The Romanesque style

By Mª Luisa Freire Lodeiro

With the arrival of the Millennium a series of historical changes that meant the cultural renovation of the continent happened in Europe. Between these historical events we emphasize the Reconquest, that took place in the Iberian Peninsula, the development of the Romance languages and the economic and cultural growth that took place around the year 1000 linked to a calm period without plagues and starvation and with political stability. This provoked a demographic growth, thanks also to the introduction of new techniques in the agricultural production, that made the crops increase and the trade reemerge. A new social class, the bourgeoisie, formed by small merchants and craftsmen arised. All these elements would facilitate the growth of the cities with new routes of trade, linked to the ways of peregrination. These changes in the society would make the world changed. New needs, like the one of building new religious posts, due to the fact the society at that time was a theocentric one, appeared. These constructions promoted the new power of the Christian kings and the Church, which in those days in the Peninsula was competing with the Moslem kingdoms.




We should place in this context the appearance of a new art, the Romanesque one. It’s an European art that emerged between the 11th and 13th centuries and, altough it presented some peculiarities in the different countries, it can be seen as the first international style of the known world until there.

The diffusion of this art is due to the order of Cluny, of French origin. Thanks to its great power (it managed to possess more than 50000 monks and 1500 monasteries and several Popes came from this Benedictine order) it would be able to spread his knowledge and ideas, since its principal task was the pilgrimage together with the preaching of the crusades.

The order of Cluny was a defender of the use of images and veneration of relics, which would give place to the traffic of these and at the same time promoted the pilgrimages, especially the Jacobean one, that prompted thousands of persons, facilitating not only the cultural exchange but also the increase of the trade, which awarded this order a very big economic and political power; in fact it went so far as to be over kings and emperors.

These sociocultural changes, between others, would be shown in art. As other cultures, like the Islam, which used art to demonstrate power, the christianity would use this new art, the Romanesque, in the building of cathedrals and churches. These buildings would have richer new architectural structures, especially if we compare them with the previous constructions (Preromanesque and Early Christian) much more modest and simple.

The Romanesque periods

Before talking about the different periods of the Romanesque, it would be interesting to mention the Preromanesque art (5th to 10th centuries), developed by Visigoths and Mozarabs, and the Asturian art, since it managed to fuse with the Romanesque one. This style would develop from the First Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque (from Lombardy, in the north of Italy). Its most important influence would be in Catalonia due to its proximity to Europe, though we can also see its influence far from Catalonian lands. We have an example of this in the church of San Martiño in Foz (Lugo), built over a previous construction as it’s proved by the pre-romanesque remains.

The most important period would be the correspondent to the so called Romanesque Plenary session, whose consolidation and diffusion was due to the order of Cluny. In the 12th century a new influence would arise with the order of the Cister, that looked for wider spaces, a balance of lines and minor sculptural decoration, which developed into a new art: the Gothic one.

Characteristics of the Romanesque style



The wish to build durable temples that could demonstrate the greatness of the Christian kingdoms made that the new constructions were based on the height and on the search of lighter into the temple. Due to this, resistant materials, as the stone, would be used and the roofs were arched (in this way they were preventing from burning, since they were made from wood). These new roofs provoked the incorporation of a new architectural element, the buttresses stuck to the walls, with broader props. These buildings would present Latin cross plant. The transept would separate the faithful from the choir. A very important element of these churches would be the ambulatory, that went behind the major altar and gave access to the crypt where the relics were placed.

Important temples could have several doors. The principal ones were orientated to the west and if they were broad they could be divided by a mullion. These doors and windows were adorned by widened carved archivolts, and they could consist of a tympanum, also carved with some religious representation.

Sculpture and painting

Both sculpture and painting did not try to reflect the reality in a natural way but they followed geometric forms. The decoration, full of simbols, was a kind of stone catechism with the aim, between others, of teaching and indoctrinating people, as most of the faithfuls or even all of them were illiterate. The models were taken from biblical passages, as we can observe in capitels, tympanums and so on. We can also find another type of representations, with fantastic animals or scenes of everyday life, where the mentality of that time is shown.

We can emphasize the sculptural Galician work, which would reach the top with the building of the façade of Pratarías square by Mestre Esteban, as well as the Portico of the Glory by Mestre Mateo, with some transition from the Romanesque into the Gothic, which reflects a more naturalistic trend.

For the painting we emphasize that it was a wall painting, influenced by the Byzantine style, with polychromy and vivid and brilliant colors. They painted flat figures, with hieratic frontalism, without perspective and with hierarchic size. This painting can be found in apses, but there are few remains in Galicia, due to its bad preservation.

The Romanesque in Galicia

The epicentre of the Romanesque style in Galicia was, undoubtedly, Santiago de Compostela. The building of the cathedral, promoted by the discovery of the supposed remains of the apostle Santiago (these bones really did not belong to the apostle Santiago, who probably never came to Galician lands, but to Priscilianus, bishop of Galician origin, executed by heresy), turned the city into the third center of peregrination of the Christianity together with Rome and Jerusalem.

The construction of the cathedral began with the archbishop Diego Peláez, but he was removed due to his differences with the king Alfonso VI. For a time, the works were paralyzed. It was Diego Xelmírez who turned into the great promoter of the city and of the same cathedral. This archbishop could achieve his goals thanks to his big influences, not only with the Christian kings of the time, but because he also had the favor of the papacy, due to his good relation with the order of Cluny, in fact he was a protected of the brother of the Pope Callistus II.

Both kings and the church played with the superstition of people using and promoting the image of Santiago as “Santiago Matamouros”, so that both the nobles and the common people, very tied to this kind of superstitions, asked for his protection in the fight against the Muslims to recover the Holy Land, or to search the divine pardon, they had to give large amounts of money as offerings to the apostle, which gave more economic and political power to the city and to the archbishop.

The building of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela marked a new influence for the following constructions in Galicia, specially in the architecture, though they would be simpler constructions. But specially we can see the influence in the work of the ornamentation of churches and monasteries. Rural masters imitated the style of the Mestre Mateo, creator of the Portico of Glory, as we can see in the decoration of sculptures in the facade of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Miño, but in a simpler way. Another artist who would influence the rural construction of these religious buildings very much would be the Mestre Esteban, close collaborator of Xelmírez, whose style would spread over the whole Galicia. His ornamental forms would have a vegetable subject matter, human and animal figures, or with zoomorphic decoration, as well as other more complex topics.

The Romanesque style in Galicia does not limit itself only to the cathedral of Santiago, but we have an important group of monasteries and small churches placed especially in the Ribeira Sacra along the river Sil, and also along the river Miño, where many medieval monasteries still stay, which make this area of Galicia one of the richest ones in Spain regarding Romanesque heritage.

The Romanesque in Ribeira sacra


This area is placed between the provinces of Lugo and Ourense, along the banks of the river Sil. The name Ribeira Sacra has existed since the year 1124, when the queen Maria Teresa of Portugal mentioned it in a document directed to Montederramo's monastery. His geography and climate make this area an ideal one for the wine cultivation, whose tradition comes from the Romans.

The expansion is due to the many monasteries of the area, attracted for being an isolated area, looked for the monks who were dedicated to the retired life, as well as for the economic advantages, like the wine cultivation. His most popular period covered the 12th and 13th centuries, and it would decline up to almost being left in the 19th century with Mendizábal's disentailment, which would confiscate the goods of the Church to relieve the serious economic crisis that was suffered in Spain at that time.

In this area we can find, mostly, monasteries from medieval origin. The buildings are simpler than the cathedral of Santiago, but are influenced by it in the decoration of the sculptures, as well as in some architectural elements as the use of the round arch, columns with smooth shafts, with bases and capitals decorated with similar thematic engravings to that of the most important Romanesque constructions.


Among these constructions we can emphasize two monasteries placed in the province of Ourense. The first one, the Monastery of Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil (Parada do Sil), had a limited community and a limited power, nevertheless it had the favour of the kings and of the papacy, which gave protection to its lands and exploitations. An important part of its economy was based on the fluvial port. Related to its architecture, we emphasize his central chapel, richly decorated by historiated capitals.

Another monastery of the same area is Santo Estevo de Ribas do Sil (Nogueira de Ramuín), one of the most important of Ribeira Sacra, nowadays, a state-run hotel. The most important part for the history of the Galician culture is the Romanesque church of the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as a piece of furniture, and an altarpiece of pentagonal form where a series of small arches on columns are representated, in imitation of another piece created for the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.


In the province of Lugo we can emphasize the monastery of Taboada dos Freire, where Master Pelagio was employed. In this one we emphasize the tympanum of the main door of the church, in which his name and the data appears, besides the biblical scene of the fight of the judge Samson against the lion.

In Pantón's municipality we find a great concentration of Romanesque architecture. This zone has several monasteries, like San Salvador de Ferreira or San Miguel de Eiré, singular because it has only one nave and preserves some Early Christian remains.

The Mestre Mateo also will have influence in the building of minor cathedrals like the ones in Lugo, Ourense and Monforte. The cathedral of Lugo has different architectural styles, beginning with the Romanesque one, followed by the Gothic and the Baroque ones to end with the Neoclassicist. From Romanesque times it preserves the plant of Latin cross, with three naves and the ambulatory with five apsidal chapels. Almost the whole major nave preserves the Romanesque style as well as the domed roof and the clerestory.





Legal Notice


This page was written by the Spanish team. Only the Spanish team is responsible for its content.
For further information please contact: Jose Armesto o
r María Rodríguez Valcárcel | EPAPU Albeiros
Copyright (c) 2011 by EPAPU Albeiros | Lugo | Galicia | Spain |


Abendgymnasium Münster Image
Münster | NRW | Germany


EPAPU Albeiros

Lugo |  Galicia | Spain


Horizon CollegeImage

Alkmaar | North-Holland | The Netherlands



Lesvos Island |  Aegean Sea | Greece 

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer