Medieval Architecture

1 January 2017

The Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval era, though scarred with a history of violence and war, has given the world some of the most marvelous and beautiful pieces of art, particularly in architecture. The Middle Ages is the name given to the time period from the late 5th century to the 15th century, particular to European history. The construction of these types of buildings was a constant for various cultures for a thousand years. They can be categorized into three phases; Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque and Gothic.

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The most important buildings during medieval times were religious, defensive and governmental or power related. Figure 1 – Sarcophagus of Abbess Theodechilde in the Abbey of Jouarre. The Pre-Romanesque era started, arguably, with the Merovingian Dynasty of the Franks. Some say that not much was gained, from an architectural point of view, during the rule of the Franks but I believe there are a couple of points worth making. The Merovingian rule lasted from the 5th century, after the fall of the Roman Empire, to the late 8th century. Most of their buildings followed after the Roman basilica style.

The Franks, due to religious beliefs, pushed the building of monasteries and included crypts within their structures. (see figure 1) Although there were many monasteries built with crypts, only five remain intact today. One of the noteworthy aspects of Merovingian architecture was that they are credited with being the first to build raised reliquaries of the saint within their monasteries, located behind the altar. Figure 3 – The 9th century Torhalle, or gatehouse, at the Lorsch Abbey in Germany. Figure 2 – Exterior of Corvey Abbey, showing the Westwork.

The Carolingian Dynasty, which some say is where Pre-Romanesque architecture began, reigned from the late 8th century into the 10th century. Also deriving from a Frankish noble family, the Carolingians are credited with a couple of key designs that carry forward into the Romanesque and Gothic phases of architecture. The westwork, which was basically the west facing side of the church consisting of two towers with several stories between them, was probably the most significant change in architectural design for churches during the Pre-Romanesque time period. The first church to incorporate this new style was the St.

Riquier Abbey completed in 799. The plan included equal emphasis on both the east and west ends, including a complex west facade. This church was later destroyed but the westwork was to be repeated in many Carolingian churches and passed on to Ottonian and Romanesque architecture. The oldest standing example today of this style is the Corvey Abbey built in the late 9th century. (see figure 2) Another piece of the Carolingian architecture is the Torhalle, or gatehouse, built at Lorsch. This gatehouse, built around 800, stands today in perfect condition. (see figure 3) It was built as the formal entrance to the Lorsch Abbey.

And though it is small in comparison to the many other buildings at the time, it remains the oldest monument of the Carolingian era. Figure 4 – The Gloucester Cathedral in England. The Romanesque era is where we see a dramatic change in architectural style as well as an increase in the amount of building that takes place. The Romanesque period doesn’t have an exact date range, but most tend to agree that it existed from roughly the 9th century to the 12th century. Although churches remain the number one built structure in the time, we do see a large increase in the number of castles being built.

There are many characteristics of Romanesque architecture. New building ideas and techniques were introduced, such as stone vault ceilings, buttresses, semicircular arches as well as barrel, groin and ribbed vaults. As new designs were added, the need for stronger supports systems resulted in massive double shelled walls, large piers and drum columns. (see figure 4) The Romanesque period is known for massive structures and elaborate designs. From this we see a noticeable increase in the skill of the masons during this time as the stone work displays an obvious increase in precision and engineering.

Much of the architecture in the Romanesque era evolved into Gothic architecture. The Gothic era ran from the 12th century into the 16th century. There wasn’t necessarily a clean break from Romanesque to Gothic styles of architecture, but rather a gradual shift in design. The main characteristics of Gothic architecture are the pointed ribbed vaults and arches, flying buttresses and, in place of solid walls, a cluster of columns. Due to the vertical emphasis of the design, the archways could be redesigned and stretched or pointed.

Four main Figure 5 – The depressed arch supported by fan vaulting at King’s College Chapel, England. ypes of arch designs that are commonly found within Gothic architecture are the lancet arch, which is simply a steeply pointed arch, the equilateral arch, the flamboyant arch and the depressed arch as seen in the King’s College Chapel. (see figure 5) Due to the new design of supporting the weight of the ceiling through the columns and flying buttresses, there was no need for walls made of heavy materials. With all the columns and archways in place, the structure took on a skeletal look. This gave way to expanding the once small openings for windows to an expanse of window space providing plenty of light to the interior of the structure.

This space was commonly filled with stained glass. From this, stained glass flourished as an art work to be an essential part of many of the churches in the medieval time. Castles are a huge part of Medieval times and started to grew in number and size during the Romanesque and Gothic eras. The castles were massive and built primarily for defensive purposes. However, some were designed to convey messages of wealth, power and respect as well as fear and domination. Besides a military need, castles were used for administrative purposes as well as a residence.

Typical castle residents consisted of the castle’s owner, his family and his military and administrative support staff. Castles were generally made from local materials of stone and wood as well as recycled materials, like Roman bricks and marble. There are, of course, exceptions to this depending on how much money and/or power the person building the castle had. For example, William the Conqueror had the White Tower of The Tower of London built from Caen stone, imported from France. (see figure 6) Figure 6 – The White Tower of the Tower of London.

Castles come in all different shapes, sizes and designs depending on the materials available as well as the terrain chosen to build on. Some of the common characteristics of castles are; the motte – an earthen mound created with a flat top for the castle to be built upon; the moat – a large ditch around the castle, typically filled with water; the bailey – fortification that surrounds the keep; the keep – the actual residence of the lord in charge and the most strongly defended part of the castle; the gatehouse – the entrance to the castle; and the curtain wall – a large defensive wall, typically between two bastions.

Castle construction would depend on the materials chosen for the building. Earth and timber castles were less expensive to build but could be constructed in most locations due to plentiful resources and most skilled workers had wood working skills. Stone castles cost much more, take longer to complete and require higher skilled masons, and many of them. Not to mention that the location was often relative to the location of the rock quarry. Naturally, stone castles were many times stronger than ones made from timber and, in the eyes of many, were worth the extra cost and time.

Depending on the lord in charge and the primary reason for building the castle, the architectural design didn’t stop with just the construction of the building. Many castles maintained beautiful landscapes to compliment their architectural master piece. As seen in figure 7, landscapes play an important role in the overall allure of the entire estate. This particular landscape for the Leeds Castle in England has been maintained since the 13th century. Figure 7 – Panoramic view of the Leeds Castle in England.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the key to the many successful pieces of architecture has been the architect. Of course they were not called architects back then, instead they were simply called masons. Often time there were many masons working together on one project. The mason in charge of the design and construction was sometimes referred to as the master mason. Prior to the 13th century, most masons were trained on the job site. From the 13th century onward, the masons took on apprentices and training became more formalized.

The masons maintained a constant presence on the job site in smaller structures attached to the building project called lodges. They would store their tools, eat their meals and perform all their inside type work within their lodge. Masonry was one of the few crafts that did not form into a trade guild prior to the 14th century. In later centuries, the masons and their lodge became what we know today as the Freemasons. Architectural design and innovation was not protected and masons often borrowed ideas from one another.

In the 14th century, masons were sent to study the design incorporated with the Chateau de Mehun-sur-Yevre in France. This structure was destroyed in the 18th century. Figure 8 shows the ruins today and figure 9 shows what the chateau would have looked like. Figure 9 – Artist rendition of what the Chateau de Mehun-sur-Yevre in France may have looked like. Figure 8 – Current day Chateau de Mehun-sur-Yevre in France. During the estimated thousand years of the Middle Ages, and what we know of it, it is quite evident that architecture played an important part of each society.

In religions, in governments and in noble families, the physical structure of the building was just as important to the people as were the traditions and work carried out within. Architecture was not merely a necessary profession but it was a desired form of art work and we are fortunate that so many of these master pieces have been left for us to study and admire.

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