Christian Architecture in the Middle Ages

The earliest art from the Middle Ages was created under the rule of the emperor Charlemagne. In 768, Charlemagne became king of the Franks, the Germanic tribe that occupied modern day France. He was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800. His contributions to the Catholic Church made it the cultural force it eventually became.

Charlemagne made tithing compulsory, generating power and wealth in the church, and creating a powerful relationship that existed until the Renaissance era. It was Charlemagne’s encouragement and investment in the church that allowed the architecturally magnificent cathedrals to be built.

Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture appeared in the eleventh century. It looked back to the Roman style, but certainly had its own touch. The essential distinguishing marks of Romanesque architecture include the rounded arch, thick walls and dim interiors. Their naves now had vaults instead of wooden roofs. Their interiors were decorated with not just sculpture but also architectural ornament. The different elements of the structure are enhance by different roof levels and set off the nave and transept against the inner and outer aisles.

Romanesque architecture is seen largely in the building of the great cathedrals. San Vitale, in Ravenna was built in the 6th century, and St. Paul’s in Rome in the 4th. However, the majority of architectural growth in Romanesque cathedrals occurred between 1050-1200. Great achievements in architecture at the time included the cathedrals in Vezelay, France and Fontrevault which took creative liberties with the Romanesque archetype.

The Chapel of St. John in the Tower of London, was another Romanesque church built in 1080. Durham Cathedral in London was built in 1093, was among the largest medieval cathedrals in Europe. According to H.W. Janson, it was a breakthrough in architectural engineering, with its three story nave, and strong transverse arches.

A myriad of other cathedrals were built all over Europe using this Romanesque style. Some included the Pisa Cathedral in Tuscany, the Speyer Cathedral in Germany, and the Autun Cathedral in western France. In The History of Art, H.W. Janson writes that Europe was virtually drowning in architectural creativity. He theorizes it was because of a need to worship God and a renewed religious enthusiasm, partly due to the Crusades.

Gothic Architecture

The church in the Middle Ages also invented the Gothic style of architecture. The first example was in the Abbey Church in St. Denis built just outside of Paris in 1140. Abbot Suger wanted to make the church here the country’s spiritual and political center. He took creative liberties with the Romanesque cathedral structure and produced a design that is graceful, almost weightless. The windows appear to be almost translucent walls, creating a thin airy interior.

The Architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral

In the book, Notre Dame de Paris, art historian Alain-Erlande Brandenburg offers an in-depth analysis of the historical cathedral. The three story cathedral of Notre Dame is synonymous with Parisian art and architecture as the Eiffel Tower. This is all attributed to the Catholic Church. Artistically, the cathedral stands as a testament to Christ. Over the main doorway, in the relief, The Last Judgment, legions of angels surround Christ, while Mary and St. John kneel at his side. The rose portals are actually stained glass windows etched with an iconographic series spanning all the major Biblical figures.

In the north screen, the life of Christ unfolds. The scenes range from The Visitation, Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Massacre of the Innocents, Flight into Egypt, tPresentation in the Temple, Christ in the Temple, The Baptism, Entry into Jerusalem, The Last Supper, and Washing of the Feet. The southern cycle is themed after Christ’s resurrection and includes artistic renderings all of Christ’s appearances after his resurrection.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church encouraged impressive art and architecture. Aside from the notable ones mentioned here, it is also responsible for the funding and architectural engineering of numerous other massive cathedrals throughout Europe. The church also encouraged the intricate and complex art inside these cathedrals. However, the impending Protestant Reformation would change all of this.

Alain-Erlande Brandenburg, Notre Dame de Paris, (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998).
Frances Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Crossway Books, 1976).
H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art: The Western Tradition (Prentice Hall, 2004).

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