To a percipient observer of Europe in the eleventh century, it might have seemed that the Kingdom of Germany was poised to become the dominant power in Europe. By all the indicators of economic development, demography and governance, the region was outpacing other embryonic nation states.
Such a view would have been lent weight by a survey of the construction industry. Not only was the number of projects remarkable, but some of the most ambitious and innovative architecture in Europe was being created in the German lands, especially in the Rhineland. Wealthy abbeys, burgeoning cities and ambitious princes and emperors were instigating buildings of unprecedented size and magnificence.
Romanesque architecture is distinguished by massiveness of construction and noble simplicity of form, but these characteristics often mask a high degree of structural adventurousness and very considerable sophistication of design, symbolism and iconography. Nowhere was this more so than in Germany, where many churches have high towers and spires, complex ground plans and evidence of bold experiments in engineering. So keen were German builders to develop the full potential of round-arched architecture that they were not attracted to the new forms and techniques of Gothic until well into the thirteenth century, nearly a hundred years after their appearance in France.
A subsidiary theme of the tour – and an essential prelude to Romanesque – is the art and architecture of the Carolingian era. By the time of his death in AD 814, Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Roman Emperor, had amassed territory that stretched from the Atlantic to Bohemia, and from the Baltic Sea to Central Italy.
Charlemagne had a passionate interest in the culture and institutions of ancient Rome and his belief that he was reviving the Roman Empire found expression in his attempts to emulate its literature and art. The Dark Ages soon closed in again on the Carolingian Empire and its visible remains are few but fascinating. The Ottonian revival of the Empire a century later was a more immediate precursor of Romanesque.
The Rhine with its tributary the Mosel was the busiest river in mediaeval Europe, a major highway for people, goods and ideas, and a source of wealth for both cities and feudal lords. The abundance of Romanesque architecture in the region is matched by its variety, and in museums and cathedral treasuries outstanding examples of the other arts survive.
Cologne. Fly at c. 10.45am from London Heathrow to Düsseldorf (British Airways). One of the largest cities in mediaeval Europe, Cologne has the greatest concentration of Romanesque churches to be found anywhere. Among those visited are St Maria im Kapitol, which introduced clover-leaf apse clusters, St Gereon, with a unique dome and arcaded decoration and St Pantaleon, with a liturgically interesting west end. First of two nights in Cologne.
Cologne. The morning is spent in more of Cologne’s Romanesque churches, including St Aposteln and Santa Maria in Lyskirchen. Free afternoon: Cologne has several fine museums displaying the wealth of the Roman and Mediaeval city. There is also time for the Gothic cathedral and the Cathedral Treasury.
Aachen, Schwarzrheindorf, Maria Laach. Drive to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), Charlemagne’s favourite residence. The cathedral, a most precious survival of early mediaeval architecture, has a remarkable rotunda with the emperor’s throne in situ. The treasury has outstanding mediaeval metalwork. The small lovely late Romanesque church at Schwarzrheindorf is unusual in having two storeys, and has important wall paintings. Continue to Maria Laach, an active Benedictine monastery with a Romanesque church in an unspoilt lakeside setting. First of two nights in Maria Laach.
Limburg, Maria Laach. The abbey cathedral at Limburg an der Lahn enjoys a striking situation on a hilltop, the effect enhanced by a full complement of seven spires. On our return to Maria Laach, there is time to visit one of the most homogenous and complete Romanesque churches and its beautifully sculpted narthex, as well as the opportunity to attend a service.
Trier. The Roman city of Trier was for a while capital of the Western Empire and an important early centre of Christianity. Its surviving Roman buildings, still the most impressive group in northern Europe, were a major influence on German Romanesque. Visit the Porta Nigra (city gate), and the Aula Palatina, Emperor Constantine’s throne hall. The cathedral is a romanesque church incorporating Roman masonry. Continue to Speyer, a charming town beside the Rhine. First of two nights in Speyer.
Speyer, Lorsch, Worms. Speyer, second of the imperial cathedrals, is the burial place of the Salian emperors and the largest of Rhenish Romanesque churches. With its parkland setting, vast vaulted nave and well preserved eastern parts, it is immensely impressive. A precious and beautiful remnant of Carolingian Europe, the gateway of Lorsch Abbey is crudely classicizing. The second of the three ‘imperial’ cathedrals, Worms, was rebuilt in the twelfth century, with an extraordinary late-Romanesque western choir.
Mainz. The busy and picturesque city of Mainz is the site of the third of the imperial cathedrals, elaborate outside (with six towers) and containing jewels of Gothic sculpture. Fly from Frankfurt arriving at London Heathrow c. 7.25pm.
Dr Richard Plant
Architectural historian and lecturer specialising in the Middle Ages with a strong interest in the modern. He studied at Cambridge, followed by the Courtauld, where he obtained his PhD. He was Deputy Academic Director at Christie’s Education and has published on English and German architecture.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,260 or £2,100 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,500 or £2,340 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with British Airways; travel by private coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 5 dinners with wine; all admission charges; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Mondial am Dom, Cologne: modern hotel located a very short walk from the cathedral and main railway station. Rooms are comfortable and well-equipped. Seehotel, Maria Laach: quiet and comfortable 4-star hotel next to the secluded monastery. Hotel Domhof, Speyer: small traditional hotel in an old building around a courtyard close to the cathedral. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
A good level of fitness is essential. You will be on your feet for lengthy stretches of time. The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres, where coach access is restricted, and a lot of standing in museums and churches. There are some long coach journeys; average distance per day: 90 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'A very complete survey of Rhineland Romanesque and additional destinations made for a very satisfying sweep of architectural history – with very many thanks for this tour.'