Romanesque art

From New World Encyclopedia

Romanesque art refers to the art of Western Europe from approximately 1000 C.E. to the rise of Gothic Art, beginning in the thirteenth century or later in some regions. The name Romanesque itself was a term coined in the nineteenth century to designate a style that was no longer Roman, but not yet Gothic.[1] The term is both useful and misleading. Medieval sculptors and architects of southern France and Spain had firsthand knowledge of the many Roman monuments in the region, lending legitimacy to the term "Romanesque." However, "Romanesque Art" is not a return to classical ideals. Rather, this style is marked by a renewed interest in Roman construction techniques. The twelfth-century capitals from the cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, for example, adopt the acanthus-leaf motif and the decorative use of drill holes, which were commonly found on Roman monuments. Likewise, the contemporary apse of Fuentidueña uses the barrel vault, widely used in Roman architecture.[2]

While emphasizing the dependence on "Roman art," the label ignores the two other formative influences on Romanesque art: the Insular style of Northern Europe and Byzantine Art.


The expansion of monasticism was the main force behind the unprecedented artistic and cultural activity of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. New orders were founded, such as the Cistercian, Cluniac, and Carthusian, and with these orders, more monasteries were established throughout Europe.[3]

The new monasteries became repositories of knowledge: in addition to the Bible, the liturgical texts and the writings of the Latin and Greek Church Fathers, their scriptoria copied the works of classical philosophers and theoreticians, as well as Latin translations of Arabic treatises on mathematics and medicine with glowing illuminations often decorating the pages of these books.[4]

The Synthesis of influences

More important than its synthesis of various influences, Romanesque art formulated a visual idiom capable of spelling out the tenets of the Christian faith.[5] Romanesque architects invented the tympanum, on which the Last Judgment or other prophetic scenes could unfold. "Byzantine influences," by way of Italy, resonated in Romanesque art from the late eleventh century onward. The tenth-century plaque of the Crucifixion and the Defeat of Hades reveals that Byzantium had preserved certain features of Hellenistic art that had disappeared in the West, such as a detailed modeling of the human body under drapery and a repertoire of gestures expressing emotions.[6] These elements are present in an ivory plaque depicting the Journey to Emmaus and the Noli Me Tangere carved in northern Spain in the early twelfth century.[7] Unlike Byzantine sculpture, Romanesque sculptors focused on movement and drama.

Romanesque Sculpture

The first definite relation of architecture and sculpture appears in the Romanesque style. Romanesque sculpture came into its own during the mid-eleventh century. One of the most important Romanesque achievements is the revival of the stone sculpture. As a result, the tendency to create relief carvings increased. Many of these carvings were found on church portals, particularly for religious reasons. Figures of Christ in his majestic form were the most common carvings. Romanesque sculpture is not only confined to the portals, but also appears in delightful variety in church capitals and in cloister walks. The capital in its most general view has an intricate leaf-and-vine pattern with volutes, an indication of the Corinthian capital.[8] Romanesque sculptors brought their imaginations to life as many of their sculptures depicted mythological monsters: basilisks, griffins, lizards, and gargoyles.

Figures on the Tympanum of the south portal of St. Pierre, Moissac

Romanesque sculpture is influenced extensively by Islamic and Spanish sculpture. The extremely elongated figures of the recording angels; the curious, cross-legged, dancing pose of the Angel of Matthew; and the jerky, hinged movement are characteristic, in general, of human representation in the Romanesque period. An amalgam of the Carolingian style, Ottonian style, and Anglo-Saxon style, yielded the zigzag and dovetail lines of the draperies, the bandlike folds of the torsos, the bending back of the hands against the body, and the wide cheekbones that would identify the main features of Romanesque sculpture.[9] Romanesque sculpture is influenced strongly by Greek sculpture. While in Greek sculpture, the emphasis is on the vivacity of the body, Romanesque sculptors focused on the head becoming humanly expressive well before the body is rendered as corporeal.[10]

Mural Painting

The eleventh century was witness to the blossoming of monumental mural painting. "In contrast to Carolingian and Ottonian mural painting, a great deal of Romanesque painting survives, some in fairly legible condition, including complete cycles of high quality."[11] As in Romanesque sculpture, the drapery is strongly compartmentalized. The simplified faces, with enormous eyes, emphasize the color in the faces. Figures, since the advent of Gothic art, have become more and more vivacious or geared toward reality.


Italian Romanesque painting dating from the late eleventh century adorns the simple Romanesque church of San Pietro al Monte in Civate, a remote spot in the foothills of the Alps. The scene of the biblical painting "floats toward the top of the arch in a mighty involvement of linear curves and stabbing spears, forming one of the most powerful pictorial compositions of the Middle Ages."[12]


The symbol of Romanesque art in this region is the Christ in Majesty, a work of immense power, as well as the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Saint Lawrence is shown lying upon the gridiron, which is directly parallel to the surface of the landscape, and rough flames rise from below it. "The rest of the arched space is completely filled by the two executioners and the gigantic judge. The diagonal thrust of the two long rods ending in iron forks, which hold the victim on the gridiron, crosses the compartmentalized drapery masse, whose striations show the influence of Byzantine drapery conventions but whose folds move with a fierce energy totally alien to the elegant art of Constantinople."[13]

San Clemente de Tahull

Although much of the Romanesque works in the region have been replaced by different fashions, the mountain churches in the Catalonia terrain of Spain possess the best-preserved works. A powerful example is the familiar Christ in Majesty, painted about 1123 in the Church of San Clemente de Tahull.[14] "Christ's mandorla is signed with the Alpha and Omega, while he holds a book inscribed with the words, 'I am the light of the world.'"[15] The drapery is rendered in broad, parallel folds—delicate and nurturing, yet energetic and forceful.

Manuscript Illumination

Manuscript illumination became notorious during the Romanesque period. It presented viewers with an energetic art which flourished in England, and migrated across the channel to France.

Gospels of Saint-Bertin

"An English painter was surely responsible for the illustrations in the Gospel Book illuminated at Saint-Bertin, near Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Channel coast, at the end of the tenth century." [16] The Gospel of Matthew is divided vertically in two with a large initial "L" on the right that was reminiscent of the old Hiberno-Saxon interlace. What really fascinated the artist was the figurative side of the page. On a little plot of ground at the top, a generous angel gives the glad tidings to two shepherds. Directly below, Mary is stretched out on a couch, apparently already lonely for her Child, after whom she reaches out her hands. As she is comforted, Joseph admonishes her vehemently from his seat at the right. "At the bottom of the page Joseph bends affectionately over the Christ Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, as the ox and ass look on astonished. Above the initial letter the arc of heaven discloses five delighted angels. The human narrative style is matched by the sprightly drawing, the delicate and transparent colors, and the rippling drapery folds."[17]


The Romanesque manuscript style appeared in numerous forms, another possibility appearing in a highly imaginative illumination from the Moralia in Job of Saint Gregory, painted at the onset of the twelfth century of the Burgundia monastery of Citeaux. The border was constructed with floral ornaments at the sides and of zigzag at the top and bottom. The manuscript was imbued with delicate tons of orange, lavender, green and blue. Again we see the linear energy and radiance of design we have seen in Burgundian architecture, sculpture, and painting. A passage from Saint Bernard's famous letter consummates the impieties of Romanesque Art: "… what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvelous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns? Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body…" [18] As a result of these letters, and Saint Bernard's adamant condemnation, figurative art was banned throughout the Cistercian Order, although luckily not before the creation of these illuminated manuscripts.

The Bible of Bury Saint Edmunds

Like in other illuminated manuscripts, the central theme is religion. The narrative conjures the biblical scene of Moses and Aaron revealing the Law to the assembled Hebrews. In the lower half of the work, Moses points out the clean and the unclean beasts. "This style is a very elegant and accomplished one, with its enamel-like depth and brilliance of color and high degree of technical finish." [19] The linear flow of poses and draperies, and the minute gradations of value have brought the art of painting about as far as it could go within the conventions of the Romanesque style. Marion Roberts Sargent says, referring to this illustration, "The real achievement of Romanesque illumination is the complete domination of two-dimensional space. Figures, border, ornament, architecture, and landscape, even the text, are treated equally in brilliant color, resulting in total master of surface design."[20]

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux tapestry is an embroidery done on "eight bolts of natural colored linen with only two different stitches of wool; in tapestry, the design is woven along with the fabric."[21] The tapestry stretches 230 feet in length, but only a mere 20 feet in height as it coiled around the nave of the Cathedral of Bayeux in Normandy. This was especially interesting because of the rarity of Romanesque secular works. The embroidered panels narrated the story of the invasion of England in the year 1066 by William the Conqueror. This mammoth project required a great deal of space to display, reminding one of the ancient Greek and Hellenistic friezes and Roman historical columns. Exhibited today around a single long room, the typically Romanesque figures move with such vivacity that every aspect of the Norman Conquest seems to take place before our eyes, and we easily accept the Romanesque convention of flatness and linearity.[22]


  1. Frederick Hartt. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989)
  2. Ibid.
  3. Julien Chapuis, "Romanesque Art". In Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art A History of Romanesque Art (October 2002, [1]. Retrieved January 2, 2008.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hartt
  7. Chapuis
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hartt
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hartt
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Chapuis
  22. Hartt

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chapuis, Julien. "Romanesque Art". In Timeline of Art History. New York:Metropolitain Museum of Art A History of Romanesque Art (October 2002) Retrieved August 07, 2007
  • Gardner, 'Helen. 'Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1975, ISBN 0155037536
  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989. ISBN 0810918846
  • Petzold, Andreas. Romanesque Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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