Medieval Architecture

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Early medieval architecture was a continuation of Roman architecture, relying on the rounded arch and barrel vaults. The Palace Chapel of Charlemagne in Aachen (late 8th century) is a good example of this “Romanesque” style, which flourished especially in the 11th and 12th centuries. Such structures can be very beautiful, but the massive weight, spread out evenly by the arches, means that it is impossible to include windows lower down in the building. Saint-Sernin, the Priory Church of Saint-Pierre in Toulouse, Vezelay, and the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy exemplify Romanesque architecture. The style can sometimes look additive, clunky, and rectangularly restricted. Massive west walls often add to the effect.

Later medieval architecture is called Gothic (for no real reason), when new innovations appeared in the late 12th century. Thanks to “flying buttresses,” the weight of the building could be transferred from the walls to support columns outside the main structure. This made the inclusion of windows now possible, and stained glass and rose windows are attractive parts of Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Chartres, Rheims, Notre Dame of Paris, and Westminster in England. The structures often feature ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and sharp spires. Cathedrals could now be built much higher than before, and the feeling inside them is now one of soaring upwards vertically — an appropriate experiential effect for the nature of these sacred spaces.