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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why I love Romanesque

On Sunday we hosted a visit of a group of Cathedral Friends from Rochester. At lunch I welcomed them. In the way that you do when you get up to speak spontaneously, I heard myself saying: 'I'm very glad that you've come all this way from one Romanesque cathedral to visit another. We Romanesque cathedrals need to stick together in the face of Gothic supremacy'. This was well received. And Durham people liked it when one of our guests responded by saying that they were pleased to be visiting their 'big brother cathedral'.

After this good-humoured banter, I thought a bit more about what I'd meant. I've noticed that there is a kinship between lovers of Romanesque architecture: it's a shared passion that is more than simply admiration. We deans of Romanesque cathedrals feel that we are a privileged bunch. Why is this? Is it heritage, history and archtecture? Of course, these play a large part. Romanesque is older than Gothic, so that gives it antiquity value. The fact that it comes from a more remote past than Gothic adds to its fascination: it belongs to 'another country: they do things differently there'. But I think there's more to it than simply pastness....or even vastness (because Romanesque churches and cathedrals can be monumental: no-one in England had built like this since the Romans left).

Let's agree what we are talking about. 'Romanesque' means 'in the spirit of the Roman'. It was coined to describe architecture that harked back to the classical Roman style. But that style was only dimly remembered across the so-called 'dark ages', so 'Romanesque' also had the connotation of being pastiche, even debased imitation. In the UK we tend to call this style 'Norman', because of how it took hold of the nation after the Norman Conquest: the invaders were builders on a grand scale not least because this was one way of expressing their power. I prefer 'Romanesque' because it covers a style that flourished all over Europe in the 10th, 11th and early 12th centuries. The Saxons were adopting it in England before the Normans ever set foot here.

What are its features? If you walk round Durham Cathedral you can see them worked up in their fullest, finest expression: whoever its original architect was, he created one of Europe's masterpieces. The sense of mass is one mark of it: huge, elemental forms like the procession of alternating piers that define the nave and quire like an avenue of great trees; the thick walls pierced by modest round-headed windows that contain the space as if it were a cave in which to hide and be kept safe; and in Durham's case, the high vaults, Europe's first experiment in throwing a stone canopy across volumes so lofty and wide. In the vaults at Durham, as in many Romanesque churches in France, you can see the pointed arch being developed as a new construction technique to strengthen the building, a discovery that would prove vital to the evolution of Gothic. The Normans were engineering pioneers. They took risks in building on such a scale and it paid off. The Cathedral is still here to prove it.

But what about the deeper meaning of Romanesque? And why do its afficionados like me say we love it? Here it's less easy to be precise. But here are some tentative suggestions.

First, because it of its rich spirituality of space. Romanesque churches, even intimate ones, have a wonderful ability to suggest that space means something by pointing beyond itself to the ultimate Mystery of God. You walk up the nave at Durham and the alternating rhythms of decorated drum piers and compound pillars to right and left tell you that this is journey with a purpose, a pilgrimage if you like. Or you stand in the marvellous, too little known, crypt chapel of Durham Castle and are surrounded by a forest of columns as if that numinous underground place in the bowels of a fortress you are protected and don't need to be afraid. The subtle way light and dark play across Romanesque spaces - chiaroscuro - is to me one of its glories: richer and more complex than the brilliant light-filled spaces of high Gothic. Life is light-dark, joy and woe. I love buildings in which I can inhabit this world's complexity and my own, and begin to 'read' it as God does.

Secondly, because of its sense of proportion. In Durham, everything seems 'right': the vaults are not too high or heavy, the piers are not too thick, the nave is not too wide. It's a Goldilocks church. Perhaps this represents the Benedictine love of balance that marked the spiritual values of the community that built it: human life is at its most noble and beautiful when there is stability and proportion and everything has its proper priority and place. This is a church that seems to respect and ennoble your humanity. It neither gives you ideas above your station, nor does it crush it into nothingness. As a young boy said once after a visit, it seems to wrap itself round you. It's a beautiful way of putting it.

And thirdly, because of its fearless witness to the majesty of God. Romanesque churches were built big and strong. Their builders believed they were creating not just sacred spaces to worship in and process around. Their very existence said something about God's rule and power in an age that was hazardous and cruel, where life was short and often cheap. The church or cathedral was a sign of something that rose above (literally) the changes and chances of life, that pointed beyond our human mortality. Yes, these churches were also meant to be reminders of human rule and power, i.e. the Normans': Durham Cathedral and Castle on their acropolis are an undeniable sign of a regime that had come to England to stay. We mustn't forget the ambivalent histories all buildings have, even cathedrals. But this isn't what we remember about them. What moves us is the vision that created them and that still has the power to inspire and transform our perspective on life.

I've spoken about Durham because this is where I do most of my woolgathering. But I could have thought thoughts like these at Norwich, Peterborough or Gloucester; or at Compostela, V├ęzelay or Pisa or in hundreds of other places across Europe. We all have our favourites. You may like to share yours and tell us why.


  1. I hadn't really thought about a 'taste' in terms of Cathedral Architecture. My Cathedral is Canterbury and I love it for its Ancientness and it's message of continuity over the ages. A Christian presence in Canterbury and in many ways, a signpost to other great Cathedrals and our, smaller, Saxon and Norman built Parish Churches within two miles of the Cathedral. It binds our diocese together uniquely, much as I expect Durham Cathedral does for Durham.

    I love it for being what it is. My Spiritual Home, wherever I am.

    1. It's a personal thing, obviously, but I think we respond to church buildings in a way that reflects not only their spirituality but our own. This meeting between architecture and people is what makes sacred space stimulating and inspiring.