Romanesque Architecture Explained

Romanesque Architecture Explained (5th – 13th Century AD)

Welcome to the first article of our new series: Architecture – A Stroll Through the Epochs.
We begin this series with Romanesque Architecture as our initial subject, because it was the earliest distinctive, post-ancient architectural style that saw widespread use all over Europe and because its architectural representations are still part of today’s historic townscapes. It also spawned its own revival style else in the world, allowing many non-Europeans to have some form of firsthand experience with its basic visual principles.



The origin of the term “Romanesque Architecture” is attributed to French archaeologist Charles de Gerville who was the first to use the French term “romane” in connection with  medieval architecture and its characteristics. To give you an idea why this was a pioneering approach, here is a small excerpt from a letter that he sent to fellow archaeologist Auguste Le Prévost, dated 18 December 1818:

“I have sometimes spoken to you about Romanesque architecture. It is a word of my own which I invented (I think successfully) to replace the insignificant words of Saxon and Norman. Everyone agrees that this architecture, heavy and rough, is the opus romanum successively denatured or degraded by our rude ancestors. So too, out of the crippled Latin language, was made this Romance language whose origin and degradation have so much analogy with the origin and progress of architecture. Tell me, please, that my name Roman(esque) was invented with success.”

Charles de Gerville

Charles de Gerville

In broad terms, the Romanesque era can be subdivided into two periods: “Pre-Romanesque Architecture/First Romanesque” and “Romanesque Architecture”. The former covers the time between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and the latter concludes with the beginning of the High Middle Ages and the advent of “Gothic Architecture.” Depending on the region in question, this gives us a timeframe of around eight centuries in which the principles of this style were established and employed — often with the addition of locally prevailing stylistic preferences.

At the core of the development and promulgation of the Romanesque style lay the migration of knowledge with the ever growing streams of Christian pilgrims and members of the clergy from regions within today’s borders of Germany and France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Along this route, a number of orders set out to establish abbeys, monasteries and churches, which then served to pass on the knowledge of the manner of construction and style to the local builders and foreign visitors, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the French Romanesque, German Romanesque, Spanish Romanesque, Italian Romanesque and the English Norman Style.

Unfortunately, we are not able to provide you with an indepth analysis of the historical events that marked the transitory phase between the demise of the Roman Empire and fellow states of the Classical Antiquity to the beginning of the Middle Ages, without losing the scope of this article. Therefore we will only briefly mention some key events and cultural developments to give you an idea of why the Romanesque era was so different from all that went before it.

1. Redefining Europe

The transitory phase between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, both in mainland Europe and the Mediterranean, was a time characterized by the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I and his “Edict of Thessalonica“(4th century), the migration of peoples from the Eastern regions of the Eurasian continent into the Roman Empire known as the Völkerwanderung (5th century) and the advance of the Islam from Arabia towards the north and west (7th & 8th century). These were the important steps towards establishing the principal geopolitical and religious frontiers of the new Europe, which would exist in this form for almost a millenium.

2. Middle Ages: Cultural principles

As you will know, the Western Roman Empire dissolved over the course of the first millenium AD to make way for a number of new states founded by the young peoples that evolved from the various tribes who migrated into Central Europe. Only the Byzantine Empire, the former Eastern Roman Empire, remained to carry the imperial traditions and culture of the Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages.

Within these newly founded states the kings declared themselves as the rightful successors to the Roman Emperors and in doing so had to face a pressing issue — how to organize their reign? The downfall of the Roman Empire was neither a peaceful nor a swift affair. It had taken several centuries, and most established systems of governmental administration were abolished and could not be reinstated due to lack of knowledge and trained personnel.

Consequentially, the kings had to turn to the clergy to request assistance, as the Church was the only institution that had maintained a working administration trough these troubled times, and was therefore able to staff the new  governmental administrations with men from its ranks — key positions included.

It shall also not be forgotten that they maintained the ultimate religious authority as Christianity was carried over as the state religion for all these new states. Aditionally, resulting from the complete lack of a profane urban culture within the young peoples, the monopoly of education lay firmly in the hands of the clergy, as well. So the Church was the bearer of two legacies, the Christian religion and the culture of the Late Antiquity. These circumstances bestowed the clergy with considerable influence and power.

As a natural consequence, Latin was taken over as the language for both clergy and administration and similar attempts were also made in the fields of literature, fine arts and architecture — trying to build on the antique traditions. However, that proved to be an ill-fated undertaking as we shall see.

3. Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

During the transition to the Middle Ages, the new kingdoms were looking for means to secure their desired role as the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire. Yet there were no comparable administrative or cultural institutions that would require great structures like forums, court houses or other governmental and public buildings. Therefore, the sacral building was chosen as the only viable vehicle to represent a kingdom’s standing.

For this purpose, the builders set out to employ the design vocabulary of the Late Antiquity. Unfortunately for them, there was no structural engineering knowledge passed on from the Roman times. This resulted in a situation where they were merely able to visually study the architecture of the Late Antiquity, but could gain no insight on the constructive techniques nor the components’ formal significance.

Due to space constraints here, readers who desire indepth descriptions of any of the spacial, formal or constructive elements that will find mention in the following passages, are encouraged to follow the links provided in the recommended reading section at the end of the article.

Church of Santa-María-de-Lara, Burgo, Spain

Church of Santa-María-de-Lara, Burgo, Spain

4. Pre-Romanesque Architecture/First Romanesque

This limited knowledge of Late Antique architecture gave Europe the style known as “Pre-Romanesque” or “First Romanesque.” The few remaining examples, mostly smaller buildings, give us a vivid idea of what resulted from this rather clumsy trial and error approach. Primarily, a rather wild mix of sophisticated Late Antique forms executed in a rather crude manner.

This is not to say that the young peoples of Europe were not artistically sophisticated, because they certainly were. Yet their nomadic nature had restricted them to the smaller forms of craftwork, a tradition that they readily employed and which is acknowledged today as their only viable contribution to the arts, in particular that of the ornament. A typical example would be the church Santa Maria de Lara, located near the village of Quintanilla de las Viñas, in modern Spain, with its finely-crafted ornament frieze running horizontally around most of the crude, dry-set masonry structure.

Nonetheless, their lack of understanding of the principles of advanced masonry manifested itself in a number of crucial misunderstandings, which can be highlighted with another example, the Torhaus (gatehouse) at the abbey of Lorsch, in modern Germany.



Built in the late 8th century under the reign of Charlemagne, it is one of the few remaining prestige buildings of Carolingian Architecture and characterized by its eclectic appearance that presents itself as a mix of Roman and Byzantine stylistic elements.

The first floor features piers, arches and layered semicolumns, which appear to have an inherent structural interrelation, yet when we move further upwards we see a slim structural element mimicing a traverse that sits on top of the arches, much like a carpenter’s plank, completely devoid of any structural purpose. The architrave which should have taken its place is instead resting on the semicolumns, which reach too high, providing a platform for a row of fluted piers. These are themselves crowned with triangular gables, supposedly an abstraction of blind arcading common in Roman architecture. Above them, we find  the cornice “floating” unattached to the blind arcade. Underneath, colored sandstone patterns comprised of squares, rectangles and hexagons, characteristic of Byzantine architecture, highlight the subdivision of the front and rear show façades in the style of a Roman triumphal arch.

Let’s remember, this building represents the best talent of the day. Unfortunately the result, a façade comprised of a decorative layer of Roman architectural quotations superimposed on a typical Byzantine textured backdrop layer, fails to establish either a structural or stylistic symbiosis of form and purpose.

All these misunderstandings and misinterpretations eventually  led to three simple principals to be employed in the subsequent centuries — symplification, reduction and geometrization. The result being the loss of the plasticity found in the architecture of the Roman times and an overall impression of cubical rigidity.

Henceforth, early Romanesque buildings are characterized by compact wall sections without any surface structure, often plastered and painted, small windows and arcades cut sharp-edged out of the walls and a minimum of masoned ornamentation.

5. Romanesque Architecture

At the heart of the now emerging true Romanesque Architecture lay the masoned wall, which would become its defining characteristic. Constructed from whatever building materials were easily obtainable, their appearance would vary between brick, limestone, granite and flint, making each one distinct.

Among the most visually prominent design mediums of the Romanesque era, in terms of masonry, was the arch. Unlike the Roman example, it was not incorporated into the wall’s bond of stones. The staggered archivolts and the change in color and texture, which was achieved by the use of alternating layers of different types of stone.

The chief constructive element that was characteristic of the Romanesque era was the vault, which evolved over time and would continue to do so over the coming centuries, with new combinations of piers, columns and their alternation schemes and the resulting arcades. All of these developments easily warrant coverage in an article of their own.

In the transitory phase between the Late Romanesque and the Early Gothic eras at the onset of the 11th century, another feature gained prominence as the vertical zoning of the nave’s walls entered the next stage — the dosseret.

These mostly half-column shaped elements reached the entire elevation of the wall and resulted in a number of mural relief zones between the different floors that could be filled with blind arcades, dwarf galleries or niches, amongst others. In the case of basilicas that had a matroneum (later triforium) above the aisles, a feature that would become characteristic of basilicas of the late Romanesque era, the walls on the ground level and matroneum would be constituted of arcades with the final zone between it and the roof being comprised of a row of windows, the clerestory. 

Overall, the interdependency between zoning and vaulted ceiling constructions was highly beneficial for the creation and establishment of the last crucial element of the Romanesque era — the bay. Bays, being the individual volume of space defined by a single vault and its supports,  can be seen in the above example of the Abbey church of Fontenay, in modern France. The way the bay was used to structure the church body was subject to regional preferences and could either emphasize the transversal or longitudinal axis of the church body.

It is generally accepted that the crowning achievements in the field of Romanesque architecture were made in the  northern regions of the Frankish Empire, beyond the alps. The southern states only gained historical significance in their effort to preserve and pass on a core set of antique traditions.

 6. Romanesque Architecture: Sacral buildings

The archetype after which the Romanesque ecclesiastical buildings were modelled was that of the basilicas of Late Antiquity with their vast open spaces and light brickwork construction. To overcome their inability to build such light constructions and yet achieve a similar spatial effect, the Romanesque builders had to revert back to heavy masonary with its thick walls.

This approach may be evidenced today, especially the many churches originating from the Ottonian period which still show this kind of wall composition, or at least did so before remodelling efforts of subsequent eras, a prominent example being St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim, in modern Germany.

This example is also noteworthy in terms of evolution of the sacral design language, because of the harmonization of the arcades and window rows, which used to have no formal relation in earlier churches. This became a common design element, eventually resulting in the formation of bays, one of the fundamental units within sacral architecture for centuries to come.



The aforementioned lack of developed townscapes — with town walls, towers, gates, triumphal arches, market squares and public buildings as means of demonstrating an organized state power — led the Frankish Empire to display this political function with the splendor of its sacral architecture.

Though this was not the only reason that was to define the requirements for this kind of building type. The ever growing clerical body, with its vast number of liturgies had to be presented with a structure that could provide them with room for all kinds of activities. The inception of the procession and the need for choir space especially determined the floorplan of every church.

Eventually, every basilica, to some extent also hall and dome churches, would consist of a nave, aisles, a transept, a crossing, choir bay(s), choir(s) and apse(s). Each of them serving a particular liturgical purpose.



The choirs in particular are of significant importance. Apart from the main choir, often havng a crypt placed underneath, side choirs (chancels) housed altars for the veneration of the growing number of saints and relics.

Likewise, we have to keep in mind that the monasteries served, at least part time, as the residence of the sovereign, so their churches had to provide special choirs and a westwork, which would house the lodging quarters of the king or emperor and his entourage.

Noteworthy examples:

Romanesque basilicas – St. Michael’s Church, Hildesheim (Germany); St. Philibert’s Church, Tournus (France); Cluny Abbey (III), (France); Durham Cathedral, Durham (England); Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

Romanesque hall and dome churches – Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (France); Angoulême Cathedral, Angoulême (France); Florence Baptistery, Florence (Italy)

7. Romanesque Architecture: Castles, Monasteries and Kaiserpfalzen

Romanesque castles were developments of the wooden palisades, built by the Romans throughout Europe, or from mottes, errected mostly atop artificially created moats, which then were surmounted by a towering wooden structure and often surrounded by ditches. With the addition of a further outer ring of palisades and the enclosure of a bailey in which domestic buildings were constructed, the general principal of the castle was established. Starting in the early 11th century, a stone keep would take the place of the wooden tower.

The equivalent in the regions that nowadays belong to France was the”donjon,” the earliest of which is believed to have been at Doue-la-Fontaine, built in about 950.

The classic castle sitting atop natural elevations and taking advantage of steep slopes for defense would become prevalent throughout Europe. The keep ultimatly took on the shape of a central tower as the only means of defence, with the inside of the castle’s walls providing the backdrop for the main domestic quarters.

Ca stle Taufers, Sand in Taufers, Italy

Ca stle Taufers, Sand in Taufers, Italy

Romanesque castles: “Motte-and-bailey castle” archetype (Europe); “Donjon” subtype (France), “Keep” subtype (England)


A typical monastery consisted of a cloister — the monks’ working and general living space, containing carrels for study and writing — and often along one range, a “lavatorium” where the monks could wash their hands and faces before eating. Above the arcades ran long dormitories where the monks slept. A number of buildings surrounded and abutted the cloister. The chapter house was the most significant, as the meeting place of the governing body of the abbey. It generally projected from the eastern side of the cloister. Also off the cloister arcade was a calefactory, the refectory and the infirmary.

Romanesque monastries: Abbey of Fontenay, Marmagne (France)



The Holy Roman Empire, by being a “travelling kingdom” (Reisekönigtum), necessitated the construction of a considerable number of residences for the emperor all over the empire. These “palaces,” also referred to as “Pfalz,” were not meant as a permanent residence but rather provided a homestaed for a certain time, usually less than a year. Also, unlike the name suggests, these “palaces” could be of a rather humble character, at times nothing more than a fortified hunting lodge. In general, though, they were large manor houses,  as they had to provide catering and accommodation for a vast number of people — the king’s entourage could easily be in excess of a few hundred staff members, as well as numerous guests.

Romanesque Kaiserpfalzen: Kaiserpfalz Goslar, Goslar(Germany)

Kaiserpfalz Goslar,-Goslar,-Germany

Kaiserpfalz Goslar,-Goslar,-Germany

8. Romanesque Architecture: Residential and Secular Buildings

In the case of residential and secular buildings, only a select few survived the past 800 years across all of Europe. This is mainly due to the majority of them having been of wooden or half-timbered construction and therefore unable to last more than a few generations after their erection. Archaeological finds established that the typical rural Romanesque house was the “long house.” These single-story houses, built of wood and thatch, housed both the family and their livestock under one roof.

On the other hand, houses built within medieval cities were almost exclusively multi-story constructions because of the limited space available within a city’s walls. Usually, every floor would be comprised of a single room only and steep ladder-like stairs providing access to the other floors. In some cases, exterior staircases provided the only way to access an entire row of houses as there were no interior staircases at all as to not waste precious space within.

In France there are a number of locations at which clusters of Romanesque houses have survived, amongst them a significant number in Cluny. Apart from that, there are also some singular examples to be found in Germany and England.

Romanesque rural and urban dwellings – “Longhouse” archetype, (Europe), Cluny town centre, Cluny (France);  Romanesque house, Bad Münstereifel (Germany)

Typical examples of Romanesque commercial buildings or merchant houses that belonged to wealthy families who made their fortunes in the growing towns of the 12th and 13th. century are the Overstolzenhaus in Cologne and the “Korenstapelhuis” or Old Corn Warehouse in Ghent, Belgium.  Both were among the most prominent buildings of their kind, showcasing the social standing of their owners as well as stylistic elements usually reserved for ecclesiastical construction. 

Romanesque commercial buildings – Overstolzenhaus, Cologne (Germany); Korenstapelhuis, Ghent (Belgium)

9. Recommended reading

The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-820073-0)

Dictionary of the Middle Ages (ISBN 0-684-18276-9)

An Outline of European Architecture,  Pelican Books (ISBN 1423604938)

Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Könemann (ISBN 3-89508-447-6)

10. Register of illustrations

All illustrations in this article remain as PublicDomain or fall under the CC licence agreement, in which case credit is to be given to the original author and myself.

1. Maria Laach Abbey: Goldi64

2. Charles de Gerville: PD

3. Routes  of Barbarian Invasions: PD

4. Europe at the end of the migration period: PD

5. Church of Santa-María-de-Lara: AeroHis

6. Carolingian gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey:  Armin Kübelbeck

7. Church-of-Schaprode,-Ruegen,-Germany: PD

8. Scarborough-Castle, Scarborough, England: yachta

9. Church of São Miguel do Castelo, Oliveira do Castelo, Portugal: Parruco

10. St.Swithun’s, Nately Scures, Newnham, England: Rosa Foulger

11. Romanesque arch: Deirdre Larkin

12. Golden-Gate,-Freiberg-Cathedral: Web Gallery of Art

13.  alternation-of-different-layers-of-stone-(brick-and-flint): David Ansley

14. Payerne-Priory,-Vaud,-Switzerland: Beckstet

15. Speyer-Cathedral,-Speyer,-Germany: Studyblue

16. St.Michael’s-Church,-Hildesheim,-Germany (alternation): Dronkitmaster

17. Abbey-church-of-Fontenay,-Marmagne,-France: Jean-Christophe Benoist

18. Church-of-St. Peter (Roman basilica), Rome, Italy: PD

19. Romanesque-basilica—Konstanz,-Germany: PD

20. St.Michael’s-Church,-Hildesheim,-Germany (alignment): Studyblue

21. Schematic-church-plan: Algos

22. St.Michael’s-Church-Hildesheim,-Hildesheim,-Germany (exterior): Heinz-Josef Lücking

23. Church of St.Philibert,-Tournous,-France: Morburre

24. Cluny Abbey (III): PD

25. Durham-Cathedral,-Durham,-England: Studyblue

26. Cathedral-of-Santiago-de-Compostela,-Santiago-de-Compostela,-Spain: Paz Ruiz Utrilla

27. Notre-Dame-la-Grande-de-Poitiers,-Poitiers,-France: TwoWings

28. Angoulême-Cathedral,–Angoulême,-France: Nicrid16

29. Baptistry-of-Saint-John,-Florence,-Italy: Studyblue

30. Castle-Taufers,-Sand-in-Taufers,-Italy: Wolfgang Sauber

31. Motte and bailey castle (reconstruction), Lütjenburg, Germany: PD

32. Castle-of-Gisors–Donjon-type-,-Gisors,-France: Nitot

33. Keep,-Cardiff-Castle,-Cardiff,-England:

34. Cloister-of-Fontenay-Abbey,-Marmagne,-France: Jjpetite

35. Kaiserpfalz Goslar,-Goslar,-Germany: GDA Senioren-Residenz Schwiecheldthaus GmbH

36. reconstruction-of-an-archetypical-long-house: Alamannen-Museum Vörstetten

37. Romanesque-town-house,-Cluny,-France: MOSSOT

38. Romanesque-town-house,-Bad-Muenstereifel,-Germany: Putput

39. Overstolzenhaus-(postwar-reconstruction),-Cologne,-Germany: Rolf Heinrich

40. Korenstapelhuis,-Ghent,-Belgium: Wikimedia

Romanesque Architecture Explained
Article Name
Romanesque Architecture Explained
Learn all about Romanesque Architecture in this beginner's guide that is easy to understand & packed with useful information + 40 pictures.
7 replies
  1. Soeren Dalsgaard says:

    Thank you for this very nice article. I feel that you are a bit too harsh towards the builders of Romanesque architecture. They certainly did not produce architecture as impressive as that of the high classical Roman era. However, they were not endowed with almost unlimited funds harvested from a huge empire either. Maybe, in the light of the financing available, their attempts were not quite as shabby. Rather than seeing their architecture as failed attempts at recreating Old Rome, they should perhaps be seen as representative of a new era of 1) Christianity, 2) budding kingdoms and city states, 3) new cultural influences… – Anyway, it can be discussed!
    (PS, there is a slight error, with a wrong picture entitled Cathedral of Santiago..)

    • Daniel Gerson says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I guess the fundamanetal flaw with Romanesque architecture and most apparently the Pre-Romanesque was the desire to recreate what the Romans had done before. Had they tried to incorporate what ever knowlege they could derive from the Roman remains into their own architectural heritage, perhaps the results would have been more coherent. Though this is all merely speculative.

      As for the picture, you are quite right, the description should have said Castle Taufers, Sand in Taufers, Italy.

  2. Alan Peebles says:

    Interesting, Daniel. My daughter is currently taking a minor in history at university, and her first study period has been the age of Late Antiquity. I read two of her textbooks, which held diametrically opposed views of the period.

    One said there was no “fall to dark ages”, it was simply a transformation to a different type of society, loosely based on the Roman Empire which came before. In this view, the “Germanic barbarians” (his words, not mine) became the next version of the old Roman Emperors, and the world simply carried on, but each kingdom on a smaller scale without the Europe-sized trading zone and vast economy.

    The other approach was the fall was brutal and swift, and again originated with the the invasions from the north. In this view, the existing trading routes were interrupted, causing a widespread loss of the Roman tax-base, which allowed the barabrians to loot and plunder at will. This ultimately concluded with a complete collapse of the economy and of the Roman civilization as it was known.

    Interesting that two opposing views can both be construed as correct. My theory is that the truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle ground. I realize none of this has anything to do with architecture, but I found your history references both timely and fascinating.

    • Daniel Gerson says:

      It is indeed quite a controversial issue, though the most fascinating aspect of the whole affair is that even today we discover yet unknown artifacts that help us understand how this process did unfold. Therefor, no definite answer can be given on how it all really happened.

      Nonetheless, I considered it vital to introduce the readers to the issue as it had a profound effect on how architecture developed in the subsequent epoch.

      So thank you for taking the time to read the article and give a thoughtful commentary. Most appreciated.

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