If, like me, you have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of art and architecture and find yourself travelling Europe on a budget (as was the case throughout the research trips conducted in the course of my PhD), the freeness of most churches in Catholic Europe (in stark contrast to London, home of the moneychangers) is a tremendous blessing.1
If you like Late Antique art, free entry to Santa Costanza in Rome will get you early mosaics plus a mausoleum. Free entry to Santa Maria Maggiore gets you Late Antique mosaics plus some bonus Classical pillars (so do San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and a host of other Roman churches). Free entry to Sant’Ambrogio in Milan gets you a very fine Late Antique sarcophagus (the Late Antique mosaics in the treasury are worth 2 euros, though). Rome, in fact, has quite a lot of Late Antique art in its churches — chiefly mosaics. Even in San Pietro in Vincoli, where the Late Antique decoration was largely redone by Michelangelo in the Renaissance, there is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian.
Romanesque art and architecture are not to be missed, either. Most Italian churches maintain a very ‘traditional’ style throughout northern Europe’s Romanesque period. That is, while they maintain the round arches, etc, like Romanesque, they aren’t as weighty or massive. I’m a big fan of this bit of doorframe from Verona Cathedral:
The Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Paul im Laventtal, Austria, is a very excellent example of Romanesque architecture:
Another free but highly restored Romanesque church worth visiting is St-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris.
After Romanesque comes Gothic, such as Notre Dame de Paris, la Sainte-Chappelle, a host of Parisian churches, Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, the Duomo of Milan, etc. All free! Less famous but still Gothic, Munich Cathedral:
The Renaissance in Florence? Largely free.
Michelangelo’s Pieta in San Pietro, Rome? Free.
Caravaggio in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome? Free.
Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome? Free.
The whole history of Western art from Late Antiquity onwards.
All you have to do is turn up at a church.
1. If, like me, you also have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of music, Spotify or a university subscription to the Naxos Music Library can fulfill the same function as free Catholic churches.↩