THE term Romanesque is here used to indicate a style of Christian architecture, founded on Roman art, which prevailed throughout Western Europe from the close of the period of basilican architecture to the rise of Gothic; except in those isolated districts where the influence of Byzantium is visible. By some writers the significance of the word is restricted within narrower limits; but excellent authorities can be adduced for the employment of it in the wide sense here indicated. Indeed some difficulty exists in deciding what shall and what shall not be termed Romanesque, if any more restricted definition of its meaning is adopted; while under this general term, if applied broadly, many closely allied local varieties—as, for example, Lombard, Rhenish, Romance, Saxon, and Norman—can be conveniently included.

The spectacle which Europe presented after the removal of the seat of empire to Byzantium and the incursions of the Northern tribes was melancholy in the extreme. Nothing but the church retained any semblance of organised existence; and when at last some kind of order began to emerge from a chaos of universal ruin, and churches and monastic buildings began to be built in Western Europe, all of them looked to Rome, and not to Constantinople, as their common ecclesiastical centre. It is not surprising that, as soon as differences between the ritual of the Eastern and the Western Church sprang up, a contrast between Eastern and Western architecture should establish itself, and that the early structures of [223] the many countries where the Roman Church flourished never wandered far from the Roman type, with the exception of localities where circumstances favoured direct intercourse with the East. The architecture of the Eastern Church, on the other hand, adhered quite as closely to the models of Byzantium.

A square tower with a door at the base

Fig. 166.—Tower of Earl’s Barton Church.

The style, so far as is known, was for a long time almost, if not absolutely, the same over a very large part of Western Christendom, and it has received from Mr. Freeman the appropriate designation of Primitive Romanesque. It was not till the tenth century, or later, that distinctive varieties began to make their appearance; and though that which was built earlier than that date has, through rebuildings and enlargements as well as natural decay, been in many cases swept away, still enough may be met with to show us what the buildings of that remote time were like.

The churches are usually small, and have an apsidal east end. The openings are rude, with round-headed arches and small single or two-light windows, and the outer [224] walls are generally marked by flat pilasters of very slight projection. Towers are common, and the openings in them are often divided into two or more lights by rude columns. The plan of these churches was founded on the basilica type, but they do not exhibit the same internal arrangement; and it is very noteworthy that many of them show marks of having been vaulted, or at least partly vaulted; and not covered, as the basilicas usually were, by timber roofs. Even a country so remote as Great Britain possessed in the 10th century many buildings of Primitive Romanesque character; and in such Saxon churches as those of Worth, Brixworth, Dover, or Bradford, and such towers as those of Earl’s Barton (Fig. 166), Trinity Church Colchester, Barnack, or Sompting, we have specimens of the style remaining to the present day.

By degrees, as buildings of greater extent and more ornament were erected, the local varieties to which reference has been made began to develop themselves. In Lombardy and North Italy, for example, a Lombard Romanesque style can be recognised distinctly; here a series of churches were built, many of them vaulted, but not many of the largest size. Most of them were on substantially the same plan as the basilicas, though a considerable number of circular or polygonal churches were also built. Sant’ Ambrogio at Milan, and some of the churches at Brescia, Pavia, and Lucca, may be cited as well-known examples of early date, and a little later the cathedrals of Parma, Modena, and Piacenza (Fig. 167), and San Zenone at Verona. These churches are all distinguished by the free use of small ornamental arches and narrow pilaster-strips externally, and the employment of piers with half-shafts attached to them, rather than columns, in the arcades; they have fine bell-towers; [225] circular windows often occupy the gables, and very frequently the walls have been built of, or ornamented with, coloured materials. The sculpture—grotesque, vigorous, and full of rich variety—which distinguishes many of these buildings, and which is to be found specially enriching the doorways, is of great interest, and began early to develop a character that is quite distinctive.

Showing arches and circular window

Fig. 167.—Cathedral at Piacenza.

Turning to Germany, we find that a very strong resemblance existed between the Romanesque churches of that country and those of North Italy. At Aix-la-Chapelle a polygonal church exists, built by Charlemagne, and which tradition asserts was designed on the model of San Vitale at Ravenna. The resemblance is undoubted, but the German church is by no means an exact copy of Justinian’s building. Early examples of German Romanesque exist in the cathedrals of Mayence, Worms, and Spires, and a steady advance was made till a point [226] was reached (in the twelfth century) at which the style may be said to have attained the highest development which Romanesque architecture received in any country of Europe.

The arcaded ornament (the arches being very frequently open so as to form a real arcade) which was noticed as occurring in Lombard churches, belongs also to German ones, though the secondary internal arcade (triforium) is absent from some of the early examples. Piers are used more frequently than columns in the interiors, and are often very plain. From an early date the use of a western as well as an eastern apse seems to have been common in Germany, and high western façades extending between two towers were features specially met with in that country. For a notice and some illustrations of the latest and best phase of German Romanesque, which may with propriety be termed “round-arched Gothic,” the reader is referred to the companion volume of this series.[34]

France exhibits more than one variety of Romanesque; for not only, as remarked in the chapter on Byzantine Art, is the influence of Greek or Venetian artists traceable in the buildings of certain districts, especially Périgueux, but it is clear that in others the existence of fine examples of Roman architecture (Fig. 168) affected the design of buildings down to and during the eleventh century. This influence may, for example, be detected in the use, in the churches at Autun, Valence, and Avignon, of capitals, pilasters, and other features closely resembling classic originals, and in the employment through a great part of Central and Northern France of vaulted roofs.

Fig. 168.—Vaults of the excavated Roman Baths, in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

A specially French feature is the chevet, a group of [227] apsidal chapels which were built round the apse itself, and which combined with it to make of the east end of a great cathedral a singularly rich and ornate composition. This feature, originating in Romanesque churches, was retained in France through the whole of the Gothic period, and a good example of it may be seen in the large Romanesque church of St. Sernin at Toulouse, which we illustrate (Fig. 169). The transepts were usually well [229] marked. The nave arcades generally sprang from piers (Fig. 170), more rarely from columns. Arches are constantly met with recessed, i.e. in receding planes,[35] the first stage of progress towards a Gothic treatment, and are occasionally slightly moulded (Fig. 171). Western doorways are often highly enriched with sculpture; and the carving and sculpture generally, though often rude, are full of vitality. Towers occur, usually square, more rarely octagonal. Window-lights are frequently grouped two or more under one arch. Capitals of a basket-shape, and with a square abacus, often richly sculptured, are employed.

Showing chevet and polygonal spire

Fig. 169.—Church of St. Sernin, Toulouse.

Showing a series of arches, with smaller arches above

Fig. 170.—Nave Arcade at St. Sernin, Toulouse.

Fig. 171.—Arches in receding planes at St. Sernin, Toulouse.

In Normandy, and generally in the North of France, round-arched architecture was excellently carried out, and churches remarkable both for their extent and their great dignity and solidity were erected. Generally speaking, however, Norman architecture, especially as met with in Normandy itself, is less ornate than the [230] Romanesque of Southern France; in fact some of the best examples seem to suffer from a deficiency of ornament. The large and well-known churches at Caen, St. Etienne, otherwise the Abbaye aux Hommes—interesting to Englishmen [231] as having been founded by William the Conqueror immediately after the Conquest—and the Trinité, or Abbaye aux Dames, are excellent examples of early Norman architecture, but the student must not forget that additions have been made to them, which, if they add to their beauty, at the same time alter their character. For example, in St. Etienne, the upper part of the western towers and the fine spires with which they are crowned were built subsequent to the original structure, as was also, in all probability, the chevet, or eastern limb. It seems probable also that the vaulting may not be what was contemplated in the original plan.

St. Etienne is 364 ft. long, and is lofty in its proportions. It has a nave and aisles, arcades resting on piers, and strongly-marked transepts, and has two western towers with the gable of the nave between them. The west front is well designed in three stories, having strongly-marked vertical divisions in the buttresses of the towers, and equally distinct horizontal divisions in the three doorways below, and two ranges of windows, each of five lights, above. There is no circular west window. The nave and aisles are vaulted.

Besides other cathedral churches, such for example as those of Bayeux and Evreux, in which considerable parts of the original structures remain, there exist throughout Normandy and Brittany many parochial churches and monastic buildings, exhibiting, at least in some portions of their structure, the same characteristics as those of St. Etienne; and it is clear that an immense number of buildings, the beauty and even refinement of which are conspicuous, must have been erected in Northern France during the eleventh and the early years of the twelfth centuries, the period to which Norman architecture in France may be said to belong.

[232] In Great Britain, as has been already pointed out, enough traces of Saxon—that is to say, Primitive Romanesque—architecture remain to show that many simple, though comparatively rude, buildings must have been erected previous to the Norman Conquest. Traces exist also of an influence which the rapid advance that had been made by the art of building as practised in Normandy was exerting in our island. The buildings at Westminster Abbey raised by Edward the Confessor, though they have been almost all rebuilt, have left just sufficient traces behind to enable us to recognise that they were of bold design. The plan of the Confessor’s church was laid out upon a scale almost as large as that of the present structure. The monastic buildings were extensive. The details of the work were, some of them, refined and delicate, and resembled closely those employed in Norman buildings at that time. Thus it appears that, even had the Conquest not taken place, no small influence would have been exerted upon buildings in England by the advance then being made in France; but instead of a gradual improvement being so produced, a sudden and rapid revolution was effected by the complete conquest of the country and its occupation by nobles and ecclesiastics from Normandy, who, enriched by the plunder of the conquered country, were eager to establish themselves in permanent buildings.

Shortly after the Conquest distinctive features began to show themselves. Norman architecture in England soon became essentially different from what it was in Normandy, and we possess in this country a large series of fine works showing the growth of this imported style, from the early simplicity of the chapel in the Tower of London to such elaboration as that of the later parts of Durham Cathedral.

The number of churches founded or rebuilt soon after [233] the Norman Conquest must have been enormous, for in examining churches of every date and in every part of England it is common to find some fragment of Norman work remaining from a former church: this is very frequently a doorway left standing or built into walls of later date: and, in addition to these fragments, no small number of churches, and more than one cathedral, together with numerous castles, remain in whole or in part as they were erected by the original builders.

Norman architecture is considered to have prevailed in England for more than a century; that is to say, from the Conquest (1066) to the accession of Richard I. (1189). For some details of the marks by which Norman work can be recognised the reader is referred to the companion volume;[36] we propose here to give an account of the broader characteristics of the buildings erected during the prevalence of the style.

The oldest remaining parts of Canterbury Cathedral are specimens of Norman architecture executed in England immediately after the Conquest. This great church was rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc (whose episcopate lasted from 1070 to 1089), and in extent as laid out by him was very nearly identical with the existing structure; almost every portion has, however, been rebuilt, so that of his work only the towers forming transepts to the choir, and some other fragments, now remain. More complete and equally ancient is the chapel in the Tower of London, which consists of a small apsidal church with nave and aisles, vaulted throughout, and in excellent preservation. This building, though very charming, is almost destitute [234] of ornament. A little more ornate, and still a good example of early Norman, is St. Peter’s Church, Northampton (Fig. 172), the interior of which we illustrate. To these examples of early Norman we may add a large part of Rochester Cathedral, and the transepts of Winchester. The transepts of Exeter present a specimen of rather more advanced Norman work; and in the cathedrals of Peterborough and Durham the style can be seen at its best.

Showing decorated staggered arches on columns

Fig. 172.—Norman Arches in St. Peter’s Church, Northampton.

In most Norman buildings we find very excellent masonry and massive construction. The exteriors of west [235] fronts, transepts, and towers show great skill and care in their composition, the openings being always well grouped, and contrasted with plain wall-spaces; and a keen sense of proportion is perceptible. The Norman architects had at command a rich, if perhaps a rather rude, ornamentation, which they generally confined to individual features, especially doorways; on these they lavished mouldings and sculpture, the elaboration of which was set off by the plainness of the general structure. In the interior of the churches we usually meet with piers of massive proportion, sometimes round, sometimes octagonal, sometimes rectangular, and a shaft is sometimes carried up the face of the piers; as, for example, in Peterborough Cathedral (Fig. 173). The capitals of the columns and piers have a square abacus, and, generally speaking, are of the cushion-shaped sort, commonly known as basket-capitals, and are profusely carved. The larger churches have the nave roofed with a timber roof, and at Peterborough there is a wooden ceiling; in these cases the aisles only are vaulted, but in some small churches the whole building has been so covered. Buttresses are seldom required, owing to the great mass of the walls; when employed they have a very slight projection, but the same strips or pilasters which are used in German Romanesque occur here also. Low towers were common, and have been not unfrequently preserved in cases where the rest of the building has been removed. As the style advanced, the proportions of arcades became more lofty, and shafts became more slender, decorative arcades (Fig. 174) became more common, and in these and many other changes the approaching transition to Gothic may be easily detected.

We have already alluded to the many Norman doorways remaining in parish churches of which all other parts have been rebuilt. These doorways are generally very [236] rich; they possess a series of mouldings sometimes springing from shafts, sometimes running not only round the arched head, but also up the jambs of the opening; and each moulding is richly carved, very often with a repetition of the same ornament on each voussoir of the arch. Occasionally, but not frequently, large portions of wall-surface are covered by a diaper; that is to say, an ornament constantly repeated so as to produce a general sense of enrichment.

Showing large single arches below and smaller double arches above

Fig. 173.—Nave Arcade, Peterborough Cathedral.

Showing altenate plain and decorated capitals on columns and interwoven arches in relief

Fig. 174.—Decorative Arcade from Canterbury Cathedral.

Norman castles, as well as churches, were built in great numbers shortly [237] after the Conquest, and not a few remain. The stronghold which a follower of the Conqueror built in order to establish himself on the lands granted him was always a very sturdy massive square tower, low in proportion to its width, built very strongly, and with every provision for sustaining an attack or even a siege. Such a tower is called “a keep;” and in many famous castles, as for example the Tower of London, the keep forms the nucleus round which buildings and courtyards of later date have clustered. In some few instances, however, as for example at Colchester, the keep is the only part now [238] standing, and it is probable that when originally built these Norman castles were not much encumbered with out-buildings. Rochester Castle is a fine example of a Norman keep, though it has suffered much from decay and injury. The very large Norman keep of the Tower of London, known as the White Tower, and containing the chapel already described, has been much modernised and altered, but retains the fine mass of its original construction. [239] Perhaps the best (and best-preserved) example is Hedingham Castle in Essex, which we illustrate (Figs. 175 and 176). From the remains of this building some idea of the interior of the hall—the chief room within a Norman keep—may be obtained, as well as of the general external appearance of such a structure.

A square building with a tower on one corner

Fig. 175.—Hedingham Castle.

Showing large central arch and wooden ceiling; windows set into smaller arches

Fig. 176.—Interior of Hedingham Castle.


[34] ‘Gothic and Renaissance Architecture,’ chap. vii.

[35] ‘Gothic and Renaissance Architecture,’ chap. v. p. 62.

[36] ‘Gothic and Renaissance Architecture,’ chap. ii. p. 23.


Stylised floral design set in decorated squares

Fig. 177.—Rounded Arch of Church at Gelnhausen.