Cover image for The Romanesque Revival: Religion, Politics, and Transnational Exchange By Kathleen Curran

The Romanesque Revival

Religion, Politics, and Transnational Exchange

Kathleen Curran


$113.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02215-4

400 pages
9" × 10"
8 color/180 b&w illustrations

Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies

The Romanesque Revival

Religion, Politics, and Transnational Exchange

Kathleen Curran

“Oddly enough, this exemplary study is the first comprehensive work on the Romanesque Revival in architecture and mural painting that originated in the early 19th century in Germany, where it was known as the Rundbogenstil or round arch style.”


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Winner of the Henry-Russell Hitchcock Book Award for 2005 presented by The Victorian Society in America for the book which the Society considers to have made the most significant contribution to nineteenth century studies in the prior year.

During the nineteenth century, as the rapid growth of industry transformed life in both America and Europe, many new churches and public buildings were designed in an imposing style based upon medieval and early Christian models. Kathleen Curran's book traces the origins of this phenomenon, known either as the Rundbogenstil or Romanesque Revival, in Rome, Karlsruhe, and the Munich of Ludwig I and charts its spread from Germany to London and the United States, where it shaped the design of such landmarks as Trinity Church in Boston and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Drawing on extensive archival research and wide reading in the theological and political literature of the period, Curran sets Romanesque Revival architecture in the context of debates on the roles church and state should and could play in modern society. Her book also breaks new ground by bringing to the fore the figures—diplomats, theologians, educational reformers, clergymen, and rulers—who supported Romanesque Revival architecture in large part because of the style's many associations with the staunch faith and communal solidarity of the early Christian era. The Romanesque Revival is both comprehensive in scope and richly detailed. Even as it tracks the transnational movement of people and ideas, it situates key buildings in new patterns of urban development and explores their ideological implications and aesthetic refinements. The numerous illustrations include drawings and nineteenth-century photographs that have never before been reproduced.

“Oddly enough, this exemplary study is the first comprehensive work on the Romanesque Revival in architecture and mural painting that originated in the early 19th century in Germany, where it was known as the Rundbogenstil or round arch style.”
“Notwithstanding this German bias, Kathleen Curran’s book is a fine achievement. It contains original material on almost every page and Curran reinterprets some of the well-known themes in fresh terms. The text reads like the fruit of a lifetime’s scholarly experience, yet is clear and thoroughly engrossing. The Romanesque Revival is well-documented, beautifully illustrated, and contains with a wide range of previously unpublished plans, drawings and photographs.”
“Curran’s hypotheses invite a host of further investigations. What is more important, she has raised the bar substantially for the range of cultural, political, and religious factors that must be weighed to explain the complex issues of meaning in the use of historical style in nineteenth-century architecture. Her book should be considered an obligatory sequel to Michael Lewis’ brilliant The Politics of German Gothic Revival, which shares some of the same protagonists.”
“This is a splendidly researched, engaging account, which fills a real gap in the literature and will be of genuine value to anyone interested in nineteenth-century architecture.”
“The animating thesis of Curran's book is that the international Romanesque-revival movement in Germany, England, and the United States was driven largely by the efforts of political and religious leaders to remake both sacred and secular institutions in the face of the social challenges precipitated by the Industrial Revolution. In bringing these influences to light, Curran addresses a gap in the current scholarship, particularly with respect to the Romanesque in the the United States, and she offers a host of tantalizing suggestions that should guide new scholarship for some time to come.”
“Curran's primary achievement in this book lies in the richness of the intellectual, historical, religious, and social influences she relates to the erecting of new buildings in the Romanesque style. By unraveling the connections among the religious, political, educational, and social issues of the time as well as the personal relationships among several key players, Curran reminds readers that the study of architecture is, at its best, the study of human interaction and meaning creation. The meanings and ideas negotiated in a variety of public and religious settings during this period were deemed by architects, artists, scholars, and clients alike to be well expressed by the construction of new buildings that featured the Romanesque style. Architectural style, rather than being the focus of the study, is used by the author as a lens through which to examine various networks of thought and ideas within which the architecture played a part.”
“This method of investigation holds enormous promise for the study of architecture as well as promise for the study of architecture as well as material culture generally, and Curran's work significantly advances our knowledge of the issues and debates associated with the Romanesque.”
“By offering a number of new contexts in which to consider Romanesque architecture, she has raised important questions and invited debates that will engage scholars for quite some time. Thus, she has rendered an important service to the field. Her work on the German contexts of the Rundbogenstil is clearly the major contribution of the study, and here her primary research is of enormous value. Her forays into the English and American use of the Romanesque are suggestive and light the way to further questions for scholars to explore. In addition, the sheer physical beauty of the book–with its sharply focused black and white illustrations, excellent color plates, glossy paper, and exceptional layout–makes it all the more valuable to students, scholars, and architects alike. The Romanesque Revival stands as a seminal treatment of this important architectural style and a model for unraveling the complicated processes through which architecture participates in the cultural negotiation of meaning.”
“Focused on the important German-generated Rundbogenstil (round-arch style), or Romanesque Revival, in its various forms as practiced in Germany, England, and the United States from about 1825 to 1875, Kathleen Curran's study is admirably thorough in its coverage. It sets the Rundbogenstil in context, addressing the relevant German, English, and American historical, political, and religious factors and movements. Other remarkable aspects include the author's expert consideration of mural painting and painted interior decoration in relation to Rundbogenstil architecture. The first comprehensive study of the Romanesque Revival, this extraordinary book will fill a gaping void that has long hampered American architecture scholarship.”

Kathleen Curran is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Trinity College.


List of Illustrations



1. Heinrich Hübsch and the German Rundbogenstil

2. Ludwig I’s Munich: Historicist Urbanism and the Rundbogenstil

3. Friedrich Wilhelm III and the Prussian Civil-Servant State

4. Friedrich Wilhelm IV and the Prusso-Christian State

5. The Romanesque Revival and Victorian Religion

6. The Romanesque Revival and National Education in America

7. The Romanesque Revival and Protestant Patronage in America

Manuscript Sources




The middle decades of the nineteenth century were a period of physical displacement of enormous populations from country to city and from country to country. This movement, wrought by industrialization and made possible by rapidly proliferating modes of travel, caused religious and political leaders and social reformers to think in international terms, as national boundaries and allegiances remained in unpredictable flux.

An 1846 letter from Christian Carl Josias von Bunsen, Prussian ambassador to the court of Saint James’s, to Karl Sieveking, syndic of Hamburg, is symptomatic of the enthusiasm for migration that gripped the age: "I hail, with you, the emigration of our countrymen to North America (the land of the Anglo-Saxons and of our own kindred), towards the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. I have daily the map before me, and contemplate the Rio Bravo del Norte, of which I take possession from Santa Fè and San Felipe, and then the two Californias and the fine desert land between North California and the Rio del Norte as the connecting tract; and then I draw a line southwards, if possible to the 25th degree (instead of the 42nd), as my boundary on the Pacific, and I feel the joy of the human race, that God should have granted to it the length and breadth of the earth." Bunsen was referring to one of history’s big might-have-beens: a German California. In 1842, the Mexican government had offered to sell California to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, and Bunsen encouraged the monarch to snatch it. He was warmly seconded by the Prussian envoy in Washington, Baron Rönne, but Wilhelm von Humboldt dissuaded the king from the scheme as too grandiose.

Coinciding with these migratory movements of populations was an international movement of ideas, and this movement animated the popular revival of Romanesque architecture in the nineteenth century. From the outset, the Romanesque Revival had a transatlantic reach that was broad and deep, touching the profoundest concerns of rulers and clients, theologians and educators, clergy and populace. Though it cannot be said that the Romanesque was the same everywhere, with no national differentiation, it also cannot be said that the practice and patronage of the Romanesque in one country was unrelated to developments elsewhere.

In Germany, for instance, where the Romanesque flourished to the point that it nearly vanquished interest in the Greek and Gothic styles, Ludwig I of Bavaria paid for more buildings in the United States than anywhere in his own kingdom outside the capital city of Munich. They were all Romanesque and Bavarian. In another German example, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia’s pet architecture project, a series of churches in Berlin’s new industrial suburbs, was modeled after a group of Romanesque Revival churches in London. When American political and religious leaders, educational reformers, and architectural clients—men like Edward Everett, George Ticknor, Joseph Green Cogswell, Leonard Woods Jr., Phillips Brooks, Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Calvin Stowe, and Robert Dale Owen—sought to reform and modernize religious and educational institutions in the United States, they turned to Germany. There was constant intellectual exchange among Germany, England, and the United States in the mid–nineteenth century, and Romanesque Revival architecture played a critical, focusing role.

The Romanesque Revival in Germany, England, and the United States appeared first, and had its most sustained development, in religious architecture. More specifically, the originators of the Romanesque Revival believed that it best addressed the necessity that the modern Church be broad and comprehensive, embracing as much of Christianity as possible. That goes for Heinrich Hübsch, who, besides being the style’s most rigorous theorist, had deeply religious motives for it in mind. The Catholic convert Hübsch, like the German Nazarene artists with whom he was friends, sought to reach this inclusive ideal by going back to the primitive, or early, Christian Church, before an elaborate hierarchy had developed. The urge for a great world church, though, received its most thorough theological and architectural articulation in Protestant nations: in Prussia and in England, in a series of suburban churches in Berlin and in London in a project for an Anglo-Prussian bishopric in Jerusalem; in the United States, beginning in 1844, in churches designed for congregations of Calvinist persuasion, and culminating in Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston. In doctrine and in ethic, Prussia, England, and the United States of America in the middle years of the nineteenth century were solidly Protestant, a fact that is easy to forget in our own multicultural age. In all of these places, interest in the Romanesque stemmed from a desire to reassert Protestant affiliations as these came under threat from a variety of secularizing forces wrought by the industrial age.

In investigating the transatlantic exchanges between Germany, England, and the United States—from architectural and theological points of view—one name reappears as the engine behind them: Christian Carl Josias von Bunsen, the same man who urged Friedrich Wilhelm IV to buy California. What is to be made of Bunsen’s acquaintance with a seemingly unrelated horde of early Romanesque Revival clients within and outside of Germany: Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia; Charles Blomfield, bishop of London; and the Congregational minister and president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Leonard Woods Jr.? Why did Henry Hobson Richardson’s client, the famous minister of Trinity Church in Boston, Phillips Brooks, make a point of visiting Bunsen’s son, Georg Bunsen, in 1882? As the close friend and adviser of Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, as well as at different times Prussian envoy to the Holy See and later ambassador to the court of St. James’s, Bunsen played a key role in the international Romanesque Revival. As the reader might therefore anticipate, this book includes him as a central figure. And although his contribution has been acknowledged, his extended role in the architectural, theological, and political dimensions of the Romanesque Revival in Germany, England, and the United States has remained unexplored.

An intercultural history requires some explanation of comparative nineteenth-century terminology, which, though it is handled at length in Chapter 1, I should introduce here. Few periods have had as many synonyms attached to them as the Romanesque. The modern word "Romanesque" was introduced into English in 1819 by the English antiquarian William Gunn to describe medieval round-arched architecture bridging Roman classicism and the Gothic. Gunn’s term, broader than today’s, included Early Christian and what later came to be known as Carolingian and Ottonian architecture, as well as what we now call Romanesque. But the Germans invented more terms than anyone else, and they hotly debated the historical and political ramifications of their content. By 1828, a single term had been invented to describe medieval round-arched architecture from Constantine the Great to the Gothic, centering on the Romanesque: Rundbogenstil (round-arch style). The German architect Heinrich Hübsch popularized the term that year in his provocative In welchem Style sollen wir bauen? (In what style should we build?), the style’s first and most prominent theoretical statement. Because the understanding of these terms was imprecise at best, I use the terms "Romanesque" and Rundbogenstil interchangeably, that is, in the spirit of their fluid nineteenth-century connotations.

In writing an intercultural history of the Romanesque, I have tried to avoid the pitfalls that a Stilgeschichte or a "theory-then-practice" approach to architecture often brings with it. Though useful, style-based surveys or those that assume architectural theory is immediately illustrated by practice tend to take on a life of their own and work against research into their subjects’ historical contexts. This is especially the case with presentations of the German Rundbogenstil, which, without exception, begin with Hübsch’s 1828 essay and his materialistic rationales for the adoption of the Romanesque as an appropriate style for modern Germany. The task of the historian, in this model, was to examine how Hübsch’s theory was variously put into practice in various cities or, more usually, in varying ways through individual architects following on his precepts. I, too, begin this book with Hübsch and theory, but the intention is to place him within the context of the international Romanesque Revival and the artistic, architectural, and religious urges of his era. Once one looks beyond Hübsch’s brilliant theoretical light, larger aspects of the period emerge that are perhaps even more critical to understanding the international popularity of the Romanesque in the nineteenth century.

Again, once style- and theory-centered explanations are dethroned as ends in themselves, other phenomena prompt questions regarding the widespread popularity of the Romanesque. Why did so many Englishmen and Americans travel to observe the rapid building of Ludwig I’s modern (Rundbogenstil) Munich, especially its prominently featured revival of traditional fresco painting? What was the logic for the fresco and mural decoration that then appeared in many of the early Romanesque buildings in England and, especially, the United States? How did this phenomenon connect with that first monument of the Richardsonian Romanesque, Trinity Church in Boston, with its murals by John La Farge? Through questions of this sort, an intricate web begins to take shape, and it becomes clear that this web is critical to understanding Romanesque buildings and the diffusion of the style.

The pursuit of answers to these and other questions has led this study of the Romanesque Revival to archives in Berlin, Merseburg, and Munich in Germany, London and Cambridge in England, and to cities throughout the eastern United States, reaching inland as far as Minnesota. More important, the search has led to disciplines outside architectural history and theory—to political and diplomatic history, to social history, and especially to the history of religion, for religions played a critical role in the efforts by German monarchs (and English ecclesiastical authorities) to use the Romanesque in the service of their states. The United States obviously did not share a monarchical system, but the religious crises that resulted in the turn to the Romanesque in North America were engendered by the same popular and theological ferment as those in England and Germany.

My study is divided into sections largely determined by geographical locations and political regimes—for example, Ludwig I’s Munich, Friedrich Wilhelm III’s post-Napoleonic Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s Berlin—or by political and cultural moments, such as Bunsen’s tenure as Prussian ambassador in Rome and later in London, when Anglo-Prussian relations were particularly close, or the period of strong German theological and pedagogical influence in the United States (roughly between 1844 and 1877). The first chapter, however, sets the stage and deals with Hübsch as a theorist and as a practitioner whose ideas about the German Rundbogenstil were closely related to artistic and religious developments in Rome, Munich, and Berlin. Chapter 1 also examines, through the prism of Hübsch’s career, the terminological complexities of the Rundbogenstil/Romanesque—and their relevance to the style’s reception in and outside of Germany. To emphasize again, this is not an unthemed survey but rather a book that tracks those personalities, political events, and church-versus-state issues that influenced the course of the Romanesque Revival in Germany, England, and the United States.

In order finally to understand the international nature of nineteenth-century Romanesque, it is necessary to examine the concerns of the German monarchy and the English and American ecclesiastical hierarchy—the primary clients—of the style. They were less concerned with the style’s material advantages than they were with popular revolution, an invigorated church, and reinvented state institutions in a modern world. The Romanesque Revival was born of impulses more powerful than the desire to turn theory into practice, or mere stylistic predilection. In the end it cannot be understood without acknowledging the existence of an international concern to remake, even as rivalries persisted, the sacred and secular institutions of nation-states in a rapidly changing modern world. The Romanesque was at the very heart of its clients’ splendid building agendas. Without awareness of these agendas, the story of the style’s progress loses its political and social logic, its poignancy, and its coherence.

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