rhythm of verticals leading the eye from narthex to apse. Whether they were colonnades or arcades, the naves moved you visually. Little engineering knowledge or serious stone cutting was required.

Additionally, processions beginning at the altar came down into the nave itself. You could almost think that this beginning sense of movement, this axial progression, would lead to the Baroque civic designs of the 17th and 18th centuries, beginning in Rome itself, and spreading throughout the European continent. Unfortunately, the world would have to wait almost 1,000 years.

Another factor in the development of this Romanesque architecture was fire. The retrogression to wooden roof construction attracted lightning. At first some churches burned and were subsequently rebuilt. However, things got serious when relics began to be stored in churches and were then lost in the fires. While the churches could be restored, the relics could not be replaced.

In response to the need to cut the threat of fire, stone came back as a construction material. Masons developed who could learn the craft once more. Small stones made up what once had been monolithic structural elements. One step, one stone at a time. The wooden roofs were replaced with stone vaults.

At first, the vaults were simple barrel types. The major problem posed was the inability to pierce the continuous structure with openings for windows, for light. Scaffolding was the next problem. These barrel vaults required continuous scaffolding, or centering, during their construction. What seemed like a forest of trees would be involved in constructing the barrel vaults. Viewed above is the nave of Notre Dame du Port in Clermont Ferrand.

At some point, separations were made in the nave - at the columns, creating a beginning and an end to each segment of the vault, allowing centering to be used, the vault completed, then the centering was reused in the next segment. The barrel vault did take the eye straight down to the apse, but light remained the biggest problem - or actually the lack of light. Image taken in Nevers.

Here at Nevers domes were used at the crossing and over the altar. Elsewhere domes were the main structure in procession down the nave, but created pockets of space, which interrupted the visual flow. That effect is visible here at Nevers, showing the crossing and the apse.

At yet another stage of development, someone reinvented the groin vault, or at least at first the simple intersection of barrel vaults. An early groin vault is this one in Notre Dame du Port in Clermont Ferrand, also in the south of France. Eventually crossing of the nave vault with vaults turned at ninety degree allowed light to enter those sides. Supports developed into what would be called "bays," and a differentiation developed between the main, large bays of the nave, and adjacent smaller bays of the side aisles. To support the heavy stone vaults, as contrasted to the lighter wooden roofs, architects used massively thick exterior walls, and heavy internal piers. This masonry vaulting replaced the highly flammable wooden roofs of early Romanesque structures.

As discussed in the section on St. Apollinare in Classe, and developed at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, the nave was taller than the side aisles, allowing clerestory lighting.

This is well expressed in St. Denis, just outside of Paris.

All arcades, barrel vaults, and groin vaults employed semi-circular forms in the Romanesque period. When you see a pointed arch, you will be looking at something "gothic," a new development.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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