Romanesque Architecture and Art
Summary of Romanesque Architecture and Art
Capturing the aspirations of a new age, Romanesque art and architecture started a revolution in building, architectural decoration, and visual storytelling. Starting in the latter part of the 10th century through the 12th, Europe experienced relative political stability, economic growth, and more prosperity during this time and coupled with the increasing number of monastic centers as well as the rise of universities, a new environment for art and architecture that was not commissioned solely by emperors and nobles was born. With the use of rounded arches, massive walls, piers, and barrel and rib vaults, the Romanesque period saw a revival of large-scale architecture that was almost fortress-like in appearance in addition to a new interest in expressive human forms. With the Roman Church as the main patron, Romanesque metalwork, stonework, and illuminated manuscripts spread across Europe, from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, creating an international style that was adapted to regional needs and influences.
19th-century art historians who coined the term Romanesque thought the weighty stone architecture and the stylized depiction of the human form did not live up to the standards of the classical ideas of humanism (manifested later and powerfully in Rennaissance Humanism), but we now recognize that Romanesque art and architecture innovatively combined Classical influences, seen in the Roman ruins scattered throughout the European countryside and in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts and mosaics, with the decorative and more abstract styles of earlier Northern tribes to create the foundation of Western Christian architecture for centuries to come. While an immediate precursor to the Gothic style, the Romanesque would see revivals in the 17th and 19th centuries, as architects (masons) came to appreciate the clarity and formidable nature of the Romanesque façade when applied across a range of buildings, from department stores to university buildings.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Along with the new political and economic security, the spread of the Roman Church and the codification of rituals and liturgy encouraged the faithful to undertake pilgrimages, traveling from church to church, honoring martyrs and relics at each stop. The economic boon of such travel to cities led to rapid architectural developments, in which cities vied for grander and grander churches. Lofty stone vaulting replaced wooden roofs, main church entrances became more monumental, and decorative architectural sculpture flourished on the façades of the churches.
- While many churches continued to use barrel vaulting, during the Romanesque period, architects developed the ribbed vault, which allowed vaults to be lighter and higher, thus allowing for more windows on the upper level of the structure. The ribbed vault would be more fully developed and utilized during the subsequent Gothic period, but important early examples in the 11th century set the precedent.
- During the Romanesque period, the use of visual iconography for didactic purposes became prevalent. As most people outside of the monastic orders were illiterate, complex religious scenes were used to guide and teach the faithful of Christian doctrine. Architects developed the use of the tympanum, the arched area above the doors of the church, to show scenes such as the Last Judgment to set the mood upon entering the church, and other biblical stories, saints, and prophets decorated interior and exterior doors, walls, and, capitals to shepherd the worshippers' prayers.
Overview of Romanesque Architecture and Art
The many Viking invasions of Europe and the British Isles marked the era before the Romanesque period. Beginning in 790 with raids on Irish coastal monasteries, the raids became full-scale military excursions within a century as shown by the Sack of Paris in 845 and the Sack of Constantinople in 860. For the next two hundred years, the Vikings raided and sometimes conquered surrounding areas. With the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, the era ended around 1066 when the Normans, themselves descended from Vikings, conquered England.
Important Art and Artists of Romanesque Architecture and Art
This pilgrimage church, the center of a thriving monastery, exemplifies the Romanesque style. Two symmetrical towers frame the west façade, their stone walls supported by protruding piers that heighten the vertical effect. A rounded arch with a triangular tablature frames the portal, where a large tympanum of the Last Judgment of Christ is placed, thus greeting the pilgrim with an admonition and warning. The grandeur of the portal is heightened by the two round, blind arches on either side and by the upper level arch with its oculus above two windows. The façade conveys a feeling of strength and solidity, its power heightened by the simplicity of decorative elements. It should be noted that this apparent simplicity is the consequence of time, as originally the tympanum scene was richly painted and would have created a vivid effect drawing the eye toward the entrance. The interior of the church was similarly painted, the capitals of the interior columns carved with various Biblical symbols and scenes from Saint Foy's life, creating both an otherworldly effect and fulfilling a didactic purpose.
Saint Foy, or Saint Faith, was a girl from Aquitaine who was martyred around 287-303, and the church held a gold and jeweled reliquary, containing her remains. The monks from the Abbey stole the reliquary from a nearby abbey to ensure their church's place on the pilgrimage route. Over time, other relics were added, including the arm of St. George the Dragon Slayer, and a gold "A" believed to have been created for Charlemagne. The construction of the church was undertaken around 1050 to accommodate the crowds, drawn by reports of various miracles. The church was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 for its importance on the pilgrim route and also as a noted example of early Romanesque architecture.
This scene from the famous tapestry shows Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, carrying an oak club while riding on a black horse, as he rallies the Norman forces of Duke William, his half-brother, against the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Careful attention is given to the tack of the horses, the details of the men's helmets and uniforms, while the overlay of plunging horses, their curving haunches and legs, creates a momentum that carries the narrative onward into the next scene. In the lower border, a horse is falling, while its rider, pierced with a long spear collapses on the right. At both corners, other fallen soldiers are partially visible, and convey the terrible effects of battle, while the charge to victory gallops on above them. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "The Bayeux tapestry is not just a fascinating document of a decisive battle in British history. It is one of the richest, strangest, most immediate and unexpectedly subtle depictions of war that was ever created."
The tapestry, about 230 feet long and 21 inches tall, is a sustained narrative of the historical events that, beginning in 1064 lead up to the battle, which ended in the Norman conquest of England and the rule of William the Conqueror, as he came to be known. The upper and lower borders, each 2-¾ inches wide, shown in this sample, continue throughout the tapestry, as does the use of a Latin inscription identifying each scene. The images in the borders change, echoing the narrative, as during the battle the pairs of fantastical animals in the lower border is replaced by the images seen here of fallen soldiers and horses. Similarly when the invasion fleet sets sail, the borders disappear altogether to create the effect of the vast horizon. The borders also include occasional depictions of fables, such as "The Wolf and a Crane" in which a wolf that has a bone caught in its throat is saved by a crane that extracts it with its long beak, which may be a subversive or admonitory comment upon the contemporary events.
Though called a tapestry, the work is actually embroidered, employing ten different colors of dyed crewel, or wool yarn and is believed to have been made by English women, whose needlework, known as Opus Anglicanum, or English work, was esteemed throughout Europe by the elite. The Bayeux Tapestry was a unique work of the Romanesque period, as it depicted a secular, historical event, but also did so in the medium that allowed for an extended narrative that shaped both the British and French sense of national identity. As art historian Simon Schama wrote, "It's a fantastic example of the making of history." The work, held in France, was influential later in the development of tapestry workshops in Belgium and Northern France around 1500 and the Gobelin Tapestry of the Baroque era.
The entrance to Pisa Cathedral, made of light-colored local stone, has three symmetrically arranged portals, the center portal being the largest, with four blind arcades echoing their effect. The round arches above the portal and the arcades create a unifying effect, as do the columns that frame each entrance. The building is an example of what has been called Pisa Romanesque, as it synthesizes elements of Lombard Romanesque, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture. Lombard bands of colored stone frame the columns and arches and extend horizontally. Above the doors, paintings depicting the Virgin Mary draw upon Byzantine art, and at the top of the seven round arches, diamond and circular shapes in geometric patterns of colored stone echo Islamic motifs. The upper levels of the building are symmetrically arranged in bands of blind arcades and innovatively employ small columns that convey an effect of refinement.
The name of two architects, Buscheto, and Rainaldo, were inscribed in the church, though little is known of them, except for this project. Buscheto was the initial designer of the square that, along with the Cathedral, included the famous leaning Tower of Pisa, done in the same Romanesque style, visible here in the background, and the Baptistery. Following his death, Rainaldo expanded the cathedral in the 1100's, of whom his inscription read, "Rainaldo, the skilful workman and master builder, executed this wonderful, costly work, and did so with amazing skill and ingenuity."
Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II. The church's construction was informed by the political and cultural era, as it was meant to rival St. Mark's Basilica then being reconstructed in Venice, a competing maritime city-state. The building was financed by the spoils of war, from Pisa's defeat of Muslim forces in Sicily, and it was built outside of the walls to show that the city had nothing to fear. The Pisa plaza became a symbol of the city itself, as shown by the famous Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio calling the square, "prato dei Miracoli," or "meadow of miracles" in 1910, so the plaza has been known since as the "Field of Miracles."
Useful Resources on Romanesque Architecture and Art
- 2k viewsRomanesque Pilgrimage Churches: St. Foy, Conques, and Saint-Pierre, MoissacEast Tennessee State University
- 0 viewsIlluminated ManuscriptsOur PickBBC
- 0 viewsBBC Medieval Lives: Episode 2 - The MonkOur Pick
- 1.6M viewsMaking ManuscriptsGetty Museum
- 330k viewsThe Bayeux Tapestry - all of it, from start to finish
- 1.1M viewsThe Animated Bayeux TapestryOur PickPotion Pictures
- 24k viewsPisa CathedralWorldSiteGuides
- 4k viewsThe Church Program: Cluny AbbeyDWEnglish
- 106k viewsIlluminated ManuscriptsLecture Dr. Sally Dormer
- Romanesque: Architecture, Sculpture, PaintingOur PickBy Rolf Toman
- Romanesque Art: PerspectivesOur PickBy Andreas Petzold
- The Stavelot Triptych , Mosan Art, and the Legend of the True CrossBy Pierpont Morgan Library and Charles Ryskamp
- The Bayeux TapestryOur PickBy Lucien Musset and Richard Rex
- Super Art Gems of New York CityBy Thomas Hoving / ArtNet.com
- Ireland's Exquisite Insular ArtOur PickBy James Wiener / Ancient History et cetera / October 30, 2014
- Bayeux tapestry: a brag, a lament, an embodiment of history's complexityOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / January 19, 2018
- The Bayeux tapestry: is it any good?By Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / January 17, 2018