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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Romanesque Art

The expansion of monasticism was the main force behind the unprecedented artistic and cultural activity of the eleventh and twelfth century. New orders were founded, such as the Cistercian, Cluniac, and Carthusian, and monasteries were established throughout Europe. Writing in the early eleventh century, the Burgundian historian Radulfus Glaber described a “white mantle of churches” rising over “all the earth.” Stimulated by economic prosperity, relative political stability, and an increase in population, this building boom continued over the next two centuries. Stone churches of hitherto unknown proportions were erected to accommodate ever-larger numbers of priests and monks, and the growing crowds of pilgrims who came to worship the relics of the saints (Sainte-Foy at Conques). Adapting the plan of the Roman basilica with a nave, lateral aisles, and apse, these churches typically have a transept crossing the nave, and churches on the pilgrimage road included an ambulatory (a gallery allowing the faithful to walk around the sanctuary) and a series of radiating chapels for several priests to say Mass concurrently. For the first time since the fall of the Roman empire, monumental sculpture covered church facades, doorways, and capitals (Last Judgment, Tympanum, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne; Standing Prophet, Moissac). Monumental doors, baptismal fonts, and candleholders, frequently decorated with scenes from biblical history, were cast in bronze, attesting to the prowess of metalworkers. Frescoes were applied to the vaults and walls of churches (Temptation of Christ, San Baudelio de Berlanga, 61.248). Rich textiles and precious objects in gold and silver, such as chalices and reliquaries, were produced in increasing numbers to meet the needs of the liturgy and the cult of the saints. 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. Glowing illuminations often decorated the pages of these books and the most eminent among them were adorned with sumptuous bindings (Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion, 17.190.134).

The study of medieval art began in earnest in the decades following the iconoclasm of the French Revolution. Art historians in the early nineteenth century, following the natural sciences in an effort to classify their field of inquiry, coined the term “Romanesque” to encompass the western European artistic production, especially architecture, of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The term is both useful and misleading. Clearly, medieval sculptors and architects of southern France and Spain had firsthand knowledge of the many Roman monuments in the region. The twelfth-century capitals from the cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (25.120.1–.134), for example, adopt the acanthus-leaf motif and decorative use of the drill holes found on Roman monuments (Section of a pilaster with acanthus scrolls, 10.210.28). Likewise, the contemporary apse (L.58.8650.180a–l) from Fuentidueña uses the barrel vault familiar from Roman architecture.

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 the art of Byzantium, nor does it do justice to the inventiveness of Romanesque art. Comparison of the Initial V from a Bible (1999.364.2), illuminated at the end of the twelfth century in the Cistercian monastery of Pontigny in eastern France, with the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon Square-Headed Brooch (1985.209), illustrates how long impulses from Insular art lingered in the Romanesque vernacular. Like the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith, the French illuminator created a lavish surface decoration combining interlaced ribbons with animal motifs, and yet the miniature conveys a greater sense of energy. Instead of merely filling the space, the interlace has a rhythm of its own, reinforced by the bold palette and vibrant juxtaposition of colors. The robust striding lions echo the vitality of the abstract decoration, further embellished by foliate ornament.

Byzantine influences, by way of Italy, found echoes in Romanesque art from the late eleventh century onward. The tenth-century plaque with the Crucifixion and the Defeat of Hades (17.190.44) reveals that Byzantium had preserved certain features of Hellenistic art that had disappeared in the West, such as a coherent modeling of the human body under drapery and a repertoire of gestures expressing emotions. These elements are present in the ivory plaque with the Journey to Emmaus and the Noli Me Tangere (17.190.47) carved in northern Spain in the early twelfth century. Compared to the Byzantine sculptor, however, the Romanesque artist has imbued his composition with a heightened sense of drama, through a more emphatic play of gestures and swirling draperies with pearled borders.

More important than its synthesis of various influences, Romanesque art formulated a visual idiom capable of spelling out the tenets of the Christian faith. Romanesque architects invented the tympanum, on which the Last Judgment or other prophetic scenes could unfold, as a stern preparation for the mystical experience of entering the church. Inside, as they meandered around the building, the faithful encountered other scenes from biblical history, on doors, capitals, and walls (The Temptation of Christ, 61.248), and were drawn into the narrative by their dynamic, direct language.