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Romanesque and Gothic Architecture Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2019

Architecture history is an interesting subject in which we how art has evolved over centuries from Neolithic architecture of 10000 BC to the contemporary architectural designs. The existence of this history shows the gradual evolvement of the art to what the world has today. Each of the architectural designs has its own outstanding and unique features that make them stand as original.

In this history, we can take note of the Romanesque architecture of the Medieval Europe between sixth and 10th century. Two centuries later, it evolved into Gothic architecture that lasted for four centuries to 16th century (Bony, 1983, p. 13).

Apart from these being history, there have specific architectural elements that are of use and can help us appreciate these pieces of art for what they are- pure architecture (Tatton-brown & John, 2002, p.35). The aim of writing this paper is to outline specific outstanding features of these two giants in the history of architecture in view of borrowing some of those elements and incorporating them in the contemporary architecture.

Romanesque Architecture

According to the oxford dictionary, the word “Romanesque” means “descended from Roman” and used to denote the roman languages. In architecture, the term first described architectural designs in west Europe from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries.

The term is used to describe a style that was identifiably of medieval origin and prefigured in the Gothic, but still maintained the rounded Roman arch that made it appear to be a continuation of the traditional building style of the Romans (Hall, 1983, 154). In the contemporary society, the term ‘Romanesque Architecture’ refers to the works of art that were prevalent between the 10th and 12th century.

Specific elements of Romanesque Architecture

Two periods usually classify the Romanesque architecture. These are “first Romanesque” style and “Romanesque” style. The major distinction between the two is the level of expertise in which the structures are constructed (Crossley, 1962, p. 65).

The First Romanesque used features like rubble walls, smaller windows and unvaulted roofs while the second Romanesque is marked by greater refinement, together with the more use of the vault and dressed stone.

Generally, the utilization of all the design aspects of Romanesque architecture not only results in an impressive piece of work but also reflect the solidity of art. The outstanding difference between the preceding roman and the later Gothic is that the Romanesque architecture relies on its wall or part of its walls called piers for strength.


The major aspects that are characteristic of the walls constructed for buildings based on Romanesque architectural designs are their small openings as well as their thickness. They are made of double shells whose main constituent is rubble. Different regions of the world have different building materials.

This depends on the nature of the locally available stones as well the traditions that govern buildings’ designs in any given locality. The stone ranges from brick, limestone, and granite to flint. The style involves small irregular stones bedded in thick mortar (Fletcher, 2001, p.56). Smooth ashlars’ masonry is not commonly used. It only occurred mainly in areas where people used easily workable limestone.


These are not an outstanding feature because of the massive-size walls of the architectural design. A flat square profile is one of the major characteristics of the buttresses among other aspects that are specific to the design of the wall(s) (Holmes, 1992, p. 122).

Some of the elements that architects employ in the construction of buttresses include barrel vaults, which can be either full or half depending on the design of the buttresses in question. This mostly applies in the construction of aisles in churches-the vaulted ones.

Arches and openings

The other feature that is outstanding in the Romanesque is the use of semi- circular arches for all openings such as doors, windows, for arcades and for vaults.

Wide doorways are in most cases surmounted by a semi-circular arch, however, exceptions exist in cases where doors with lintels are set into large arched recess and surmounted by semi-circular “lunettes” with decorative carvings (Holmes, 1992, p. 126). In other places like Italy and Germany, Ocular windows are common.


According to Fletcher, arcades mainly comprise of rows of arches (2001, p. 65). To enhance the stability of the arches, architects employ columns or piers. They form an integral part of the interior parts of large buildings besides occurring in cloisters and atriums. Their major role is to separate the nave from the aisle especially in church buildings.

Traditionally the arcade of cloister is of a single stage, while the arcade that divides the aisles and nave is traditionally of two stages, and a third stage of windows (clerestory) rising above them (Holmes, 1992, p. 130). Traditionally, the purpose of arcading is to fulfill structural purpose but it is also use for decorative purpose both internally and externally.


In Romanesque architectural designs, architects employ piers to offer support to the other components of a building especially the arches.

Though they are typically of rectangular shape, piers can take forms that are more complex with half-segments of large hollow-core columns on the inner surface that supports the arch, or clusters of smaller shafts that lead into the arch ‘mouldings’ (Fletcher, 2001, p.67). Piers occur in different shapes depending on their usage. For instance, they assume a cruciform shape when the architects use them to join two significantly large arches.


Columns form an integral part of Romanesque architectural designs in buildings. Crossley argues that, to enhance their aesthetic value, most architects incorporate not only attached shafts but also colonnets in the structure in question (1962, p. 76).

Other columns used in this architectural design are salvaged columns, drum columns and hollow core columns (Fletcher, 2001, p.70). Each of these columns designs gives them strength because they carry the massive weight of the upper walls. Some of them like the hollow core columns can be ornamented with incised decorations.

Vaults and roofs

Wood plays a pivotal role in the construction of roofs and vaults as far as Romanesque architecture is concerned. Harvey noted that, vaults and roofs can take the form of a king post, simple truss or even a tie beam (1950, p. 22). The lining in such cases comprise of a wooden ceiling. Vaults of stone or brick take on different forms. There are several types of vaults, which include barrel vault, groin vault, arched vault and ribbed vault.

Unlike the arched and ribbed vaults, the groin and barrel vaults are relatively easy to construct. Most architects argue that the easiest type of a vault to construct is the barrel (Crossley, 1962, p. 80). For the construction of such barrels, there need to be strong walls, which may or may not have small holes to enhance the support of such vaults. A groin vault is similar to the barrel that only that it requires the use of two barrels.


Decoration in Romanesque architecture is yet another outstanding element of the style with arcading being its most significant aspect. Arcades are used to a great effect both internally and externally. Another decorative feature is architectural sculpture, which can be geometric.

Figurative sculpture decorated buildings with fine curving engrossed on the wall surface. Other decorative features of used in Romanesque architecture are the use of murals and stained glass.

Gothic architecture

This architectural design succeeded the Romanesque in the 16th century. Historians argue that in the ancient times, many people used the term ‘Gothic Architecture’ as a way of describing the architectural culture that was primitive and unacceptable in many regions. The style got its influence from Romanesque and possibly from the east. Some of the elements of these pieces of architecture are as follows.


Most gothic buildings are of the Latin cross, with a long nave making the better part of the church, a transverse arm (transept) and, after it, an extension called the presbytery, chancel or choir (Harvey, 1950, p. 26).

A prominent feature of the buildings that were constructed based on gothic architecture is the Hallenkirche. Hallenkirche comprises of two major components-naves and aisles. However, they could also take a different form. For instance, in the South of France, architects only used a singlewide nave and no aisles.

Structure: The ogival arch

Historians argue that the first people to use the ogival arch in architectural designs were Islamists that lived in the East. They form a major party of the architectural history among the Muslims. This style evolved from the Romanesque without a clean break and for most part, it has borrowed from the Romanesque. This makes it a significant aspect in gothic architectural designs.


Unlike the features of Romanesque art, gothic architecture has many applications not only in the ancient times but also in the contemporary society. For instance, gothic semi-circular vaults are used not only ion the roofing of roofs that have a regular shape but also those that have irregular shapes e.g. trapezoids.

Another structural advantage is that its pointed arch channels the weight onto the piers or columns that bear it at a steep angle thus enabling the architects to raise vaults much higher than those in Romanesque architecture (Bony, 1983, p.17).

This gave the building not only a very new physical appearance but also a new impression of verticality toward heaven. The application of the pointed arch in gothic architecture is for both decorative and structural purposes. It is therefore useful in every location where the vaulted shape is of need.


The usual proportion for most buildings constructed using gothic architectural design especially churches is 2:1. However, depending on the overall size of a building, especially that of many storey buildings, this proportion can be as high as 3:6:1 to ensure the stability of the gothic building. The two major aspects that form the external features of gothic buildings as far as the height is concerned are spires and towers.

Vertical Emphasis

The pointed arch suggests height with this appearance being enhanced more by both the decoration of the building and the architectural features.

From the outside, the architects lay more emphasis on verticality in a way by the spires and towers and in a more diminishing way by projecting strongly the vertical buttresses; by attached shafts that often pass through the storeys of the building; by long and narrow openings, vertical mouldings around doors and figurative sculpture that emphasizes the vertical.

A pinnacle terminates the roofline, buttresses, gable ends and other parts ((Warren, 1991, p.59). From within the church, attached shafts often join unbroken from floor to ceiling where they meet the ribs of the vault. During the treatment of the wall surfaces and windows, the architects apply a general repetition of the verticals.


The largely expanded area of the windows as at and the very large size of many individual windows is yet another distinguishing characteristic of the gothic architecture.

The difference in size in gothic compare to its predecessor is because of the use of the ribbed vault- more precisely, the pointed ribbed vault, which in this structural design, channeled the weight to a holding shaft with less outward thrust compared to a semicircular vault. As a result, walls do not have to be so strong (Warren, 1991, p.61). In gothic buildings, the design of the windows plays a pivotal role in the lighting.

They not only contain a pointed arch but also some other forms of decorative structural designs. To enhance more beauty to the lighting systems of the gothic buildings, the windows incorporate several patterns of stained glass. The architects blend the colors such windows so as to much the other components of the building such as the interiors and the lighting system(s).

Symbolism and ornamentation

Each architectural concept in the gothic cathedral, including the loftiness and huge dimensions of the structure, were designed to convey a theological message about the glory and greatness of God (Warren, 1991, p.62). The overall structure of the gothic building reflects the universe.

The aspects that contribute in such a reflection are not only the geometrical but also the mathematical features that are characteristic of gothic architectural designs. Architects employ such features in stained glasses, statutes as well as sculptural decorations. In the traditional Germanic churches as well in some church buildings in the contemporary society, such aspects depict the sacred aspect of Christian faith.

In conclusion, the Romanesque and the gothic architectural designs share the same basic principles. Notwithstanding, the gothic design gains superiority since it is an improvement of the latter and it incorporates structural designs from other traditions especially form the east.

Both Romanesque and gothic architecture comprise of aspects that reflect on the evolution of architecture despite the fact that the two may differ significantly.

Incorporating these principles- both structural and decorative in the construction industry today can invoke historical structures in our contemporary world given the technology state and the current engineering knowledge and innovation. This will also be very instrumental in the preservation of certain aspects of architecture in the contemporary society.


Bony, J. (1983). French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California press.

Crossley, F.H. (1962).The English Abbey. UK : Batsford publishers.

Fletcher, B. (2001). A History of Architecture on the Comparative method. USA: Elsevier Science & Technology.

Hall, J. (1983). A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art. London: John Murray Publishers.

Harvey, J. (1961). English Cathedrals. UK: Batsford publishers.

Tatton-Brown, T., Crook, J. (2002). The English Cathedral. New Holland: New Holland Publishers.

Warren, J. (1991). Creswell’s Use of the Theory of Dating by the Acuteness of the Pointed Arches in Early Muslim Architecture. Muqarnas. California: University of California press.

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