Architecture in Medieval Times

By Legio Yow

When you think of architecture of the Middle Ages, you will invariably think of the awe-inspiring towers and the beautiful artwork of the famed Gothic Cathedral. This is for a good reason: The Gothic Cathedral is more likely to make one glory in the grandeur of God than any reading of the Bible, which is more a statement on the cathedrals than one on the Bible. [1]

The Cathedrals and other buildings of the medieval time period are solid enough that they tend to stay around. Unfortunately for a chronicler of history, when they did get damaged, they tended to be repaired, and when they were repaired they tended to be repaired in the style that was in vogue at the time rather than the style it was originally built in. This is why in some cathedrals certain elements will be stunningly out of place, even such basic details as the spires will often be mismatched. [2] Some cathedrals even come off looking like the love child of a Gothic and Romanesque Cathedral, which is a tad disconcerting. I suppose my point here is that while the people of the Middle Ages could create beautiful buildings but perhaps didn't have much of a conception of architecture. An interesting study, and one far beyond the scope of this paper.

Now, in school we all learned that medieval architecture went Romanesque, Gothic, then Renaissance/Baroque. This isn't 100% true, as Romanesque was alive and well for quite a long time, and it ignores a good half of the Middle Ages, but for the purposes of this paper I will use that and double back later. The aim of this paper is to detail the various medieval styles, examine how they influenced each other, and show how they are different. For the purposes of this paper I will mainly be focused on religious buildings, as they tend to be the best demonstration of a style.

Romanesque architecture is often portrayed as the ugly sister between the beauty of Classical and grandeur of Gothic. Nothing can be more ridiculous. In actual fact, I prefer Romanesque to Gothic, as Gothic can be a bit much at times. It also has a nice solid feel to it that is missing at times from Gothic. The primary characteristics are the use of round structures [3], heaviness [4], and a certain plainness (At least when compared to Gothic). There are exceptions to that last rule, some can be appallingly hideous, but most aren't. The general layout of the building is a giant cross, a tendency repeated in later styles. [5] I will not be detailing the parts of the church, as you won't remember it and, truth be told, neither will I, but it is an important fact to know to truly understand the builders. They were not designing these churches because they were pretty; they designed them to be themselves religious symbols, just as surely as a crucifix or an icon. Art for art's sake is an ancient and modern concept, not a medieval one, and if you don't understand that you cannot understand any art produced from 400 to 1800. As to the roundness, this is not limited to domes. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is an excellent example of Romanesque architecture [6] and it has not a dome on it. The Roman arch [7], along with barrel [8] and groin vaulting [9], is the most prominent aspect of roundness, but is by no means the only one. The Roman arch is crucial to understanding Romanesque architecture. The way the Roman arch works is that all of the weight is concentrated on the top, so that the arch is carrying a lot of weight. The arch is, of course, one of the most brilliant architectural designs ever made, and is more than up to the task, but this is where the "heaviness" comes into play. It lends a solemn air to the whole catheral, which fits the church and the time period in which it was built. I might as well note that the English changed Romanesque architecture significantly with Norman architecture, which looks like a mix between Romanesque and Gothic. [10] I will not study it here, as that is getting into too much detail, but it is important to mention.

Gothic architecture was created in France at the behest of Abbot Sugar, one of the more remarkable religious characters in the Middle Ages. His goal was to create a cathedral type that was reminiscent of heaven, with high walls, an appearance of weightlessness, and bright lighting to replace the dim Romanesque cathedral, which was limited in window size. Gothic architecture is also "pointy", to put it in an odd way. It's difficult to explain what I mean, but just look at any example of a Gothic Cathedral and you will quickly see what I mean. [11] Simply put, if parachuting out of an airplane don't aim for a Gothic building. The purpose of the pointyness and the architecture in general is also to draw your eye continuously upward, as if to heaven. One of the more spectacular examples of this is Salisbury Cathedral in England. [12] It is virtually impossible to focus on the bottom of the building, and the spire is so high that you are eventually staring into the sky. It is an incredible building, and if you live in England, there is no excuse for not going. Once again, the arch is all important to understanding the style. The Gothic arch [13] is pointed at the top, meaning the weight is shifted to the side, where it is "pushed back" by flying buttresses [14]. This means that the weight is not supported wholly by the arch, meaning that it doesn't look as heavy. The Gothic cathedral is also far more decorated than the Romanesque. [15] The primary artistic thought there seemed to be leave no wall undecorated. Sometime, this is in the form of statues, but mostly patterns and wavy lines. This decoration would seem rather garish in any other setting, but it actually works rather well on the Cathedrals. And again, there were some regional variants, particularly Brick Gothic in Eastern and Northeastern Europe [16], but that is, once again, out of this article's scope.

To sum up, the main differences between Romanesque and Gothic architecture relate to the "feel" of it. Romanesque feels heavy, while Gothic feels light. Romanesque feels solemn while Gothic is airy and almost "heavenly". Romanesque likes rounds, while Gothic likes points. Both are often decorated, but Gothic generally more so.

To double back, there was about 600 years of medieval architectural development before Romanesque. I can't really do an overview as I did before, as they weren't really unified in the same sense. Carolingian architecture is one style, but again, that wasn't really unified, more of a catch all term for several styles with certain characteristics. The primary characteristic is a heavy influence by Roman architecture. These styles are also not as important as Romanesque and Gothic, as they were localized styles rather than Europe wide affairs. Still, they are important in the development of architecture as a demonstration of the continuous change in architecture.

In the end, change and variation are driving factors in European art. The Egyptians had a more or less unchanging art style that was uniform throughout the whole kingdom, as did most civilizations, but European art never stays the same, either through time or geography, due to the fact that the European culture group is totally disunited. While this disunity is the reason why there has been no true hegemony since Rome and is the cause of much political instability, it lies at the root of Western culture, and it gives Europe a unique flavor.