March 2013 Print

Ecclesiastical Architecture

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

From the fall of the Roman Empire, in A.D. 476, until almost 1200, architecture followed a style that we call Romanesque. Seven hundred years is a long time, and art neither stands still nor changes over night. In the beginning, architects tried to imitate Roman architecture, but it became more and more altered, especially in the 11th century, because of the Byzantine element. We can distinguish two periods: the primordial, or Latin Romanesque style from the 5th to 11th centuries, and the secondary Roman style in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Roman Style

Few buildings remain from the first period. Walls are thick and built of stones or bricks. At point of stress, at the arches for instance, builders thicken the walls with piers, or buttresses. The early churches were rather low, simple structures. The thick walls were pierced by small windows with round arched heads. The columns in the interior and exterior were heavy and squat. They supported awkward capitals. A typical early Romanesque church was approached through an atrium that was surrounded by arcades of columns and round arches. The church itself was entered through the narthex, or porch. Inside the building, two or four rows of columns formed three or five aisles that ran the length of the interior, the center aisle, the nave, being wider. Above the rows of columns and arches defining the nave was usually another arcade of arches. Above this was a row of windows. This area of windows alternating with wall places was known as the clerestory. Above all was the roof itself. At the far end of the nave was a semicircular apse, or sanctuary, in front of which was the altar. In front of the apse, short wings, or transepts, projected to the right and left. The early Romanesque churches were simple, sometimes with exposed wooden roofs. In general, the exteriors were plain in design, and except for arcades of columns and round arches, had little decoration. At the sides, or jambs, of the doors and windows, several receding columns or round shafts carried semicircular arches. Vestiges of primordial Romanesque style are not numerous. St. Martin de Ligugé, a Benedictine abbey founded in 361, still shows the 7th-century wall with arcade and twin windows. Notre-Dame de Nazareth Cathedral in Vaison-la-Romaine goes back to the 6th or 7th century. The chevet consists of an apse with a chapel supported by round Roman capitals and column drums on either side. In 1993 foundations going back to late antiquity were laid bare west of the cathedral. Other examples of primordial Romanesque style include the church of Germigny-des-Prés, erected at the beginning of the 9th century.1 The Abbey of St. Philibert in Tournus went through so many turmoils for so many centuries that in 960 a church was built that was going to be able to withstand all invaders. Rarely has a church completely built before 1120 remained intact. St. Bénigne in Dijon was originally built in 535. The crypt preserves its original layout, an inner circle ringed by an arcade of eight columns, and surrounded by another ring of sixteen columns with a circular ambulatory that opens onto a small rectangular chapel in which the relics of St. Bénigne are venerated. There is also the Basilica of St. Rémy in Reims where Clovis was baptized in 496 and which was totally revamped in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The secondary Romanesque style flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries. By then the flat wooden roofs were replaced by barrel-vaults of stone, vaults resembling half a cylinder. Sometimes there were cross-vaults, where the vaulting of the nave was broken into bays or divisions. At each pier or cluster of columns dividing a bay, a slender column went up to the arched ceiling and supported a projecting rib spanning the nave. Each bay of the ceiling was further divided by diagonal cross arches, or ribs. This new use of arches allowed for larger churches to be built. Think Paray-le-Monial, former monastery church of Notre-Dame, Vézelay’s St. Madeleine, the early Mont St. Michel where one arch in the arcades corresponds to two gallery-arched windows above. The strongly projected response extends to the edge of the wooden barrel-vault, which looks out of place above the nave. Also, think as well of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes built by William the Conqueror, where the exterior tall spires soar over clusters of small ones, giving the church a vertical look; and also Conques, Saint-Sernin, Saint-Nectaire, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, all built between 1065 to 1080.

Let us go back to Vézelay. It was founded in 858 by Gerard de Roussillon. The nave was rebuilt immediately after a fire destroyed it in 1120. Together with the narthex, which fits exactly to the nave, there are thirteen bays. Cross-shaped piers with engaged columns on all four sides carry the under-arch which supports the arcades and the transverse arches of the vaulting in both the nave and aisles. Square responds demarcate the semi-circular columns from the wall and make the bay articulation clearer. A horizontal course, which follows all the articulations, marks the top of the first story. In the smooth wall above, there are windows framed by the wall ribs of the groin vaulting (a type of vaulting caused by two equally large barrel-vaults crossing at right angles; the angles formed by the intersecting vaults is the groin).

The word “Gothic” is the name given to the style of medieval architecture that prevailed for about 300 years. The name was first used by the builders of the Renaissance period to describe what they considered to be a barbarous kind of architecture. It was in memory of the Goths, who never built anything but rather happily destroyed everything in their way. So, at one time, “Gothic” was a derisive term.

Light and Graceful Gothic

The distinguishing feature of the Gothic style is the pointed arch. Gothic builders carried the principle of forces in equilibrium, or dynamic architecture, to a stage undreamed of by less experienced Romanesque craftsmen. They developed a light, graceful style. A Gothic cathedral is composed of a skeleton structural system, where slender piers of stone carry light stone ribs to form a frame for the stone vaults above. Piers and clustered columns soar into the air, often for a hundred feet or more. The weight of the vaulting is transmitted by exterior arches, or flying buttresses, to piers or vertical buttresses that extend up the sides. These vertical buttresses often end in pinnacles which add weight and solidity, and give an extra decorative quality. The flying buttresses are a mark of Gothic cathedrals. They were developed in Gothic architecture as an external strut system positioned above the roof structure of the aisles. Since the walls no longer carried the weight of heavy stone vaults, they could be made much lighter. Gothic walls could be pierced with many windows, and the windows could be increased in size to fill much of the area between the buttresses. With this freedom, came into existence the beautiful stained-glass windows.

The plan of a Gothic cathedral is generally the shape of a Latin cross. The short arms of the cross are formed by the transepts which project at right angles to the nave near the sanctuary. The nave is usually placed in an east-to-west direction, with the main entrance facing west. The shape of the exterior of a Gothic cathedral comes directly from the arrangement of the interior. The long ridge of the steep roof extends the length of the nave. The ridge of the transept roof cuts squarely across, so that the two ridges seen from above, form a cross. Just beneath the roof of the nave, on the long side, are the clerestory windows that light the nave. Below the clerestory windows are the sloping roofs of the side aisles. The main façade is usually flanked by two towers, and between them is the main entrance, richly sculptured, especially around the doors.

France is really the cradle of the Gothic style. During the first half of the 13th century, nearly 150 beautiful cathedrals were erected just north and south of the Loire. The Ile-de-France series of cathedrals, and those of the north of France generally, are especially homogeneous and structurally sophisticated. Notre-Dame de Paris is perhaps the most well-known example. Built from 1163, it is the first cathedral constructed of monumental proportions. It is seen as the place where heaven and earth meet, a reflection of divine grandeur. However, the following phase of French Gothic derived from Laon. In an astonishing crescendo, a series of classic Gothic masterpieces—Chartres, Reims, Amiens, Noyon, and Soissons—were all constructed. Notre-Dame de Laon was built around 1190. Thanks to the subdivision of the west elevation into three separate sections, created by shifting the doorways forward with the insertion of deep porticoes while shifting the towers backwards, the harmonic façade gained a new spaciousness accentuated by the colossal dimensions of the openings and the enormous central rose windows, the focus of the whole composition. This configuration represents a special achievement for Gothic architecture as, for the first time, the twin-towered façade was connected to the internal space and was no longer a separate, independent structure. The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres represents the prototype of a true Gothic cathedral. Its characteristic features are length, a nave and two-aisles floor plan, a tripartite elevation (arcade, triforium, clerestory), followed by a short transept, terminating in a deep sanctuary with an ambulatory and radial chapels. The streamlining of the building lends the cathedral rare grandeur.

The façade of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims presents a continuous sequence of thin, triangular gables above the three-deep portals which are counterbalanced by the clever transformation of the tympanum into windows that allow light to irradiate into the entrance area. The front elevation is divided into three horizontal bands. The rose window is framed by narrow lateral apertures.

The façade of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Amiens (c. 1220) is flanked by two towers which follow the dictates of “harmonious façade.” It is built in a tripartite configuration around the central rose window. In accordance with the quest of reducing the weight of the structure, the architect reduced the thickness of the masonry, stabilizing the towers with enormous projecting buttresses.

The linearity of early French Gothic reached its culmination at Noyon cathedral, second half of the 12th century, when a marked sense of verticality carries through the four levels of the elevation. Fragmenting the masonry produces an effect of lightness and transparency, enhanced by the increase in brightness from bottom to top.

To end our very short list of Gothic cathedrals let us take a look at the south transept of the cathedral of SS. Gervais and Protais in Soissons, built around 1180-1190. Some of the most visible formal characteristics of Gothic architecture are its linearity and its subdivision of internal surfaces. The ribs of the vaults, which are continued all the way down the walls, create cellular spaces. They emphasize the impression of ephemerality of the walls, creating an airy and translucent atmosphere.

Then came the Renaissance with a strong aversion to every thing Middle-Ages, which will last until Victor Hugo. The Renaissance means the revival of forms from Greek and Roman antiquity. It is marked by the use of columns and other structural elements of ancient buildings. Even more important was a new feeling for space and proportion different from medieval taste. This movement was accompanied by much thinking on the part of architects. They studied the past and searched for eternal laws of architecture.

Exuberant Baroque

The Baroque style, prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, was initially linked to the Counter Reformation and is sometimes called the Jesuit style. It was characterized by new exploration of form, light, and dramatic intensity. Distinctive features of Baroque may include broader naves, oval floor plan, dramatic use of light, abundance of decorations with large scale ceiling frescoes in the cupolas, illusion effects like trompe-l’oeil, etc. However, the Baroque in France was always subdued. The 17th-century Dome des Invalides with its church of Saint-Louis is generally regarded as the most important building of the century. Noteworthy are the torsade columns of the altar. More torsade columns are found in the church of Val-de-Grace, considered by some as Paris’s best example of Baroque architecture with its curving lines, elaborate ornamentation, and harmony of different elements.

The architect of the church of La Madeleine in Paris made extensive use of Corinthian columns: 52 of them, each 20 meters high, carried all around the entire building. The pediment shows the Last Judgment and the church’s bronze doors bear relief representing the Ten Commandments. The church is 354 ft. long and 141 ft. wide. It has a single nave and three domes over wide arched bays. A little bit in the same style is the Pantheon, built on a Greek cross plan with massive Corinthian columns. It was supposed to be the church of St. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, but was caught in the torment of the Revolution and is now the place where “great” Frenchmen are buried. It is slightly larger than La Madeleine.

The Jesuit style of churches shows two elevations, heaven and earth, as clearly seen in the following: the church of SS. Paul and Louis, which was designed by two Jesuits. The large octolateral dome was a first in Paris and served as inspiration for other structures.

19th and 20th Centuries

The 19th century contented itself with copying the older styles. For instance the church of St. Clotilde in Paris, built from 1846 to 1858, is neo-gothic. It is best known for its imposing twin spires. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, 1875-1914, is neo-byzantine. It was built of travertine stones which constantly exude calcite, thus ensuring that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution.

The first half of the 20th century was not particularly innovative. The parish of St. John Baptiste de La Salle was born in 1910, around a sensitive political time. The architecture is “humble but original,” as described in the brochure. It is bout 50 meters long and has four naves, which is rather nonhabitual. Because of the sloping of the terrain, it was necessary to build steps to the porch, which makes the entrance inaccessible to coffins. An elevator has to be used for that function only! The building of St. Christopher de Javelle started in 1926. It is made mostly of bricks except for the façade. The architect may have been the originator of prefabricated armed concrete elements, speeding the building process enormously. It is a milestone in modern building. A lacy steel construction holds up the barrel-vaulted roof. The church is considered a landmark in the development of modern sacred art. We must admit it has a beauty quite its own. Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce was built between 1937 and 1946. The pointed roof is meant to sustain the large amounts of snow that fall in the Alps. The foundation is solidly anchored in the soil and the church is topped by a massive 28-meter bell tower carefully designed to withstand local tectonic movement. Eight massive pillars are built to a depth of five meters. The interior resembles a Roman chapel with its rectangular nave flanked by two aisles. The sanctuary is semi-circular and surrounded by the ambulatory sitting above the crypt. Arcades mounted on monolithic pillars separate different portions of the structure. Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce is best known for its decorations painted by some of the most famous artists of the century: Chagall, Matisse...

After the Second World War, every architect did his own thing. We will look first at the cathedral of Royan and then at Notre-Dame du Haut. Built in three years following the bombardment of the town of Royan on January 5, 1945, the church is a major building of contemporary religious architecture. It is 45 meters long and 22 meters wide, 36 meters high with a bell tower culminating at 60 meters. The architect used rough concrete and held account of the slope of the ground so the principal entrance is located partly high. The use of concrete allowed a fast construction and a great architectural audacity. Our last church was completed in 1954. It is considered one of the finest examples of the architecture realized by well-known Le Corbusier and one of the most important of 20th-century architecture. The chapel is a simple design with two entrances, a main altar and three chapels beneath towers. Although the building is small, it is powerful and complex. It is made mostly of concrete, enclosed by thick walls. The upturned roof, supported on columns embedded within the walls, and not on the walls themselves, appear to float above them. In the interior, the spaces left between the walls and roof are filled with clerestory windows as well as asymmetrical ones. Their openings slant at varying degrees, thus letting in light at different angles. The interior walls are white, the ceiling gray. The chapel, informally known as “Ronchamp,” has been described as the first post-modern building.

So many churches, so little time to visit them, so little space to describe them all. Neither time nor styles stand still. We can only wonder what the 21st century will bring to ecclesiastical architecture.


For more information on the churches of Germigny-des-Prés, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, Notre-Dame la Grande, Saint-Sernin, Saint Peter’s Abbey, Cluny, the Cathedral of Saint-Eulalia, Saint Philibert’s Abbey, the Basilica of Saint-Madeleine in Vézelay, please refer to my articles in the Angelus of October 1999; July 2000; March, April, June, and December 2002; February, April, May, and August 2003.

See also, “Painters and Writers Quarrels: The Val-de Grace Cupola,” Laurels, Winter 1981-82.