Medieval Architecture

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Medieval Architecture

World Geography 101

December 1, 2010

The Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval era, though scarred with a history of violence and war, has given the world some of the most marvelous and beautiful pieces of art, particularly in architecture. The Middle Ages is the name given to the time period from the late 5th century to the 15th century, particular to European history. The construction of these types of buildings was a constant for various cultures for a thousand years. They can be categorized into three phases; Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque and Gothic. The most important buildings during medieval times were religious, defensive and governmental or power related. Figure 1 – Sarcophagus of Abbess Theodechilde in the Abbey of Jouarre.

The Pre-Romanesque era started, arguably, with the Merovingian Dynasty of the Franks. Some say that not much was gained, from an architectural point of view, during the rule of the Franks but I believe there are a couple of points worth making. The Merovingian rule lasted from the 5th century, after the fall of the Roman Empire, to the late 8th century. Most of their buildings followed after the Roman basilica style. The Franks, due to religious beliefs, pushed the building of monasteries and included crypts within their structures. (see figure 1) Although there were many monasteries built with crypts, only five remain intact today. One of the noteworthy aspects of Merovingian architecture was that they are credited with being the first to build raised reliquaries of the saint within their monasteries, located behind the altar. Figure 3 – The 9th century Torhalle, or gatehouse, at the Lorsch Abbey in Germany. Figure 2 – Exterior of Corvey Abbey, showing the Westwork.

The Carolingian Dynasty, which some say is where Pre-Romanesque architecture began, reigned from the late 8th century into the 10th century. Also deriving from a Frankish noble family, the Carolingians are credited with a couple of key designs that carry forward into the Romanesque and Gothic phases of architecture. The westwork, which was basically the west facing side of the church consisting of two towers with several stories between them, was probably the most significant change in architectural design for churches during the Pre-Romanesque time period. The first church to incorporate this new style was the St. Riquier Abbey completed in 799. The plan included equal emphasis on both the east and west ends, including a complex west façade. This church was later destroyed but the westwork was to be repeated in many Carolingian churches and passed on to Ottonian and Romanesque architecture. The oldest standing example today of this style is the Corvey Abbey built in the late 9th century. (see figure 2) Another piece of the Carolingian architecture is the Torhalle, or gatehouse, built at Lorsch. This gatehouse, built around 800, stands today in perfect condition. (see figure 3) It was built as the formal entrance to the Lorsch Abbey. And though it is small in comparison to the many other buildings at the time, it remains the oldest monument of the Carolingian era. Figure 4 – The Gloucester Cathedral in England.

The Romanesque era is where we see a dramatic change in architectural style as well as an increase in the amount of building that takes place. The Romanesque period doesn’t have an exact date range, but most tend to agree that it existed from roughly the 9th century to the 12th century. Although churches remain the number one built structure in the time, we do see a large increase in the number of castles being built. There are many characteristics of Romanesque architecture. New building ideas and techniques were introduced, such as stone vault ceilings, buttresses, semicircular arches as well as barrel, groin and ribbed vaults. As new designs were added, the need for stronger supports systems resulted in massive double shelled walls, large piers and drum columns. (see figure 4) The...
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