Romanesque Style (6th – 10th Century AD)

The name gives it away Romanesque architecture is based on Roman architectural elements. It is the rounded Roman arch that is the literal basis for structures built in this style.

Traditionally linked to Charlemagne, San Liberatore a Maiella is an abbey in Abruzzo, Italy that features the character in a fresco fragment in it. It was originally built in the 9th century but it was rebuilt in the 11th century by Desiderius to adopt a white façade with balanced volumes, a square plan tower with three floors, and mullioned windows. The façade of this abbey features the Lombard-Romanesque architectural style.
San Liberatore a Maiella, Abruzzo, Italy, built in 9th century, rebuilt in the 11th century by Desiderius, Lombard-Romanesque architectural style.

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The history

Early Christian architecture started with the vision of Emperor Constantine. Byzantine architecture was part of a building project started by Emperor Justinian. Carolingian architecture got its start with Emperor Charlemagne.

The remains of Roman civilization were seen all over the continent, and legends of the great empire would have been passed down through generations. So when Charlemagne wanted to unite his empire and validate his reign, he began building churches in the Roman style, particularly the style of Christian Rome in the days of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

Lisbon Cathedral, more popularly known as the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major, is the oldest church in the city of Lisbon and features a mix of different architectural styles. It was first built in 1147 but has undergone several reconstructions due to earthquakes. This cathedral has interesting sculptured capitals with Romanesque motifs and its nave is covered by barrel vaulting. It is also popular for its Romanesque iron gate.
Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major, first built in 1147, Lisbon, Portugal.

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The architects of Charlemagne’s day looked to the arched, or arcaded, system seen in Christian Roman edifices as a model. It is a logical system of stresses and buttressing, which was fairly easily engineered for large structures, and it began to be used in gatehouses, chapels, and churches in Europe.

These early examples may be referred to as pre-Romanesque because, after a brief spurt of growth, the development of architecture again lapsed: buildings became larger and more imposing. Examples of Romanesque cathedrals from the early Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1200) are solid, massive, impressive churches that are often still the largest structure in many towns.


Date1063 to 1350 timeline Building Type church complex Construction System bearing masonry, cut stone, white marble Climate mediterranean Context church complex and tower Style Romanesque Notes The cathedral complex includes the famous Leaning Tower. White marble with colonnaded facades.
Begun in 1093, Pisa Cathedral (Duomo di Pisa), Pisa, Tuscany, Italy.

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Larger churches were needed to accommodate the numerous monks and priests, as well as the pilgrims who came to view saints’ relics.

Romanesque churches characteristically incorporated semicircular arches for windows, doors, and arcades; barrel or groin vaults to support the roof of the nave; massive piers and walls, with few windows, to contain the outward thrust of the vaults; side aisles with galleries above them; a large tower over the crossing of nave and transept; and smaller towers at the church’s western end.

French churches commonly expanded on the early Christian basilica plan, incorporating radiating chapels to accommodate more priests, ambulatories around the sanctuary apse for visiting pilgrims, and large transepts between the sanctuary and nave.

For the sake of fire resistance, masonry vaulting began to replace timber construction.


Church of San Vitale in Ravenna
Church of San Vitale in Ravenna

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Plans of the church of St Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the 6th century, (left) and Charlemagne's palace at Aachen, constructed in the early 9th century, (right). The similarities between the architecture of the two buildings (not just the decoration) shows that the design of the later building consciously looked to the earlier building as a source of inspiration.
Plans of the church of St Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the 6th century, Italy.

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The characteristics of Romanesque Architecture can be defined as having the following features:

  • Stone was cut with precision
  • Walls were initially solid but the walls and shell keeps designed in the Romanesque architecture style were hollow and distributed the weight of the stones
  • The use of the Roman arch led to the stone being supported in the middle by the arch construction
  • The stone used was extremely heavy. The weight of the ceilings would tend to buckle the walls outward and large piles of stone would be stacked along the wall in intervals to buttress (or support) the walls from pushing outward – these piles of stones became features of Romanesque Architecture and buttresses were introduced to the basic design and a major characteristic of Romanesque architecture.
  • The window openings of Romanesque Architecture castles had to be small to keep the strength of the walls strong
  • The Vault – The most important structural developments and characteristics of Romanesque architecture was the vault. The vault was developed to enable the construction of stone roofs – wooden roofs were an obvious fire hazard
  • Barrel or Tunnel Vaults – consisted of a continuous surface of semicircular or pointed sections resembling a barrel or tunnel which has been cut in half lengthwise
  • Groin Vault – A vault produced by the intersection, at right angles of two barrel vaults. The arches of groin vaults were either pointed or round.
  • Ribbed Vault: essentially two barrel vaults meeting at a right angle. These ribs do an even better job of focusing the weight of the vaulting onto a few small places. With ribbed vaults, Romanesque architects could make their churches wider, taller, and even more impressive.

To solve the problem of heavy vaulting, architects alternated columns and piers.

Sculptural Decoration

One way in which Romanesque architects jazzed up their exteriors was with sculptural decoration, especially around the main entrance of the church. These round, highly decorated portals, known as tympanum, became increasingly popular in Romanesque architecture.


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