Majestic medieval churches ascended along Christian pilgrims' paths

People and wealth moved along the pilgrimage routes of Europe, sparking the building of Romanesque churches to welcome travelers and house holy relics.

The eight-sided bell tower of the Basilica of Saint-Sernin soars over Toulouse, France. The spire and higher stories were added in the 13th and 14th centuries. Built of stone in the monumental Romanesque style, Saint- Sernin is faced with mellow brick, a local feature of Toulouse architecture.
Jacques Sierpinski/Cordon Press

Christian Europe experienced an upsurge in confidence in the 11th century. In 1095 Pope Urban II rejuvenated the church by launching the successful First Crusade to wrest the Holy Land from Islam. All over Europe, Christians were traveling to sites on pilgrimages to view holy relics and sacred objects. These journeys were growing in popularity, as they disseminated people, ideas, and money from place to place.

Borne along on the tide of these changes, a new architectural style was spreading across Europe. Cladding the Christian lands with “a white mantle of churches,” in the words of the 11th-century Cluniac monk Radulfus Glaber, similar building traits could be seen along these pilgrimage paths. Characterized by rounded arches, sturdy stone columns, and ornate carvings depicting biblical stories, this new style was dubbed “Romanesque” by later historians. It was not Roman in the classical or pagan sense but in the architectural. It used the concept of a Roman basilica as a foundation. These buildings’ structure and ornamentation reflected an idea of Roman monumentality, but these new sacred spaces were Christian, reflecting the spread of this faith across Europe. (Discover these extraordinary European cathedrals.)

The popularity of pilgrimages was a key factor in the spread, and uniformity, of the Romanesque style. To travel to Jerusalem was far too difficult for most pilgrims. A European destination was much more realistic. One that gained widespread popularity in the 11th century was the shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain. (Learn about the centuries-old pilgrimage path of Camino de Santiago.)

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