Medieval Architecture


Table Summary

Summary of Eastern Medieval Architecture
Byzantine Empire
ca. 500-1453
central-plan churches (notably the Hagia Sophia)
Summary of Western Medieval Architecture
Early Dark Ages
ca. 500-750
Late Dark Ages
ca. 750-1000
ca. 1000-1200
ca. 1200-1500
Germanic adoption of
Roman architecture
Carolingian (Palatine Chapel) >
Ottonian (St Michael's at Hildesheim)
Vezelay High Gothic (Chartres, Notre Dame) > Late Gothic (Rouen)
stave churches

General Features

The great architecture of medieval Europe was predominantly sacred. The primary sacred building type of Europe is the church, a structure for Christian worship. The most prevalent church layouts are the Latin cross church (in Western Europe) and central-plan church (in Eastern Europe). For a summary of the emergence of these designs, see Church Anatomy.

Latin Cross Church vs. Central-plan Church

While Byzantine architecture remained relatively faithful to the simplicity and balanced proportions of Roman buildings, a dramatic transition away from classicism occurred in Western Europe, as the Germanic peoples (the new rulers of the West) built churches of ever-increasing verticality and intricacy. Styles of church architecture were often adapted to other monumental buildings of the medieval period, including residences, civic halls, and commercial structures. The greatest secular building type was the castle, a medieval Western fortress (see Castle).

Key Terminology

Once the Germanic tribes had absorbed the architectural traditions of the Romans (or rather what remained of those traditions following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire), they dramatically transformed them with intricacy and verticality. ("Verticality" simply means that a structure is tall relative to its width.) These two qualities in medieval architecture are often referred to collectively as Germanicism.

The term basilica denotes a type of Roman building from which the standard church layouts developed (see Church Anatomy). Yet this term also has another, unrelated meaning: in Roman Catholicism, "basilica" is a title granted to churches that are deemed to have exceptional significance (e.g. historical importance). This usage has nothing to do with the physical layout of the church.

The term cathedral can also be ambiguous. In the Roman Catholic scheme of administration, the smallest territorial unit is the parish, which contains a church (with a priest). The next level up is the diocese, which consists of multiple parishes; a diocese is administered from a cathedral (by a bishop). Yet "cathedral" is often used (as it is throughout Essential Humanities) simply to denote any church of monumental size.

Finally, it should be noted that while churches are the primary sacred architecture of Europe, two other types are also prominent: abbeys and minor Christian buildings. An abbey is the residential complex of a religious community (see Abbey). The term minor Christian building is used by Essential Humanities to denote several types of relatively small Christian structures.

These structures include the chapel (a place of worship that is relatively small compared to a church; many churches contain chapels, allowing for private worship), baptistry (a building in which the ceremony of baptism is performed), shrine (which honours a holy figure or place, and may contain relics), and mausoleum (an above-ground tomb). Minor Christian buildings tend to feature central-plan designs. (The term "central-plan" denotes rotational symmetry; if the plan is rotated around its central point, it looks the same at multiple points of rotation.)

Central-plan Layouts

Main Article

Byzantine Empire

ca. 500-1453

While Western Europe diverged radically from the architectural style of classical antiquity, the Byzantines remained relatively conservative. Byzantine architecture retains a sense of balanced classical proportions and favours plain, unadorned exterior surfaces. Nonetheless, the Byzantines developed a unique architectural style, distinguished from that of the Romans primarily by complex layouts and an exceptional affinity for domes.D136-38,1

The interior of a Byzantine building was coated in lavish mosaics and murals. Byzantine column capitals, loosely derived from the capitals of ancient Greece and Rome, were often embellished with intricate reliefs (typically of abstract or floral design). The overall Byzantine style of architecture changed little in the duration of the Empire.D136-38,1

Byzantine Capital
Byzantine Capital
Byzantine Capital

A typical Byzantine church is constructed from brick and features a great central dome, which may be encircled with smaller domes and half-domes.7 The Byzantines invented the pendentive, an elegant method of mounting a dome over a square or rectangular chamber (see Pendentives and Squinches).

The foremost work of Byzantine architecture is the Hagia Sophia, constructed during the reign of Justinian. (Note that much of the Hagia Sophia's interior decoration, as well as the four towering minarets outside, are not part of the original structure; they were added much later, by the Ottomans.)37,38

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia demonstrates one possible version of the central-plan layout. Another version is the cross-in-square plan, which takes the form of a Greek cross with the spaces between the arms "filled in"; the roof over these spaces is set at a lower level than over the cross. No particular cross-in-square church stands out as exceptionally famous.

Cross-in-square Church Plan
Cross-in-square Church
Cross-in-square Church
Plan of a Cross-in-square Church (in green, with front extension in purple)

Most Byzantine art and architecture is found in the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantine culture sphere did extend, however, to parts of Italy, most famously the cities of Ravenna and Venice (both of which lie on the east coast of northern Italy). Given their location, these cities were subject to strong Byzantine influence (and were even part of the Byzantine Empire for a few centuries), and consequently produced much Byzantine-style art throughout the medieval period. The two foremost works of Byzantine-style architecture in Italy are the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna (which has an octagonal plan) and St Mark's Basilica, Venice (which has a Greek cross plan).

Church of San Vitale (Byzantine-style church in Ravenna, Italy)
Plan of Church of San Vitale
(modified by Essential Humanities)
St Mark's Basilica (Byzantine-style church in Venice, Italy)
Plan of St Mark's Basilica
(modified by Essential Humanities)

Dark Ages

ca. 500-1000

The fall of Rome caused Western Europe to become politically and culturally fragmented, such that the unity of Roman art gave way to regional Germanic aesthetics. These aesthetics, known as the barbarian styles, flourished throughout the Early Medieval period (ca. 500-1000) in the form of small-scale visual art (especially metalwork, relief sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts), but not in the form of architecture. This was only to be expected, as the hitherto migratory Germanic peoples possessed centuries of tradition in the decoration of practical objects, but none in the erection of permanent structures.

The early Dark Ages (ca. 500-750) witnessed the Germanic adoption of Roman architecture. The transition to medieval architecture (i.e. the transformation of Roman architecture with intricacy and verticality) made little headway during this period. At any rate, very few buildings survive from the early Dark Ages, and those that did were generally significantly modified in later periods. A handful of Merovingian baptisteries (in France) and Anglo-Saxon churches (in England) comprise the majority of surviving early Dark Age structures.4,17

Merovingian Baptistry
Merovingian Baptistry
Anglo-Saxon Church
Anglo-Saxon Church

Medieval architecture truly emerged under the Carolingian Empire (ca. 750-900), which produced many basilica churches and Latin cross churches (see Church Anatomy). Once again, however, few works survive, and these have often been subject to major restoration or modification.

Under the Carolingians, church architecture received its first major injection of Germanicism, in the form of boosted verticality. Up until the Carolingian period, churches featured balanced proportions, like the original Roman basilica they evolved from. The Carolingians broke with classical proportions, increasing the height of their churches relative to their horizontal dimensions, and establishing towers as a standard element of church design.H368-70,9

A monumental church facade is known as a westwork. (Traditionally, churches were built with the entrance facing west; hence the name "westwork".) By introducing towers to church design, the Carolingians pioneered the standard facade of the Western cathedral.10

The typical westwork may be roughly generalized according to a three-by-three grid. The bottom level comprises the main entrance (aligned with the nave), flanked by two sub-entrances (aligned with the aisles); the aisles are one level high, while the nave is two levels high. This differential is masked by the towers, however, which rise up above the aisles to the third level of the grid.

Typical Westwork Layout

The finest extant Carolingian building is not a church, but a chapel: Palatine Chapel, a sixteen-sided building commissioned by Charlemagne for his palace at Aachen. Much of the building's materials were salvaged from classical ruins in Italy.9 ("Palatine" is an adjective meaning "relating to a palace"; thus, "palatine chapel" is synonymous with "palace chapel".)

Much of the chapel interior remains firmly classical, including round arches and Corinthian capitals. The verticality of the dome and the overall structure, however, is strikingly Germanic: classical proportions are never so tall and thin. Later additions to the original chapel have resulted in the much larger structure of Aachen Cathedral.9

Aachen Cathedral
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Palatine Chapel
Plan of Palatine Chapel
Carolingian Church
Carolingian Westwork

The Carolingian Empire was succeeded by the Holy Roman Empire, which assumed cultural leadership of the West during its first century (ca. 950-1050), known as the Ottonian age. The Ottonians absorbed and developed upon Carolingian culture; consequently, Ottonian churches also feature basilica and Latin cross layouts, boosted vertical proportions, and towers.H370,12

Round towers are the most distinctive feature of Ottonian churches. Four such towers grace St Michael's at Hildesheim, likely the finest surviving Ottonian church.12,35

St Michael's at Hildesheim
St Michael's at Hildesheim
St Michael's at Hildesheim
Ottonian Church
Ottonian Church

Romanesque Age

ca. 1000-1200

Romanesque and Gothic architecture flourished across Western Europe, especially in the north. The heart of both ages, in terms of production and innovation, was France.

As noted earlier, the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted in a cultural fracturing of Western Europe. So long as the Empire lived, Western Europe was culturally unified, and art was similar throughout the region; with the fall of Rome and the rise of Germanic kingdoms, cultural unity was lost. Unity was finally restored in the Romanesque age, as the Romanesque style of art and architecture permeated the West.

The Romanesque style emerged as architects developed upon Carolingian and Ottonian models. One key development was decoration: Romanesque buildings generally feature a richer abundance of architectural sculpture than Carolingian or Ottonian churches (whose walls are mostly blank).C61,H370 An especially suitable canvas for Romanesque sculpture was the tympanum: the semi-circular area above an arch-framed door or window.


The Romanesque period also marks the rise of stone vaulting as the standard church construction method. This replaced wooden beams, which had supported the roofs of most churches since the Early Christian period (when churches first appeared). With vaulted construction, Romanesque architects extended the sheer height of churches farther than ever before.15

Romanesque architecture thus featured significantly more verticality and intricacy than its Carolingian and Ottonian predecessors. Yet the subsequent Gothic style took these developments even further; relative to Gothic works, Romanesque buildings are only moderately tall and rather plain.17 Another obvious difference is arch shape: Romanesque arches are round or slightly pointed, whereas Gothic arches are sharply pointed.

An excellent representative masterpiece of Romanesque architecture is Vézelay Basilica (France).

Vézelay Basilica
Interior of Vézelay
Vézelay (view of chevet)
Plan of Vézelay (note chevet at east end)

The column capitals of medieval Western Europe (like those of the Byzantines) are loosely derived from the capitals of classical antiquity. Germanic capital decoration is bold and whimsical, featuring animal, floral, and geometric forms.

Romanesque Capital
Romanesque Capital
Romanesque Capital

Rise of the Gothic Style

The relentless Germanic quest for verticality and intricacy culminated in Gothic architecture. The Gothic style only became possible with the utter mastery of stone engineering, in which the weight of a vaulted roof was precisely guided through networks of arches, piers, and buttresses. This allowed Gothic architects to erect the tallest buildings the world had ever seen (and ever would see, until the industrial age).E28,17,31

The perfection of stone engineering allowed all unnecessary bulk to be shed from a cathedral's supportive framework. Consequently, the Gothic style is characterized by unprecedented slenderness and lightness of construction. Only with the advent of steel framing did it become possible to erect buildings with sparser skeletons.17,31

Three structural innovations were crucial to the Gothic style: the pointed arch, rib vault, and flying buttress.18

The pointed arch has two advantages over its round predecessor: it redirects weight more precisely (allowing the supports underneath to be thinner), and is much more flexible in its dimensions. A round arch must be about as wide as it is tall: one cannot change one dimension much without changing the other. Since a pointed arch climbs to a keystone at a sharp angle, its dimensions can be adjusted far more dramatically without compromising its structure.30,31

This latter quality of the pointed arch enabled the development of the rib vault. A groin vault (the standard Romanesque vault) must be constructed as one solid piece, making it very thick and heavy. The flexibility of pointed arches, however, allowed a square or rectangular space to be framed with four slender arches and crossed with two more arches, with all arches rising to the same height. The spaces between these "ribs" were filled with a thin shell of stone panels and mortar, which not only reduced the weight of the vault immensely, but served as an early warning system for structural problems (should any cracks appear in the shell). In time, the basic rib vault design was joined by many elaborate variations.30,31

Diagram of a Groin Vault
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Groin Vaults
Diagram of a Rib Vault
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Rib Vaults
Fan Vaults (elaborate version of the rib vault)

Finally, the flying buttress enabled the diagonal transfer of weight from the walls of the nave to the walls of the aisles.30 A buttress is simply part of a wall that has been thickened for reinforcement; it may be thought of as a pier embedded in a wall. By connecting two ordinary buttresses with a flying buttress (which is shaped like a section of an arch), weight is transferred from the upper to the lower buttress.

While the weight of a Romanesque church is supported mainly by walls and massive interior piers, most of the weight of a Gothic church is supported by exterior buttresses (which, as described above, receive the weight via flying buttresses).E27 This allows the nave walls of a Gothic church to be relatively thin, and to contain an abundance of large windows (unlike Carolingian, Ottonian, or Romanesque churches), which finally allowed the art of stained glass to flourish. The flying buttresses themselves are slender enough that they complement (rather than obstruct) the exterior aesthetic of the cathedral.

Flying Buttresses
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Flying Buttresses
Stained Glass Windows
Stained Glass Windows

Gothic Age

ca. 1200-1500

Gothic architecture flourished principally in Western Europe, particularly in the north. The style was only partly adopted in Italy, where artists were reluctant to stray from their classical heritage; a subdued version of Gothic, known simply as Italian Gothic, developed there. Italian churches were also usually made of brick, given the region's relative scarcity of stone. While Gothic architecture was succeeded in Italy ca. 1400 by Renaissance architecture, the Gothic style continued to flourish elsewhere in Western Europe for roughly another century.28,32,33

Gothic churches are readily distinguished from the Romanesque style in their pointed arches, large windows, and generally lighter, taller, more intricate appearance. Compared with earlier styles, sculpture (including ornaments, figures, and narrative scenes) is far more plentiful on the surface of a Gothic church, inside and out. Another common form of Gothic embellishment is the crocket, a stone nub carved into stylized foliage (e.g. a bud, flower, or leaf cluster).

Gothic Capitals
Gothic Capitals

Many Gothic buildings feature tracery, a network of stone bands that fill the space within a frame (see Gothic Tracery). This frame may be provided by a window, railing, or blind arch. Especially rich tracery is often lavished on the rose window, a large circular window found above the main entrance of many cathedrals.32

Gothic architecture is divided into three phases: Early, High, and Late. Early Gothic (ca. 1150-1200) was the formative period of the style, in terms of both engineering and aesthetics. The mature style flourished during the High Gothic period (ca. 1200-1400), while buildings of the Late Gothic (ca. 1400-1500) tended to push Germanic complexity and verticality to incredible extremes.28,32

Chartres Cathedral is generally considered the first work of High Gothic architecture. In addition to the two magnificent spires, this building's sense of verticality is enhanced by various decorative elements, including pinnacles (miniature spires) and finials (crowning ornaments). The triangular panel in the space between the towers, which serves to cover the tip of the gable roof, is a typical feature of Gothic churches.

Plan of Chartres
Cologne Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral
Example of a Pinnacle
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Example of a Finial
(modified by Essential Humanities)

Gothic cathedrals may be divided into two groups: those with spires and those with plain towers. Along with Chartres, the most famous examples of the former type include Cologne Cathedral (Germany) and Salisbury Cathedral (England). The most renowned works of the latter type include Notre Dame (France), Reims (France), and York Minster (England). While plain towers cannot compete with spires in terms of verticality, they can be rendered light and airy through refined skeletal construction.

Notre Dame
Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral
York Minster

Rouen Cathedral, with its labyrinthine facade and soaring tower, is perhaps the foremost representative of Late Gothic. Rouen's crossing tower is a stunning example of an openwork spire.

Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral

Stave Churches

The later medieval period (ca. 1000-1500) also witnessed the construction of many stave churches throughout northern Europe. A stave church is a wooden structure built on a simple rectangular timber frame, such that four corner posts ("staves") bear the structural load. Splendid multi-tiered roofs are the most striking feature of these buildings. Only tens of examples survive, mainly in Norway.42

Stave Church
Stave Church (rear view)
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