German Romanesque

During the Romanesque period, Germania occupied a prominent place among the European nations. The Germanic emperors, successors of Charlemagne, had always intended to restore the Carolingian Empire and with the help of the Ghibellines often invaded Italy, Rome, and even settled in southern Italy.

The church of St. Cyriakus in Gernrode (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany) built ca. 960-965. Below, the interior of the church.

However, the main characteristic of the Germanic Romanesque school was the persistence of Carolingian forms and styles. All the types typical of the Carolingian construction were repeated in Romanesque Germany. Certain basilica-type churches were abundant during the German Romanesque. These churches were covered with a flat painted wooden roof and the naves were divided by rows of columns with capitals trying to imitate the classical models but with a clear barbarian style. The shaft of the columns was made in one block of stone, as they were sometimes in antiquity, but builders did not dare to support the arches of dividing walls on such isolated columns only, so they alternated them, two by two, with square pillars to which they attributed having greater resistance than the cylindrical shafts. This alternation in the architectural layout of pillars and columns was first used in the church of St. Cyriakus of Gernrode (from 961) and is a key feature of the German Romanesque.

The Church of St. Michael in Hildesheim, Germany. Below, its interior.

Many German Romanesque churches have two apses, one at each end of the central nave, a traditional layout since Roman times as it was already used in the Basilica Ulpia in Trajan’s Forum. Sometimes in the circular wall of the apses there are apsidioles* (or small apses); sometimes there are also apses built on the crossing. However, the particular feature of these two faced major apses, one at each end of the building, forced to arrange two transepts for each one of these two apses in order to give symmetry to the church. When an ambulatory was added around one of these major apses, this one was characterized as the sanctuary per se, while the other apse located at the opposite end was reserved to the choir. The most typical examples of these Germanic basilicas of Carolingian tradition are the two big churches of St. Michael and St. Godehard, in Hildesheim.

The church of St. Godehard in Hildesheim, Germany. Below, its floor plan and the interior view.

The church of St. Michael at Hildesheim has three naves with its columns combined with pillars and two opposed apses with two transepts; it was started in 1001, although it was not completed until 1033. The most interesting feature of this church is the role played by the two crossings. Both crossings are demarcated on the outside by two towers crowning them. Their square surface was used as a measurement unit for the central nave comprising a length which corresponds exactly to the area of three of these crossings arranged one after the other. This succession of three squares (crossings) is very noticeable in the central nave, because its angles are indicated by square pillars, while its sides are occupied by the columns supporting the arches. This feature of alternating a pillar every two columns seems to be inspired by the dactyl rhythm or foot (–∪∪) of the Latin classical poetry. The two churches of Hildesheim were covered with the traditional flat roof; the beams and corbels were polychromed and the apses were covered with frescoes.

The church at Germigny-des-Prés, a commune in the Loiret department of north-central France. Below, its interior.

Although during the first period of the German Romanesque style the types of Carolingian basilica were repeated, there was also a whole new group of churches with concentrated floor plans, which means that their floor plans were completely inscribed inside a square or a circle. This disposition corresponded to other type of building characteristic of the Carolingian but that no longer had a basilica floor plan, as an example is the church of Theodulf in Germigny-des-Prés.

But the most important works of the German Romanesque architecture are the three Rhenish cathedrals of Speyer, Mainz and Worms. The Cathedral of Speyer was started in 1030 or shortly thereafter by order of Conrad II. The vast central nave is separated from the aisles by twelve powerful pillars on each side. The crypt, which served as a royal pantheon, not only occupies the apse but also the transept’s basement. The building was completed by the year 1060. At first covered with wood, it was later covered with a stone vault in 1090 by order of Emperor Henry IV and remained like that until the wars with France during the seventeenth century, when the temple burnt down, leaving as a result very little of its original ceiling. On the outside it is characterized by large square towers occupying the ends of the transept, while the facade walls are topped with galleries or outdoor triforia forming a kind of crowning for the building.

The Speyer Cathedral, officially the Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St. Stephen (Speyer, Germany). Below, a view of its interior.

The Cathedral of Mainz was erected in the tenth century by Bishop Willigis, but burned the day of its consecration in 1009 and the subsequent reconstruction of the church, mostly carried out by bishop Bardo (first half of XI century) was not completed until mid-twelfth century with an original structure of Carolingian type. It has the typical arrangement with two faced apses, a high octagonal tower on the crossing and four towers crowning the ends of the naves which produce an incomparable effect of majesty and grandeur.

The Mainz Cathedral or St. Martin’s Cathedral (city of Mainz, Germany). Below, its interior.

The Cathedral of Worms also has double apse, on the two crossings two large octagonal lanterns rise and the 4 naves are crowned at their ends with circular towers. Its consecration was ca. 1181, but has the same arrangement of pillars and the same sober decoration of the Speyer and Mainz cathedrals demonstrating that German Romanesque architects thought especially to impress the congregation minds with the outer sight of towers and lanterns that gave the temple the appearance of a “Castle of God”. However, because of the extreme symmetry given by the disposition of the two faced apses, this type of churches caused a monotonous effect. They really lacked a proper facade and people had to go inside them by the lateral doors and once inside, the viewer experienced rare confusion thanks to the presence of the two apses both with its own transept as if each one of them was itself a sanctuary. There is no doubt that the regular plan of a Latin basilica with a flat facade, a central nave with crossing or not, and an apse at the far end has a number of elements in progressive fashion and therefore has an aesthetic character with much more logic for the purpose of the cult than that of the German Romanesque basilicas with two opposing apses at the ends of the same nave.

The St Peter’s Dom or Worms cathedral in Worms, southern Germany. Below, a view of the interior.

The same complicated disposition with two apses and two transepts all externalized with high lanterns and towers is seen in the abbey church of St. Maria Laach begun in 1093 and consecrated in 1156. The church of Laach is much more smaller than the great imperial cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, but like them has six towers, four at the nave’s ends and two, square and bigger, on top of the crossings. It is preceded by a kind of atrium in which the eastern apse is projected.

The Maria Laach Abbey in the southwestern shore of the Laacher See (Lake Laach), near Andernach, in the Eifel region of the Rhineland-Palatinate (Germany). Below, its interior.

Cologne, the German holy city of the Rhine with its many churches, also has some Romanesque monuments from around the year 1000. The church of Santa Maria im Kapitol, from around 1040, presents a more complicated floor plan than those of the Rhenish cathedrals: the apse is trefoil*, with three semicircles with ambulatory serving as buttresses for the central lantern. Because of this unique tri-apsidal structure it has been assumed that the design of this church derives from a Roman or French model. Anyway, this trefoil apse became popular, and this same arrangement of apses forming a cloverleaf was imitated in Cologne in the churches of St. Martin and the Holy Apostles from 1200. In these churches the central nave ends in three apses externally gathered by towers holding the same decor, which produces a picturesque perspective. The frieze and arch gallery at the top of the building give it certain unity among the apparent “movement” produced by the layout of the facades.

The church of St. Maria im Kapitol (St. Mary’s in the Capitol) (Cologne, Germany). Below, an aerial view showcasing its trefoil apse and an interior view of the church.

The peculiar Rhenish Romanesque, full of Carolingian traditions as well as original elements, had to be replaced by the French style brought by the monks of Cluny, introduced in Germany by abbot Popone di Stablo, who jealously propagated it from his powerful convent of Hirsau. From this very moment begun to disappear the type of basilicas with flat roofs, large monolithic pillars and faced apses, and in turn were replaced by churches with simpler floor plans covered with vaults typical of the monasteries built by the monks of Cluny, a style that will be discuss in a later essay.

Above, the Great Saint Martin Church in Cologne, Germany. Below, a view of the interior.

The Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Cologne (Germany). Below, its interior.

The Italian influence was very strong in southern Germany, particularly in some of the territories that later became part of Austria. But styles coming from the neighbor Italy, the exterior decoration with friezes, arcades and vertical strips so characteristic of the Lombard style, is also well discernible on the facades and towers of the Rhenish cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, and in the church of Laach.


Apsidiole: A small or secondary apse, one of the apses on either side of the main apse in a triapsidal church, or one of the apse-chapels when they project on the exterior of the church, particularly if the projection resembles an apse in shape.



Trefoil apse: An apse reproducing a clover pattern.