10 key points to identify a romanesque church


Surely in more than one occasion, maybe while walking one of the stages of El Camino, you have asked yourself: “From what period is this building? How come the person next to me knows how to identify it so easily?, Has he got a Masters in Advanced Art Studies?, hang on, Where is my sandwich?” You must know that you can get the answers to all of these questions if you read this post, well, except for the last one.

In Art, one of the first things that one learns is that one must not understand art periods or movements as something fixed or self-contained, it means without any connections between them. Paradoxically, in order to study the most representative features of each of the periods or movements, it is common to establish limits, generally chronological or geographical. Within the next few weeks I am going to make the most of this paradox to explain it, so you can learn to identify easily certain buildings, specifically Romanesque churches. I will not go into the figure of the monastery otherwise this post would be too long, but anyway, most of the features of the churches are valid for the churches that are part of a monastery. So, let´s go!


Raised image of a typical Romanesque church. Clases de ciencias sociales (WordPress.com)

Mostly churches and monasteries

In the same way that practically everyone that is moderately interested in art and architecture associates big cathedrals with Gothic and Baroque periods, there should also be an association between small churches and monasteries to the Romanesque. It is nevertheless true that there were also cathedrals built in the Romanesque, and even civil and military architecture, but the most representative are churches and monasteries ( in fact, the origin of the Romanesque is monacal).

A Functional Art

The Romanesque buildings were built “to be used”. This statement could seem redundant but it is not. In the Gothic period, the one immediately after the Romanesque there is already a tendency to pay a lot of attention to the ornamental, towards the use of architecture like a symbol of power and faith, particularity that will carry on for years (with exceptions) in religious and public buildings. This does not mean that the Romanesque is devoid of all decorations, but they should not be interpreted as ornamentation. The big Gothic cathedrals were not conceived as functional buildings.

Saint Martin Fromista (Romanesque) and Cathedral of Burgos (Gothic). Miquel Colomer Planaguma and Javier Díaz Barrera (Flickr).

Saint Martin Fromista (Romanesque) and Cathedral of Burgos (Gothic). Miquel Colomer Planaguma and Javier Díaz Barrera (Flickr).

Building with stone and brick

Either way, with masonry or ashlar (depending on the quality of the building), the Romanesque ones were built almost in their totality with stone or brick, rarely with wood (probably to avoid damage by fire).

Basilica Floor plan and Latin Cross Floor plan

It´s main feature is that it has three naves separated by arches, the central nave usually taller and wider that the other two; the transept, the arms of the cross, and in the junction of these the transept and above it the dome; the central apse (more prominent) and the side apses. When is a cathedral it also usually has an ambulatory that surrounds the central altarpiece.

Floor plan from the churches of San Martín de Frómista and Santo Domingo de Silos. José Manuel Benito and Loctus borg (Wikipedia).

Floor plan from the churches of San Martín de Frómista and Santo Domingo de Silos. José Manuel Benito and Loctus borg (Wikipedia).

“Fortified” Walls and semicircular arches

The walls (and pillars) of the Romanesque church are very thick, this is with the purpuse to support the structure because the construction techniques even though advanced, were not designed to support such high walls, hence the buttress is also a constant element in this kind of building. The use of the semicircular arch becomes the norm (entrances to churches, arches between apses…) also common the tunnel vaults and ribbed vaults for the coverings.

Little natural light

If in order to support the structure of the church it was necessary to build very thick walls, the windows (or bays) were not going to be many, nor very big, and as a consequence the natural light inside the temple would be very scarce.


The different spaces in the Romanesque construction have a typical  horizontal character, except for the dome, the towers of the façade that are raised vertically.

Portada monumental

One of the most striking features of the Romanesque church is the use of monumental façades on the entrance and sometimes in other walls of the façade. On these decorated façades there is always a message to convey to the church goer. So, it is not so much an ornament as an indoctrinating element. Although they are common in every Romanesque cathedral, not all churches could afford this kind of elements. It depended upon different factors, such as the importance of the temple, their funding and what materials were available for the building work.

Portada de Platerías, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Luís Miguel Burgallo (Wikipedia).

Portada de Platerías, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. Luís Miguel Burgallo (Wikipedia).

Capitals decoration

Although the ornamental elements are not limited to the façades and capitals, it is true that these are the most representative in this respect. As with the façades, the capitals show different religious scenes with an indoctrinating aim.  

Sculpture tied in with architecture

Wherever we find sculpture in a Romanesque construction, it will be adapted or incorporated  to the structure of the building or the architectural elements of it. On the image above you can see a clear example of this, on the top frieze near the tympanums. The sculpture ensembles are usually done in low relief (sometimes in high relief), in contrast with the Gothic sculpture that tends to be rounder and separated from the architectural structure.  

It is also worth a mention the decoration of the façades with a chessboard pattern, that despite being very autere is very effective, it can be found on façades of some churches along the Northern route of El Camino, it is known as taqueado jaqués (Billet or checker molding). Although is not intrinsically common to all Romanesque in the Iberian Peninsula it is present in many of the churches along El Camino when around the city of Jaca and its cathedral.

And that has been all for today. If you enjoyed this blog entry then don´t forget that next week we will be showing you the features of the Gothic cathedrals. But please, if you liked it, share it and do not stop following us! See you next time!

Imagen de la portada: Iglesia de san Pedro Menzonzo. Luscofusco (Flickr).
Translation: Elvira Sánchez.


About Author

Sergio De Arriba

Graduado en Historia del Arte, trabajo como Gestor de Contenido Cultural y arquitecto de rutas en VOJO, aunque de vez en cuando también realizo vídeos corporativos e ilustraciones. En este blog mi intención es mostraros el Arte de la forma más atractiva y sencilla posible, alejándome de descripciones complejas pero sin olvidar los métodos científicos que acompañan a la teoría artística.

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