The King’s Hall of Minas Tirith and the Romanesque Basilicas

I want to start with my favorite city and one of the Seven Wonders of Middle-Earth: Minas Tirith. But first, a little bit of history, before starting with the real lecture!

Minas Tirith, first known as Minas Anor (The Tower of the Sun), was built in the 3320 of the Second Age, by Númenóreans under the command of Anárion, second born of Elendil, and a High King of Arnor. This was in the beginning only protection of the capital of Gondor, Osgiliath; it took its place when the former capital fell into ruin, and the King’s House was moved to Minas Anor during the 1640 of the Third Age. Minas Anor became Minas Tirith (Tower of Guard), when Minas Ithil (The Tower of the Moon) was captured by the Nazgûl and renamed Minas Morgul (Tower of Sorcery). This city has changed its role during the centuries and of course this means that its shape has changed, too.

Now, there are different topics I would like to analyze: how this role-change shaped the new Minas Tirith (first of all with the defense system and the walls of the Rammas Echor), the main architectural style, the construction on the mountain’s side… but today I will choose a small topic, just for the beginning. A building of the Citadel, to be precise. I’m talking about the so called Throne Room, the one we see in The Return of the King, where Pippin and Gandalf met Denethor for the first time.

Keep in mind: the material and the ideas you will find here, do not represent Tolkien’s thoughts and Peter Jackson’s view of things (or John Howe and Alan Lee’s). This is by no means an accurate atlas of what they were thinking when writing, drawing, creating. It is only a fun way to relate something that comes from the pen of a genius (and the pencil of two artists) to our reality. I will not draw detailed technical plans, because I can understand not all of you can read that kind of drawings. I will try to make it easier with schemes, more than architectural plans.

Why did I choose this one in particular? Because it is one of the most detailed buildings of Minas Tirith we can see inside and outside in the movie, and because it can be the summary of the architecture style of the entire city.

There are huge differences between the book and the movie, since in the first one this hall is at the base of the Tower of Ecthelion, while in the movie it is a different building. But I will take as main reference the movie (and Alan Lee and John Howe’s sketches), since it makes it easier to visualize it and it makes more sense for what I have in mind. There will be, anyways, quotes from The Lord of the Rings for the interior description.

But let’s start from the exterior.

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Surprise, surprise, it is white, like all the buildings of the Capital, made in perfectly carved stone blocks and set in place dry and left exposed – they probably didn’t know the existence of the opus caementicium, the Romans concrete, made with aggregates, hydraulic mortar and water.

From The Atlas of Middle-Earth:

“The white walls of Minas Tirith were probably locally quarried limestone of resistant type. The Tower of Ecthelion that “glimmered like a spike of pearl and silver may have been white marble.”

In the movies we see a long fabric, covered with a pitched roof on multiple levels, a main entrance on the Court of the Fountain, underlined by a well sculptured front and portal, an apse on the opposite side, and some small towers along its length.

Looks more like a church than a King’s place, doesn’t it?

In particular, it seems a basilica. In Ancient Rome, the Roman basilica was a public building, used as a place of public meetings and the administration of the justice: it was usually rectangular, internally divided into three or five aisles by pillars or columns, and had one or two apses semi circular or rectangular, in the middle of the longer side or the shorter. The entrances (one or two) were positioned on the opposite side to each apse. The meaning, though, changed during the fourth century, becoming a place of cult and a particular and defined architectural type, consisting of a space divided into three or five aisles, usually with an apse at the end, and with religious purposes: it was called Romanesque basilica, from the Romanesque architecture. It was a building with a massive solidity and strength, characterized by thick walls, often double shells filled with rubble, or sections of walls called piers, and small openings; the buttresses were another important characteristic, generally of flat square profile, use to help to buttress the nave, if it was vaulted; the external walls, finally, were usually scanned with blind round arches and pillars.

1024px-Rome,_Forum_Romanum,_Basilica_of_MaxentiusPI_san_piero_a_grado_052

Roman Basilica of Maxentius in Rome (first picture) and Romanesque Basilica of San Piero a Grado (second picture).

I’ve basically described the building of the Throne Room, even though those towers along the longer sides of the building are an entire different and new thing, compared to the Romanesque architecture.

More: the Romanesque Basilica usually had an isolated bell tower (in Italy) or attached to the apses (in Spain). Do I see the Ecthelion Tower in the middle of the square, or is it the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

facciata

Let’s have an inside tour, now.

As I told you, a basilica was divided in aisles or naves, one central and larger, and two (or four, two on each side) narrower. This, for example, is the Roman Basilica of Maxentius, in Rome (the first kind, for public administration and justice). The crosses you see on the plan mean that the ceiling is constructed with cross vaults.

Dehio_6_Basilica_of_Maxentius_Floor_plan

This one, on the contrary, is a general floor plan of a Romanesque Basilica, with the Latin cross plan formed by the transept, that area in grey perpendicular to the naves (do not mind the thickness of the walls, since here it’s merely underlined). Here the cross vaults can be found everywhere, but there are some examples of main nave with a barrel vault and the lateral aisles with cross vaults.

bas

Both of them have three aisles and an apse; the Romanesque basilica, which is the one with more similarities to our building, has also some smaller ones (called absidioles) for statues or sacred images, and the deambulatory, which is the area that goes around the apse (between the columns and the absidioles).

Now have a look on what Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings. The Return of the King (chapter 1, Minas Tirith):

“Pippin looked into a great hall. It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone. Suddenly Pippin was reminded of the hewn rocks of Argonath, and awe fell on him, as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap.”

(If it weren’t for the external movie version, what we see inside the building would be exactly what Pippin saw in the book.)

torre

If we look at the reconstruction from The Atlas of Middle-Earth, we can see a resemblance: three naves, divided by pillars, the throne at the end of the hall, raised above the rest of the floor, like an altar.

These, on the other hand, are sketches by Alan Lee:

alan_lee_the lord of the rings_sketchbook_13_minas tirith04

and  my humble reconstruction of the Throne Room of Minas Tirith:

Model

As I told you, this is probably wrong, since we do not really know how the deambulatory, for example, is developed; nor I know if there are stairs, and more likely there are stairs, to go to the towers and to the first floor (called in our architecture matroneum), at least in those white squares on the bottom; and we can hardly see the two spaces on both sides of the entrance (you can see them in the next picture). But, with a little bit of imagination, this will be fine.

Do you see some similarities? It really seems a Basilica and a church, doesn’t it?

Now let’s have a look on the windows, materials, vaults, arches and roof.

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From this view we can see few things: first of all, the building is not white anymore, but it has a bichromatic appearance: black and white. We know that the Othram, the great defensive wall on the lowest level of the city was black and indestructible, like the stone used to build the Tower of Orthanc – maybe it’s the same stone used inside here? It has, indeed, an ornamental meaning, and maybe a metaphorical one, too, since columns and singular blocks of stones hardly are a defensive measure: maybe it means that this building is the heart of Gondor, the place where the pillars of the Men, the Kings (or the Ruling Stewards, for that matter) rule, and their power is strong and indestructible like that columns of stone, even if they have met hard times during the centuries.

But this is just speculation!

Another thing we can see from that picture, is that the ceiling is vaulted with barrel vaults, and that there are at least two levels – the one of the throne, and the upper one, the matroneum, as I wrote before, which was a balcony or a porch situated inside a building, originally (correctly or not) intended to accommodate women.

Along the walls, both on the ground floor and the upper level, narrow and long windows cut the stone, allowing the light to enter slightly but uniformly into the big hall.

As for the piers, in the Romanesque architectures they can often have 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, both for the structure and the decoration. Here the piers in the Throne Room.

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Down here a particular of one of the absidioles, containing the statues of the old Kings of Gondor.

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Now, look at this porch and tell me the differences with the arches.

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This is the entrance of a unique kind of Romanesque Basilica in Sardinia (the island in Italy where I live, for your information), called Basilica della Santissima Trinità di Saccargia (Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia); in particular, this one has a peculiar Pisan influence, which is the bichromatism: the use of two alternating bands of white marble stones with bands of darker ones – exactly like the Throne Room decoration.

Or what about this church – San Pietro di Sorres?

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Brief mention of the capitals: in the Romanesque architecture, the columns have carved capitals with vegetal or fantastic forms, or geometrical in general. What we have in the Throne Room? Hard to tell, since they are really dark and the shape is not clear…

capitello… but it seems something floral with a kind of figure up there, like the one of Saccargia, does it?Capitello_Saccargia_2009

Last, but not least, the roof.

Since the ceiling is covered with the barrel vaults and the roof from an outside view is clearly a pitched roof, the structure between the two elements is usually probably filled with light stony materials, and then the roof is made with wooden beams and joists.

But! There seems to be another level on the main nave, so the things are slightly different. Usually, the more floors you design and build, the lighter they have to be, in order not to overloading the structure. It can be done in several ways: reducing the width and depth of the upper floors, from the largest on the base, to the narrowest on the top; reducing the thickness of the walls; using a lighter material for the floor, for example wood – as you can see from the picture below (my reconstruction of the section of the building).

Model

The roof, probably, is made in wood, too, using a series of trusses (the triangular element colored in brown), which support the beams and boards that constitute the cover.

Insights:

Fun fact: I had more than one problem counting and placing the windows in the right spot, because there are not so many clear pictures to use as a reference. Outside they are in a certain position, inside they mess up with the absidioles. I lost half of my time trying to figure out the mistake I was doing, than actually writing this article. I have finally come to a conclusion: in the movie, the windows you can see outside and the windows you can see inside don’t match with each other. Or maybe they are right and I’m just too tired to notice it.

Credits: x x x x x x x


I don’t know what analysis I will do next time (nor I know when), but I will stay in Gondor and still in Minas Tirith, for the moment. I have few other things to tell you about this wonderful city, before moving with Rohan, Erebor, Rivendell and so on.

Until next time!

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10 thoughts on “The King’s Hall of Minas Tirith and the Romanesque Basilicas

  1. What a brilliant idea! I find architecture fascinating but my knowledge is scarce. I look forward to learning from you, as I do from other talented and knowledgeable people in the fandom. 🙂

  2. I admit it: I’m really impressed. I’m not just talking about the work in general (which is cured and detailed: amazing!) but about the fact that you managed to put together what you love and what you studied and will do in your life. Wonderful job! (I liked a lot the mini Gandalf in the last picture!!).
    Looking forward to seeing Helm’s Deep and Edoras!
    Greetings from Texas!

    1. Thank you, thousand times thank you! I’m so glad you like it. I had this project on mind for ages and I have always been so surprised that nobody had never done something similar (or maybe it’s out there and I’ve never found it)… the only problem was to find the time to do it. And here I am, now!
      I will publish another article on Minas Tirith (next week, probably), and then I will move to Rohan. Hopefully, you will like them, too!
      PS: mini Gandalf thanks you!

  3. ei ciao sei italiana giusto? bell’idea sto sito.. senti sono finito qua per capire se nel film hanno girato in una chiesa italiana le scene nella sala del trono o se hanno costruito uno scenario del genere da 0.. tu ne sai qualcosa?

    1. Ciao! Tutte le location del film sono state girate esclusivamente in Nuova Zelanda e gli edifici sono stati ricostruiti da zero, alcuni solo in parte in scala 1:1, altri con modelli più piccoli ma di vasta scala, e completati con la computer grafica – compresa Minas Tirith. Quindi no, niente chiese italiane. 🙂

  4. I am surprised you did not mention Byzantine architecture. Still good post. I am glad someone is making a blog about this topic.

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