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Romanesque Architecture – A Quick Reference

Romanesque Architecture, an architectural style of medieval Europe, emerged as the dominant architectural style ranging between the 6th to 11th centuries. The design and style were mostly borrowed from Roman art and architecture. Roman architecture flourished between the fall of the Roman empire(5th century) and the beginning of the Gothic era(13th century).

A large number of monks and monasteries existed during the middle ages giving importance to monasticism. Many of the Romanesque churches used to be monastery churches surrounded by beautiful countryside. Monasteries devoted themselves to rural surroundings. Churches were not built just to hold services; they went far beyond the purpose, they were –

  • Architectural display of imperial power.
  • An architectural embodiment of the idea of the Roman Empire.
  • Important on a political level, as they demonstrated the rank of their builders.
  • Magnificent structures as a demonstration of the power of the emperor.
  • Representation of symbolical and sociological aspects.

Main Architectural Features of Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque cathedrals and basilicas were massive building structures with large towers, smaller windows, sturdy pillars, vaults, round arches, and decorative arcading. Clear-defined forms and symmetrical plans with a simple appearance define this style that combines Roman and Byzantine building styles.

  • Harmonious Proportions
  • Round Arches supporting the roof.
  • Decorative arches for the facade
  • Stone Vaults – Barrel, Groin, and Ribbed Vaults
  • Thick and heavy Walls
  • Small windows
  • Relief Sculpture

Construction Work

Buildings of Romanesque architecture were built with stone and had wooden roofs.

Foundations – In the earlier constructions, foundations were laid- on damp ground or unstable ground. Later the problems related to poor foundation soils were discussed and solved as much as possible.

Building materials – They were transported from different parts of the city. As an example; marble and limestone to build Lyons Cathedral were transported from Trajan’s Forum. Classical buildings in general were popular sources of stones.

Human power – Bricklayers, stone masons, sculptors, mortar stirrers, plasterers, whitewashers, carpenters, laborers, and handymen.

Sitework – At the beginning of the twentieth century, wooden scaffolding was used.

Before that, cantilever scaffolding was used. At each stage of work, a level working area was created at the wall coping. The scaffolding was removed and attached to the wall higher, once the wall had been built. Materials were moved up using ramps and transported using baskets, stretchers, and strips.

Romanesque Architecture

There were main three types of architectonic typologies – Churches, Monasteries, and Castles.

  • Churches
    • Significant building types
    • Symbolizes God’s Kingdom
    • Most of them are in cross-plan form.
  • Monasteries
    • Designed as the city of God.
    • Had several dependencies – church, cloister, chapter room, Monks room, Hospital
  • Castles
    • They were used for defensive constructions.
    • Fortified with walls for providing shelter.
    • Castles were built in stepped areas.

Building Components of Churches

Image source – slidetodoc.com

Architecture and Interior Spaces

A. Central Nave

The walls of the Nave were mostly built as a multistorey system. One or two levels of Triforium levels and a clerestory were constructed above Arcades. Each bay of the Arcade comprises one or two arches. Each Bay has its own vault and the thrust is carried down by pillars. They were also different types –

  • Single-tier construction
    • The walls of the Nave were simple that had only arcades and columns without any clerestory and Triforiums.
  • Double-tier construction
    • Wall construction is of two stages – Arcades and Clerestory
    • Columns articulate the hall space.
  • Three-tier construction
    • This type of construction was seen in large cathedrals. Arcades, Triforiums, and Clerestory adorn the walls of the Nave.
  • Four-tier constrcution
    • It is layered from bottom to top as follows – arcades, galleries, blind triforium, and clerestory.
Romanesque architecture
Image source – slideplayer.com

B. Choir and Crypt

Originally in the churches, the choir was simple and considered the singing place took place. Later, it was extended by the chancel square and apse. In the thirteenth century, a choir screen was added which served as a border between the monks and the lay church. It also serves as a platform for singers. The size of the choir was dictated by the width and height dimensions of the nave.

Choir; Image source – sites.pitt.edu

Crypt was originally the place where a martyr was laid to rest. Later on, the crypt served as the last resting place for dignitaries. It was accessed by a tunnel crypt with individual chambers. Above the crypt, the east choir was constructed, and later the church.

C. Walls

Walls were massive thick walls with few and small openings. Double shell external walls were filled with rubble. The building materials used were local stone, brick, limestone, and granite depending on the availability and building traditions.

Romanesque architecture
Typical English Romanesque bay (from Peterborough Cathedral). (left) External elevation. (middle) Internal elevation. (right) Section through bay Image source – europeanarchitecture.tumblr.com

D. Piers and Capitals

In Romanesque architecture, Piers were used to support arches. They were either square or rectangular in section and were built of masonry. Piers have a vertical shaft with a base at the bottom and capital, entablature at the top of a vertical shaft. Piers were also of highly complex forms – cruciform pillars, a clustered group of smaller shafts.


Columns were used both as structurally and also as a part of façade or interior decoration. Capitals were similar to Roman style – Corinthian and composite. Marble was extensively used in Romanesque columns.

  • Salvaged columns
    • Roman columns were salvaged and later used in the interiors of the churches.
  • Drum columns
    • Columns were constructed massively to support thick walls and vaults. They were built of stone cylinders called drums.
  • Hollow core columns
    • They were constructed of ashlar masonry and the hollow core was filled with rubble.

E. Doors and Windows


Romanesque religious buildings have three types of entrances.

  • Simple round arch entrance
  • Provision of recessed or stepped entrance
    • Stepped towards the central axis, the segments of the arch form the shape of a funnel.
  • A recessed portal with columns
Recessed or stepped entrance
Recessed portal with columns
Recessed portal with columns
Romanesque architecture

The western portal of Saint Trophime in Arles is one of the most richly decorated with figurative sculptures. The central theme is the expectation of salvation associated with the last judgment.

Image source – commons. Wikimedia


There were four different types of windows

  • Simple semi-circular window
  • Coupled semi-circular headed lights with a central colonnade
  • Stepped semi-circular headed lights with dividing colonnades
  • Tre-foil-headed window.

F. Arcades

An Arcade is a row of arches, supported by columns. Arcades appear in different locations such as

  • Atrium spaces
  • Interior of churches that divides nave and aisles
  • The great hall of castles
  • Facades
  • Stories

Arcade is also seen as a decorative feature.

Arcade; Image source – Wikimedia commons

G. Vaults and Domes

The construction of vaults replaced the flat roofs of early Christian basilicas. The development during this period is shown in the different forms of vaults – barrel vault, groin vault, ribbed vault, and moreover, developed with a pointed ribbed vault which is the main characteristic of the Gothic style.

Barrel Vault

A Barrel vault is a simple type of vaulted roof that require the support of solid walls. The pilasters that are attached to the front of the aisle columns are continued in the vault by transverse arches. Mainly used to cover the central Nave.

Groin Vault

Groins result from the intersection of the transept and the nave. Also, the intersection of two barrel vaults at right angles above the square results in the formation of arched diagonals or groins. The vault is a structural member itself. It is common in Aisles and Ambulatory.

Barrel vault and Groin Vault; Image source – guerrerohistory.wordpress.com

Ribbed Vault

Ribs (little arch frames) span the vaulted area transversely and each vaulted bay has diagonal ribs similar to a groin vault. Here, the ribs are structural members, unlike the vault being a structural members in the groin vault.

Barrel Vault; The nave of Lisbon cathedral; Image source – Wikipedia
Groin Vault; Aisle of the Abbey church; Image source – Wikipedia
Ribbed Vault; Saint Etienne; Image source – Wikipedia


In Romanesque architecture, domes are present at the intersection of the nave and transept. Octagonal in plan, the domes resting on squinches and Pendentives are one of the features of Romanesque architecture.

Facades of Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque church facades are mostly to the west and are symmetrical. They have a significant central portal adorned with sculptural moldings or a porch and arched-topped windows above it. Romanesque churches are mainly distinguished by their fortified appearance of massive structures with round arches, massive porches with towers, and smaller window openings. The fortified porches were meant to defend the church against evil powers.

West Front with No towers

Smaller churches usually have no towers or a single small tower placed centrally. It is articulated by structural devices – pilasters, lesenes, pillars, and ornamental sculptures.

Country: France Site: Cloister of St. Trophime Caption: Portal and facade post-conservation Image Date: 1995 Photographer: WMF Provenance: Site Visit Original: from the slide collection.
Romanesque architecture
Pisa Cathedral; Image source – gpsmycity
Romanesque architecture
San Zeno, Verona; Image source – Wikipedia

West Front with two Flanking Towers

West front/facades with two flanking towers are most common in Romanesque architecture. It is commonly seen in northern and western Europe. It is considered as a symbolic reference to the gateway of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Church of Saint-Étienne :

The façade flanked by two tall towers each with buttresses and three portals stands as an architectural model for the facades of later years.

Southwell cathedral and Limburg Cathedral are fine examples.

Church of Saint-Étienne; Image source – Image source – artsy.net
Romanesque Architecture
Southwell cathedral; Image source – buttress.net
Romanesque Architecture
Limburg cathedral; Image source – Wikipedia.com

West Front with Three Towers

The façade consists of a central part with an atrium and a multistorey upper church and is connected by side wings, galleries, and flanking towers.

Romanesque architecture
Abbey church of Maria Laach; Image source – vialucispress.wordpress.com

J. Interiors of Romanesque Architecture

Walls were plastered and painted and often faced with marble. Wooden ceilings were decorated. Stone was a material commonly used for the construction of buildings and decorations with ornate capitals, and moldings. Mosaics, murals, and carved figures were features of interior decorations.

Arcades were most common in interior churches. In Italy, marble columns with Capital, Base, and Abacus were widespread across the country.

The internal roofs were of different types and materials. Timber roofs and wooden ceilings were most prevalent in smaller churches, whereas, larger churches featured roofs from simple barrel vaults and groin vaults to ribbed vaults. The series of domes was also an interesting feature of the roofs of Romanesque architecture.

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