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Romanesque Architecture: Three Great Churches


European culture finally kicked into gear in about the year 1000 and mighty Romanesque churches with the finest art of the day were built across the continent. Great examples are in Florence, Pisa, and Durham (where the style was called Norman).

Complete Video Script

[19, Provins, France] As the year 1000 approached, the Europe we know was emerging. Roaming tribes were settling down, starting to define the nations we've come to know. The Franks were becoming France and the Angles were becoming Angle-land, or England. People felt secure enough to plan and build for the future.

[20] Europeans were uniting around the Christian faith. People were traveling and trading more, roads and bridges were built. Industrious businessmen invested in mills, harnessing wind and waterpower. Hamlets with thatched huts of wattle and daub became formidable towns fortified behind protective walls with fine buildings of stone.

[21, Basilica of San Isidoro, 11th century, León, northern Spain] All this progress was reflected in the art and architecture of the age. With Christianity now dominant, the grandest structures in town were churches, and they were adorned with the community's finest art…done in the first art style to feel proudly European: Romanesque.

[22, Romanesque period, c. 1000–1150] It was called "Roman-esque" because it tried to capture the grandeur of ancient Rome. Churches featured round, Roman-style arches, Roman-style columns, and often even ancient columns scavenged from Roman ruins and recycled.

[23, Basilica Emilia, second century BC, Roman Forum, Rome] Church architects adopted the pre-Christian basilica floor plan — like the surviving footprint of this ancient Roman court of law or "basilica." It was a rectangular space with side aisles and a central nave defined by rows of columns leading to the altar. By adding transepts, the building's footprint becomes the shape of a cross.

[24, Cefalù Cathedral, 12th century, Sicily] Romanesque churches had the same basic features all over Europe. They were sturdy, with thick walls, squat towers, and small windows. They stood strong. Many even came with crenellations, as if fortresses of God.

[25, Fontenay Abbey, 12th century, Burgundy, France] This Romanesque church in France, built by a particularly austere monastic order, is simple, with a plain façade and unadorned columns — nothing to distract from prayer. The lone statue is a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary. An ethereal light still bathes the interior.

[26, San Miniato al Monte Abbey, 11th–13th century, Florence, Italy] This church in Florence adds another Romanesque feature common in Italy: finely crafted marble in perfect geometric symmetry — symbolizing the perfection of God. The eagle on top, with bags of wool in its talons, reminds worshippers who paid for it all: the wool guild. Stepping inside, you enter an exquisite holy space…with its "carpet of marble" floor and colorfully painted wood ceiling. Asserting the Church's power over secular society, the golden mosaic shows an earthly king offering his paltry crown to the all-powerful king in Heaven.

[27, Durham Cathedral, late 11th–early 12th century, England] And, in England, for nearly a thousand years, pilgrims have set their sights on this Romanesque wonder: Durham Cathedral. Standing like a mighty fortress, the church is a classic example of the English version of Romanesque called "Norman." Named for the Normans who invaded England in 1066 from France, bringing that dominant European style with them, this style features round arches, zig-zag decorations, and soaring bell towers.

[28] The church honors St. Cuthbert. Pondering his coffin, embroidered sash, and exquisite cross, you remember all those monks who kept the flame of knowledge flickering through those early medieval centuries — making Romanesque marvels like the Durham Cathedral possible.

[29] Pisa's cathedral in Italy, dating from the year 1100, had evolved beyond the traditional heavy Romanesque feel. Pisan Romanesque feels light and elegant.

[30] Pisa's cathedral complex, famous for its leaning bell tower, is a reminder that in cities across medieval Europe you found the same ensemble of important structures: the church, the bell tower (which, even when tipsy, set the tempo of life — marking the hours, the festivals, the call to worship), and the baptistery.

[31] Pisa's baptistery, like many from this period, is free-standing. Its interior is simple and spacious. The finely crafted font is plenty big for baptizing adults by immersion. Imagine: a religious service sung here, amplified by the remarkable acoustics, resulting in echoes long enough to let you sing three-part harmony…solo.