The Rhythms of Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)


The rhythms of Romanesque architecture are often the product of what I like to refer to as deep harmonies and deep symmetries. These are architectural features that are not necessarily visible to the eye at first glance, but of which the eye gradually grows aware and even more gradually appreciates.

There were rhythmic expressions even in the earliest manifestations of this Romanesque world, as can be seen in this 10th Century church of Saint Etienne in Vignory.

Eglise Saint-Étienne , Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot we can see the progression of the low nave arcades, followed by doubled tribunes arches, and then surmounted by a single large corresponding clerestory window. This rhythmic arrangement gives a stately view of the distant apse.

As the church building style developed, these rhythms became more sophisticated and generated more complex visual effects. By the time the 12th Century pilgrimage church of Conques was built, we can see this clearly.

In this shot from the tribunes, we see the nave arcades topped with the doubled tribune arches, just as in Saint Etienne de Vignory.

Alternating piers and columns, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But look at the differences! Not only is the nave arcade much higher and more elegant, but the builders have introduced a technique the Germans call Stützenwechsel – the rhythmic alternation of square pillars and round columns.

Each arcade is composed of a round column with engaged half-columns and a square pillars with engaged pilasters. The columns are topped with capitals while the pillars remain plain and unadorned except for a simple widened band.

The results of this can be better viewed in this shot of the vault.

Vault, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see the engaged half columns soaring all the way to the vault supports while the pilasters stop at the tribune level and are extended by half columns. We can see in each bay of the arcade how there is one capital to each bay (back to back on the round columns). The eye is continuously engaged as it explores the various elements within the view. There are constantly varying rhythms and repetitions but all subordinated to a complete design.

This completed vision is a masterpiece of religious architecture – the eye is led inevitably through the massive church to the altar, the site of the holiest of rituals of the faith and the center of the religion itself.

Nave, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In doing so, the design avoids the two great flaws that plague designers throughout time – it does not allow the eye to experience either boredom or fatigue. This accomplishment alone tells us a great deal about the skill and wisdom of these medieval builders and attests to their immense sophistication.

28 responses to “The Rhythms of Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. You’ve really captured the elegance of the architecture. I really love the Romanesque flow but Gothic-leaning scale of the Basilique Sainte Foy.

  2. another beautiful post Denis, lovely pictures, of stunning buildings, the second one at least as you rightly say, a masterpiece and the architecture of the age wonderfully and sympathetically explained. I love your blog and what you achieve with it. In fact, may I possibly ask you some advice? I’ve been to several wonderful cathedrals & churches in and around Paris and down in the S west am going sailing from Plymouth England, over the channel, to Brittany, and down the coast of Brittany for 5-6 days, in a couple of weeks, We’ll be on the coast (of course), in l’Aberwrach, then either Brest, or maybe Audierne just to the south, then l’Orient, then finally in Vannes. Are there any of these wonderful churches, monasteries or cathedrals I could dash and see for an hour or two? Anything or anywhere in particular, that you would recommend?

    • Arran, thank you for your generous praise about our blog – your sailing trip sounds wonderful! Since PJ and I will be visiting Brittany in early September, we just happen to be able to make some recommendations on Romanesque churches for you. About 15 miles east of Brest is the Abbaye de Daoulas with its gardens and cloister. There are more churches in the Quimper area, but they are a bit distant. I’ve got nothing near Audierne but just to the west of Lorient is the Eglise paroissiale de Merlévenez with some of the finest sculpted decoration in the region. Vannes has are two great choices. Right on the Quiberon bay is the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys. Just fifteen miles to the east of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys is the Eglise paroissiale Saint-Cyr et Sainte-Julitte d’Ambon, a church that was begun in the 10th century.

      There are also some wonderful Gothic structures in the region, primarily in the city. There is one excursion you might consider – the Carolingian abbey church of Saint Philibert de Grandlieu is just south of Nantes. Have a great trip and be sure to let us know what you managed to see on your visit.

  3. Denis, I wasn’t expecting such a prompt nor full nor kind reply. Thank you so much for your generous response. What wonderful suggestions for Brittany! I shall certainly visit the places you say in and around Vannes and- although I know we have to sail nearly every day- if I do get an afternoon off I shall do my absolute best to strike out for one of the others also, they sound wonderful. I shall do some proper research before we leave so I know what features to look out for within the churches. Hopefully I can also inspire or persuade my friends to come, so at the very least they don’t sail away without me! WE leave in just about 3-4 weeks, and then away 8 days but once I get back I shall certainly report back to you! Many, many thanks again. you are really most kind. my very warmest regards and respects – Arran. (Dublin)

  4. Dennis, What’s the difference between a tribune and a first floor gallery? Does a tribune have a floor? I’m assuming a gallery has a floor. For example, in Hagia Sofia, the tribune is the first floor gallery below the clerestory.

    • Trish, in the way we are using the term, the tribune and the first floor gallery are the same, just like that of Hagia Sofia. It is defined as “An upper story over the aisle which opens onto the nave or choir.”

  5. Bravo, Dennis, for a wonderfully written essay and photographs on the Romanesque architecture. Your photographs of the Basilique Ste Foy, Conques are really breathtaking! Jong-Soung

    • Thank you, Jong-Soung. I’m looking forward to hearing about your recent trip to Conques and other places. Did you really visit 20 towns in 8 days? You are a man of iron!

      • Conques was everything that I had imagined. The architecture was truly impressive. I plan to go back there on our next trip to France as I did not have favorable weather for photographing. We did indeed visit 20 towns in 8 days, although it is not prudent thing to do, and it does not allow opportunities for adequately chronicling the west front and the chevet of a given church, for example. Doing Tournus, Chapaize and Farges-les-Macon in one day as you would agree was easy enough. Jong-Soung

      • Jong-Soung, three churches in a day, no matter how close, is still tough for us. We do it about once a week. A church like Tournus could take a day or two on its own. Certainly Saint Sernin in Toulouse, Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, or others. But then we often don’t spend as much time on the exterior as we should, often returning to do so. Our last trip we returned to Saint Benoit and Saint Etienne in Cahors just to shoot the hidden north tympana! Did you see the sculptures at Souillac? The trumeau, tympanum and the Isaiah? I can never get enough of them.

  6. Dear Denis – I have only just happened upon your marvellous blog. I am a passionate devotee of French Romanesque achitecture and medieval history and am loving reading your analyses. Fascinating. Thankyou

    • Thanks, Kate. I see that you have just finished a journey to one of our favorite areas, the Dordogne. We are preparing for our next trip – seven weeks in September and October. Can’t wait.

  7. This is some of the best architectural photography I have seen, at least of religious architecture along clear and interesting commentary. Thanks for posting this and for bringing your blog to my attention by visiting my blog.

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