Romanesque Art: An International Phenomenon

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Romanesque Art: An International Phenomenon

An Age of Surplus.

Until the eleventh century (and so, throughout the early medieval period), the visual arts in western Europe were an index of a young civilization's efforts to recapture a former grandeur and to express the ideals of the developing culture of Latin Christendom. Beginning around the end of the first Christian millennium (and certainly by the mid-eleventh century), European culture and the visual arts reached a new plateau and entered into a wonderfully rich and fertile period that we have come to call "Romanesque." The historical factors underlying this cultural development are well known. Improved agricultural technology helped to bring about an historic expansion of the European economy and society in the eleventh century. Old centers of production were revitalized, interregional trade increased (as did the use and circulation of gold and silver coinage), and populations grew. Unprecedented surpluses, controlled by the landed aristocracy, made possible the burst of building activity and art production that is associated with the Romanesque period, the beginning of what might be called the "High Middle Ages."

The Romanesque Style.

The art-historical designation "Romanesque" was first used in the nineteenth century to describe the architecture of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, which, with its rounded arches, barrel vaults, and columns with decorative capitals, seemed derivative of ancient Roman architectural forms. Today the term Romanesque is used to describe the general style of the visual arts from the period. For the first time since ancient Rome, a genuinely international movement in the visual arts is apparent, united by common forms, subjects, and styles and stretching across the regions that now comprise England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. The arts reached a new level of coherence in the integration of Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, Ottonian, and Islamic traditions. The imperial art of Germany was an especially important influence with its Byzantine connections and its powerful visual language, while the explosion of pilgrimage activity helped to establish pathways throughout Europe over which artistic styles and techniques could be spread. While the renaissance of Charlemagne in the Frankish Empire around 800, or of King Alfred the Great in England around 900, represented the ambition of a ruler to project a higher level of civilization, the Romanesque era was more than a projection; European civilization legitimately began to rival both Byzantium and Islam in terms of cultural development and sophistication. The visual arts—sculpture in stone and wood, metalwork, textiles, manuscript illumination, and mural painting—bear witness to this remarkable achievement.

The Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro.

The Reliquary Shrine of San Isidoro in León is a good example of how royal sponsorship helped to bring about the production of what may be considered the earliest known Romanesque reliquary shrine. In its monumentality of conception and execution, it anticipates works of the following century. The occasion for the creation of this shrine was the defeat of the Muslim forces at Seville and the capture of that city by King Fernando I of León in 1063 (a major advance in the Christian Re-conquest of Spain). The prized relics of San Isidoro (who was something of a Spanish national saint) were transferred at this time from Seville in the south to León in the north and deposited in a church that was rededicated to the saint. The ideological importance of the relics within the kingdom of León and the political importance of the occasion warranted the creation of the gilt silver container. The five scenes from the biblical book of Genesis (two additional scenes have been lost) as well as the figure of Fernando I appear on plaques that adorn the shrine. The choice of scenes and particular compositions recall both Carolingian Bible illustration from the Tours school and figurative bronze work from the Ottonian era (specifically a set of bronze-relief doors from Hildesheim in Saxony). The decorative silks lining the casket are of Islamic origin, their re-use a customary practice for Christian reliquary containers in Spain.

Abbot Durandus at Moissac.

The effectiveness of so much Romanesque art in conveying a sense of political authority by drawing upon powerful, iconic modes of representation is well illustrated by an image of Abbot Durandus from about 1100, carved in low relief on the central marble pier in the cloister of the abbey church of Saint-Pierre, in Moissac (southwest France). This church, an important stop on one of the major pilgrimage roads, was a key outpost of the powerful monastic order of Cluny. It was reformed according to the Cluniac Order by Durandus, who ruled the religious community there as abbot from 1047 to 1072. This marble slab, erected later in his memory, commemorates the period of his rule and serves as a visualization of the authority that was so important within a monastery. This sense is conveyed by the rigid symmetry and frontality of the figure and by the ceremonial vestments and gesture. In its position facing the room where the monks regularly held meetings, this image functioned very well as a reminder of the abbot's supremacy. Romanesque art does not always display such rigidly abstract qualities; in fact the period after 1100 saw the spread of a more dynamic expressiveness in many works of visual art. But the close physical connection between the figure of Durandus and the architectural frame enclosing him (and also the structural support upon which he appears) is very characteristic of the Romanesque aesthetic.

The Cistercian Moralia in Job.

The close relationship between figure and support was even more creatively explored in the realm of manuscript illumination, a much more fluid medium. Text and image were often conflated in "historiated" or "inhabited" initials, in which the form of a letter provides space and structure for one or more figures to appear and to act out scenes related to the text. An example is the initial "R" from the title page of an early twelfth-century manuscript of the Moralia in Job, a well-known commentary on the Old Testament Book of Job composed centuries earlier by Pope Gregory the Great. The title Moralia indicates the "moralities" or allegories of New Testament events Gregory found contained in the story of Job. Literally occupying the space within the letter is a dragon confronted by a sword-wielding knight who stands upon the back of a lance-wielding soldier or servant. The monastic community responsible for the production of this manuscript and its decorations is that of the new Cistercian Order, founded in 1098 in Cîteaux (in Burgundy, France) by Benedictine monks who opposed what they saw as the worldly excesses of the Cluniac Order (the leading order of Benedictine monasticism). They wished to live a more austere life closer to the model of the early Christian hermit monks, and their outlook eventually carried over into the visual art (and architecture) that they produced. By the time this manuscript was completed in 1111, the Cistercians' most rigorous strictures regarding the artistic embellishment of books and other objects had not yet been enforced (although there is a conspicuous absence of gold leaf, and there are no full-page illustrations within). Decorated initials such as this one were seen by the monastic audience in terms of spiritual meanings; in this case the fight between dragon and knight represented the spiritual struggle of the monks over evil impulses. Although involved in a scene of strenuous action that might seem to call for a realistic style, the figures are depicted with fantastically proportioned bodies and decorative, stylized clothing characteristic of the Romanesque. Naturalism here is clearly subordinated to a scheme that is decorative and made to literally "fit" the text it embellishes.


introduction: The following is an extract from a letter written in 1125 by St. Bernard (Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091–1153) to the monk William of Thierry, in which he builds upon the early Christian critiques of sacred art production in offering an elaborate complaint against what he argues are the excesses and the inappropriateness of art in a monastic context. Bernard was a leader of the new Cistercian Order of monks, a group that formed in reaction to the more permissive and worldly Benedictine orders, which were associated with the sponsorship of artistic works and monuments. This critique of the Benedictine (especially Cluniac) approach to the visual arts in a sacred context was written in 1125.

Their eyes are feasted with relics cased in gold, and their purse-strings are loosed. They are shown a most comely image of some saint, whom they think all the more saintly that he is the more gaudily painted. Men run to kiss him, and are invited to give; there is more admiration for his comeliness than veneration for his sanctity. Hence the church is adorned with gemmed crowns of light—nay, with lustres like cartwheels, girt all round with lamps, but no less brilliant with the precious stones that stud them. Moreover we see candelabra standing like trees of massive bronze, fashioned with marvellous subtlety of art, and glistening no less brightly with gems than with the lights they carry. What, think you, is the purpose of all this? The compunction of penitents, or the admiration of beholders? O vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man's eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief. In short, so many and so marvellous are the varieties of divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating on the law of God. For God's sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?

source: Bernard of Clairvaux, "Letter to William of St. Thierry," in A Mediaeval Garner. Trans. G. G. Coulton (London: Constable and Co., 1910): 70–72.


introduction: This extract is from De diversis artibus (On Divers Arts), considered the foremost medieval treatise on the arts of painting, stained glass, and metalwork techniques. It was written around 1125 in western Germany by a certain Theophilus, who is tentatively identified with the goldsmith Roger of Helmarshausen from Lower Saxony. As a defense of the liturgical and decorative arts, the treatise offers a response to St. Bernard's critique of sacred art. It argues that art for liturgical purposes follows God's own specifications, and that the work of artists aware of this religious significance is an inspired spiritual activity that imbues the whole process of making and using liturgical art with a dignity transcending decorative concerns. The passage excerpted here from the introduction presents the author's claim to include descriptions of artistic techniques from all over the known world.

Wherefore, gentle son … covet with greedy looks the "Book on Various Arts," read it through with a tenacious memory, embrace it with an ardent love.

If you scrutinize this book most diligently, you will find the mixtures and kinds of various colors which they use in Greece; whatever Russia knows about the crafts of enamels and niello; how Arabia is distinguished by skill in repoussé or casting or open-work; how Italy decorates vessels with gems and gold and excels in carving of ivory; how France delights in the precious tracery of windows; and whatever subtle Germany appreciates in the fine working of gold, silver, copper, and iron, and in wood and precious stones.

source: Theophilus, De diversis artibus, in Robert Hendrie, An Essay Upon Various Arts, in Three Books by Theophilus, called also Rugerus, Priest and Monk (London: John Murray, 1847): 1. Translated by John Block Friedman.

The Bayeux Tapestry.

The relationship between text and image is just as important in the 231-foot-long "Bayeux Tapestry," which is technically not really a tapestry at all but an embroidery on linen. Commissioned in the 1080s, it features a continuous pictorial narrative relating the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This secular work, apparently unique, follows very closely the written narrative account of the conquest by William of Poitiers, the chaplain of the victorious Duke William of Normandy. Captions throughout identify figures and scenes. In one section, for example, the Earl Harold of England can be seen accompanying Duke William of Normandy on his military campaign in Brittany; another section shows the Battle of Hastings, where William's forces defeated Harold and paved the way for William's ascent to the English throne. Meant largely as a justification for the Norman Conquest and subsequent rule over the English, this monumental work draws inspiration from the ancient Roman tradition of the continuous picture roll, which similarly served a political function. The combination of forms, colors, composition, and iconography marks this work as distinctly Romanesque. It is also worth noting that the Bayeux Tapestry shares with other Romanesque works a certain focus on the contest for power and authority (whether secular or religious). Interestingly, its theme and its lively narrative have appealed to more modern military leaders and would-be conquerors (such as Napoleon and Hitler, who sought to study this work), just as its abundant imagery continues to inspire new art-historical scholarship.


Shirley Ann Brown, The Bayeux Tapestry: History and Bibliography (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1988).

Walter Cahn, Masterpieces: Chapters on the History of an Idea (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979).

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts, 1066–1190 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Andreas Petzold, Romanesque Art (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1995).

George Zarnecki, Romanesque Art (New York: Universe Books, 1982).