Building of Romanesque Cathedrals

Massive Romanesque cathedrals were built throughout Europe, ushering in the era of great, magnificent cathedrals that led to the Gothic period.

Summary of Event

The period following the year 1000 saw an increase in the number of cathedrals constructed in Europe and England, an increase of building that was, in part, an expression of Christians’s gratitude to God for the uneventful passing of the millennium, which people had feared would bring an apocalyptic end to the world. Also, the weather had been improving in Europe, helping crops flourish and populations rise, thereby increasing the need for larger churches to hold burgeoning congregations. More crops resulted in increased trade and increased wealth for the new middle class of merchants and the religious communities that had extensive landholdings. Civic leaders and church hierarchy yearned to express their religious devotion by constructing impressive cathedrals. [kw]Building of Romanesque Cathedrals (11th-12th centuries)
[kw]Romanesque Cathedrals, Building of (11th-12th centuries)
[kw]Cathedrals, Building of Romanesque (11th-12th centuries)
Cathedrals, Romanesque
Europe (general);11th-12th cent.: Building of Romanesque Cathedrals[1410]
Architecture;11th-12th cent.: Building of Romanesque Cathedrals[1410]
Cultural and intellectual history;11th-12th cent.: Building of Romanesque Cathedrals[1410]
Engineering;11th-12th cent.: Building of Romanesque Cathedrals[1410]

The eleventh century was also a time of pilgrimages to religious sites across Europe and the Holy Land. New pilgrimage centers were constructed at regular intervals along the major pilgrimage routes, each with an elaborate new church at its center. The Crusades Crusades;cathedral construction and , begun at the close of the eleventh century, opened up trade with the East, which served to bring even more wealth into Europe and to fund still more cathedrals. As one eleventh century monk commented, the world was putting on “a white mantle of churches.”

It was during this period of optimism and growth that the Romanesque style developed almost simultaneously in Germany, Lombardy, France, Normandy, England, Tuscany, and Spain.

The term Romanesque was coined in the nineteenth century to describe a late medieval architectural style that was Roman-like in mass and scale. However, the term is unfortunate since it implies an architecture that is an imitation of an earlier style. Romanesque is, in fact, a unique style that reflects an important period in European history.

The Church of Saint Anthony, Padua, showing features typical of Romanesque architecture: rounded vaults, few windows, massiveness, and low elevation relative to later Gothic structures.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The time period ascribed to the Romanesque style is the eleventh through the twelfth centuries, although the exact beginning of the Romanesque is difficult to discern because it slowly evolved from earlier Carolingian and Ottonian styles. The feature that most distinguishes the Romanesque style from that of its predecessors is found in its cathedrals. Earlier cathedral styles were marked by flat timber ceilings that covered the naves, or central halls, whereas the Romanesque style had masonry vaults over the naves. The shift to masonry was most likely a style developed to prevent damage from fire, which destroyed many of the earlier timber-ceiling structures. Also, the use of masonry permitted, and may have even encouraged, Romanesque builders to experiment with various types of vaulting, which came into common use in cathedrals by the year 1000.

Although there are minor regional differences, all Romanesque cathedrals share common features in their plans, elevations, and methods of construction. Romanesque cathedrals were based on the Roman basilica plan, with a long central hall, two side aisles, and a hemicycle (half circle) apse at one end. The Christian basilica plan added a transept (a smaller hall, intersecting the nave at right angles) at the apsidal end, thereby forming a Latin cross (a cross with one long and three short arms). The altars of the cathedrals were placed at the crossings of the nave and the transept and were typically covered with a dome, placed either on squinches (rectangular blocks) or on pendentives (curved triangular elements). The apse served as a choir, under which a crypt was usually located, and around the outer rim of which ran an ambulatory (walkway) for access to apsidal relic chapels. The apse is nearly always oriented east, indicating the direction of Jerusalem.

Cathedrals with apses on both ends of the nave are unusual, but examples can be found, especially in Germany. The church at Maria Laach(1093-1156) is one example of this style. The Latin cross cathedral plan developed out of the Western church’s Latin style liturgy, which invited the presence of large congregations in the long nave.

The Late Romanesque Refectory at Saint Martin des Champs, Paris, now the library at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. The ribbed groin vaulting, higher ceilings, and more open windows point toward the Gothic style.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In their interior elevations, Romanesque cathedrals were based on the Roman basilica’s tripartite division of the nave walls into an arcade on the ground level (separating the nave from the side aisles), a triforium (a solid wall concealing the pitched roof over the side aisles) above the arcade, and a clerestory (window) level at the top. Romanesque builders, however, soon replaced the solid triforium with a second story gallery (viewing area and walkway) built within the pitched roof of the side aisles and opening onto the central nave. The placement of a lofty hemicycle arch at the altar end of the nave was based on the Roman triumphal arch and represents the triumphal spread of Christianity throughout the known world.

The exterior elevation of the Romanesque cathedral reflects the interior elevation, with hemicycle-arched windows on the ground level (admitting light into the side aisles), a shed roof concealing the triforium or gallery level, and hemicycle-arched windows in the clerestory level. Typical also on Romanesque cathedrals are towers covered by high-pitched roofs. The number and placement of the towers vary, but typically two towers were placed flanking the western (entrance) end of the cathedral, as at Saint Étienne at Caen (begun 1068), or one tower was placed over the crossing of the nave and the transept, as in Saint Sernin at Toulouse (c. 1080-1120).

One of the most unique features of Romanesque cathedrals, as mentioned above, was the use of masonry as the principle building material. The ancient Romans used concrete to span their great halls, creating elaborate vaulted ceilings, and the Carolingians and Ottonians used timber to create flat ceilings over their great halls. Romanesque builders, however, chose to use masonry to create lofty vaulted ceilings over their cathedral naves. There is no single explanation for the Romanesque builders’s choice of masonry, which is a difficult and time-consuming method of construction. The Romanesque builders’s rejection of timber for construction seems self-evident based upon the medieval records of cathedral fires. If timber was not an option, then why not use concrete? In earlier times, historians believed that the technology to create concrete was lost during the upheaval of the early Middle Ages, but it is now known that copies of an ancient Roman treatise by the architect Vitruvius, detailing how to make and use concrete, existed during the Romanesque period and were accessible to at least some of the builders of the day.

The Romanesque builders’s rejection of concrete was probably based on the fact that concrete required exorbitant amounts of timber, both for scaffolding and for forms to hold the concrete in place until the concrete dried. The construction of an entire vaulting system for a large cathedral would take more timber than was affordable or attainable. The solution, then, was to use what the Romanesque builders had available and in abundance, which was masonry. The type of stone varied by location: limestone in France; marble in Italy and Province; Caen stone in Normandy, which was also shipped to Norman England; limestone, sandstone, and flint in England; and brick in lieu of masonry in Germany and the Netherlands.

The heavy masonry ceiling vaults created a problem of thrust that required the Romanesque builders to strengthen the thick walls of single-hall churches with external buttresses. The problem of thrust could also be resolved by building churches with two side aisles nearly equal in height to the nave, wherein the three vaults (nave and two side aisles) could balance one another; however that configuration meant the central nave had illumination only from the side aisle windows. In churches with two side aisles and a higher central nave, which permitted the nave to be illuminated by windows in the nave clerestory, the nave vaults were held aloft by an elaborate system of compound piers integrated into the nave arcades. The compound piers were articulated with moldings that were often carried up and onto the vaults, creating a visual continuity between the arcaded walls and the vaulted ceilings, especially effective in structures with ribbed vaults (vaults with masonry edges), as in Saint Étienne at Caen (vaulted c. 1115-1120). Typical vaults were either simple barrel or tunnel (hemicycle) vaults, as in Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (nave 1095-1115), or groin (cross) vaults, as in Speyer Cathedral (nave vaults c. 1082-1106). Vaults became a distinguishing feature of the Romanesque style, giving the cathedral naves a vertical emphasis pointing toward Heaven and foreshadowing the Gothic style.


Arising across Continental Europe and across England almost simultaneously, Romanesque architecture was the first truly international style of architecture, with representative masterpieces such as Saint Sernin at Toulouse, Autun Cathedral in Burgundy, Saint Étienne in Caen, Saint Ambrogio in Milan, Speyer Cathedral in Germany, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Durham Cathedral in England. Romanesque builders ushered in the great age of cathedral building that led to the Gothic era.

Further Reading

  • Armi, C. Edson. Design and Construction in Romanesque Architecture: The First Romanesque Architecture and the Pointed Arch in Burgundy and Northern Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Focuses on the regions of Europe where the first Romanesque buildings were constructed at the beginning of the eleventh century.
  • Conant, Kenneth J. Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800-1200. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A scholarly overview of both architectural styles. Well illustrated.
  • Hammett, Ralph Warner, and George H. Edgell. The Romanesque Architecture of Western Europe: Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England. New York: Archival Book, 1927. Offers clear descriptions and excellent black-and-white photographs that still provide a fine overview of the Romanesque style through the eyes, and camera lens, of a trained architect.
  • Jackson, Thomas Graham. Byzantine and Romanesque Architecture. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975. A compendium of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture organized by geographical areas and illustrated with black-and-white photographs, drawings, elevations, plans, and details.
  • Kubach, Hans E. Romanesque Architecture. New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1988. A nicely illustrated discussion of the major monuments of the Romanesque style.
  • Tadgell, Christopher. Early Medieval Europe: The Ideal of Rome and Feudalism. 1988. Reprint. London: Ellipsis, 2001. Extensively illustrated study of church architecture after the fall of Rome in both Western Europe and Russia. Compares Romanesque and late-Byzantine styles and explores their mutual influence.
  • Toman, Rolf, ed. Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. Cologne: Konemann, 1997. Well-balanced discussion connecting Romanesque architecture with the visual arts.