From Romanesque to Gothic

From Romanesque to Gothic

Two different styles in the same century

The different parts of the Vézelay basilica, such as it stands today, were all built in the 12th century but not entirely in the Romanesque style.

While the narthex and the nave are considered to be masterpieces of the Romanesque architecture, the basilica also includes a vast Gothic choir.

At the time when the Vézelay choir was  being built, the choir of Saint Denis in Paris was not completed yet and the Cathedral of Sens was still under construction.

At that date –1185- the new Gothic style had just begun to develop in the Ile-de-France region. None of the great cathedrals representing the triumph of Gothic architecture had been erected.

Romanesque features

Ca. 1145 the three bays of the narthex were added to the Romanesque nave that had been built between 1120 and 1140. They were as it were stuck to its façade.

The nave and the narthex have many features in common and even if some pointed arches are to be found, they cannot be considered as Gothic features. At that time Gothic architecture was still in limbo.

The architecture as well as the decoration of the nave and narthex are very similar. There is no doubt a great deal of continuity in style between the two parts.

Gothic innovation

The same does not apply to the choir which was also built in the 12th century – end of the century, in 1185 more precisely- to replace a Romanesque choir.

We do not know exactly why the Romanesque choir was replaced but it was certainly not due to an accident. There is no mention in the chronicles of the time of any event (a fire, for example) that might have justified such a reconstruction.

It was, no doubt, a bold initiative since the builders had practically no experience whatsoever of  the new technique but they found it appealing and dared to use it in a church that was visited by numerous pilgrims and where monks regularly celebrated monastic offices.

The problem of supporting heavy vaults

The masons who had built the Vézelay nave had already innovated, taking risks in that they had used groin vaulting despite the great height and width of the nave while groin vaulting  was usually used only for the smaller side aisles at the time.

Groin vaulting made it possible to have thinner walls and provided the opportunity for clerestory windows that in Vézelay are larger than in most Romanesque churches.

However, transferring the weight and the thrust of the vault to the angles of each vaulted bay did not entirely solve what had been a recurring problem for Romanesque builders, i.e. how to support heavy stone vaults (40 tons per bay here in Vézelay).

At the time of the construction the builders had the idea of using chains directly below the capitals at the bases of the roof arches as a structural tie to keep the lower ends of the arches from spreading. Some of the hooks can still be seen in the masonry.

Flying buttresses supporting the walls from the outside came later.

A technical solution

The solution was later provided by the Gothic builders, following  the same logic but using a radically different technique, i.e. ribbed vaulting and the introduction of pointed arch ribs.

Not only did this technique solve the delicate problem of thrusts, it also put an end to the necessity of having thick walls to support the heavy stone vaults, which made it possible to have wide openings and let in more light.

With pointed arches in a rib vault it is the ribs that are the structural members supporting the vault, the arches being supported on pillars.

More space becomes available. The massive structures of the Romanesque architecture can be replaced by the vertical lines of clustered columns.

Romanesque and Gothic: two different worlds in the same place

With the development of Gothic techniques, the materially solid, earthly nature of Romanesque architecture with its experimental aspects was  replaced by an aerial, intellectual, mathematical construction; the evocative character of Romanesque sculpture was replaced by the veiled symbolism of the scholastic period; the art forms developed both by the monks and the people were replaced by the art of the scholars and the master craftsmen.

However, at the end of the 12th century, the monks in Vézelay were bold enough to choose to build a Gothic choir. They wanted to complete their sanctuary by giving it the additional light and the vertical plenitude that only Gothic techniques could bring.

By so doing they gave a pilgrimage church its full meaning, the choir being the final step of the pilgrimage.

At the same time, by choosing to juxtapose Romanesque and Gothic styles,  they made of the Burgundian hill of Vézelay a privileged witness to the change of era, of mentality, of spirituality and of culture that occurred during that period.