Romanesque Architecture

The First Romanesque style developed in the Catalan territory and demonstrated a lower level of expertise than the later Romanesque style.


Learning Objectives

  • Describe the form, content, and context of key works of Romanesque architecture
  • Differentiate between First Romanesque and Romanesque styles of architecture
  • Identify the defining characteristics and variations of Romanesque architecture found throughout Europe
  • Compare the characteristics of Romanesque architecture to pre-Romanesque and later styles

Development of First Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture is divided into two periods: the “First Romanesque” style and the “Romanesque” style. The First Romanesque style developed in the north of Italy, parts of France, and the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century prior to the later influence of the Abbey of Cluny. The style is attributed to architectural activity by groups of Lombard teachers and stonemasons working in the Catalan territory during the first quarter of the 11th century. Abbot Oliba of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll served as a particularly influential impeller, diffuser, and sponsor of the First Romanesque style. To avoid the term Pre-Romanesque, which is often used with a much broader meaning to refer to early Medieval and early Christian art (and in Spain may also refer to the Visigothic, Asturias, Mozarabic, and Repoblación art forms) Puig i Cadafalch preferred to use the term “First Romanesque.”


The First Romanesque style, also known as Lombard Romanesque style, is characterized by thick walls, lack of sculpture, and the presence of rhythmic ornamental arches known as Lombard bands. The difference between the First Romanesque and later Romanesque styles is a matter of the expertise with which the buildings were constructed. First Romanesque employed rubble walls, smaller windows, and unvaulted roofs, while the Romanesque style is distinguished by a more refined style and increased use of the vault and dressed stone. For example, Abott Oliba ordered an extension to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in 1032 mirroring the First Romanesque characteristics of two frontal towers, a cruise with seven apses, and Lombard ornamentation of blind arches and vertical strips.



Ripoll Monastery: The Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll is a Benedictine monastery built in the First Romanesque style, located in the town of Ripoll in Catalonia, Spain. Although much of the present church includes 19th-century rebuilding, the sculptured portico is a renowned work of Romanesque art.

Cistercian Architecture

The Cistercians are a Roman Catholic order enclosed by monks and nuns, whose monasteries and churches reflect one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture. This order was founded by a group of Benedictine monks from the Molesme monastery in 1098, with the goal of more closely following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Characteristics of Cistercian Architecture

Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture and has made an important contribution to European civilization. Because of the pure style of the Cistercian monasteries and churches, they are counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. Cistercian institutions were primarily constructed in Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles during the Middle Ages, although later abbeys were also constructed in Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Cistercian abbeys of Fontenay in France, Fountains in England, Alcobaça in Portugal, Poblet in Spain, and Maulbronn in Germany are today recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



Image of Fountains Abbey, a large, stone building with very little decoration with a green lawn in the foreground.
Fountains Abbey: The abbeys of 12th-century England were stark and undecorated – a dramatic contrast with the elaborate churches of the wealthier Benedictine houses – yet to quote Warren Hollister, “even now the simple beauty of Cistercian ruins such as Fountains and Rievaulx, set in the wilderness of Yorkshire, is deeply moving”.

Theological Principles

Cistercian architecture was based on rational principles. In the mid-12th century, the prominent Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundinian architecture (including rib vaults and pointed arches, respectively), creating the new style of Gothic architecture. This new “architecture of light” was intended to raise the observer “from the material to the immaterial”; it was, according to the 20th-century French historian Georges Duby, a “monument of applied theology.” Cistercian architecture expressed a different aesthetic and theology while learning from the Benedictine’s advances. St. Bernard saw church decoration as a distraction from piety and favoured austerity in the construction of monasteries, the order itself was receptive to the technical improvements of Gothic principles of construction and played an important role in its spread across Europe.

This new Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order, and in theory, it was utilitarian and without superfluous ornament. The same rational, integrated scheme was used across Europe to meet the largely homogeneous needs of the order. Various buildings, including the chapter-house to the east and the dormitories above, were grouped around a cloister and sometimes linked to the transept of the church itself by a night stair. Cistercian churches were typically built on a cruciform layout, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer, and an aisle-edged nave divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers.



Image of outside of Abbey church of Santa Maria Arabona, Italy. A large, stone building with very little decoration.
Santa Maria Arabona: Abbey church of Santa Maria Arabona, Italy.

Engineering and Construction

Cistercian buildings were made of smooth, pale stone where possible. Columns, pillars, and windows fell at the same base level, and plastering was extremely simple or nonexistent. The sanctuary kept to a proportion of 1:2 at both elevation and floor levels. To maintain the appearance of ecclesiastical buildings, Cistercian sites were constructed in a pure, rational style, lending to their beauty and simplicity. The building projects of the Church in the High Middle Ages showed an ambition for the colossal, requiring vast amounts of quarried stone. This was also true of the Cistercian projects. Foigny Abbey was 98 meters (322 ft) long; Vaucelles Abbey was 132 metres (433 ft) long. Even the most humble monastic buildings were constructed entirely of stone. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Cistercian barns consisted of a stone exterior divided into nave and aisles either by wooden posts or by stone piers.

The Cistercians recruited the best stone cutters. As early as 1133, St. Bernard hired workers to help the monks erect new buildings at Clairvaux. The oldest recorded example of architectural tracing, Byland Abbey in Yorkshire, dates to the 12th century. Tracings were architectural drawings incised and painted in stone to a depth of 2–3 mm, showing architectural detail to scale.



Image of monks gathering inside the Acey Abbey.
Acey Abbey, France: The “architecture of light” of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of a liturgical celebration.

Characteristics of Romanesque Architecture

Variations in Romanesque Architecture

While Romanesque architecture tends to possess certain key features, these often vary in appearance and building material from region to region. The general impression given by both ecclesiastical and secular Romanesque architecture is that of massive solidity and strength. Romanesque architecture relies upon its walls, or sections of walls called piers, to bear the load of the structure, rather than using arches, columns, vaults, and other systems to manage the weight. As a result, the walls are massive, giving the impression of sturdy solidity. Romanesque design is also characterized by the presence of arches and openings, arcades, columns, vaults, and roofs. In spite of the general existence of these items, Romanesque architecture varies in how these characteristics are presented. For example, walls may be made of different materials or arches and openings may vary in shape. Later examples of Romanesque architecture may also possess features that earlier forms do not.


The building material used in Romanesque architecture varies across Europe depending on local stone and building traditions. In Italy, Poland, much of Germany, and parts of the Netherlands, brick was customary. Other areas saw extensive use of limestone, granite, and flint. The building stone was often used in small, irregular pieces bedded in thick mortar. Smooth ashlar masonry was not a distinguishing feature of the style in the earlier part of the period but occurred where easily worked limestone was available.

Arches and Openings

A characteristic feature of Romanesque architecture, both ecclesiastic and domestic, is the pairing of two arched windows or arcade openings separated by a pillar or colonette and often set within a larger arch. Ocular windows are common in Italy, particularly in the facade gable, and are also seen in Germany. Later Romanesque churches may have wheel windows or rose windows with plate tracery. In a few Romanesque buildings, such as Autun Cathedral in France and Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, pointed arches have been used extensively.



Abbey Church of St. James, Lebeny, Hungary (1208): Characteristics of Romanesque architecture include the ocular window and the pairing of two arched windows or arcade openings within a larger arch, both open here at the Abbey Church of St. James.


The arcade of a cloister typically consists of a single-stage (story), while the arcade that divides the nave and aisles in a church typically has two stages, with a third stage of window openings known as the clerestory rising above. Arcades on a large scale generally fulfill a structural purpose, but they are also used decoratively on a smaller scale both internally and externally. External arcades are frequently called “blind arcades,” with only a wall or a narrow passage behind them.



Collegiate Church of Nivelles: The Collegiate Church of Nivelles, Belgium uses fine shafts of Belgian marble to define alternating blind openings and windows. Upper windows are similarly separated into two openings by colonettes.
Notre Dame du Puy: The facade of Notre Dame du Puy, le Puy en Velay, France, has a more complex arrangement of diversified arches, doors of varying widths, blind arcading, windows, and open arcades.


Although basically rectangular, piers can often be highly complex, with half-segments of large hollow-core columns on the inner surface supporting the arch and a clustered group of smaller shafts leading into the mouldings of the arch. Piers that occur at the intersection of two large arches, such as those under the crossing of the nave and transept, are commonly cruciform in shape, each with its own supporting rectangular pier perpendicular to the other.


Columns were often used in Romanesque architecture but varied in building material and decorative style. In Italy, a great number of antique Roman columns were salvaged and reused in the interiors and on the porticos of churches. In most parts of Europe, Romanesque columns were massive, supporting thick upper walls with small windows and sometimes heavy vaults. Where massive columns were called for, such as those at Durham Cathedral, they were constructed of ashlar masonry with a hollow core was filled with rubble. These huge untapered columns were sometimes ornamented with incised decorations.



Durham Cathedral, England: Durham Cathedral’s decorated masonry columns alternating with piers of clustered shafts supporting the earliest example of pointed high ribs.

A common characteristic of Romanesque buildings, found in both churches and in the arcades that separate large interior spaces of castles, is the alternation of piers and columns. The most simple form is a column between each adjoining pier. Sometimes the columns are in multiples of two or three. Often the arrangement is made more complex by the complexity of the piers themselves so that the alternation was not of piers and columns but rather of piers of entirely different forms.

The foliate Corinthian style provided the inspiration for many Romanesque capitals, and the accuracy with which they were carved depended on the availability of original models. Capitals in Italian churches, such as the Pisa Cathedral or the church of Sant’Alessandro in Lucca and southern France, are much closer to the Classical form and style than those in England.



Corinthian style capitals: Capital of Corinthian form with anthropomorphized details, Pisa Campanile

Vaults and Roofs

The majority of buildings have wooden roofs in a simple truss, tie beam, or king post form. Trussed rafter roofs are sometimes lined with wooden ceilings in three sections like those that survive at Ely and Peterborough cathedrals in England. In churches, typically the aisles are vaulted but the nave is roofed with timber, as is the case at both Peterborough and Ely. In Italy, open wooden roofs were common, tie beams frequently occurred in conjunction with vaults, and the timbers were often decorated, as at San Miniato al Monte, Florence. Vaults of stone or brick took on several different forms and showed marked development during the period, evolving into the pointed, ribbed arch characteristic of Gothic architecture.

Romanesque Architecture: The Church of Saint-Lazare

The Autun Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, is a Roman Catholic cathedral and a national monument in Autun, France. Famous for its Cluniac inspiration and Romanesque sculptures by Gislebertus, it epitomizes Romanesque art and architecture in Burgundy.

Due to the veneration of relics in this period, the Bishop of Autun ordered the creation of a larger cathedral to house these relics and accommodate the influx of pilgrims into Autun. The column capitals and main façade of the church are embellished with realistic sculptures carved by Gislebertus, and the artwork is a means of teaching the masses about Christian ethics with dramatic scenes of heaven and hell. Work on the cathedral began around 1120 and advanced rapidly; the building was consecrated in 1130. The designs were the work of the bishop Etienne de Bâgé, who was particularly influenced by the Cluniac abbey of Paray-le-Monial.



Autun Cathedral, c. 1120-46: The exterior of Autun Cathedral stands in the highest and best-fortified corner of the town. Through external modifications that have been applied to the building, the appearance has been much altered by the addition of a Gothic tower, a spire and side chapels in the 15th century.

Design Elements

The interior of the cathedral has a nave and two aisles divided by massive columns with longitudinal carvings punctuated with decorated Romanesque capitals. The plan of the cathedral has a narthex or antechamber of two bays topped by two towers, followed by a seven-bay nave flanked by side aisles and a transept with the tower-surmounting cross. The nave elevation is composed of three levels: grand arcade, triforium, and clerestory, each marked by a cornice. The three-story elevation of Saint-Lazare was made possible by the use of pointed arches for the nave. Each nave bay is separated at the vault by a transverse rib. Each transept projects to the width of two nave bays and the west entrance have a narthex that screens the main portal.

Capital Sculptures

The cathedral of St. Lazare has a ground plan in the form of a Latin cross, with an aisled nave, a plain transept, and a three-stage choir with a semicircular end. Many of the historiated capitals that adorn the columns in Saint-Lazare were carved by Gislebertus. What makes Saint-Lazare a masterpiece of Romanesque art is the quality of Gislebertus’ sculptures. These stone-carved scenes from the Bible appear on dozens of capitals in the nave and chancel. Specifically, Gislebertus created used the tendrils of the actual Corinthian capital to create an architectural frame for the narrative to develop. These portal capitals are carved with biblical and traditional scenes.

The West Tympanum

The West façade of Saint-Lazare contains the tympanum (1130–1135), signed Gislebertus hoc fecit (meaning “Gislebertus made this”) within the portico. It is ranked among the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture in France. The sheer size of the tympanum required support by double lintels and a middle column to further bolster the sculpture. The left side of the tympanum displays the rise to the heavenly kingdom, and on the right is a portrayal of demons in hell with an angel and a devil weighing the souls on a balance. Zodiac signs surround the arch vault, with Christ in the center portrayed as a serene figure. Christ is placed in a perfectly symmetrical position along with a balanced composition of other elongated figures. Jesus is flanked by his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his apostles cast as penitents and observers of the last judgment. St. Peter guards the gate to heaven and looks on as resurrected individuals attempt to squeeze in with the assistance of the angels.



Last Judgement: Last Judgement by Gislebertus in the west tympanum.

In the Last Judgement, Gislebertus successfully integrated the modern view of heaven and hell and created a sculpture to act as a visual educational device for individuals who were illiterate. The tympanum inspired terror in believers who viewed the detailed high relief sculpture. Indeed, the bottom of the tympanum underneath the weighing of the souls has an inscription which states, “May this terror terrify those whom earthly error binds for the horror of the images here in this manner truly depicts what will be.” The tympanum is framed by two archivolts: the inner has carved foliage, while the outer consists of magnificently detailed medallions representing the four seasons, zodiacs, and labours of the months.


  • The First Romanesque style developed in the north of Italy, parts of France, and the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th and 11th centuries.
  • First Romanesque, also known as Lombard Romanesque, is characterized by thick walls, lack of sculpture, and the presence of rhythmic ornamental arches known as Lombard bands.
  • In contrast to the refinement of the later Romanesque style, First Romanesque architecture employed rubble walls, smaller windows, and un-vaulted roofs.
  • Variations in Romanesque architecture can be noted in earlier styles compared to later styles; differences in building materials and local inspirations also led to variations across regions.
  • Columns were often used in Romanesque architecture but the columns varied in building material and decorative style. The alternation of piers and columns was found in both churches and castles.
  • The majority of buildings have wooden roofs consisting of a simple truss, tie beam, or king post form. Vaults of stone or brick took on several different forms and showed marked development during the period, evolving into the pointed, ribbed arch characteristic of Gothic architecture.
  • Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order and in theory, was utilitarian and without superfluous ornament.
  • Famous for its Cluniac inspiration and Romanesque sculptures by Gislebertus, The Cathedral of Saint-Lazare epitomizes Romanesque art and architecture in Burgundy.
  • Many of the historiated capitals that adorn the columns within Saint-Lazare were carved by Gislebertus and include representations of biblical scenes.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” LicenseCC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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