Normandy Vision UK Trust

Normandy Vision
UK Trust

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A Christian Mission working in Normandy, France

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Romanesque Architecture

End of the Roman Empire

As the Roman Empire withdrew from Western Europe around the 4th century AD, it left a heritage of large and magnificent buildings scattered throughout the regions that it had conquered. With the passing of time, many of these buildings started to decay, helped often by the ravages of war. By the time that Charlemagne had risen to power around 800 AD and began to exert a controlling and civilising influence throughout many parts of Western Europe, much, though not all, of this Roman architectural heritage lay in ruins.

Reign of Charlemagne

During the reign of Charlemagne, and the era after him covering the period from about 800 AD to 1000 AD, there was a resurgence in architecture and building, spurred on to some extent by a more stable political environment. This era has been labelled the Carolingian era, and it built upon many of the Roman-style elements that were still to be seen around them, either in surviving buildings or ruins. As the era developed, these Roman-style elements often were fused with ideas from Byzantium, the Middle East, the Germanic and Celtic tribes, and other Northern European tribes.

Start of the Carolingian Era

Towards the end of the Carolingian era, and the start of what has come to be known as the Romanesque era, there were certain key events that led to what seems like an explosion of building and architectural developments. One of these events was related to the calendar. As the year 1000 AD approached, there was a widespread fear that the approach of the new Millenium would bring the apocalyptic end of the world. This led to a renewed and heightened interest in religious matters, and it seemed as if everybody set out on a pilgrimage to see some ancient Catholic relic. This had two consequences: first, the need for buildings and churches to cater for this flood of pilgrims, and, secondly, a vast increase in the finance available to the Church as a result of the donations from the pilgrims.

Vaulted Roofs

Another key factor in the Romanesque period was the coming together of new architectural and building methods that enabled larger and grander buildings to be constructed than had been possible in previous generations. Many of these were in a sense not new discoveries, but a rediscovery of the methods and materials used by the Romans many hundreds of years before. It is this theme of rediscovery of the older methods and materials that has led to the name for the period: Romanesque, meaning in the Roman style.

Perhaps the most important architectural development at that time was in the construction and application of the vault. This allowed the roofs of buildings to be constructed on a much larger scale, and to be made out of stone rather than wood. Roofs constructed out of wood could never cover very large areas due to the inherent weakness of large spans of wooden timber, and they were always prone to being destroyed by fire, or suffering damage due to decay and rot of various types.

The problem with constructing large vaulted structures was the sheer weight of stone that had to be supported by the walls, pillars or columns. This was aggravated by the fact that round arches do not direct the weight vertically downwards into the supporting structure, but rather direct it outwards at an angle. The support structures therefore had to be built strongly and massively enough to be able to counteract this outward force. Another solution that developed was the addition of buttresses to the walls at key points in order to strengthen the walls sufficiently to carry the large vaulted roofs.

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