The Beauty of Romanesque Architecture

The word “Romanesque” does not, as sometimes supposed, refer to a debased and degraded Roman style adopted by the Middle Ages, but rather specifies the two traits of Roman architecture which were reemployed at this time, viz., the pier and the vaulting arch. All the great Romanesque cathedrals of North Continental Europe use this construction and are distinguished by it from the earlier basilicas with timber roofs and with columns supporting the arches of the nave.

Timber ceilings for minor churches were by no means abandoned at any time. In Italy they continued the rule for many of the most important cathedrals like that of Pisa. None of the Romanesque naves were vaulted in England, where this use was confined to the aisles. Finally the earlier churches of the Romanesque period in Northern Europe adhered more or less to basilica methods of construction. Notwithstanding these exceptions, it is the pier and the vaulting which distinguish this period of cathedral building as a whole and it is this use which has suggested the word ” Romanesque.” It may be added that the evolution of the Gothic style from the Romanesque was absolutely dependent on a peculiar development of this construction. Hence, above all, the necessity for insisting on it and understanding it, as a necessary preliminary to the study of this later style.

As far as our illustrations go, the character of a Romanesque vaulting is most distinctly illustrated by the view of one of the aisles of Peterborough. The vaultings of the nave are also shown by the views of the Mainz and Speyer Cathedrals. The contrast with a timber ceiling is best shown by the views of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim and of San Apollinare Nuovo. The actual construction of the timber framework supporting the roof when not ” celled in ” is shown by the Church of the Manger and by San Apollinare in Classe.

As regards the distinction between a pier and a column it is best illustrated in a church which exhibits both. Compare the view of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim where the square pier and the round column are easily contrasted. The shape is not, however, the determining point, for round piers are found in the English Romanesque. This appears in the view of Hereford Cathedral. Properly speaking the pier is an aggregation of masonry without reference to shape, as visible also in this last case. The column as distinguished from the pier is a monolith in the diameter and frequently also in the perpendicular. In the classic columns the division into “drums” or sections was frequently made necessary by the great perpendicular dimensions. In the columns of medieval churches, which were almost invariably taken from Roman ruins, as long as the supply lasted, it appears to have been almost invariably the entirely monolithic columns which were chosen. As far as the Middle Ages are concerned, we may therefore boldly define the column as a round support which was monolithic both in the diameter and the perpendicular, and the pier as a support (sometimes round) which was built up of masonry.

If we turn now to the Roman ruins we shall see that the vaulting arches were invariably supported by such masonry piers. This construction is, in fact, always necessary when a vaulting is employed, for a column is too slender a support for the superincumbent mass. We should therefore conclude that the piers of the Romanesque cathedrals were made necessary by their vaulted ceilings and, that philosophically we ought to begin our explanations with these. It should be added, however, that practically the supply of ancient columns had been mainly exhausted in the first five centuries of Christian building, and that a resort to masonry piers would have been natural in consequence, to a period unaccustomed to the quarrying of columns. Regarding the enormous pressure of the stone vaultings and the great strength required to resist it, we have an especially interesting illustration in an English ruin of the Gothic time which shows the section of a vaulted building.

As regards the general reasons for the introduction of a vaulting system in cathedrals we may also find the most obvious illustrations in the Gothic ; for when the Gothic vaultings are compared with the timber ceilings there is not the slightest difficulty in appreciating their artistic superiority for an interior effect. The same point holds of the Romanesque cathedral interiors although the contrast may be slightly less obvious. A church with a vaulted ceiling is obviously of one solid material throughout—walls, roof, and columns are all of stone. There is not the sense of incongruity, as regards durability and material, between two parts of the buildings. Both are harmonized into one mass not only as regards material but also as regards lines and surfaces. For the lines and surfaces of the arch unite insensibly with those of the wall and the pier. The extra height obtained by the arch as against a flat ceiling is also a point to be considered. A most important consideration is that relating to possible conflagrations and the resulting disaster to a timber-roofed building. There is no doubt that the occurrence of such destructions by fire had much to do with the introduction of the vaultings.

In the general prosperity and power of the Germanic Empire we have already found the material causes of a new building and artistic activity. The rivalry of great towns, of powerful bishops, and of various monastic orders—the wish of the emperors to leave monuments of their greatness to future ages, all conspired to create the Romanesque style. The exteriors when compared with those of the old basilicas have a manifestly monumental purpose. The spirit of pride and power, of ambition and successful effort, is apparent in them. The vigorous Germanic blood had been poured into the veins of the old Roman Christian civilization of the fourth and fifth centuries and this was the result.

Out of the simple bell tower of the ancient basilica had grown the system of exterior towers shown by the views of the Speyer and Mainz Cathedrals. Over the junction of the nave and transept was generally raised a dome covered by a pointed roof. In the Pisa Cathedral the rounded dome construction is, however, also apparent on the exterior.

The surfaces of the exterior walls were broken and spaced by pilasters. Galleries of columns and arches were constructed on the towers and occasionally on the facades or at other proper points of the upper walls. The lines of the cornices were decorated with small round arches. The portals, especially of the later Romanesque, were richly ornamented with carving and recessed with columns and concentric arches, diminishing in size to the doorway.

It is necessary, after dwelling on these various points, to consider the ground plans of the Romanesque cathedrals. These differed from the basilica plan by the introduction of the transept or cross form. This added to the dimensions and the picturesque effects of both interior and exterior. The choirs were considerably enlarged, a development from the apse of the basilica. As regards the division of nave and aisles and the system of lower aisles, bordering the nave with its higher walls and upper windows, the arrangement of the basilica was retained. As regards plan and system these cathedrals were therefore a direct evolution from the earlier buildings, with increased grandeur, size, picturesque effect, and a more permanent and durable construction. The round arch was employed as in the preceding period. The exterior walls were massive and the Romanesque is a fine illustration of the value, for artistic effect, of large surfaces of masonry. Its recent employment in modern revival has been mainly promoted by an artistic taste which has felt the value of its undecorated masonry surfaces and simple masonry construction.

Having treated the Romanesque cathedral as a finished type, we may now consider the steps of transition by which it was reached. As regards the vaultings they were sometimes at first only attempted in the side aisles. We have seen that the English ” Norman” cathedrals stopped short at this point. The English style being one of foreign introduction, it appears that the traditional national habit of using the timbered ceiling asserted itself in this matter and it may be that masons were wanting in England who were sufficiently dextrous to undertake the vaulting of a nave. The general backwardness of English culture at this date as compared with that of Continental Europe is undoubtedly in one way or another the explanation. It should be added that the important building activity of English cathedrals as compared with portions of the continent does not begin until the time of the Gothic.

Aside from the tentative introduction of vaulted aisles as forerunner of the developed Romanesque, it may be said, that the churches of Southern France seem to have been foremost in the use of vaultings and it would appear that there was a traditional survival here of the old Roman practice. There a r e many instances in this part of Europe of such survivals of Roman tradition.

As regards the piers many early churches show an alternating arrangement in which piers and columns both appear, another obvious transition to the later system (Fig. 81). Many early Romanesque churches continued the basilica plan without important modifications (Figs. 81, 88). This was especially the case in Italy and for two reasons. The basilica traditions were stronger there and the supply of columns from ancient buildings lasted longer.

In Lombardy (North Italy) the northern system of vaultings appears at an early date, but in Tuscany (south of the Appenines) the Italian Romanesque, in the larger number of cases, exhibits an intermediate stage of development as compared with the buildings of the north. It constantly shows Romanesque ornament and details, without the vaulting and without the pier. The Pisa Cathedral is the finest instance of this intermediate system, Only the side aisles of this cathedral are vaulted. Its exterior ornament is, however, more elaborate and more carefully planned than that of any northern building.

The system of variegated masonry in horizontal stripes, is peculiar to Italy as far as the Romanesque is concerned. These stripes are found in Oriental Byzantine, and in Saracenic buildings, and are thence derived. The Lucca Cathedral and many other churches of Tuscany are later variants of the Pisa Cathedral.

The ornamental carvings and the capitals of Romanesque art are developments from the Byzantine. Where columns were employed the cube capital is common. For the pier capitals new forms were invented or evolved. The introduction of grotesque forms of animals or men in these ornaments is peculiar to this period, as distinct from the one which preceded. These grotesques represent the fantastic and original spirit of the Germanic North as contrasted with the more sedate Byzantine dependence on earlier classic designs.

In the rare examples of Romanesque wall painting which have survived, there is visible a finished and powerful style which bespeaks long previous practice and an interesting survival of classic art. It is far otherwise in the sculpture, where the early efforts are clumsy and rude, though interesting for the originality of the motives and the earnest effort of the workman. The conclusion is obvious that the efforts in sculpture were less assisted by tradition, and the dearth of Byzantine art in this line has been explained.

In enamels and metal work there are many survivals of Byzantine influences. The rudest art of the period, as regards sculpture and painting, survived latest in Italy where we find incredibly barbaric design even in the thirteenth century. The style represented was common at this time all over Italy and was not improved upon until the advent of Nicolo of Pisa.