From Romanesque to Gothic – The Journey to Heaven

Romanesque Church

Gothic Cathedral

Brief comparison between Romanesque Church and Gothic Cathedral

During the period between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, European society witnessed a significant growth of the Church’s power, accompanied by great changes in politics and economy, as well as in intellectual and spiritual thoughts. In that historical context, two new architectural styles were employed, one after another, to create grand ecclesiastical buildings, leaving us with what we know today as the Romanesque Church and the Gothic Cathedral. Although both are church architectures, they differ enormously in terms of style and ideology. While the heavy, solid Romanesque Church seems to represent the difficult road people must take to go to heaven, the soaring and translucent Gothic Cathedral seems to reward people with a feeling of actually being in heaven.

In chronological order, the Romanesque Church was built before the Gothic Cathedral, reflecting the changes that took place in Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. After years of invasion, European community started to re-establish itself. Population grew again; new towns were formed, and economy began to prosper. People’s relief that the world did not end in year 1000 led to a religious fervour, demonstrated by a significant large number of pilgrims travelled to the churches that stored the relics of venerated saints. As a result, money was brought to the monasteries that possessed those relics, and Romanesque churches, with larger size and new architectural design, were built to accommodate large crowds of worshipers. (Davies et al. 214- 215)

As the name “Romanesque” suggests, which means “in the Roman manner”, Romanesque churches used many elements that resembled those of Roman architecture and were built on a scale that could rival ancient achievements. Although Romanesque churches varied from region to region and country to country, they all had some basic characteristics that are indigenous to Romanesque architecture. The Romanesque Church emphasized on the use of rounded arch and barrel stoned-vault (Davies et al. 216). The use of stone rather than wood clearly lessened the danger of fire that happened to previous churches and also demonstrated advances in masonry techniques (Kleiner 313). However, in order to support the vault, massive walls were required, which made the building seem very static and heavy. Also, because the walls had to carry so much weight, the church could only have few small windows, which resulted in the fact that the space inside was very gloomy. With such secure structures, rather than creating the lightness of soul, the Romanesque Church seemed to serve better as a protective fortress. However, despite those drawbacks, the Romanesque Church still had certain improvements. The increasing number of pilgrims that came to visit sacred relics led to the expansion of the aisle around the transept and the apse, called the ambulatory. The nave was made longer and wider; the apse was enlarged, and adjacent chapels, called apsidioles, were built around it so that viewers would not disturb the service. The harmony of ancient Roman architecture was also recaptured in Romanesque Church by the use of proportions and the balanced combination of vaults, arches, engaged columns, and pilasters. Unlike earlier churches, there was a revival in the use of sculpture for decoration, which could be noted primarily in the portals. The exteriors, however, were quite plain and drab. Since most people at that time were illiterate, the sculptures were very stylized and religiously didactic, essentially used to convey the Church’s message. (Davies et al. 217- 223)

With the Romanesque Church, the dominant theme was the portrayal of Christ as Universal Judge. In the tympanums, the Last Judgement is usually depicted to warn the viewer that if he is not good in his mortal life, he shall suffer in Hell in the hereafter. Fear and terror were fully exploited to persuade people to practice virtue and goodness. (Davies et al. 228)

By the mid twelfth century, the authoritarian rule of the Church extended beyond the spiritual into every aspect of community life. Urban life in Europe grew even stronger, demonstrated by the flourishing economy, the formation of middle class and guilds, the increase in population, and the more literate public. The focus of intellectual and religious life shifted from rural monasteries to rapidly expanding secular cities. The result of all those vital forces was the birth of Gothic Cathedral. The cathedral was built in such a way that could reflect how wealthy the town was, how people came to merge aesthetics with faith,  and how engineering and arts were used to materialize the theological doctrines. (Davies et al. 241-242)

Comparing to the Romanesque Church, the Gothic Cathedral was much bigger, higher and showed a lot of advances. To be a Gothic Cathedral, the building must have all three following components: pointed arch, cross-ribbed vault, and flying buttress. While the rounded arch of the Romanesque Church created an outward pressure to the walls, the pointed arch of the Gothic Cathedral created a downward pressure to the internal columns or cluster piers. The cross-ribbed vault was an outgrowth of the pointed arch as it was made up of a relatively thin covering of masonry over a ribbed structure of pointed arch. The ribbed vaults were more advanced than the barrel vaults in the sense that they effectively dispersed the downward thrust into the four giant pillars supporting them, whereas the barrel vault could only disperse the thrust into the two thick walls under it. As a result, cluster piers became the vital element of the structure, and walls were not needed to be very thick. The cross-ribbed vault also allowed Gothic Cathedral to be built to any height regardless of the span of arches, which led to the extraordinary height of the building. However, the higher a structure rises, the more unstable it is. To reinforce the cathedral, a system of flying buttress and buttress was used. The Romanesque Church also employed buttress, but not the fully fledged flying buttress. Flying buttresses are arched bridges placed on the outside of the church, above the aisle. They helped transfer the weight of internal ceiling rib vaults away from the inside walls to the outside walls and eventually down to the ground. Another feature of the Gothic Cathedral that is very different from the Romanesque Church was the use of light. As the walls of the Gothic Cathedral do not have to carry the entire weight of the ceiling, more window space was employed, and stained glass windows were used to create both aesthetic and religious values. The pure light coming from the sun would be transformed into a number of inherent colors after passing through the stained glass, creating a perfect vision of an imaginary heaven on earth. The Gothic Cathedral is also different from the Romanesque Church in terms that the apsidal chapels of the Gothic Cathedral are not separate components, but were merged to form a unified space. The Gothic Cathedral also became more decorative, ornate, and used more sculptures in compared to the Romanesque Church. And since people got more education, the sculptures were no more as stylized and didactic as in previous period. The extensive use of Virgin Mary’s images in the Gothic Cathedral also demonstrated a greater respect of society for her role as the Mother of God. (Davies et al. 242-253)

Unlike the Romanesque Church, the Gothic Cathedral conveyed a strong sense of salvation. Christ was seen as a merciful teacher rather than a judge. The whole structure of Gothic Cathedral led people to look upward to heaven. Once people entered the cathedral, they would be flooded by the “divine light” and forget about their burdens in life. All architectural elements of the cathedral were combined closely to create a transcendental, spiritual effect on the viewer. (Kleiner 341-344)

Many centuries have passed since the era of Romanesque Church and Gothic Cathedral; however, today the buildings remain as magnificent as they were then. In terms of architecture, they showed a lot of merits because it was not easy to build such grand structures considering the technology of the medieval ages. They are truly the pride of medieval society in general and of Christian Church in particular. Through these architectures, the majesty of God will always be glorified.

Works Cited

Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Jason’s Basic History of Western Art. 8th ed.  New Jersey: Pearson                      Education, 2009.

Kleiner, Fred S., Gardner’s Art through the Age.  13th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010.

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