The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900

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CHARLES B. MCCLENDON The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 280 pp., 35 color ills., 175 b/w. $65.00

In the first six centuries after the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity, the peoples of western Europe constructed numerous buildings for secular and religious purposes, taking ideas developed in Rome and the Roman world and adapting them to suit new purposes, agendas, and aesthetics. Only fragments of these structures have survived more than a millennium of decay, natural disaster, and human intervention, but these remains testify to the splendor of these structures and to the creativity of those who designed and decorated them. We know from written sources that hundreds of buildings were erected from the fourth to the ninth centuries, filling old communities with new architecture and establishing new centers of habitation. However, because most of these structures no longer survive, they are usually ignored in surveys of architectural history and in studies of the later medieval architecture that replaced them.

It is this gap that Charles McClendon bridges in his important new book. Drawing on a century of art historical, archaeological, and textual study, he constructs a narrative of the development of Christian architecture from 600 to 900 CE, well illustrated (although curiously lacking references to the sources of plans and reconstruction drawings) and supported by a full apparatus of footnotes and bibliography so that it can serve both as a guide to the novice and as a very useful reference for the specialist. This sets it apart from other recent surveys such as Roger Stalley's Early Medieval Architecture (1999) and Xavier Barrai i Altet's The Early Middle Ages: From Late Antiquity to A.D. 1000 (1997), which include only brief bibliographies and notes. Moreover, in most earlier surveys, the early medieval material merely forms part of the introduction to something else: to Romanesque architecture in the Pelican History of Art volume by Kenneth Conant (1978) and to Byzantine architecture by Richard Krautheimer in the same series (1986). Even Stalley, who covers the period from 312 to 1200 CE, includes only two chapters on architecture from Constantine to the Ottonians and barely mentions material that is post-Roman but pre-Carolingian; the main focus of his book is architecture after the year 1000. McClendon, on the other hand, explains pre-Carolingian and Carolingian architecture on its own terms, as evidence of creativity and innovation in the not-so-"dark" centuries that followed the decline of the Roman Empire.

McClendon's general thesis is that western Europeans took the original form of the basilica and centrally planned building, developed in the late antique/Early Christian period, and elaborated and made modifications both to the layouts of the buildings and to their structural and decorative repertoires, producing many features that were then imitated or further transformed in later centuries. McClendon devotes his first two chapters to the "invention" of Christian architecture in late antiquity (pp. 3-34); by focusing particularly on Rome, he sets up one of his main themes, the imitation of Roman features in later buildings. The next two chapters cover the architecture of the "barbarian" west: one on Spain, France, and Italy (pp. 35-58), and one on early Anglo-Saxon England (pp. 59-84). The second half of the book is reserved for architecture of the Carolingian Empire (pp. 85-194), five chapters devoted to very detailed discussions of the major monuments of the period, the textual and material evidence, and their historiography. There is then a brief epilogue in which McClendon demonstrates how Carolingian architecture was imitated in buildings of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

One of the many strengths of McClendon's study is that he provides enough examples to write a history of architecture for the sixth through the eighth centuries, and thus this period emerges as a valid topic of study in its own right. …