The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                               PAGE FIVE
ARCHITECTURE OF FRANCE . . . Romanesque to Renaissance
                                                                                                                       by George Ohanian

  FRANCE On Your Own, over the years, has described the unlimited architectural wealth of France from its cathedrals to châteaux. 
Perhaps some of the terminology may not have been fully explained.  Just what is Romanesque?  When did Renaissance begin?
Is the Gothic style really France's own creation?  We hope that this article, resurrected from our Winter 2002
  print newsletter, and written by an American architect, will help to define these three principal design eras in France and make it
 easier to understand the 'what, why and when' of so many of the historic buildings you see when you visit there.


The combined Western and Eastern Roman Empire,  officially ended upon the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395 AD, when the  Empire was divided between his sons ~ the eastern part to Arcadius and the western to Honorius.

Abbaye de ClunyChurch construction in the west preferred the Basilican form with the long nave and cruciform plan to allow space for congregational worship.  The east preferred the round form as expressed by the great dome of Santa Sophia in Constantinople built in the 16th century.  It is presently a mosque in the renamed city of Istanbul.

For 400 years after Theodosius I very little church or monastic structures were built until Charlemagne's unifying force and the new and growing power of the Church.  Romanesque architecture began to evolve with the use of massive round arches, piers and barrel vaults using unique mixtures of local styles and materials.  The gatehouse in Lorsch, Germany, built in 800 AD, and the monastic Church of Saint Michael in Hildesheim, Germany, with its twin transepts, double aisles, double apses with massive piers, walls and arches greatly influenced the church and monasteries that followed.

Romanesque architecture is now the term used to describe the style of architecture of Western Europe that started to show itself as a distinctive form as early as the end of the 9th century, lasting until the beginning of the Gothic style of the 12th century.  Romanesque is now beginning to be appreciated for its vitality, creativity and individual national styles.  This era of poor communication, poverty, illiteracy, turbulence and limited building materials all helped to make this an era of unique construction and creativity.  The principal countries where it flourished were France, Germany, England, Italy and Spain.

As monastic orders began to appear and accumulate wealth, Benedictine monks built the Abbey of Cluny (see photo at left) between 1088 to 1130 and the Abbey of Fontenay from 1130 to 1147 ~ both examples of influential power until the middle of the 12th century in the momentum of church construction.

Ste-Madeleine of Vézelay

The era between 1050 and 1150 was France's greatest contribution to Romanesque architecture.   Examples of Romanesque buildings in France in addition to the Abbey Church at Cluny, are Ste-Madeleine of Vézelay (see photo above)  in Burgundy, and the church of Sainte Foy of Conques.  Churches at Moissac, Souillac in Aquitaine contained sacred relics of Jesus.  Saint-Etienne in Caen, Normandy, built in 1069 by William the Conqueror became the inspiration for England's extensive Romanesque church construction, which took the name 'Norman' architecture.


This continuation of church and monastic construction began to evolve into an architectural style called 'Gothic' in northern France.  The desire to express their new freedom from the Dark Ages ~ the new secular wealth of merchants and craftsmen, plus the creation of large towns and cities ~ created new desires and needs.  To express this freedom, new churches had to provide more light into the interiors of the buildings, to be higher, reaching up to God.  To achieve more height, the need to lighten the weight of the walls and reduce the thrust of those walls to push out, brought about the use of flying buttresses, ribbed vaults over the nave, and pointed arches and slender piers.

The Cathedral at ReimsThe term 'Gothic' was first used by those in the Italian Renaissance movement in a derogatory manner to describe the art and architecture of Medieval times that was thought of as comparable to the works of the barbarian Goths.  Gothic, however, flourished and is known to this day as a prime example of European artistic achievement.  This Gothic age, less cloistered and more optimistic, was bolder, higher, and lighter and allowed the collaboration between the church and the laity to flourish.  It was the unifying force of the arts, producing both grand secular structures and culminating in the awe-inspiring structures of worship called cathedrals.  Creative energy helped develop the arts of sculpture, stained glass and painting that was totally integrated into the walls and façades, producing some of Europe's proudest and greatest works of architecture. 

There was zeal to build larger, higher, grander structures which was brought to fruition through the new wealth of merchants and the increased authority of the French kings, as well as the new-found  peace and prosperity of the age.  Grand cathedrals have survived centuries of war and, often, neglect.  Today, they are still places of worship while attracting people from all over the world who come just to experience them for their design and grandeur and to stand in awe of those who were able to construct and adorn these buildings so many centuries ago.

Cathedral at Coutances

Some wonderful examples of Gothic cathedrals worth seeing are:

  • St-Etienne in Bourges, is the widest Gothic cathedral in France and most similar to Notre Dame de Paris.
  • Notre Dame de Reims, started in 1211 and completed in 1481.  It was used for the coronation of France's kings, is an excellent example of High Gothic, and is renown for its sculpture.
  • Notre Dame d'Amiens has a nave 139 feet high.
  • Notre Dame de Laon and Notre Dame de Paris (see photo on page one), both started in 1163, have naves 110 feet high and are excellent examples of early Gothic.
  • Notre Dame de Chartres, begun in 1194,  is a treasure trove of stained glass and sculpture, both of the highest quality.
  • The Cathédrale de Notre Dame in Rouen has a famous west façade of superb Gothic architecture and was made famous by the numerous paintings of Claude Monet
  • The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances is a fine example of Norman Gothic architecture begun in the 1040s.   Both cathedrals are known for their stained glass.



There are four periods of Gothic architecture, the Early Gothic described to this point, the High Gothic phase of architecture  ushered in by the Cathedral of Chartres, the Rayonnant style using glass for the walls supported by a skeletal structure and whose purpose was to showcase stained glass as in Saint-Chapelle in Paris, and Flamboyant style, also known as 'late Gothic', which began to appear around 1400 (following the plague that had gripped Europe) and then flourished after the Hundred Years War.  It is identified by excessive décor and has given us superb examples of rose windows and decorative spires.  Some examples are the west façade of the cathedral at Rouen, the northern spire of the cathedral at Chartres and the transept façade at Senlis.

Saint-Chapelle, ParisSaint-Chapelle, Paris

Saint-Chapelle in Paris -  Exterior Structure and Interior Stained Glass Windows in Rayonnant Gothic


The next great style of architecture, Renaissance, emerged in Italy and Germany around 1400, starting with the design of an intersecting dome for the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy by Brunelleschi in 1420 -1434.

The rise of Renaissance architecture was the completion of the circle from Ancient Rome through Romanesque and Gothic, ending in Renaissance which is primarily the interpretation of architecture from Ancient Rome.

ChenonceauChâteau du Guerinet

Château de Chenonceau on the River Cher                     Château du Guerinet in Mansart Renaissance Style

The Gothic desire for height and openness through the use of glass and sculpture was replaced by the building of grand domes over the central intersecting square space of cathedrals.  Another force which developed in this era was the contribution of individuals.  Their works of genius are identified by the dome over Saint Peter's in Rome designed by Bramante, who died in 1514 and was replaced by Michelangelo.  The dome was finally built between 1588 and 1593.  The final unifying form for Saint Peter's was the semi-circular piazza as the grand approach to the church built by Bernini for Pope Alexander III in 1665-1667.


Château de ChambordA slow awareness to the classical revival in Rome and Greece began to reach France during the end of the 15th century.  The Renaissance influence was introduced by François I (1515-1547) and his courtiers in the grand châteaux being built in the Loire Valley.  François encouraged famous Renaissance artists, sculptors, and painters such as Leonardo da Vinci to settle in France.  He made his Château Fontainebleau a center of this new artistic direction called 'Fontainebleau Style' .

The French sculptor and architect, Philibert de l'Orme, following a trip to Rome, became the driving force behind the Renaissance movement in France and is credited as the architect of Château de Chenonceau over the River Cher in the Loire Valley in 1515 for Thomas Bohier.

Soon after, Château de Chambord, built in 1519 for François I, became known, among other things, for its ingenious double helix staircase which allows descending and ascending persons never to meet, a design credited to Leonardo da Vinci.  Another significant example of Renaissance architecture is the Château Anet built for Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II (1547-1559) who helped develop the Château of the Louvre, the present museum of France's greatest art collection.

The city of Paris, after Henry IV (1589-1610) freed France from all foreign invaders and unified the country, became the showpiece of the era.  The wealthy bourgeois financed the works of François Mansart (identified by the mansard roof) and Louis Le Vau.  Mansart, designed the Val-de-Grace church in Paris in 1642 for Anne of Austria, wife of King Louis XIII.  The young king laid the first stone himself  in 1645.  Mansart also designed the famous lead and gilt dome for the church, and the cupola contains an enormous  fresco by Pierre Mignard.  The six twisted marble columns framing the altar are reminiscent of those by Bernini for St Peter's in Rome.  Mansart is also credited with the design for the Colonnade (façade) of the Louvre for Louis XIV, but more importantly with the Château de Maisons between 1642 and 1648 (now the Maison-Lafitte), praised as the purest example of French classical architecture.  (The Château du Guerinet pictured above is a fine example of the Mansart style and welcomes guests to its chambres d'hôtes so travelers can enjoy it first hand.)

Hôtel des Invalides, Paris
Le Vau, on the other hand, designed the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte not far from Fontainebleau for Nicolas Fouquet in 1661 ~ such a sumptuous palace for the financier of the King that Louis XIV soon became furious and had Fouquet arrested and all his lands confiscated. The interior of the palace is covered in frescoes and filled with sculptures. The decorator, le Brun, included ceilings depicting dancing nymphs and a Roman frieze in the Grande Chambre Carré.  Notable as well were the magnificent gardens designed by Le Nôtre, said to be the finest in the Île de France, and they were complete with fountains, terraces and ornamental lakes.

The completion of the church of the Invalides in Paris was accomplished by the great-nephew of François Mansart, Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1679-1691) and is the final resting place of Napoléon.

Finally, the imposing structure of the Palace at Versailles begun by architect Le Vau for Louis XIV and completed by Hardouin-Mansart who took over in 1678, ended the era of French Renaissance with the introduction of Baroque Architecture.

George Ohanian first visited Europe many decades ago, taking in the 
architecture of France, Italy and Spain, but fell in love with Paris.
We are pleased to also publish his article about Charlemagne's influence
on the architecture of France on page 4 of this newsletter.

[Photos copyright Cold Spring Press 2008.  All rights reserved.]


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