‘Roman-Like’: Early to High Medieval Romanesque Art and Architecture

Abbaye de Lessay (département de la Manche), France / Photo by Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 05.02.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – The Romanesque Period

1.1 – Introduction

Romanesque art was affected by shifting political powers following the Carolingian period and mobility during the Crusades.

1.1.1 – The Source of Inspiration

Romanesque architecture was the first distinctive style to spread across Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Despite the misconception of 19th century art historians that Romanesque architecture was a continuation of Roman styles, Roman brick and stone building techniques were lost in most parts of Europe. In the northern countries Roman style and methods were only adopted for official buildings, and in Scandinavia they were unknown. The exception was several great Constantinian basilicas that continued to stand in Rome as an inspiration to later builders. However, these did not inspire the Emperor Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany, built around the year AD 800. Instead, the greatest building of the Dark Ages in Europe was the artistic child of the octagonal Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, built in the sixth century.

1.1.2 – A New European Empire

Church of Saint Front, Perigueux, France: Image of the domed church, an example of the Eastern European influence.

Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in 800 CE, with an aim of reestablishing the old Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s political successors continued to rule much of Europe, leading to the gradual emergence of the separate political states that were eventually welded into nations by allegiance or defeat. In the process, the Kingdom of Germany gave rise to the Holy Roman Empire. The invasion of England by William Duke of Normandy, in 1066 saw the building of castles and churches that reinforced the Norman presence. Several significant churches built at this time were founded by rulers as seats of temporal and religious power or as places of coronation and burial. These include the Abbaye-Saint-Denis and Westminster Abbey (where little of the Norman church now remains).

The remaining architectural structures of the Roman Empire were falling into decay and much of its technology was lost. At the same time, however, the building of masonry domes and carving of decorative architectural details continued unabated, though the style had greatly evolved since the fall of Rome in the enduring Byzantine Empire. The domed churches of Constantinople and Eastern Europe had a substantial influence on the architecture of certain towns, particularly through trade and the Crusades. The most notable example is St Mark’s Basilica, Venice , but there are many lesser known examples such as the church of Saint Front, Périgueux and Angoulême Cathedral.

1.1.3 – Feudalism and Warfare

Map of Europe, 1142: Europe, 1142, Age of the Crusades.

Much of Europe was affected by feudalism, in which peasants held tenure from local rulers over the land they farmed in exchange for military service. As a result, they could be called on for local spats as well as to follow their lord across Europe to the Crusades.

The Crusades (1095–1270) brought about substantial migration and resultant spread of ideas and trade skills, particularly the building of fortifications and the metalworking for the provision of arms, which was also applied to the fitting and decoration of buildings. The continual movement of people, rulers, nobles, bishops, abbots, craftsmen, and peasants was an important factor in creating homogeneous building methods and a recognizable Romanesque style, despite regional differences.

San Gimignano, Italy: Image of San Gimignano, famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tall, narrow tower houses.

Life became less secure after the Carolingian period, resulting in castles built at strategic points. Many were constructed as strongholds of the Normans, descendants of the Vikings who invaded northern France in 911. Political struggles also resulted in the fortification of towns by rebuilding and strengthening walls that remained from the Roman period. One of the most notable surviving fortifications is that of the city of Carcassonne. The enclosure of towns resulted in a style of tall, narrow townhouse with limited living space . These often surrounded communal courtyards, as at San Gimignano in Tuscany.

1.1.4 – Growing Prosperity

As Europe grew steadily more prosperous during this period, art of the highest quality was no longer confined to the royal court and a small circle of monasteries as in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. Monasteries remained important, especially those of the new Cistercian , Cluniac , and Carthusian orders that spread across Europe. City churches, including those on pilgrimage routes and many in small towns and villages, were elaborately decorated. Indeed, these have often survived when cathedrals and city churches have been rebuilt, while Romanesque royal palaces have not. The lay artist, Nicholas of Verdun, became a valued figure known across the continent. Most masons and goldsmiths were now lay professionals rather than monastic clergy, and lay painters like Master Hugo were the majority by the end of the period. The iconography of their church work was likely determined in consultation with clerical advisers.

1.2 – Romanesque Art

1.2.1 – Introduction

Romanesque art refers to the art of Europe from the late 10th century to the rise of the Gothic style in the 13th century or later, depending on region. The term “Romanesque” was invented by 19th century art historians to refer specifically to architecture of the time period, which retained many basic features of Roman architectural style—most notably semi-circular arches—but retained distinctive regional characteristics. In Southern France, Spain, and Italy, there was architectural continuity with the Late Antique period, but the Romanesque style was the first style to spread across the whole of Catholic Europe and thus the first pan-European style since Imperial Roman Architecture. Romanesque art was also influenced by Byzantine art, especially in painting, and by the anti-classical energy of the decoration of the Insular art of the British Isles. From these elements was forged a highly innovative and coherent style.

1.2.2 –  Architecture

Maria Laach Abbey, Germany: This abbey, founded in 1093, is an example of Romanesque architecture.

Combining features of Roman and Byzantine buildings along with other local traditions, Romanesque architecture is distinguished by massive quality, thick walls, round arches, sturdy piers, groin vaults, large towers, and decorative arcades . Each building has clearly defined forms and a symmetrical plan, resulting in a much simpler appearance than the Gothic buildings that would follow. The style can be identified across Europe, despite regional characteristics and materials.

1.2.3 – Painting

The “Morgan Leaf. “: The “Morgan Leaf,”detached from the illuminated Winchester Bible of 1160-75. Scenes from the life of David, depicted in the Romanesque style with figures in various sizes according to importance and abstract landscape backgrounds.

Aside from architecture, the art of the period was characterized by a vigorous style in both painting and sculpture. In churches, painting continued to follow Byzantine iconographic models. Christ in Majesty, the Last Judgement and scenes from the Life of Christ remained among the most common depictions. In illuminated manuscripts , the most lavishly decorated examples of the period included bibles or psalters . As new scenes were depicted, more originality developed. They used intensely saturated primary colors , which now exist in their original brightness only in stained glass and well-preserved manuscripts. Stained glass first came to wide use during this period, although there are few surviving examples.

Pictorial compositions usually had little depth as they were limited to the narrow spaces of historiated initials, column capitals , and church tympanums. The tension between a tight frame and a composition that sometimes escapes its designated space is a recurrent theme in Romanesque art. Figures often varied in size in relation to their importance, and landscape backgrounds were absent or closer to abstract decorations than realism , as in the trees in the “Morgan Leaf.” Human forms were often elongated and contorted to fit the shape provided and at times appeared to be floating in space. These figures focused on linear details with emphasis on drapery folds and hair.

1.2.4 – Sculpture

The portal of Saint-Pierre, Moissac: This image shows the carvings on the tympanums of the portal of Saint-Pierre, Moissac Abbey, Moissac, France.

Sculpture also exhibited a vigorous style, evident in the carved capitals of columns, which often depicted complete scenes consisting of several figures. Precious objects sculpted in metal, enamel , and ivory , such as reliquaries , also had high status in this period. While the large wooden crucifix and statues of the enthroned Madonna were German innovations at the start of the period, the high relief carvings of architectural elements are most evocative of this style.

In a significant innovation, the tympanums of important church portals were carved with monumental schemes, again depicting Christ in Majesty or the Last Judgement but treated with more freedom than in painted versions. These portal sculptures were meant to both intimidate and educate the viewer . As there were no equivalent Byzantine models, Romanesque sculptors felt free to expand in their treatment of tympanums.

2 – Romanesque Architecture

2.1 – First Romanesque Architecture

The First Romanesque style developed in the Catalan territory and demonstrated a lower level of expertise than the later Romanesque style.

2.1.1 – Development of First Romanesque Architecture

Romanesque architecture is divided into two periods: the “First Romanesque” style and the “Romanesque” style. The First Romanesque style developed in the north of Italy, parts of France, and the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century prior to the later influence of the Abbey of Cluny. The style is attributed to architectural activity by groups of Lombard teachers and stonemasons working in the Catalan territory during the first quarter of the 11th century. Abott Oliba of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll served as a particularly influential impeller, diffuser, and sponsor of the First Romanesque style.

To avoid the term Pre-Romanesque, which is often used with a much broader meaning to refer to early Medieval and early Christian art (and in Spain may also refer to the Visigothic, Asturias, Mozarabic, and Repoblación art forms) Puig i Cadafalch preferred to use the term “First Romanesque.”

2.1.2 – Characteristics

Ripoll Monastery: The Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll is a Benedictine monastery built in the First Romanesque style, located in the town of Ripoll in Catalonia, Spain. Although much of the present church includes 19th century rebuilding, the sculptured portico is a renowned work of Romanesque art.

The First Romanesque style, also known as Lombard Romanesque style, is characterized by thick walls, lack of sculpture, and the presence of rhythmic ornamental arches known as Lombard bands. The difference between the First Romanesque and later Romanesque styles is a matter of the expertise with which the buildings were constructed. First Romanesque employed rubble walls, smaller windows, and unvaulted roofs, while the Romanesque style is distinguished by a more refined style and increased use of the vault and dressed stone. For example, Abott Oliba ordered an extension to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in 1032 mirroring the First Romanesque characteristics of two frontal towers, a cruise with seven apses, and Lombard ornamentation of blind arches and vertical strips.

2.2 – Cistercian Architecture

The Cistercians are a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monks and nuns. This order was founded by a group of Benedictine monks from the Molesme monastery in 1098, with the goal of more closely following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

2.2.1 – Characteristics of Cistercian Architecture

Fountains Abbey: The abbeys of 12th century England were stark and undecorated – a dramatic contrast with the elaborate churches of the wealthier Benedictine houses – yet to quote Warren Hollister, “even now the simple beauty of Cistercian ruins such as Fountains and Rievaulx, set in the wilderness of Yorkshire, is deeply moving”.

Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture and has made an important contribution to European civilization . Because of the pure style of the Cistercian monasteries and churches, they are counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. Cistercian institutions were primarily constructed in Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles during the Middle Ages, although later abbeys were also constructed in Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Cistercian abbeys of Fontenay in France, Fountains in England, Alcobaça in Portugal, Poblet in Spain, and Maulbronn in Germany are today recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

2.2.2 – Theological Principles

Santa Maria Arabona: Abbey church of Santa Maria Arabona, Italy.

Cistercian architecture was based on rational principles. In the mid-12th century, the prominent Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundinian architecture (including rib vaults and pointed arches , respectively), creating the new style of Gothic architecture . This new “architecture of light” was intended to raise the observer “from the material to the immaterial;”it was, according to the 20th century French historian Georges Duby, a “monument of app lied theology.” Cistercian architecture expressed a different aesthetic and theology while learning from the Benedictine’s advances. St. Bernard saw church decoration as a distraction from piety and favored austerity in the construction of monasteries, the order itself was receptive to the technical improvements of Gothic principles of construction and played an important role in its spread across Europe.

This new Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order, and in theory it was utilitarian and without superfluous ornament. The same rational, integrated scheme was used across Europe to meet the largely homogeneous needs of the order. Various buildings, including the chapter-house to the east and the dormitories above, were grouped around a cloister and sometimes linked to the transept of the church itself by a night stair. Cistercian churches were typically built on a cruciform layout, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer , and an aisle-edged nave divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers.

2.2.3 – Engineering and Construction

Acey Abbey, France: The “architecture of light” of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration.

Cistercian buildings were made of smooth, pale stone where possible. Columns , pillars , and windows fell at the same base level, and plastering was extremely simple or nonexistent. The sanctuary kept to a proportion of 1:2 at both elevation and floor levels. To maintain the appearance of ecclesiastical buildings, Cistercian sites were constructed in a pure, rational style, lending to their beauty and simplicity. The building projects of the Church in the High Middle Ages showed an ambition for the colossal , requiring vast amounts of quarried stone. This was also true of the Cistercian projects. Foigny Abbey was 98 meters (322 ft) long; Vaucelles Abbey was 132 metres (433 ft) long. Even the most humble monastic buildings were constructed entirely of stone. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Cistercian barns consisted of a stone exterior divided into nave and aisles either by wooden posts or by stone piers .

The Cistercians recruited the best stone cutters. As early as 1133, St. Bernard hired workers to help the monks erect new buildings at Clairvaux. The oldest recorded example of architectural tracing, Byland Abbey in Yorkshire, dates to the 12th century. Tracings were architectural drawings incised and painted in stone to a depth of 2–3 mm, showing architectural detail to scale.

2.3 – Characteristics of Romanesque Architecture

While Romanesque architecture tends to possess certain key features, these often vary in appearance and building material from region to region.

2.3.1 – Variations in Romanesque Architecture

The general impression given by both ecclesiastical and secular Romanesque architecture is that of massive solidity and strength. Romanesque architecture relies upon its walls, or sections of walls called piers, to bear the load of the structure, rather than using arches, columns, vaults, and other systems to manage the weight. As a result, the walls are massive, giving the impression of sturdy solidity. Romanesque design is also characterized by the presence of arches and openings, arcades, columns, vaults, and roofs. In spite of the general existence of these items, Romanesque architecture varies in how these characteristics are presented. For example, walls may be made of different materials or arches and openings may vary in shape. Later examples of Romanesque architecture may also possess features that earlier forms do not.

2.3.2 – Walls

The building material used in Romanesque architecture varies across Europe depending on local stone and building traditions. In Italy, Poland, much of Germany, and parts of the Netherlands, brick was customary. Other areas saw extensive use of limestone , granite, and flint . The building stone was often used in small, irregular pieces bedded in thick mortar. Smooth ashlar masonry was not a distinguishing feature of the style in the earlier part of the period, but occurred where easily worked limestone was available.

2.3.3 – Arches and Openings

Abbey Church of St. James, Lebeny, Hungary (1208): Characteristics of Romanesque architecture include the ocular window and the pairing of two arched windows or arcade openings within a larger arch, both open here at the Abbey Church of St. James.

A characteristic feature of Romanesque architecture, both ecclesiastic and domestic, is the pairing of two arched windows or arcade openings separated by a pillar or colonette and often set within a larger arch. Ocular windows are common in Italy, particularly in the facade gable , and are also seen in Germany. Later Romanesque churches may have wheel windows or rose windows with plate tracery . In a few Romanesque buildings , such as Autun Cathedral in France and Monreale Cathedral in Sicily, pointed arches have been used extensively.

2.3.4 – Arcades


[LEFT]: Collegiate Church of Nivelles: The Collegiate Church of Nivelles, Belgium uses fine shafts of Belgian marble to define alternating blind openings and windows. Upper windows are similarly separated into two openings by colonettes.
[RIGHT]: Notre Dame du Puy: The facade of Notre Dame du Puy, le Puy en Velay, France, has a more complex arrangement of diversified arches: doors of varying widths, blind arcading, windows, and open arcades.

The arcade of a cloister typically consists of a single stage (story), while the arcade that divides the nave and aisles in a church typically has two stages, with a third stage of window openings known as the clerestory rising above. Arcades on a large scale generally fulfills a structural purpose, but they are also used decoratively on a smaller scale both internally and externally. External arcades are frequently called “blind arcades,” with only a wall or a narrow passage behind them.

2.3.5 – Piers

Although basically rectangular, piers can often be highly complex, with half-segments of large hollow-core columns on the inner surface supporting the arch and a clustered group of smaller shafts leading into the moldings of the arch. Piers that occur at the intersection of two large arches, such as those under the crossing of the nave and transept , are commonly cruciform in shape, each with its own supporting rectangular pier perpendicular to the other.

2.3.6 – Columns

Durham Cathedral, England: Durham Cathedral has decorated masonry columns alternating with piers of clustered shafts supporting the earliest example of pointed high ribs.

Columns were often used in Romanesque architecture, but varied in building material and decorative style. In Italy, a great number of antique Roman columns were salvaged and reused in the interiors and on the porticos of churches. In most parts of Europe, Romanesque columns were massive, supporting thick upper walls with small windows and sometimes heavy vaults. Where massive columns were called for, such as those at Durham Cathedral, they were constructed of ashlar masonry with a hollow core was filled with rubble. These huge untapered columns were sometimes ornamented with incised decorations.

A common characteristic of Romanesque buildings, found in both churches and in the arcades that separate large interior spaces of castles, is the alternation of piers and columns. The most simple form is a column between each adjoining pier. Sometimes the columns are in multiples of two or three. Often the arrangement is made more complex by the complexity of the piers themselves, so that the alternation was not of piers and columns but rather of piers of entirely different forms.

Corinthian style capitals: Capital of Corinthian form with anthropomorphised details, Pisa Campanile

The foliate Corinthian style provided the inspiration for many Romanesque capitals , and the accuracy with which they were carved depended on the availability of original models. Capitals in Italian churches, such as Pisa Cathedral or church of Sant’Alessandro in Lucca and southern France, are much closer to the Classical form and style than those in England.

2.3.7 – Vaults and Roofs

The majority of buildings have wooden roofs in a simple truss, tie beam, or king post form. Trussed rafter roofs are sometimes lined with wooden ceilings in three sections like those that survive at Ely and Peterborough cathedrals in England. In churches, typically the aisles are vaulted but the nave is roofed with timber , as is the case at both Peterborough and Ely. In Italy, open wooden roofs were common, tie beams frequently occurred in conjunction with vaults, and the timbers were often decorated, as at San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

Vaults of stone or brick took on several different forms and showed marked development during the period, evolving into the pointed, ribbed arch characteristic of Gothic architecture.

2.4 – Architecture of the Holy Roman Empire

Architecture from the Holy Roman Empire spans from the Romanesque to the Classic eras.

2.4.1 –  Background

The Holy Roman Empire was a varying complex of lands that existed from 962 to 1806 in Central Europe. The empire’s territory lay predominantly in Central Europe and at its peak included territories of the Kingdoms of Germany, Bohemia, Italy, and Burgundy. For much of its history, the Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, and other domains.

2.4.2 – Pre-Romanesque

The Pre-Romanesque period in Western European art is often dated from the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th century to the beginning of the 11th century. German buildings from this period include Lorsch Abbey , which combines elements of the Roman triumphal arch (including arch-shaped passageways and half- columns ) with the vernacular Teutonic heritage (including baseless triangles of the blind arcade and polychromatic masonry). One of the most important churches in this style is the Abbey Church of St. Michael’s, constructed between 1001 and 1031 as the chapel of the Benedictine monastery. It was built in the so-called Ottonic (Early-Romanesque) style during the Ottonian Renaissance.

2.4.3 – Romanesque

Speyer Cathedral (image by Alfred Hutter): Speyer Cathedral was built during the Romanesque era and is an example of Romanesque architecture; in the 11th century, it was the largest building in the Christian world and an architectural symbol of the power of the Salian dynasty.

The Romanesque period (10th – early 13th century) is characterized by semi-circular arches, robust structures, small paired windows, and groin vaults. Many churches in Germany date from this time, including the twelve Romanesque churches of Cologne. The most significant Romanesque building in Germany is Speyer Cathedral, built in stages from about 1030. In the 11th century, it was the largest building in the Christian world and an architectural symbol of the power of the Salian dynasty , four German Kings who ruled from 1024–1125. Other important examples of Romanesque styles include the cathedrals of Worms and Mainz, Limburg Cathedral (in the Rhenish Romanesque style), Maulbronn Abbey (an example of Cistercian architecture), and the famous castle of Wartburg, which was later expanded in the Gothic style.

2.4.4 – Gothic

Gothic architecture flourished during the high and late medieval periods, evolving from Romanesque architecture. Freiburg Cathedral is noted for its 116-meter tower, which is nearly square at the base with a dodecagonal star gallery at the center. Above this gallery, the tower is octagonal and tapered with a spire above. Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world after Milan Cathedral. Construction began in 1248 and took until 1880 to complete—an intermittent period of more than 600 years. Because of its enormous twin spires, it also has the largest façade of any church in the world, and its choir boasts the largest height to width ratio of any Medieval church.

Cologne Cathedral: Cologne Cathedral is—after Milan Cathedral—the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, built over a process of 600 years.

Brick Gothic is a specific style of Gothic architecture common in Northern Europe, especially in Northern Germany and the regions around the Baltic Sea without natural rock resources. The buildings are mainly built from bricks. Cities such as Lübeck, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, and Greifswald are shaped by this regional style; key examples include
Stralsund City Hall and St. Nicholas Church.

The dwellings of this period were mainly timber-framed buildings still seen in Goslar and Quedlinburg, the latter of which has one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany. The method of construction, used extensively for town houses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, lasted into the 20th century for rural buildings.

2.4.5 – Renaissance

Renaissance architecture (early 15th – early 17th centuries) flourished in different parts of Europe with the conscious revival and development of ancient Greek and Roman thought and culture. As in other areas of Europe, Renaissance architecture in the Holy Roman Empire placed emphasis on symmetry , proportion, geometry, and the regularity of parts as demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity , particularly ancient Roman architecture. Orderly arrangement of columns, pilasters , and lintels and the use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes , niches, and aedicules replaced the complex proportional systems and irregular profiles of medieval buildings. The earliest example of Renaissance architecture in Germany is the Fugger chapel in St. Anne’s Church, Augsburg; other works include St. Michael in Munich, Heidelberg Castle, Augsburg City Hall, and castles and manors throughout Wester, Thuringia, and Saxony.

2.4.6 – Baroque

Die Frauenkirche in Dresden: The rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden was created by George Bähr between 1722 and 1743, and is an example of Baroque architecture in Germany.

Baroque architecture began in the early 17th century in Italy and arrived in Germany after the Thirty Years War. The interaction of architecture, painting, and sculpture is an essential feature of Baroque architecture, which integrated new fashions to express the triumph of the Catholic Church and was characterized by new explorations of form , light and shadow and dramatic intensity . Zwinger Palace in Dresden illustrated the architecture of absolutism, which always put the ruler at the center thus increasing the spatial composition; for example, a magnificent staircase leading to the figure. In Rococo , the late phase of Baroque, decoration became even more abundant and used brighter colors. Other examples of Baroque church architecture include the Basilica of the Vierzehnheiligen in Upper Franconia and the rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden.

2.4.7 – Classicism

Classicism arrived in Germany in the second half of the 18th century. It drew inspiration from the classical architecture of antiquity and was a reaction against the Baroque style in both architecture and landscape design. The most important architect of this style in Germany was Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Schinkel’s style, in his most productive period, is defined by its appeal to Greek rather than Imperial Roman architecture; his most famous buildings are found in and around Berlin.

2.5 – The Church of Saint-Lazare

2.5.1 – Introduction

Autun Cathedral, ca. 1120-46: Exterior of Autun Cathedral, which stands in the highest and best fortified corner of the town, and through external modifications that have been applied to the building, the appearance has been much altered by the addition of a Gothic tower, a spire and side chapels in the 15th century.

The Autun Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, is a Roman Catholic cathedral and national monument in Autun, France. Famous for its Cluniac inspiration and Romanesque sculptures by Gislebertus, it epitomizes Romanesque art and architecture in Burgundy.

Due to the veneration of relics in this period, the Bishop of Autun ordered the creation of a larger cathedral to house these relics and accommodate the influx of pilgrims into Autun. The column capitals and main façade of the church are embellished with realistic sculptures carved by Gislebertus, and the artwork is a means of teaching the masses about Christian ethics with dramatic scenes of heaven and hell. Work on the cathedral began around 1120 and advanced rapidly; the building was consecrated in 1130. The designs were the work of the bishop Etienne de Bâgé, who was particularly influenced by the Cluniac abbey of Paray-le-Monial.

2.5.2 – Design Elements

The interior of the cathedral has a nave and two aisles divided by massive columns with longitudinal carvings punctuated with decorated Romanesque capitals. The plan of the cathedral has a narthex or antechamber of two bays topped by two towers, followed by a seven-bay nave flanked by side aisles and a transept with the tower-surmounting cross. The nave elevation is composed of three levels: grand arcade , triforium , and clerestory , each marked by a cornice . The three-story elevation of Saint-Lazare was made possible by the use of pointed arches for the nave. Each nave bay is separated at the vault by a transverse rib . Each transept projects to the width of two nave bays and the west entrance has a narthex which screens the main portal.

2.5.3 – Capital Sculptures

The cathedral of St. Lazare has a ground plan in the form of a Latin cross, with an aisled nave, a plain transept, and a three-stage choir with a semicircular end. Many of the historiated capitals that adorn the columns in Saint-Lazare were carved by Gislebertus. What makes Saint-Lazare a masterpiece of Romanesque art is the quality of Gislebertus’ sculptures. These stone-carved scenes from the Bible appear on dozens of capitals in the nave and chancel. Specifically, Gislebertus created used the tendrils of the actual Corinthian capital to create an architectural frame for the narrative to develop. These portal capitals are carved with biblical and traditional scenes.

2.5.4 – The West Tympanum

The West façade of Saint-Lazare contains the tympanum (1130–1135), signed Gislebertus hoc fecit (meaning “Gislebertus made this”) within the portico . It is ranked among the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture in France. The sheer size of the tympanum required support by double lintels and middle column to further bolster the sculpture. The left side of the tympanum displays the rise to the heavenly kingdom, and on the right is a portrayal of demons in hell with an angel and a devil weighing the souls on a balance. Zodiac signs surround the arch vault, with Christ in the center portrayed as a serene figure. Christ is placed in perfect symmetrical position with a balanced composition of elongated figures. Jesus is flanked by his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his apostles cast as penitents and observers of the last judgment. St. Peter guards the gate to heaven and looks on as resurrected individuals attempt to squeeze in with the assistance of the angels.

Last Judgement: Last Judgement by Gislebertus in the west tympanum.

In the Last Judgement, Gislebertus successfully integrated the modern view of heaven and hell and created a sculpture to act as a visual educational device for individuals who were illiterate. The tympanum inspired terror in believers who viewed the detailed high relief sculpture . Indeed, the bottom of the tympanum underneath the weighing of the souls has an inscription which states, “May this terror terrify those whom earthly error binds for the horror of the images here in this manner truly depicts what will be.” The tympanum is framed by two archivolts: the inner has carved foliage, while the outer consists of magnificently detailed medallions representing the four seasons, zodiacs, and labors of the months.

3 – Romanesque Sculpture

3.1 – Overview

Sculpture from the Romanesque period saw advances in metalwork, enamels, and figurative friezes and scenes found in architecture.

3.1.1 – Background

Romanesque art is the art of Europe from approximately 1000 CE to the rise of the Gothic style in the 13th century or later, depending on region. The preceding period is known as the Pre-Romanesque period. The term was invented by 19th-century art historians specifically to refer to Romanesque architecture, which retained many features of Roman architectural style (notably round-headed arches , barrel vaults , apses , and acanthus-leaf decoration) while also developing distinctive characteristics. Southern France, Spain, and Italy showed architectural continuity with the Late Antique, but the Romanesque style was the first to spread across the whole of Catholic Europe from Sicily to Scandinavia. Romanesque art was also greatly influenced by Byzantine art, especially in painting, and by the anti-classical energy of the decoration of the Insular art of the British Isles. From these elements was forged a highly innovative and coherent style.

3.1.2 – Metalwork, Enamels, and Ivories

The Gloucester candlestick, early 12th century: The bronze Gloucester candlestick is a superb example of metal casting, with intricate and energetic qualities that draw on manuscript painting.

Precious objects in metalwork, ivories, and enamels held high status in the Romanesque period. The creators of these objects are more well-known than contemporary painters, illuminators, and architect-masons. Metalwork, including decoration in enamel, became very sophisticated. Many spectacular shrines made to hold relics have survived, of which the best known is the Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral by Nicholas of Verdun (circa 1180–1225). The bronze Gloucester candlestick is a superb example of metal casting , with intricate and energetic qualities that draw on manuscript painting. The Stavelot Triptych and Reliquary of St. Maurus are other examples of Mosan enamelwork. Large reliquaries and altar frontals were built around a wooden frame, but smaller caskets were made entirely of metal and enamel. A few secular pieces such as mirror cases, jewelry, and clasps have also survived, but these no doubt under-represent the amount of fine metalwork owned by the nobility.

3.1.3 – Architectural Sculpture

Vézelay Abbey, Burgundy, France: The tympanum of Vézelay Abbey in Burgundy, completed in the 1130s, has a great deal of decorative spiral detail in the draperies.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the tradition of carving large works in stone and sculpting figures in bronze died out, as it did for religious reasons in the Byzantine world. Some life-size sculpture was done in stucco or plaster, but surviving examples are rare. The best-known surviving sculpture of Proto-Romanesque Europe is the life-size wooden crucifix commissioned by Archbishop Gero of Cologne in about 960–65, apparently the prototype of a popular form . Beginning in the 12th centure, these were set up on a beam below the chancel arch, known in English as a rood, and flanked by figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, figurative sculpture was revived as architectural reliefs became a hallmark of the late Romanesque period. Figurative sculpture was based largely on manuscript illumination and small-scale sculpture in ivory and metal. The extensive friezes sculpted on Armenian and Syriac churches were another likely influence. These sources together produced a distinct style that can be recognized across Europe, although the most spectacular sculptural projects are concentrated in South-Western France, Northern Spain, and Italy.

Images in metalwork were frequently embossed . The resulting surface had two main planes with incised details. This treatment was adapted to stone carving and is often seen in the tympanum above the portal , where the imagery of Christ in Majesty with the symbols of the Four Evangelists is drawn directly from the gilt covers of medieval gospel books. This style of doorway occurs in many places and continued into the Gothic period.

Most Romanesque sculpture is pictorial and biblical in subject. A great variety of themes are found on building capitals, including scenes of Creation and the Fall of Man, the life of Christ, and Old Testament depictions of his Death and Resurrection, such as Jonah and the Whale and Daniel in the lions’ den. Many Nativity scenes occur, most frequently the Three Kings. Some Romanesque churches feature an extensive sculptural scheme which covers the area surrounding the portal and sometimes much of the facade. The sculptural schemes were designed to convey the message that Christian believers should recognize wrongdoing, repent, and be redeemed. The Last Judgement reminds the believer to repent, while the carved or painted Crucifix, displayed prominently within the church, reminds the sinner of redemption.

3.2 – Majestat Batlló

3.2.1 – Overview

Majestat Batlló : The Majestat Batlló is a 12th century Romanesque wooden crucifix, now in the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. It is one of the most elaborate examples in Catalonia of an image of Christ on the Cross symbolizing his triumph over death.

The Majestat Batlló, or Batlló Majesty, is a 12th century Romanesque polychrome wood carving now held in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, Catalonia. Carved wooden images were a fundamental element in churches as objects of worship, and one of the most elaborate motifs was the Christ in Majesty: images of Christ on the Cross that symbolize his triumph over death. The most outstanding of these is the Majestat Batlló, also one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Catalan sculpture.

3.2.2 – Symbolism and Description

The Majestat Batlló is a large wooden crucifix that presents Christ bearing his suffering with noble stoicism and triumph. He is wearing a colobium, or a long, sleeveless tunic. Although the corners of his mouth turn slightly downward, Christ’s open eyes and unfurrowed brow create the impression of a self-possessed impassivity. A Latin inscription above his head reads, “JHS NAZARENUS REX IUDEORUM” (“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”), as in biblical accounts (Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, John 19:19).

One of the striking features of the Batlló Majesty compared to Catalan sculpture is the well-conserved polychromy. Christ’s colobium, in imitation of rich oriental silk, is decorated with blue floral designs surrounded by circular red frames embellished with dots and circles. A thin belt with an elaborate interlace knot pulls the tunic in above Christ’s hips, making the fabric above it swell out slightly and curving the path of its flat, wide vertical folds. Such robes are linked with royal and priestly functions and conveyed a message of strength to the audience. They can be seen as a visualization of the Apocalyptic Christ from the Book of Revelation.

The frontal geometric composition of the tunic decorated in circles and floral motifs is reminiscent of the refined Byzantine and Hispano-Moorish fabrics held in high esteem in the Christian West during this time. The great reference for this type was the Volto Santo in Lucca (Tuscany, Italy), regarded as having miraculous origins and as the object of pilgrimage and extraordinary devotion from the end of the 11th century. The iconographic tradition of Jesus in a colobium dates to 586 CE in a manuscript of the Syriac Gospels called the Rabbula Gospels, written by the monk Rabbula somewhere in Mesopotamia . The tradition of depicting Christ in such costume was likely brought to Catalonia by artisans from Pisa, who arrived in 1114 to help Ramon Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona, in his conquest of the Balearic Islands.

3.2.3 – Chronology

The Majestat Batlló is difficult to date, but the inscription on the cross and the painting could be placed in the 11th century. However, other authors date it back to the 12th century based on the painting’s similarity to others from the area of Ripoll, mid-12th century. The tunic is analogous to an Islamic motif of the cloister of the abbey of Saint-Pierre de Moissac, which seems to prove the spread of this style during the Romanesque period.

3.3 – Mary as the Throne of Wisdom

Mary as the Throne of Wisdom was a popular biblical theme represented throughout Romanesque sculpture.

3.3.1 – Background

Mary as the Throne of Wisdom: Madonna as Seat of Wisdom, 1199, inscribed as by Presbyter Martinus, from the Camaldolese abbey in Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo, Italy.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the epithet “the Seat of Wisdom” or “Throne of Wisdom” is one of many devotional titles for the Mother of God. The phrase was coined in the 11th and 12th centuries by Peter Damiani and Guibert de Nogent and likens Mary to the Throne of Solomon, referring to her status as a vessel carrying the Holy Child. As the phrase associates the Blessed Virgin with glory and teaching, Madonnas in this tradition are especially popular in Catholic imagery.

3.3.2 – Cultural History

In Christian iconography , sedes sapientiae (“The Throne of Wisdom”) is an icon of the Mother of God in majesty. When the Virgin is depicted in sedes sapientiae icons and sculptural representations, she is seated on a throne with the Christ Child on her lap.

This type of Madonna image was a variant of the Byzantine Hodegetria type, in which the Virgin Mary is depicted holding the child Jesus at her side while pointing to him as the source of salvation for mankind. It appeared in a wide range of sculptural and painted images in Western Europe, especially near 1200 CE. In these representations, structural elements of the throne invariably appear, even if only handholds and front legs. The Virgin’s feet often rest on a low stool. Later Gothic sculptures are more explicitly identifiable with the Throne of Solomon, where “two lions stood, one at each hand. And twelve little lions stood upon the six steps on the one side and on the other” (I Kings 10, 19-20).

Aechen Cathedral, 11th Century: The cloisonné enamel donor plaque with the donor’s portrait and the enthroned Madonna, on the processional Cross of Mathilde, Ottonian, early 11th century (Aachen Cathedral)

In addition to Romanesque sculpture, the sedes sapientiae icon appeared in illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, mosaics, and seals of the time. The icon possesses emblematic verbal components: the Virgin as the Throne of Wisdom is a trope of Damiani or Guibert de Nogent, based on the typological interpretation of the passage in the Books of Kings that describes the throne of Solomon (I Kings 10: 18–20, repeated at II Chronicles 9: 17–19). This motif was frequently used in Early Netherlandish painting in works like the Lucca Madonna by Jan van Eyck.

3.4 – Tomb of Rudolf of Swabia

The tomb of Rudolf of Swabia is a prime example of Romanesque sculpture.

3.4.1 – Overview

Rudolf of Rheinfelden (1025 – 1080) was Duke of Swabia (1057–1079) and German Antiking (1077–1080). He was the son of Count Kuno of Rheinfelden and eventually became the alternative king, or antiking, for the politically oriented anti-Henry German aristocrats. This rebellion became known as the Great Saxon Revolt. He died as a result of battle wounds as his faction met and defeated Henry’s in the Battle of Elster.

3.4.2 – Tomb of Rudolf of Rheinfelden

Tomb of Rudolf of Swabia: The tomb of Rudolf of Swabia is exemplary of Romanesque sculpture.

Rudolf of Rheinfelden’s tomb, located at the cathedral of Merseburg, is a fine example of Romanesque sculpture. Sculpture of this era is marked by a love of inventive surface patterns and an expressive approach to the human body, using elongation, unnatural poses, and emphatic gestures to convey states of mind. Rudolf’s tomb reflects these characteristics. The sculpture of his body is elongated and lies with a scepter in one hand and an orb in the other, symbolic of the royal title he claimed but never held in life. He is depicted in royal garments and a crown.

The material used to construct the tomb also reflects the high status of metalwork in Romanesque sculpture. Indeed, precious metal objects, enamel work, and ivory carried a much higher significance than paintings during this time. Metalwork and enamel decoration became especially sophisticated during the 10th and 11th centuries. Rudolf of Rheinfelden’s tomb reflects this aesthetic with its bronze relief of Rudolf’s body encased inside of a raised border edge. An inscription is also etched into the border, demonstrating the skill involved in the tomb’s construction.

3.5 – Reiner of Huy

3.5.1 – Overview

Reiner of Huy was a 12th century metalworker and sculptor to whom many masterpieces of Mosan art, including the baptismal font at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liege, Belgium, are attributed. The Meuse River valley in modern Belgium and France, roughly comprising the Diocese of Liège, was the leading 12th century center of Romanesque metalwork , which at the time was still the most prestigious art medium . Nothing is known of Rainer’s life other a mention in an 1125 document as a goldsmith; however, a 14th century chronicle mentions him as the artist of the font. He may have died around 1150. Although Reiner of Huy is traditionally accepted to be the creator of the font, this attribution and the Mosan origin of the font, have been questioned.

3.5.2 – Baptismal Font at St. Bartholomew’s Church

Baptismal Font at St. Bartholomew’s Church: Reiner of Huy, a 12th century metalworker and sculptor, is generally attributed with creating the baptismal font at St. Bartholomew’s Church.

The font is a major masterpiece of Mosan art, remarkable for the classicism of its style. The basin is 91 centimeters (36 inches) across at the top, tapering slightly toward the base , and described as brass or bronze. It was made using the lost-wax casting technique with the basin cast in a single piece. The size was not necessarily exceptional, as both church bells and cauldrons for large households were probably comparable sizes. Some church doors cast in a single piece, though flat, were much larger.

The font sat on 12 oxen (two of which are now missing) that emerged from a stone plinth, a reference to the “molten sea… on twelve oxen” cast in bronze for Solomon’s temple. The five scenes shown, identified by Latin inscriptions (tituli) on the rim above and in the image field, can be read in chronological sequence. They include two scenes of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Christ, St. Peter baptizing Cornelius the Centurion, and St. John the Evangelist baptizing the philosopher Craton.

3.5.3 – Possible Other Works

The only other work generally agreed to be by the same master as the font is a small bronze crucifix figure now located in Schnütgen Museum, Cologne. Another crucifix in Brussels is probably from the same mold but with extra chasing. Others in Brussels and Dublin may have come from the same workshop, as they have many similarities to the Cologne bronze crucifix.

4 – Other Romanesque Arts

4.1 – Romanesque Illustrated Books

Many books of worship produced during the Romanesque period were characterized by illuminated manuscript.

4.1.1 – Illuminated Manuscripts in the Romanesque Period

A number of regional schools of art converged during the early Romanesque period and influenced the production of illuminated manuscripts and illustrated books. The “Channel school” of England and Northern France was heavily influenced by late Anglo-Saxon art, whereas the style in southern France depended more on Iberian influence. In Germany and the Low Countries, Ottonian styles continued to develop; these styles, along with Byzantine schools, in turn influenced Italy. By the 12th century reciprocal influences had developed among all these schools, although a degree of regional distinctiveness remained.

Romanesque illumination and illustrated books focused on the Bible, with each book prefaced by a large historiated initial, and the Psalter, where major initials were similarly illuminated. In both cases, more lavish examples contained cycles of scenes in fully-illuminated pages, sometimes with several scenes per page. The Bibles in particular often featured large pages and might be bound into more than one volume . Well-known examples of manuscripts from this era include the St. Alban’s Psalter, Hunterian Psalter, Winchester Bible (the “Morgan Leaf”), Fécamp Bible, Stavelot Bible, and Parc Abbey Bible.

By the end of the period, commercial artist and scribe workshops were significant and illumination (and books in general) became more widely available to both lay people and clergy.

4.1.2 – St. Alban’s Psalter

St. Alban’s Psalter: A scene depicting Mary Magdalene announcing news of the risen Christ. St. Alban’s Psalter is widely considered one of the most important examples of English Romanesque book production.

St. Alban’s Psalter, also known as the Albani Psalter or the Psalter of Christina of Markyate, is an English illuminated manuscript and one of several psalters created at or for St Alban’s Abbey in the 12th century. It is widely considered one of the most important examples of English Romanesque book production, featuring unprecedented lavishness of decoration, with over 40 full-page miniatures and contains a number of iconographic innovations that endured throughout the Middle Ages.

4.1.3 – Hunterian Psalter

Also known as the York Psalter, the Hunterian Psalter is an illuminated manuscript produced in England around 1170 and considered a striking example of the Romanesque style. The book opens with an illustrated calendar, and each month begins with the historiated letters “KL”, an abbreviation for kalenda (i.e. the first day of the month). Next is 13 pages of prefactory full-page miniatures with two scenes to a page: three pages of Old Testament scenes, six pages of scenes from the Life of Christ (though further pages are perhaps missing), and unusually for this date, three pages from the Life of the Virgin, including a Death of the Virgin with a funeral procession and an Assumption.

Hunterian Psalter: Depiction of the astrological sign Gemini, featuring the twins Castor and Pollux. The Hunterian Psalter was produced in England around 1170 and is considered a striking example of this Romanesque style.

These are the earliest English miniatures to have gold-leaf backgrounds incised with patterns of lines and dots. After these pages come two full-page miniatures of David playing his harp and a “Beatus” initial for the start of Psalm 1 (“Beatus vir”). All the psalms have a large illuminated initial, often historiated, and each verse starts with an enlarged gold initial. The start of the 10 traditional divisions of the text have especially large initials, typical for this style.

4.1.4 – Winchester Bible

The Winchester Bible is a Romanesque illuminated manuscript produced in Winchester between 1160 and 1175. With folios measuring 583 x 396 mm (23 x 16 inches), it is the largest surviving 12th-century English Bible.

Winchester Bible: A scene depicting God addressing Jeremiah. During the Romanesque period, the focus of major illumination in the West moved from the Gospel Book to the Psalter and the Bible, and the Winchester manuscript is one of the most lavish examples.

During the Romanesque period, the focus of major illumination in the West moved from the Gospel Book to the Psalter and the Bible, and the Winchester manuscript is one of the most lavish examples. The artwork is incomplete; many illuminations were left unfinished and others were deliberately removed. The illuminations appear in varying stages of completion, ranging from rough outlines and inked drawings to unpainted gilded images and figures complete in all but the final details. In all, 48 of the major historiated initials that begin each book stand complete.

4.1.5 – Fécamp Bible

A page from the Fécamp Bible: The Fécamp Bible is an illuminated Latin Bible produced in Paris during the late 13th century. This page showcases the striking blue and red flourishes.

The Fécamp Bible is an illuminated Latin Bible produced in Paris during the third quarter of the 13th century. Each book of the Bible and the major sections of Psalms are introduced by a large historiated initial in colors and gold, with the exception of the books of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Haggai. In all, there are 79 extant historiated initials. The beginnings of the prologues have large zoomorphic and foliate initials. The beginning of each chapter is marked by a small initial in red with blue-pen flourishes or in blue with red-pen flourishes.

4.2 – Romanesque Painting and Stained Glass

4.2.1 – Overview

Painting from the Romanesque era consisted of elaborate mural decorations and exquisite stained glass.

Romanesque painting and other art forms were greatly influenced by Byzantine art and the anti-classical energy of the Insular art of the British Isles. From these elements was forged a highly innovative and coherent style in illumination, painting, and stained glass.

4.2.2 – Wall Paintings

The Virgin and Child in Majesty and the Adoration of the Maji: Master of Pedret, The Virgin and Child in Majesty and the Adoration of the Magi, apse fresco, Spain, c. 1100, now The Cloisters.

The large wall surfaces and plain, curving vaults of the architecture of the Romanesque period lent themselves to elaborate wall paintings and mural decorations. Unfortunately, many of these early wall paintings have been destroyed by dampness, and in some cases the walls have been replastered and painted over. In England, France, and the Netherlands, such pictures were systematically destroyed or whitewashed in bouts of iconoclasm during the Reformation . In Denmark and elsewhere, many have since been restored. In Catalonia (Spain), there was a national campaign to save such murals in the early 20th century by transferring them to safekeeping in Barcelona, resulting in the spectacular collection at the National Art Museum of Catalonia. In other countries, Romanesque wall paintings have suffered from war, neglect, and changing fashion.

A classic scheme for the painted decoration of a church was derived from earlier examples, often in mosaic . At its focal point in the semi-dome of the apse , it commonly presented either Christ in Majesty or Christ the Redeemer enthroned within a mandorla and framed by the four winged beasts, symbols of the Four Evangelists. These iconographic images compared directly with examples from the gilt covers or illuminations of Gospel Books of the period. If the Virgin Mary was the patron saint of the church, she might replace Christ in the apse. On the apse walls below were saints and apostles, often including narrative scenes. On the sanctuary arch were figures of apostles, prophets, or the 24 elders of the Apocalypse, looking toward a bust of Christ or his symbol the Lamb at the top of the arch. The north wall of the nave often contained narrative scenes from the Old Testament while the south wall was dedicated to scenes from the New Testament. On the rear west wall was a Last Judgement with an enthroned and judging Christ at the top.

San Isidoro at León, Spain: The painted crypt of San Isidoro at León, Spain

One of the most intact schemes still in existence is at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in France. The long barrel vault of the nave provides an excellent surface for fresco and is decorated with scenes of the Old Testament, showing the Creation, the Fall of Man, and other stories. The paintings include a lively depiction of Noah’s Ark, complete with a fearsome figurehead and numerous windows through which can be seen Noah and his family on the upper deck, birds on the middle deck, and pairs of animals on the lower deck. Another scene shows the swamping of Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea. The scheme extends to other parts of the church, with the martyrdom of the local saints shown in the crypt and the Apocalypse shown in the narthex . The range of colors is limited to light blue-green, yellow ochre , reddish brown, and black. Similar paintings exist in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere in France.

4.2.3 – Stained Glass

Romanesque Stained Glass: Stained glass, the Prophet Daniel from Augsburg Cathedral, late 11th century.

The oldest-known fragments of medieval pictorial stained glass appear to date from the 10th century. The earliest intact figures include five prophet windows at Augsburg dating from the late 11th century. The figures, though stiff and formalized, demonstrate considerable proficiency in design, both pictorially and in the functional use of the glass, indicating that their maker was well-accustomed to the medium.

Glass craftsmen were slower than architects to change their style, so much glasswork from the first part of the 13th century is essentially Romanesque. Large figures from the Strasbourg Cathedral, created in about 1200, are of especially fine quality. Some of these have been removed to museums for protection and better viewing. Other exceptional stained glass examples can be found at Saint Kunibert’s Church in Cologne, made around 1220. Most of the magnificent stained glass of France, including the famous “Tree of Jesse” window of Chartres Cathedral, dates from the 13th century. Glass was both expensive and fairly adaptable in that it could be added to or rearranged, and it was often reused when churches were rebuilt in the Gothic style.

5 – Normandy and England

5.1 – Norman Architecture

5.1.1 – Overview

Norman architecture is a style of Romanesque architecture developed by the Normans in the lands under their dominion during the 11thand 12th centuries. The Normans were descended from Norse raiders and pirates from Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, who in the 10th and 11th centuries gave their name to Normandy, a region in France. The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural, and military impact on medieval Europe. In particular, the term “Norman architecture” is traditionally used to refer to English Romanesque architecture. The Normans introduced large numbers of castles and fortifications, including keeps , monasteries, abbeys , churches, and cathedrals . These structures were constructed in a style characterized by Romanesque rounded arches (particularly over windows and doorways) and massive proportions compared to other regional variations of the style.

5.1.2 – Origins

Romanesque styles originated in Normandy and became widespread in northwestern Europe, particularly in England. Indeed, England was influential in the development of Romanesque architecture and has the largest number of surviving examples. At roughly the same time, the Norman dynasty ruled in Sicily, producing a distinctive variation that incorporated Byzantine and Saracen influence. This style of Norman architecture is known alternatively as Sicilian Romanesque.

5.1.3 – Architecture in Normandy

The Abbey of Saint-Étienne : The Abbey of Saint-Étienne is a former Benedictine monastery in the French city of Caen, Normandy, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was founded in 1063 by William the Conqueror and is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy.

Norman invaders arrived at the mouth of the river Seine in 911. Over the next century, Norman barons built timber castles on earthen mounds, beginning the development of motte -and-bailey castles; they also produced great stone churches in the Romanesque style of the Franks. By 950 they were building stone keeps. The Normans were among the most traveled peoples of Europe and thus exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences, including those from the Near East, some of which were incorporated into their art and architecture. They elaborated on the Early Christian basilica plan, making it longitudinal with side aisles, an apse, and a western facade with two towers. This elaboration can be seen in the Abbey of Saint-Étienne at Caen, begun in 1063, which formed a model for the larger English cathedrals whose construction began twenty years later.

Church of St. Pierre: The Church of St. Pierre is a good example of Norman architecture.

The Church of Saint-Pierre is another prime example of Norman architecture. This Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Peter is situated on the Place Saint Pierre in the center of Caen in Normandy. The construction of the present building took place between the early 13th and 16th centuries. The spire was destroyed in 1944 and has since been rebuilt. The eastern apse of the church was built by Hector Sohier between 1518 and 1545. The interior choir and the exterior apse display an architecture that embodies the transition from Gothic to Renaissance . Balustrades of Gothic letters, which read as part of the Magnificat, run along the top. Its west portal , the decoration of the tower spire, and the stained glass are among the features which make it one of the finest churches of the Rouen diocese.

5.1.4 – Norman Architecture in England

In England, Norman nobles and bishops had influence even before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and Norman influences affected late Anglo-Saxon architecture. Edward the Confessor was raised in Normandy, and in 1042 he brought masons to work on Westminster Abbey, the first Romanesque building in England. In 1051 he brought in Norman knights who built motte (raised earthwork) castles as a defense against the Welsh. Following the Norman invasion of England, Normans rapidly constructed more motte-and-bailey castles, and in a burst of building activity constructed churches, abbeys, and more elaborate fortifications such as Norman stone keeps.

The buildings show massive proportions in simple geometries. The masonry is decorated only with small bands of sculpture, perhaps used as blind arcading. Restrained decoration is seen in concentrated spaces of capitals and round doorways and in the tympanum under an arch. The Norman arch is round, in contrast to the pointed Gothic arch. Norman moldings are carved or incised with geometric ornament , such as chevron patterns (frequently termed “zig-zag moldings”) around arches. The cruciform churches often have deep chancels and a square crossing tower, which has remained a feature of English ecclesiastical architecture. Hundreds of parish churches were built, and the great English cathedrals were founded during a period from about 1083.

Guiting Power, Gloucestershire: A Norman arch with zig-zag mouldings above the church doorway at Guiting Power, Gloucestershire.

After a fire damaged Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, Norman masons introduced the new Gothic architecture . Around 1191, Wells Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral brought in the English Gothic style, and Norman architecture became an increasingly modest style seen only in provincial buildings.

5.2 – Norman Painting

Norman painting, like other Romanesque painting of its time, is best demonstrated by illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings, and stained glass.

5.2.1 – Background: The Normans

The Normans descended from Norse raiders from Denmark, Iceland, and Norway who in the 10th and 11th centuries gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged in the first half of the 10th century and continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries. The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural and military impact on medieval Europe. Norman cultural and military influence spread from France south to Italy and north into England after the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

5.2.2 – Manuscript Illumination

Illuminated Manuscript, The Three Magi from the St. Albans Psalter, Norman English, 12th century.: The typical foci of Romanesque illumination, such as this one pictured, were the Bible and the Psalter.

In the visual arts, the Normans did not have the rich and distinctive traditions of the cultures they conquered. However, in the early 11th century, the dukes began a program of church reform, encouraging the Cluniac reform of monasteries and patronizing intellectual pursuits, especially the proliferation of scriptoria and the compilation of lost illuminated manuscripts . The chief monasteries taking part in this “renaissance” of Norman art and scholarship were Mont-Saint-Michel, Fécamp, Jumièges, Bec, Saint-Ouen, Saint-Evroul, and Saint-Wandrille. These centers were in contact with the Winchester school, which channeled a pure Carolingian artistic tradition to Normandy. From roughly 1090-1110, Normandy experienced a brief golden age of illustrated manuscripts; however, the major scriptoria of Normandy ceased to function after the midpoint of the 12th century.

An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. Romanesque illuminations focused on the Bible and the Psalter . Each book of the Bible was prefaced by a large historiated initial; major initials were similarly illuminated in the Psalter. In both cases, more lavish examples had cycles of scenes in fully illuminated pages, sometimes with several scenes per page in compartments. The Bibles, in particular, often had very large pages and were sometimes bound into more than one volume.

5.2.3 – Wall Painting

The large wall surfaces and plain, curving vaults of the Romanesque period lent themselves well to mural decoration in Normandy and other Norman lands. Unfortunately, many of these early wall paintings have been destroyed by dampness over the years, or the walls themselves have been re-plastered and painted over. In Normandy, such pictures were systematically destroyed or whitewashed in bouts of iconoclasm during the Reformation .

A classic scheme for the painted decoration of a church had, as its focal point in the semi-dome of the apse , Christ in Majesty or Christ the Redeemer enthroned within a mandorla and framed by the four winged beasts (symbols of the Four Evangelists). If the Virgin Mary was the dedicatee of the church, she might replace Christ here. On the apse walls below were saints and apostles, often including narrative scenes. On the sanctuary arch were figures of apostles, prophets, or the 24 “elders of the Apocalypse”, looking in towards a bust of Christ or his symbol, the Lamb, at the top of the arch. The north wall of the nave contained narrative scenes from the Old Testament, while the south wall contained scenes from the New Testament. On the rear west wall was a Last Judgment with an enthroned and judging Christ at the top.

One of the most intact schemes in existence is at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in France. The long barrel vault of the nave provides an excellent surface for fresco and is decorated with scenes of the Old Testament. One of these shows a lively depiction of Noah’s Ark, complete with a fearsome figurehead and numerous windows through which Noah and his family can be seen on the upper deck, birds on the middle deck, and pairs of animals on the lower deck. Another scene shows the swamping of Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea. The scene extends to other parts of the church, with the martyrdom of the local saints shown in the crypt, the Apocalypse in the narthex , and Christ in Majesty. The range of colors is limited to light blue-green, yellow ochre , reddish brown, and black.

5.2.4 – Stained Glass

Another significant Norman art form is stained glass. Most of the magnificent stained glass of France, including the famous windows of Chartres, dates from the 13th century. Few large windows remain intact from the 12th century. One is the Crucifixion of Poitiers, a remarkable composition which rises through three stages: the lowest a quatrefoil depicting the Martyrdom of St Peter, the largest central stage dominated by the crucifixion, and the upper stage depicting the Ascension of Christ in a mandorla. The figure of the crucified Christ already shows hints of the Gothic curve. Many detached fragments of these windows are in museums, and a window at Twycross Church in England is made up of important French panels rescued from the French Revolution . Glass was both expensive and fairly flexible in that era (in that it could be added to or rearranged) and was often reused when churches were rebuilt in the Gothic style.

5.2.5 – Other Visual Arts

Bayeux Tapestry: The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry—that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Many works of art have survived from this time period, mostly as church vestments . Norman Romanesque embroidery is best known from the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 70 meters (230 feet) long that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Images in the cloth include depictions of William, Duke of Normandy, the coronation and death of the English King Harold, the Battle of Hastings, and even Halley’s Comet.

5.3 – Norman Stained Glass

5.3.1 – Introduction

Stained glass was a significant art form from the Norman empire throughout both France and Norman-controlled England. At Le Mans, Saint-Denis, and Chartres Cathedrals in France as well as Canterbury Cathedral in England, a number of panels of the 12th century have survived. Most of the magnificent stained glass of France, however, including the famous windows of Chartres, dates from the 13th century. Far fewer large windows remain intact from the 12th century.

Glass craftsmen were slower than architects to change their style , and much Norman stained glass from the first part of the 13th century can be considered Romanesque. Especially fine are large figures from around the year 1200 from Strasbourg Cathedral and Saint Kunibert’s Church in Cologne, both in France. Glass was both expensive and fairly flexible (in that it could be added to or rearranged) and was often reused when churches were rebuilt in the Gothic style.

5.3.2 – Chartres Cathedral

Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, Chartres Cathedral, France (c.1180 and 1225) : Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière is perhaps the most famous window in Chartres, depicting the Virgin Mary as the throne of wisdom.

Chartres Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, is a medieval Catholic cathedral of the Latin Church located in Chartres, France. The current cathedral was mostly constructed between 1194 and 1250. The cathedral is in an exceptional state of preservation , and the majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Chartres Cathedral is the extent to which its architectural structure has been adapted to meet the needs of stained glass. The use of three-part elevation with external buttressing allowed for far larger windows than did earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level. Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass and windows containing dense stained glass panels; the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact and legibility of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly colored interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination.

The majority of the windows now visible at Chartres were made and installed between 1205 and 1240; however, four lancets preserve panels of Romanesque glass from the 12th century that survived the fire of 1195. Perhaps the most famous 12th-century window at Chartres is the so-called Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, found in the first bay of the choir after the south transept . This window is actually a composite; the upper part, showing the Virgin and child surrounded by adoring angels, dates from around 1180 and was probably positioned at the center of the apse in the earlier building. The Virgin is depicted wearing a blue robe and sitting in a frontal pose on a throne, with the Christ Child seated on her lap raising his hand in blessing. This composition , known as the Sedes sapientia (“Throne of Wisdom”), is based on the famous cult figure kept in the crypt . The lower part of the window showing scenes from the Infancy of Christ dates from the main glazing campaign around 1225.

South transept rose window, c.1221-30: The Cathedral at Chartres contains three rose windows from the 13th century, including this south transept rose window.

Each bay of the aisles and the choir ambulatory contains a large lancet window roughly 8.1 meters high by 2.2 meters wide. The windows were made between 1205 and 1235 and depict stories from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints as well as typological cycles and symbolic images such as the signs of the zodiac and labors of the months. Most windows are made up of 25–30 individual panels showing distinct episodes within the narrative; only Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière includes a larger image made up of multiple panels.

Because of their greater distance from the viewer , the windows in the clerestory generally adopt simpler, bolder designs. Most feature the standing figure of a saint or Apostle in the upper two-thirds, often with one or two simplified narrative scenes in the lower part. Unlike the lower windows in the nave arcades and the ambulatory that consist of one simple lancet per bay, the clerestory windows are each made up of a pair of lancets with a plate-traceried rose window above. The nave and transept clerestory windows mainly depict saints and Old Testament prophets. Those in the choir depict the kings of France and Castille and members of the local nobility in the straight bays, while the windows in the apse hemicycle show those Old Testament prophets who foresaw the virgin birth, flanking scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity in the axial window. The cathedral also has three large rose windows: the western rose, the north transept rose, and the south transept rose.

5.3.3 – Le Mans Cathedral

Le Mans Cathedral: View of the north elevation of the choir from the south aisle, showing the triforium and clerestory windows.

Le Mans Cathedral is a Catholic cathedral situated in Le Mans, France. Its construction dated from the 6th through the 14th century, and though the cathedral itself features many French Gothic elements, it has a notable collection of Romanesque stained glass.

The nave at Le Mans retains around 20 stained glass windows from Bishop Guillaume’s mid-12th century rebuilding, though all but one have been moved from their original locations. All were extensively restored in the 19th century. The great western window, depicting scenes from the Life of St Julian of Le Mans, dates from around 1155. The Ascension window toward the western end of the south aisle of the nave has been dated to 1120, making it one of the oldest extant stained glass windows in France.

Unlike the earlier Romanesque windows, the 13th-century glazing program in the upper parts of the choir is largely intact. It presents a diverse range of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the Lives of Saints, and various miracles of the Virgin. These windows are notable for their variety of artistic styles and their lack of coherent program (there is no obvious pattern in the distribution of subjects, and some episodes, such as the story of Theophilus or the miracle of the Jewish boy of Bourges, are repeated in different windows). The windows in the radiating chapels have fared less well over time, and most of the surviving panels have been reassembled out of context in the axial chapel.

5.3.4 – Other Notable Examples

The Basilica of Saint Denis (also known as Basilique Saint-Denis) is a large medieval abbey church in the city of Saint-Denis, now a northern suburb of Paris. The basilica retains stained glass of many periods, most notably from the Romanesque era.

At Canterbury Cathedral in England, Norman stained glass images include a figure of Adam digging and another of his son Seth from a series of Ancestors of Christ. Adam represents a naturalistic and lively portrayal, while in the figure of Seth, the robes have been used to great decorative effect, similar to the best stone carving of the period.

The Crucifixion of Poitiers is a stained glass image dating from the 12th century in a Roman Catholic cathedral in Poitiers, France. This remarkable composition rises through three stages: the lowest stage contains a quatrefoil depicting the Martyrdom of St. Peter; the largest central stage is dominated by the crucifixion of St. Peter; and the upper stage shows the Ascension of Christ in a mandorla . The figure of the crucified Christ already shows hints of the Gothic curve.

5.4 – The Bayeux Tapestry

5.4.1 – Overview and History

The Bayeux tapestry is the best-known example of Romanesque architecture. This embroidered cloth is nearly 70 meters (230 feet) long and 50 centimeters (20 inches) tall and depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Images in the cloth include depictions of William, Duke of Normandy; the coronation and death of the English King Harold; the Battle of Hastings; and even Halley’s Comet.

The tapestry consists of some 50 scenes with Latin tituli , or inscriptions, embroidered on linen with colored woolen yarns. It was likely commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother to Duke William of Normandy, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. The hanging was rediscovered in 1729 by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral . The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

5.4.2 – Design

Bayeux tapestry: Detail of stem stitching and laid work.

The designs on the Bayeux tapestry are embroidered rather than woven, so it’s not technically considered a tapestry. The tapestry can be seen as the final and best known work of Anglo-Saxon art, and though it was made after the Norman Conquest of England, historians accept that it was created firmly in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Such tapestries adorned both churches and wealthy houses in England, though the Bayeux tapestry is exceptionally large.

The tapestry is embroidered in crewel (wool yarn) on a tabby-woven linen ground using two methods of stitching: outline or stem stitch for lettering and the outlines of figures and couching or laid work for figure interior. Nine linen panels between 14 and 3 meters in length were embroidered and sewn together, and the joins disguised with subsequent embroidery. The design involves a broad central zone with narrow decorative borders top and bottom. Later generations patched the hanging in numerous places, and some of the embroidery (especially in the final scene) has been reworked.

Bayeux Tapestry: The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry—nearly 230 feet long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.

The main yarn colors are terracotta or russet, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue, with small amounts of dark blue, black, and sage green. Later repairs are worked in light yellow, orange, and light greens. The tapestry’s central zone contains most of the action, which sometimes overflows into the borders either for dramatic effect or to allow extra space for depictions. Events are each depicted in a long series of scenes separated by stylized trees. The trees are not placed consistently, however, and the greatest scene shift (between Harold’s audience with Edward after his return to England and Edward’s burial scene) is not marked.

The tituli are normally located in the central zone but occasionally use the top border. The borders are otherwise decorated with birds, beasts, and fish, as well as scenes from fables, agriculture, and hunting. These don’t necessarily complement the action in the central panels. The picture of Halley’s Comet, which appears in the upper border (scene 32), is the first known depiction of this comet.

5.5 – The Opus Anglicanum

5.5.1 – Overview

Opus Anglicanum, Latin for “the English work,” refers to the elaborate needlework produced in England during the the middle ages. Embroidered pieces were used in religious and secular settings on vestments, clothing for the wealthy, and heraldic tapestries. England gained a reputation for needlework as early as the Anglo-Saxon period prior to the Norman conquest; however, it was in the 13th and 14th centuries that the Opus Anglicanum really flourished.

5.5.2 – Style

This work combined silk and gold or silver-gilt threads worked on linen and later velvet. The motifs used in needlework followed the trends in other art forms of the time, such as illuminated manuscripts and architecture; some motifs included the use of scrolls, spirals, and foliage. Embroidered pieces also depicted figures of kings and saints as well as the Gothic arches popular in European architecture.

5.5.3 – Craftsmen

London was the primary center of production for Opus Anglicanum. While often associated with certain convents, a professional group of male craftsmen produced a great deal of the work. The Worshipful Company of Broderers was a craft guild incorporated in 1561 to represent these workers. There is some evidence that the group first incorporated as early as 1515, but those records were lost.

5.5.4 – Use

Butler-Bowden Cope: This picture is one of the few examples of Opus Anglicanum that has survived. It was reconstructed in the 19th century.

Opus Anglicanum consisted primarily of popular luxury items that spread across Europe. Pope Martin IV, for example, ordered custom pieces after admiring the vestments of English Priests. As the 14th century progressed, however, demand for luxury goods decreased as funds were redirected toward military expenditures. As a result, the style of the work was scaled back, and much of the richness and storytelling of these pieces was lost. The needlework was relegated to small applique pieces that could be added to clothing or tapestries.

Few pieces have survived due to the delicate nature of the work. Some were repurposed as they aged and others were buried with their owners. One surviving piece is a cope, or a type of vestment, owned by the Butler-Bowdon family. Thought to have been made in 1330-1350, the Butler-Bowdon Cope is an example of a piece that was cut up for reuse, as it was reconstructed in the 19th century.

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.