The Mary Renault Society

The Triangle Area of North Carolina

Romanesque and Gothic Architecture

(These notes are only an interim report on the presentation which needs better historical context.)

There’s a reason why you don’t find large-scale ancient Greek buildings standing upright – they were forced to use wood beams to span their ceilings (you can quarry blocks of stone for roof beams without breaking them only up to a certain length), and wood both rots and burns. However, the Etruscans, people that occupied central Italy just to the north of Rome, developed a way to span much greater distances using only small blocks of stone. This was called the ‘arch,’ and Romans took this discovery and ran with it (along the way rotating it into a form called a ‘dome.’). Romans also invented concrete (or stole the idea from some unknown elsewhere), an invention which was lost until its rediscovery in the 18th century.

We’ve all heard of the “Dark Ages.” When Rome fell, the power which gradually replaced it other than in the Muslim world (which was not dark at all during this period, thank you; Muslims were creating the number system we all use today, not to mention the science of astronomy – ever notice how so many star names begin with ‘al’? It means ‘the’ in Arabic) was the church. It is a characteristic of power that power demands buildings of monumental scale, and for the church this meant churches/cathedrals/basilicas. These lifted into the air using a style that was Romanesque – massive, solid walls and vaulted ceilings. This gave an effect of solidity to churches … but the thick walls and the tiny windows they permitted left interiors dark (or darkened by candle soot). You had to have massive walls to keep the heavy semi-circular vaults up in the sky.

Gothic façadeEventually (in the early 12th century) someone noticed that, by pointing the arches, it was possible to span even larger spaces with smaller blocks of stone, and if these were properly anchored in the sky by heavy buttresses outside the church interior, ceilings could go much farther up and windows could fill the spaces between piers supporting them. Since this method came from northern Europe, it was named for the Goths (no relation to the eye shadow/fingernail polish people). The spaces in the walls between such soaring arches became stained glass canvasses in which to tell the stories of Christianity in an era of general illiteracy – not to mention streams of light of awesome beauty. You’ll find a comprehensive list of differences between the two types of architecture here and you can test your understanding at this site.

Eventually, as the Reformation swept across northern Europe, the church responded with Baroque architecture – but that is the subject of Michael’s presentation in the fall of 2011.


For the record, before beginning the presentation, the 18 people present agreed to return the MRS meeting schedule to its former standard 7:00 gathering, 7:30 dinner schedule.

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