Know your Camino architecture: Romanesque and Gothic

Romanesque doorway of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (image: author’s own)

Do you have a favourite type of medieval architecture?  Weird question?  Personally, as a medieval nerd I’m a bit torn between Romanesque and Gothic, but I think the older Romanesque wins out.  Why?  Well firstly it comes down to what they can and can’t do.

Romanesque and Gothic are readily identifiable by their trademark arches; the rounded Romanesque and the pointed Gothic.  But it’s more than a question of style, as each has different capabilities, even if an arch is essentially just a device for supporting something heavy, like a road or roof.  Romanesque arches and Romanesque barrel vaults (ceilings that look like one long semi-circular arch) are rounded and they push heavily down and outwards, requiring sturdy walls to hold them up.  Internally, a building like a large church or cathedral might have a several parallel barrel vaults, usually a big one down the centre and a smaller one on either side.  The large central vault pushes against the two side vaults, while they push back on it in turn, meaning that the internal support walls don’t have to be too big because they don’t have to take all the pressure alone.  However, the buildings still need thick and imposing external walls, and the taller the building, the thicker the walls must be.  It’s also not easy to break a window through such thick walls and so Romanesque buildings would naturally have been darker than they appear to us today under electric lights.  I sometimes think it’s a shame that we lose the interplay of light and dark and the race of shadows from flickering candles that would have been so natural to the interior of these buildings prior to the twentieth century.

Gothic architecture evolved from Romanesque during the twelfth century and is easily recognizable by its pointed arches.  These were combined with rib vaults (ceilings with crisscrossing ribs between the arches) to produce an architecture with a whole new set of possibilities.  Ceilings could be lighter, and buildings could be made taller without the use of enormous volumes of stone.  Most spectacularly from an aesthetic point of view are the windows — the greatest gift of austere Gothic architecture is light!  A window is a structurally weak point in a wall, but in Gothic buildings the walls could be made much lighter and windows broken through with greater ease.  There is no better example of this on the Camino than the cathedral of León, where its beautiful stained-glass windows flood you with inspiring colour.  When Pope John XXIII visited, he was said to exclaim in admiration, “This Cathedral has more glass than stone, more light than glass and more faith than light!”[1]  I can’t imagine a more perfect tribute to its builders.

León – a gothic cathedral of light (image: author’s own)

When I finally entered the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on an August evening in 2016 after walking 52km that day (a long story for another post), I had a little nerd-gasm — after expecting another Gothic cathedral of light I looked up and saw its magnificent and subtly lighted Romanesque barrel vault, and I knew in an instant it would always be one of my favourite buildings.

Do you have a preferred style or building, maybe along the Camino?  Feel free to post a note below!


[1] ‘Pulchra Leonina, The Gothic Cathedral in body and soul’, https://www.revistacatedraldeleon.es/pulchra-leonina-the-gothic-cathedral-in-body-and-soul/

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