Portuguese Romanesque architecture

The Romanesque style of architecture was introduced in Portugal between the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century. In general, Portuguese cathedrals have a heavy, fortress-like appearance, with crenellations and few decorative elements apart from portals and windows. Portuguese Romanesque cathedrals were later extensively modified, among others the Old Cathedral of Coimbra, although it only had some minor changes.

Chronological and geographical distribution of Romanesque buildings in Portugal are intimately connected with the territorial organization emerging from the Reconquista, being the fundamental reason for the differences between a locally influenced artistical phenomenon in the North of the country and a more “international” kind in buildings like Coimbra and Lisbon Cathedrals. Romanesque architecture first developed in Minho and Douro regions (with Braga Cathedral being its reference) spreading later southwards to Coimbra. It is in the rural areas of the northwest and center regions that Romanesque buildings are more concentrated, being more dense in the margins of rivers Douro and Mondego.

Churches and monasteries
As previously stated, Romanesque architecture style reached Portugal by the end of the 11th century by the hand of Cluniac, Cistercian and Augustinian orders, bringing with them the monastical reforms that were already underway in their countries of origin. Their influence and importance on the spreading of this new art form can be asserted by the large number of churches and monasteries, one of the kind of Romanesque buildings that survived until our days.

The introduction of this new style coincides with the advance of the Reconquista to the south and the development of recent Portuguese independence and its territorial changes, reflecting this war paradigm and the need for defense profoundly engraved in the specific kind of Romanesque art we can find in Portugal: thick and menacing crenelated walls, towers, use of battlements, merlons, narrow slits and decorative austerity, like the church of Travanca Monastery with its heavy tower, the Monastery of Cete, the Church of Airães, São Martinho de Mouros, Paço de Sousa Monastery and the Monastery of Rates, one of the most artistically diverse. Almost every religious building has a fortress-like design because in the absence of castles, churches were always considered the best fortresses.

Therefore, it is not surprising that monastical buildings comprise most of the Romanesque kind, specially in the northern areas of Entre-Douro-e-Minho, Tâmega and Sousa valleys and along the Douro river margins. With a significant rural population dispersed within these regions and organized in villages or concelhos we also find a significant number of parish churches, like São Gens de Boelhe, São Vicente de Sousa, São Pedro de Ferreira or Santa Maria de Cárquere Being very simple and small constructions, it is astonishing how each of them have such an iconographic variety of decorative features, being another unique “indigenous” characteristic of Portuguese Romanesque.

Portuguese Romanesque churches have a longitudinal structure, following the basilical plan common throughout Europe: three aisles, transept and apse with two apsidoles, either semi-circular or square shaped, or just with one single aisle and apse. With semi-circular apse and apsidoles we have the churches of Ganfei, Rates, Pombeiro, São Tiago of Coimbra and Castro de Avelãs. The churches of São Cristóvão de Rio Mau and Santa Eulália de Arnoso, among others, present a square-shape apse and apsidoles.

Most Romanesque monasteries, parish churches and abbey churches in Portugal are aisless halls with a projecting apse at the chancel end, or sometimes, a projecting rectangular chancel with a chancel arch that might be decorated with mouldings. More ambitious churches have aisles separated from the nave by arcades. The apse is lower or at the same height of the nave. Monasteries are usually larger with 3 aisles supported by decorated columns and piers. The walls are of massive thickness with few and comparatively small openings and almost entirely made out of granite stones.

Arcades can occur in storeys or stages. While the arcade of a cloister is typically of a single stage, the arcade that divides the nave and aisles in a church is typically of two stages, with a third stage of window openings known as the clerestory rising above them. Arcading on a large scale generally fulfils a structural purpose, but it is also used, generally on a smaller scale, as a decorative feature, both internally and externally where it is frequently “blind arcading” with only a wall or a narrow passage behind it.

The arches used in Portuguese Romanesque buildings follow the basic European model and are nearly always semicircular, for openings such as doors and windows, for vaults and for arcades. Wide doorways are usually surmounted by a semi-circular arch, except where a door with a lintel is set into a large arched recess and surmounted by a semi-circular lunette with decorative carving. These doors sometimes have a carved central jamb. Narrow doors and small windows might be surmounted by a solid stone lintel. Larger openings are nearly always arched. A characteristic feature of Portuguese Romanesque architecture, both ecclesiastic and domestic, is the pairing of two arcade openings, separated by a pillar or colonette and often set within a larger arch. There were some number of buildings in which pointed arches have been used extensively, apparently for stylistic reasons and it is believed that in these cases there is a direct influence of Mozarabic and/or Islamic architecture. At other late Romanesque churches the pointed arch was introduced as a structural device in ribbed vaulting. Its increasing application was fundamental to the development of Gothic architecture.

Although basically rectangular, piers can often be of highly complex form, with half-segments of large hollow-core columns on the inner surface supporting the arch, or a clustered group of smaller shafts leading into the mouldings of the arch. Piers that occur at the intersection of two large arches, such as those under the crossing of the nave and transept, are commonly cruciform in shape, each arch having its own supporting rectangular pier at right angles to the other. Columns, colonnettes and attached shafts are also used structurally and for decoration. Arcades of columns cut from single pieces are also common in structures that do not bear massive weights of masonry, such as cloisters, where they are sometimes paired.

The majority of buildings have wooden roofs, generally of a simple truss, tie beam or king post form. In the case of trussed rafter roofs, they are sometimes lined with wooden ceilings in three sections like those that survive at the monasteries of Rates or Paço de Sousa. Some others are completely barrel vaulted or a mix between wooden roofs and a vaulted apse. In later stages rib vaulting started to be used as an experiment in main altar roofs.

Romanesque churches generally have a single portal centrally placed on the west front, the focus of decoration for the facade of the building, and both the largest and the smallest, had lateral entrances that were commonly used by worshippers. Doorways have a character form, with the jambs having a series of receding planes, into each of which is set a circular shaft, all surmounted by a continuous abacus.

The semi-circular arch which rises from the abacus has the same serried planes and circular mouldings as the jambs. The arch consists typically of four planes containing three shafts, but there may be as many as twelve shafts, symbolic of the apostles.

The opening of the portal may be arched, or may be set with a lintel supporting a tympanum, generally carved. A carved tympanum generally constitutes the major sculptural work of a Romanesque church. The subject of the carving on a major portal may be Christ in Majesty or the Last Judgement. Lateral doors may include other subjects such as the Birth of Christ. The portal may be protected by a porch, from simple open porches to more elaborate structures. The religious context of the art at the time was well noticeable in the churches carvings, both inside the church as outside. They showed several episodes of the life of saints and various myths and biblical stories. Those that were sculptured specially in the tympanums, capitals and collonettes of the portals can be divided into two major themes:

Representations of apotropaic motifs, such as crosses and esoteric symbols.
Representations of Theophanies or “Maiestas Domini” (Christ in Majesty) such as “Agnus Dei” (the mystical lamb trespassed by a cross) or Christ in mandorla surrounded by prophets, angels and tetramorphs.

The foliate Corinthian style provided the inspiration for many Romanesque capitals, and the accuracy with which they were carved depended very much on the availability of original models, being some much closer to the Classical than others.

The Corinthian capital is essentially round at the bottom where it sits on a circular column and square at the top, where it supports the wall or arch. This form of capital was maintained in the general proportions and outline of the Romanesque capital. This was achieved most simply by cutting a rectangular cube and taking the four lower corners off at an angle so that the block was square at the top, but octagonal at the bottom. This shape lent itself to a wide variety of superficial treatments, sometimes foliate in imitation of the source, but often figurative, without forgetting that the kind of stone used for construction of Romanesque churches in Portugal was mostly granite which made the carving of intricate and sharp details much harder.

It is however in the figurative capitals that the greatest originality is shown. While some are dependent on manuscripts illustrations of Biblical scenes and depictions of beasts and monsters, others are lively scenes of the legends of local saints, all of those with a deep religious meaning and pedagogical objective of teaching the faithful ones about virtues and sins guiding them through the right path.

Another important aspect of the iconography represented in capitals throughout the Portuguese Romanesque buildings are the scenes of daily life or mundane events such as musicians playing instruments, acrobats performing stunts, people dancing. Also, scenes representing the several economical activities of that period like peasants planting crops, farm animals (cows, sheep, goats, horses, etc.), as well as the social medieval hierarchy displaying knights, bishops and peasants each performing specific tasks according to their social positions.

Corbels and Modillions
In Romanesque architecture a corbel is a structural piece of stone jutting from a wall to carry a superincumbent weight, a type of bracket. The technique of corbelling, where rows of corbels deeply keyed inside a wall support a projecting wall or parapet, has been used since Neolithic times. A modillion is an ornate bracket, a corbel, underneath a cornice and supporting it, more elaborate than dentils (literally translated as small teeth), they were carved classically under a Corinthian or a Composite cornice, but may support any type of eaves cornice.

Corbels in Portuguese Romanesque buildings often have an elaborately carved appearance with stylised heads of humans, animals and imaginary “beasts”, or a wide range of motifs, sometimes end with a point apparently growing into the wall, or forming a knot, and often are supported by angels and other figures. In later periods the carved foliage and other ornaments used on corbels resembled those used in the capitals of columns.

Another particular feature of Romanesque buildings are corbel tables, a projecting moulded string course supported by a range of corbels. Sometimes these corbels carry a small arcade under the string course, the arches of which are pointed and trefoiled. As a rule corbel tables carries the gutter, but the arcaded corbel table was also used as a decoration to subdivide the storeys and break up the wall surface. In some buildings corbels will form a moulding, and above a plain piece of projecting wall forming a parapet.

Apses (East ends) and apsidoles
One of the most striking features of a Romanesque church is its apse or “east-end”, a recess covered with a hemispherical vault or semi-dome, also known as an Exedra, applied to a semi-circular or polygonal termination to the choir or aisles of a church at the liturgical east end (where the altar is), regardless of the shape of the roof, which may be flat, sloping, domed, or hemispherical. Apses and apsidoles can be either semi-circular, with or without a high chancel surrounded by an ambulatory, or a square end from which an apse is projected. Apsidoles can be also be found whenever the main altar is surrounded by lateral chapels.

Churches in Portugal have long since followed the Pre-Romanesque kind of simple square-shaped apses typical of Visigothic and Mozarabic periods where east ends reflected the common structural plan of single-aisled churches as the main altar is separated from the nave by a transept or is just the extension of it. This style continued to be popular through the Romanesque and well into Gothic period. Fully Romanesque semi-circular apses started being more widespread in the regions between Douro and Minho in the second quarter of the 12th century (1125-1150), coming from the center region of Coimbra that was more open to foreign novelties as stated above. This kind of so-called “French style” semi-circular apses and apsidoles became more frequent not only in single nave churches, on which case there are no apsidoles, but particularly in three-aisled churches and monasteries built in the second half of the 12th century and during the 13th century.

A cloister (from Latin claustrum, “enclosure”) is a covered walk, open gallery, or open arcade running along the walls of buildings and forming a square or garth. The attachment of a cloister to a cathedral or church, commonly against a warm southern flank, usually indicates that it is (or once was) part of a monastic foundation, forming a continuous and solid architectural barrier that effectively separates the world of the monks from that of the serfs and workmen, whose lives and works went on outside and around the cloister.

Although much of the cloisters in Portuguese churches and cathedrals have been extensively remodelled in later centuries, original Romanesque ones still survived, some almost completely preserved, others in various states of ruin. In contrast to their French counterparts, they often have suffered less modern intervention, and as a result, their current state is more likely to reflect their original arrangement and to preserve more fully the character of the visual imagery found there. Most arcades and masonry walls of the cloister carries simple wooden shed roofs as barrel or groin vaulted ceilings weren’t common or likely didn’t survived into our days. When ribbed vaults were introduced, the columns were articulated by multiple applied shafts, with smaller arcades in the openings to the garth.

Cloisters provided special accommodation for the activities that took place within it: stone benches were used for reading, books were sometimes stored in cupboards or armoires built into the walls. In addition, the cloister often contained a fountain or well, where the monks could wash and draw water to drink. The single, double, and even triple and quadruple capitals of 12th-century cloisters’ columns were carved with foliate forms derived from the Classical period, such as vine scrolls and acanthus leaves, real and imaginary animals in combat or in heraldic positions, secular images such as musicians, entertainers, hunters, saints’ lives and biblical events. Piers bore narrative scenes or relief figures of apostles or saints.

Cistercian Romanesque
The Cistercian Romanesque architecture reflected the austerity and sobriety characteristic of that monastical Order in their quest for a mistic and spiritual goal preached by their leader and mentor Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. In Portugal, besides a Cistercian Gothic-featured architecture (in which the Alcobaça Monastery is a universal symbol), there is a previous Romanesque style expressed by the Abbeys of Tarouca (construction started in 1144, the year of Cistercian monks arrival in Portugal), Salzedas (started in 1152) and Fiães (started in 1163).

In the architecture of Cistercian churches the transept is usually quite wide and the lateral aisles are covered with groined vaults that help to sustain the longitudinal central nave. There is a clear preference for square-shaped apses, more simple and economical to build. The columns and piers supporting pointed-arched arcades (already a proto-Gothic feature), have big strong capitals and stand on rectangular blocks on the ground floor. Although Tarouca Abbey was clearly inspired in the Burgundian abbeys of Clairvaux and Fontenay and Salzedas still have some similarities with Fontfroide, their authentic and magnificent Cistercian architectural features are mixed with local Portuguese decorative motifs.

Some of smaller churches were also influenced by Cistercian Romanesque, like the vault of São Martinho de Mouros that shows the influx of Tarouca’s abbey central nave vault and the exterior capitals in the main altar of Armamar church are significantly influenced by the outlayer of Salzedas abbey.

Civil and military architecture

Domus Municipalis (Town hall) of Bragança
The Domus Municipalis (Latin: municipal house) is a Romanesque building in the northeastern municipality of Bragança. Its exact function, name and construction date have been the onset of much debate and controversy, even after many researches during the 20th century: first it was believed it could have been the city’s Municipal house (Portuguese: “Casa da Câmara”), place of public meetings and a symbol of people’s local government through their representatives, but more recent findings have presented basis for a theory that it could have served as cistern, but there are still doubts if that was its primary function.

This singular (and enigmatic) building of Romanesque civic architecture also presents challenges in its dating construction. An initial thesis stated that by its design and decorative features it could have been built as early as the 10th or 11th century, but a closer look actually tells us that was, most likely, built in the first half of the 13th century. Also, a deeper research showed that the existing building might be the result of two different dating constructions, with an older cistern on its lower floor and a meeting room built on top, using the already existing structure. Doubts about its real function arouse from a document of 1501 in which the author (according to the published writings of the Abbot of Baçal (1865-1947)) referred to the local record of Martim Anes (1185-1254) who spoke of the construction of the Domus upper level during his lifetime. In this account he stated that it was used as a meeting place for the “good men” of the municipality.

There is another document from 1503 referring to the building as both a Sala da Água (English: Water-room) and a place where the town representatives gathered to discuss and sign contracts, therefore, it should not be surprising if this supposed double-function turns out to be correct. Its construction date also becomes more clear in face of this facts, art-historian Carlos Alberto Ferreira de Almeida noted that by its medallions, the diamond-shaped openings and the layout of windows we can date the upper level by the end of the 13th century or beginning of the 14th century, in which its already archaic Romanesque architectural style can be explained with the need of a compromise with the pre-existent cistern.

Located near the Castle’s courtyard alongside the Church of Santa Maria, the structure is based on a multi-level irregular pentagon, constructed of rounded granite blocks and held together by mortar, with a barrel vaulted wooden roof supported by three arches and covered by tiles. Its floor-plan is slightly steeped and a natural water fountain was found in the Northwest corner at a low depth.

Towers and fortified houses
In sharp contrast to the reality throughout most of Europe, there are still some examples of Portuguese Romanesque civil architecture that survived to our days, specially the fortified noble residences or Domus Fortis (in Portuguese:”Casa-Torre”). Most are no longer more than single towers that stand out from more modern constructions carried out in the house that surrounds them, and many were remodelled in later Gothic and Renaissance styles, but their Romanesque features are still very much visible. These noble fortified manors were built within, or in the periphery, of feudal lands (Coutos or Honras), among agricultural fertile valleys. We can also find them in neighbouring areas of forests or mountain ranges where nobility could control new farm lands outside more occupied regions in which the purchase of new lands and titles was more difficult.

Among those we have the manors and towers of Vilar (Penafiel), Pousada (Guimarães), Dornelas in Braga, Oriz (Vila Verde), Lourosa do Campo (Arouca) and Quintela (Vila Real). In northern Portugal there were two kinds of fortified houses during the Middle Ages: the Manor house and the Domus Fortis. The manor house, associated with high and middle nobility, doesn’t follow an architectural frame but are rather a cluster of different autonomous buildings, as opposite with the “Domus Fortis” that follows a specific kind of fortified structure which was originated by the last quarter of the 11th century becoming extensively widespread by the late 12th century and through the 13th and 14th centuries. This kind of model was adopted by the smaller ranks of nobility in search of social ascension in a way of displaying to local communities their newly acquired power.

The Domus Fortis is composed by several divisions:

– The most important being the Tower, of square plan (round ones were rare in Portugal), fortifying the house and offering protection to their owners and respective servants in case of need. It was built with four levels, each corresponding to a single division. Just like a keep tower in castles, the main gate was accessed by the first floor rather than the ground floor. This ground floor was the reception and living room, as the upper floors were destined for private chambers.

– A “domus fortis” also had a separate building coupled with or close to the tower, with rectangular plan and two floors. Those were usually the servants area and accommodations.

– In some cases is reported the existence of a private chapel like in Vasconcelos Tower-house. Also other individual structures, like kitchens, were built close to water springs or small streams. No remains are left from these buildings although their existence if fully documented.

Most of tower-houses were built in northern and central regions of Portugal that belonged to feudal areas. Some were progressively restored in later centuries reflecting more modern Renaissance and Baroque styles: like Aguiã, Refoios, Gomariz, Castro, Faralães and Barbosa Tower-Houses. In other cases their towers were separated from the main building like Silva, Quintela, Oriz and Penegate Towers, among others.

Construction activity of bridges during the Middle Ages is directly related to the need of restoring the old Roman road system that was already obsolete, in order to develop new connections and boost trading. Since the end of the 11th century that need was so urgent that building bridges and restoring the paveways were activities that started to be considered as pious. São Gonçalo of Amarante and São Lourenço Mendes, sponsors of the construction of Amarante and Cavês bridges, respectively, were called saints by popular acclamation, such as Saint Benizet of Avignon (France) or Sán Domingos da Calçada (La Rioja (Spain)), showing how much this phenomenon of bridge and road construction were considered extremely important elsewhere in Europe.

In the will of monarchs, noblemen and clergymen there are many references to donations for building bridges, King D.Afonso Henriques (1109-1185) himself contributed to the construction of Coimbra, Ave and Piares (Douro river) bridges. The stonemasons of the Romanesque period were more careful about the structural design and maintenance of bridges than their previous Roman counterparts, and looked for more solid grounds to build them, and because of that, according to Carlos Alberto Ferreira de Almeida, medieval bridges resisted better against the danger of floodings and the test of time.

Romanesque bridges present large arches whose height had to be balanced with the use of abutments at each end by transferring the weight of the bridge and its loads partially into a horizontal thrust restrained by the abutments at either side. Bridge builders also improved on the Roman structures by using narrower piers, thinner arch barrels and lower span-rise ratios. Examples of these are the bridges of Lagoncinha (12th century), over the Ave River, with six arches, Prado bridge over the Cávado River (11th century), with nine arches and Cavês bridge over the Tâmega River (13th century).

Bridge building deeply shaped the Portuguese medieval landscape. Among the Romanesque civil architecture and by the economical and technical means used for their construction, the building of bridges had the most impact in everyday life, benefiting communication between people.

In Portugal, castles are directly related with military needs and the state of continuous warfare characterised by the Reconquista. Populations living closer of the border between Christians and Muslims were under threat of constant raids and the advance of either sides in pursue of territorial conquest. The region more precociously fortified was the area south of the Douro river, where in the 10th century almost all the population centers had their castle. The majority of these defensive positions, the rural castles, were of very simple structure and took advantage of natural conditions such as high places with granite outcrops, that made access difficult. During the next three centuries (10th to 13th centuries) we witness a boom of castles due to the ever growing necessity to provide a territorial passive defense.

The strength of a Romanesque castle sits in the thickness and height of its walls in order to resist sieges. The Allure or round-path (Portuguese: Adarve) was intertwinned with towers in order to break continuous cloths of wall and in the 12th century other outer sets of walls were built next to castles themselves to shelter populations and cattle as attested in the Castle of Castro Laboreiro.

The Romanesque castle testifies to the triumph of rural nobility and is also the symbol of a territory’s safety. During this period it consisted of a wall with allures, battlements and a central tower: the Keep, symbol of feudal power, and the biggest innovation to the fortress. This element has its origins in the domus fortis, the strengthened noble residence.

Between the North and the South of Portugal, particularly in the regions defined by the margins of the Mondego and Tejo Rivers, there are notable differences in military structures. In the North castles have a more basic structure and are very tied to fortifications typified in pre-Romanesque era. Going southwards castles display more advanced techniques in the field of military architecture. The strategic area was then concentrated on the border with the Moors where the Military Orders would play a key role. In the North we can find the castles of Lanhoso, Castro Laboreiro, Lindoso, Melgaço, Arnoia, Pena de Aguiar, Trancoso, Vilar Maior, and the most outstanding Guimarães Castle. This fortress, documented since around 950 AD, had undergone restoration works during the reign of D.Afonso Henriques and later changes in its layout in the Gothic period.

Built under the tenure of Gualdim Pais as Master of the Knights Templar (1157-1195), the castles of Pombal (c.1156), Tomar (1160), Monsanto (1165), Penas Roias (1166), Almourol (1171) and Longroiva (1174) demonstrate the importance of the Templars in the development of Portuguese military architecture during the second half of the 12th century. The first document stating the Knights Templar presence in Portugal dates back to 1128, when Queen D.Teresa donated them the castle of Soure. Its keep, built on the north side of the fortress, retains a distinctive feature: the Alambor, a reinforced base for the tower using a stone-slanted ramp. This solution gives it greater strength and makes an assault on its walls harder to accomplish. This feature can also be seen in the Keep of Pombal Castle.

At Tomar Castle, headquarters of the Order in Portugal, the alambor was built along the outer walls of the fortification. With origins in the military architecture developed by the Crusaders in the Holy Land, this constructive technique was used in the castle of Saône and the Krak des Chevaliers, both located in Syria, where Gualdim Pais was stationed between 1151 and 1156. It owns to the Templar Order some of the most innovative solutions that the Portuguese military architecture met throughout the 12th century.

Transition to Gothic architecture
The arrival of the Cistercians in Portugal after 1142 coincided with the first steps on the development of the new Gothic artistical style in France. Those initial Gothic features (pointed arch, taller and slimmer columns, groin and rib vaults, flying buttresses and more windows), although still with much Romanesque flavour, were implemented in Cistercian abbeys as they matched the exact kind of austere and ascetic teachings preached by their leader and mentor Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Thus, in Portugal, the strong presence and popularity of Romanesque until later centuries meant that this decorative and architectural Cistercian model was the perfect basis for the slow change into Gothic style, without never completely cutting off with the previous Romanesque. Instead, these two styles merged in Portuguese architecture like nowhere else in Europe within a specific kind called Mendicant Gothic, typical of monastic buildings. Alcobaça, one of the biggest Cistercian abbeys in the world, is the first fully Gothic building in Portugal, but it still has a heavy and austere exterior appearance, only balanced by its tall and massive rib vaulted central nave and aisles. Churches like Santa Maria dos Olivais in Tomar, or São João de Alporão in Santarém are perfect examples of this Mendicant transitional period between the Romanesque and the definitive settle of Gothic style, which would only be a reality by the 14th and 15th centuries.

Évora Cathedral is another example of Romanesque/Gothic transition, combining both in a single monument. Built between 1186 and 1204 (but only fully completed by 1250) with a clear Romanesque outlook, it was again enlarged circa 1280-1340, this time in early Gothic style. The cathedral received several valuable additions through time, such as the cloisters (Gothic period – 14th century), or its zimborium (dome), built in the late 13th century and another addition already showing the new Gothic features.

Romanesque never truly ceased to be expressed in various ways both decorative and structural until as late as the 16th century, thus most historians name it as Resistance Romanesque, referring to a specific kind of buildings that present a very marked statement of this period even if mixed with later artistical styles (Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance). Some examples of those are the Churches of Caminha, (built in the late 15th century), Torre de Moncorvo (built in the early 16th century), and the Cathedral of Viana do Castelo (also from the 15th century).

Source From Wikipedia