lipprose Werner Nolte über mittelalterliche Architektur und Geschichte
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Mortarless Gothic structures

In ancient times and in more primitive cultures, buildings were often constructed without mortar. The Egyptian pyramids are a prominent example.

The Inca’s placed massive blocks of stone on top of each other without mortar.

Still in the seventeenth century, the trulli in Puglia were built in this manner.

The tomb of the Ostrogoth king Theoderich in Ravenna (around 520) was built without mortar, but so were also – and this is striking – most of the small Visigothic churches in modern Spain, which almost all date from the seventh century.


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The Ostrogoths and Visigoths used the same technique, although the two people separated at the end of the third century.


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The question is whether there were still close ties between the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths on the Iberian Peninsula. After all, Theodoric the Great was king of the Visigoths for a few years. His daughter married a Visigothic nobleman

Could an example of mortarless construction from the sixth century (Theoderich’s Tomb) have served as a model for the small Visigothic churches in modern Spain, built more than a hundred years later?

It cannot be ruled out.

Capitel adieu

For over 20 years, they have accompanied me in my preoccupation with medieval architecture. Wherever a pillar, a column - they end in a capital.

Whether ancient capitals, such as in Jouarre, old medieval mushroom capitals, or daring or poetic figurative Romanesque capitals - I have dealt with them a lot and they have always fascinated me.

With the abundance of types and forms, I have occasionally forgotten their function: they organize and decorate the transition between the column and the beams or vaults.

06. Hauptk. Rothbg.7310trägt Empore
Main church in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, late Gothic, 15th century


After having dealt with Late Gothic architecture more intensively, I have had to conclude (why so late?) - the capital disappears. Like branches of a tree, the column gave birth to a bundle of different vault types.

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Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp, Late Gothic, 15th century

Despite a certain melancholy, two things offer me comfort: the problem was mostly resolved in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and the capital would be honored again during subsequent art periods.

The Wooden Knight

In Gloucester Cathedral, visitors come across a strange tomb.

Its figure is represented in a highly lively manner. The crossed legs are particularly unusual.

The original assumption of researchers, namely that this posture indicates the participation in a crusade or even a membership of the Order of the Templars, has been abandoned.


800px Robert Curthose.800                               Photo: Wikipedia


The sculpture, made of bog oak, represents Robert II Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. He was Duke of Normandy, pawned the Duchy to take part in the First Crusade in 1096, and was in constant quarrel with his father and brothers.

Trying to retake the English throne from his younger brother Henry, he lost his last battle in 1106 and was imprisoned until his death in 1134.

From a Pleasure Palace to a House of the Lord

Although it has gone little noticed by the world, there is architecture in the mountains of northern Spain that is as old as that of the Carolingians. It was built by a dynasty that was founded earlier and lasted longer than the empire of Charlemagne.

Against this backdrop, the pre-Romanesque architecture of Asturias emerged during the second half of the 8th century.

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The main work of architecture is the Santa Maria del Naranco, a World Heritage Site, built on the mountain of the same name. The structure was erected as a summer palace above the capital Oviedo under King Ramiro I (842-50).

The hall and cellar are single-aisled and barrel-vaulted.

Today's visitors will see the main building of the palace, which was severely damaged a few centuries after its creation by a landslide, and subsequently consecrated as a church. There is nothing that reminds us of this period.

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The photo still conveys the building’s function as a summer palace.

During the first half of the 20th century, those responsible realized once more the value of this building from the Asturian pre-Romanesque period. Adjacent religious buildings were removed and typical architectural details were worked out.

The building nowadays is therefore the foremost example of Asturian, pre-Romanesque architecture.

Merciful Middle Ages

We often speak of the "Dark Middle Ages", yet, in many European countries, a number of preserved buildings testify to active charity.

Hospiz.Lübeck.2 "Hospital of the Holy Spirit" of 1286 in Lübeck

The first of these hospices or hospitals for travellers and sick people were created during the pre-Carolingian period. They often carried the "Holy Spirit" in their names. During the High Middle Ages, their tasks were divided.

Separate from the pilgrim hostels, the sick, poor and orphans were cared for in hospitals. The initial single cells became large halls, which enabled better supervision and a closer connection to the altar and worship.

Caring for patients with leprosy and the plague, who were cared for in special, remote hospitals – if at all – was a particularly difficult challenge.

There were Orders, such as that of St. John, which were specialized in these tasks.

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                         "The Great Holy Cross" in Goslar

A number of these medieval buildings have been preserved. In addition to the hospital in Lübeck, the "Holy Spirit Hospital" in Wismar is particularly interesting. It was founded around 1250 as a poorhouse and a hospital. The "Great Holy Cross" in Goslar was built in 1254 as a hospice and offered a night camp and food for the needy, infirm and orphans, but also for pilgrims and other travellers.

Some of these old hospices still offer comfort and help to the dying.

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