Toward the First Great Renaissance Carolingian and Romanesque Church Architecture


Charlemagne, King of the Franks, regarded the restoration of the West as both a spiritual and a political duty. He set about to revive the traditions of ancient Rome in light of the universal call to recognize Christ as the center of the new emerging culture. This, the beginning of the first great Renaissance in Christendom, found expression in architecture.

Pisa Cathedral

After the fall of Rome in the fifth century, the architecture of the West developed independently of Byzantium, with few exceptions in places like Milan and Sicily. During the years the invading Germanic tribes ruled in place of the Romans — from the fifth century until the ninth — there was little development in church architecture. The various barbarian tribes were slowly Romanized and eventually accepted Christianity.

During these years known as the Dark Ages, little creativity was manifested in barbarian culture. Consequently, the churches constructed during these times merely reflected the Roman forms of the early Christians. In Spain, for example, the churches, although imitating the plan of the basilica, were small and primitive compared to the huge basilicas commissioned by Constantine. The barbarians simply tried to approximate what the Romans had done. Common were timber-roofed basilicas with a three-bay nave and aisles, separated by an arcade of round arches set on square piers. Despite their relative size, these modest churches were built as permanent structures (using stones as the primary building blocks) and used artistic means in order to render an iconography that would both educate and lift man's soul to God. The artwork, however, was admittedly much cruder than that of early Christian Rome.

The architecture built by the invading tribes is sometimes known as "barbarian" but more commonly as "pre-Romanesque." Although such architecture formed a bridge between the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, it is of little significance in the scheme of Western church architecture.

Carolingian Restoration of the West

When Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of Rome by the Pope at the beginning of the ninth century, he regarded the restoration of the West as both a spiritual and a political duty. He set about to revive the traditions of ancient Rome in light of the universal call to recognize Christ as the center of the new emerging culture. To Carolingian men, ancient Rome meant Rome of the Christian era, and it was this aspect alone that they sought to revive in their art and architecture that was built predominately in the lands of France and Germany.

This was the beginning of the first great Renaissance in Christendom. It found expression in architecture based on the Italian prototype and the high artistic expressions of late antiquity. At the same time, however, some aspects of Carolingian architecture were decidedly innovative in spirit. The Emperor's architects and builders not only looked to the past but they were unconsciously laying the foundation for a distinctive Western architecture of the future. All this is owed directly to Charlemagne, who ordered that the new architecture reflect antiquity, that churches be built of stone (the most durable of materials available), and that the basilican scheme be used as the standard arrangement for churches. Charlemagne's builders returned to using the antique Roman method of masonry construction (ashlar) rather than the more primitive methods of rubble walling used by the barbarian tribes.

The basilican scheme adopted from the Romans of antiquity was modified somewhat during this era. While still maintaining both the axial arrangement and the Latin cross plan created by the use of side transepts, the Carolingian basilicas often added additional apses flanking the larger, main apse to accommodate side altars when the bishop wished to dedicate a church to more than one saint. A more important innovation of Carolingian churches, however, was the addition of the "westwerk," a tall structure flanked by two towers containing staircases placed at the west end of the building at the nave's entrance. A low entrance hall, precursor to the narthex (or vestibule) of later centuries, supported a large loft above it that opened directly onto the nave. The stair towers on both sides accessed the loft. This is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Carolingian architecture. Yet, the Carolingian motifs were not synthesized into a coherent architectural style. That wouldn't happen until the flowering of the Romanesque period.

The Unity of Romanesque

Once order finally triumphed over chaos in the Holy Roman Empire and political stability returned to Europe, a unified architectural style wholly emerged. Despite the lingering lack of political unity throughout Europe, the Church was able to effect a certain unity in the architecture of her churches. Nevertheless, the style developed in its own way in each of the European countries. For example, in the northern countries the roofs were steeply sloped to throw off the rain and snow, while the windows tended to be large in order to admit as much sunlight as possible. Small windows and thick walls with gently sloped roofs characterized Romanesque churches of the southern countries. But these regional differences were superficial variations. More importantly, the Romanesque churches were all inspired by the same Christian ideals.

Many of these churches were built using the remains of the Roman buildings that had stood unused for centuries. Columns, decorations, and other pieces of these old buildings — hewn stone, carved capitals, and sculptured friezes — were used to construct the new forms. Thus, a nineteenth-century French archeologist coined the term "Romanesque" to describe the art and architecture that adapted the forms from the ancient Roman empire to their own centuries. Following the lead of Charlemagne, the patrons of this era used classical Roman masonry construction to build permanent structures to serve as their houses of God.

Although brick, marble, and terra cotta were some of the most common materials used to construct the new churches, the most important material was stone, continuing the Roman tradition of sturdiness and amplitude. While the Romans of late-antiquity and the early Christians also used masonry construction, the anonymous Romanesque builders were the first to see stone as a sculpturesque material that was eminently carvable. Furthermore, craftsmen became much more accurate in their stonecutting, and their jointing became so precise that they no longer relied on mortar joints. This affected the articulation of interior walls in that the stone units, because of their inherent beauty and the skill of the craftsmen, were often used as the decoration itself instead of surface ornamentation.

Pisa Cathedral

The most remarkable advancement was the reintroduction of vaulting. Even by the time the early Christians raised the first basilicas, the Roman art of vaulting construction was all but lost to them. Constantine's architects roofed their churches not with vaulted ceilings but with timber trusses. Ancient Roman vaulting techniques became customary in the architecture of the late Romanesque period, and was developed further in the Gothic structures of later centuries.

Another important Romanesque development in church planning involved the intersection of the nave and the transepts, known as the "crossing." The Romanesque builders often extended the nave beyond the point of intersection. This enabled them to articulate the crossing by creating equally sized heavy arches on each of its four sides. This required the width of the transepts to be equal to that of the central aisle of the nave. The result was a comprehensive internal order centered on the perfect square of the crossing. More importantly, this new engineering provided by the strong weight-bearing structure of the four crossing arches enabled the builders to construct towers over the crossing to further emphasize this central element. Indeed, towers became very important to Romanesque churches, whether built over the crossing, at the west end of the building, or separate from the church itself.

The most well-known examples of the Romanesque are the cathedrals of Pisa, Florence, and Monreale in Italy; Salamanca and Santiago de Compostela in Spain; Cluny, Vézaley, and Mont St. Michel in France; and the cathedrals of Mainz, Worms, and Speyer in Germany. Many of the monasteries and abbey churches of England, destroyed by King Henry VIII after his break with Rome, were also built in the Romanesque.


Michael S. Rose. "Toward the First Great Renaissance Carolingian and Romanesque Church Architecture." Lay Witness (May/June 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

This is the third installment of a series which explores the epochs of church architecture.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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