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outer sculptures of a cathedral

The Story of the Medieval Architecture Origins, a Comprehensive Review

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Medieval architecture, known as the styles popular during Dark Ages, takes up about a thousand years of the European history. That is a good half of the two thousand years Europe has undergone after the Birth of Christ, which makes it a defining part of Western History. But why is it called Medieval or Dark Ages? What is it that the medieval architecture is in the middle of? What is so bright before and after, that marks these years as the Dark Ages?

The same blood runs through the Roman-inspired style of Renaissance after Medieval architecture and its precedent in the Classical era. They both regarded reason and inference as the primary source for interpreting the world and building up their ideologies.

This thread was cut off when the Christian Church pushed its own narrative on perceiving the world without tolerating any opposing arguments, while the rational world of ancient Greek or Renaissance were essentially a discourse among opposing thoughts.

a Romanesque style church

But this doesn’t mean people and big thinkers of the era that cradled medieval architecture didn’t have any sense of reasoning or philosophy. Renaissance and the advanced world it has built up until now certainly isn’t apart from what preceded it by architecture in Medieval period.

Reims Cathedral

Quite the opposite actually; Renaissance is the fetus, born out of what needed to last exactly a thousand years to conceive. Big theological thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Francis of Assisi built the theoretical foundation for Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed.

But what started it all? What tipped Europe over the edge?

You’ve heard about Constantine the Great, right? He was one of the biggest Roman emperors if not THE biggest. He was the first one who openly converted to Christianity and favored Christians throughout Eastern and Western Roman Empires for the first time. But why?

In a war that eventually got him to the Roman throne, Constantine laid a siege at Rome that lasted so long, it almost made him give up. But on the night of his withdrawal, he dreamed of someone he believed to be Jesus.

He told Constantine to use Roman Cross emblems on his soldiers’ arms to buy the capital’s heart and have the gates opened for him; a piece of advice he heeded and led to his easy sacking of a city that had endured a two-year-long siege.

the Statue of Constantine the Great

After he became the undisputed Augustus of all the Roman realm in 324 A.D. he appointed a brother-in-law to the Eastern Empire who ruthlessly strong-armed Christians.

Since Constantine had had a new soft spot for Jesus and the Christians, he opposed the act and when his orders were disobeyed, he marched to the eastern city of Byzantium and tossed his own appointed emperor off the throne.

After overthrowing the Christian-hunter, Constantine liked it there in Byzantium. So, he decided to seat his throne in a city he now, in 330 A.D., called Constantinople and later lived on to become the present-day Istanbul in Turkey.

Byzantium would become the center for Byzantine style (Medieval architecture’ dominant version in the East) that lived for over a thousand years right up to the time medieval architecture came to an end in the 15th century.

Constantine rebuilt his new capital to give it a kingly feel by building various churches, forums, and plazas. Through these developments, Byzantine style would soon part ways with the Western Roman Empire that collapsed in the 5th century and gave way to the distinct style of medieval architecture in the west.

Clearly, the source for both architectural styles was the same Roman and Greek design principles and elements. Byzantine architecture though, being flanked by the Near East and Europe, both influenced and captured their decorative and structural elements. It later passed on its treasure to the Renaissance and Ottoman architecture styles.

But we are not done with Constantine yet because after his relocation to Constantinople, he did something else. Late in his life, he dived into a severe depression for killing his first-born son Crispus and his second wife, Fausta, who mothered a twin. Now you might ask “Why the hell did he do that? “

Out of the fear for the fate of her twins, Fausta falsely accused Crispus of rape which led to his banishment by Constantine. Further efforts by Fausta to entirely neutralize Crispus, convinced Constantine to order the execution of his son in exile. But to his remorse, after he found out about his heir’s innocence, he drowned Fausta in an overheated bath.

The depression that haunted Constantine afterward made an opportune time for Christian preachers to chime in and make an effective strike. They relieved the soon-to-be-the-first-Christian emperor with their teachings.

Peterborough cathedral in the UK

Their beliefs intrigued Constantine to conversion, but their sometimes-conflicting notions made him convene all claiming bishops around the realm and call for the First Council of Nicaea.

This is particularly important because Council of Nicaea was where the Pope’s newly-defined role at the top of an unsurprisingly Roman-inspired hierarchy of bishops and priests was first outlined.

Sealed by a forged royal decree called the “Donation of Constantine” that had claimed all the power of the Western Roman Empire was transferred to the Pope by Constantine the Saint (the very guy who had basically boiled his wife to death), the next thousand years or so witnessed the Church’s invincible tyranny over Europe.

That is why the most notable landmarks across Europe that have survived the history of medieval architecture are mostly religious monuments or cathedrals.

Other secular establishments like forts, castles, and bustling cities with walls that created remarkable social life are the other side of medieval architecture’s shiny coin.

To answer the question “What is Medieval Architecture?” though, we are going to skim through the period’s most notable architectural styles that dominated parts of the continent for centuries.

Here they are.

Byzantine Medieval Architecture Style in the East

Two of the most remarkable medieval architecture characteristics in Byzantium are the Greek Cross plans (quite similar to the plus sign) instead of longitudinal plans of cathedrals in Europe that looked like Latin Cross from above, and big domes at the center that wouldn’t be widely used in Europe before Renaissance.

There are other features that separate Byzantine medieval architecture from its predecessors and posterior. They used less stone but more bricks, plaster, and mortar, both in the structure and decoration of their iconic urban and social structures.

Byzantine buildings include seminaries, monasteries, churches, cathedrals, and other secular buildings that haven’t endured the ravage of time to reach us today.

Mosaics were another defining ornamental element that entered buildings in this area. All across the interior, mosaics were widely used instead of stone-carved decorations.

Mosaic work at a Byzantine cathedral

It should be mentioned here that Byzantine Medieval architecture, in general, didn’t spare as much attention to the outer display of its monolithic buildings as it did to the interior. Interior mosaics are just an example.

The exterior of most remained Byzantine churches is crude and rough; despite their breathtaking interior where a swift torrent of light softly pours into the space underneath the dome.

Well, here we should also mention the fact that Byzantine Medieval architecture was particularly fond of directing as much natural light into the building as the structure would allow; a structure that followed rigid Classical orders of the Greek and Roman in a more relaxed manner in the history of medieval architecture.

Back to the primary features of Byzantine architecture in Medieval period, we should realize that the entrance of domes to design, which some believe was around the same time they were used in the Middle East by Persians, was an engineering marvel.

Comparing to the domes in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Persia or the domes in the post-Renaissance period in Europe, the domes of the Byzantine Medieval architecture had a broader base and formed a much shallower curve than their counterparts. They were either supported by thick masonry walls or marble columns.

Hagia Sophia, as the Ultimate example of architecture in medieval period, has seen numerous modifications and extensions over the years; like the four minarets at its corners that were added in the Ottoman era. But the temple’s core, which remains the most defining part till this day, is a collection of arches that roof a rectangular-planned nave and support a huge dome on the top.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

It is one of the ancient jewels from medieval architecture history that remains the main punchline of Istanbul’s skyline, centuries after Constantine first made the construction of churches possible.

A collection of circling arches under the main dome that reaches a whopping 55 meters, pour the natural light and color into the hall. Completed in the 6th century A.D., it features extensive mosaic work under a shallow dome on the top.

This is where the technical prowess of Eastern Medieval architecture speaks eloquently. The use of pendentives, classic arches, and huge masonry pillars to support the domes are a state-of-the-art achievement of architecture in the medieval period.

Hagia Sophia is the culmination of what Constantine the Great started in the city he saw fit for himself.

Romanesque and Gothic Medieval Architecture Styles in the West

Just like how the divine hierarchy of Christianity adopted the Roman Empire’s political organization, history of medieval architecture shows that churches in the west were based on the form of Roman Basilica where various state and social events used to be held.

Almost all Romanesque and Gothic styles (as the two most dominant Medieval architecture movements) have developed Latin Cross plans with an altar on the east which is a symbol for Christ’s second coming, and an entrance on the west side.

Ely cathedral in Ely, UK

Romanesque Medieval architecture can be characterized by their freer use of Roman elements like semi-circular arches, their masonry buttresses, triple piers on the west side, and a central nave flanked by peripheral hallways with cross-planned arches.

After almost six centuries of Romanesque’s reign across Western Europe, from 520 A.D. to 1150 A.D., at the beginning of the 12th century, a style known as “Opus Francigenum” that roughly translates to “French Work”, first emerged in France.

The name Gothic is picked in the Renaissance era and was meant to be critical of the late medieval architecture’s allegedly-barbaric style.

Gothic Medieval architecture’s distinctive signature is flying buttresses that support the central nave and a bright choir space on the east where natural light pours in.

Architects in this particular period were pretty obsessed with light and height. That’s why Gothic cathedrals are the tallest in Europe.

One of the finest examples where you can observe the evolution of styles through the history of medieval architecture, is Ely Cathedral in Ely, United Kingdom.

Ely cathedral

The main nave at the western side of the cathedral dates back to around 1189, where Romanesque arches dominate the scene; but as you walk further toward the eastern side, Gothic elements take over.

For example Gothic medieval architecture’s pointed arches stem out into ribbed structures above; that is the main theme at the Lady Chapel on the northeastern side.

Urban life in Medieval Architecture

a Venetian alley

What is truly fascinating about the cities and particularly urban plazas of medieval architecture is the potential for social interactions in the most seamless way possible.

Centuries of vernacular development, over soil or water all the same, has made the best fabric that perfectly outfits the inhabitants’ everyday life.

That’s the underlying reason for Venice’s innate sense of sociability. That’s why people can choose almost everywhere in the city’s bustling arena to sit, chill, relax, and watch life go by.

How do you feel about medieval architecture and its conspicuous contrast with what came before and after it in history? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.

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