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.
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.
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.
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.
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.