Romanesque Art History Essay Examples

The Cathedral of Compostela

A short time before, in the eleventh century, the cathedral of Compostela was enlarged as the result of a threefold collaboration. Bishop Diego Pelaez who occupied the see from 1070 to 1088 decided to rebuild the basilica commissioned by Alfonso the Great in the late ninth century, devasted by the raider Almanzor and restored by Alfonso V. The general direction of the work was entrusted to qualified representatives of the cathedral chapter, one of whom, Bernard, known as the Old, was responsible for the plan. According to the 'Pilgrims' Guide' which has left us a valuable description of the great cathedral, he was assisted by a deputy named Robert and about fifty stone-cutters. The guide describes him as a stonemason; it also calls him 'domnus,' which leads to the belief that he may have been a clerk, many of whom, in the opinion of archeologists, were of French origin. Certainly the name Bernard is not a familiar one in the Spanish language. Others identify him with the Bernard who was treasurer of the chapter and was responsible for the monumental fountain which greeted pilgrims from France on the square to the north of the basilica. However this may be, he was possessed of a lively, eclectic talent and worked on the churches of St Martial at Limoges, Sainte-Foy at Conques and St Sernin at Toulouse. Master Stephen also worked on the site at Santiago with such excellent results that, in 1101, he was requested to provide plans for the cathedral at Pampeluna.

Similar organization was favoured for the building of the fine Cluniac priory at Montierneuf at Poiters. Under the command of Prior Guy, who was the nephew of St Hugh and may well have modelled himself on his uncle as patron and builder, the work was directed by a monk named Ponce, assisted by Mainard, a master-mason or stone-cutter. This building was not begun until 1077, but the church was either finished or very near completion on its consecration less than twenty years later in 1096.

An Architecture to Defend Against War and Calamity

Romanesque buildings may be on a grand or intimate scale, of expert or crude construction, fashioned either of well joined blocks or of common pebbles sunk in mortar, They range from lordly abbeys or Norman castles silhouetted against the sky, to simple rustic sanctuaries conceived as separate entities. In all these cases, Romanesque architecture avoided the monotonous standardization of imperial Roman architecture, from which it claimed descent and which had spread across the world. The precarious background to existence, including war, famine and epidemics, and the ascendency of the feudal lords were enough to explain the almost complete absence of any preoccupation with large-scale town-planning comparable to the majestic schemes handed down by the ancient civilizations of East and West. In these disturbed times every inhabited area had first to be a defence and refuge.

In the Romanesque world there were no longer any triumphal ways bordered by tombs, sumptuous buildings, or arches to delight vain conquerors. It was not until the decline of Romanesque civilization that new cities were created, and rediscovered the lost secrets of squares and the logical organization of space. Within Romanesque towns, picturesquely named streets, alleys and gutters, rather than noble avenues, formed a complicated maze. Instead of temples or mausoleums, they were bordered by a confusion of buildings bearing no relation to any mathematical law. At Cluny in the twelfth century, the rue d'Avril, probably the oldest street in the town, winds, like an earthworm, between low, unaligned houses in the Romanesque tradition, with twin arcades of pointed arches at ground level surmounted by arcaded galleries.

Organization of Space

Romanesque masons were far from being theoreticians. Their sparing economy, absolute rejection of waste, practicality, and liking of security in preference to any form of expensive elaboration, were all good "peasant" virtues. To oversimplify a complex situation, every facet of Romanesque architecture brings us back to a few very simple rules: organisation of space into regular bays, and the juxtaposition or occasional superimposition of conventional masses arranged as interlocking cubes. Every advance in technical progress, whether the result of a migration of craftsmen, a detail seized by the quick eye of an architect, or a political conquest, was adapted to fit in with this schematic outline. Thus, military architecture profited from the Crusades by the discovery of the complex layouts and round sections of Byzantine fortifications. The old keeps of the eleventh century perched on their artificial mounds practically disappeared or were shut up behind a network of wards and casemates. Their construction involved the fitting together of a series of quadrangular spaces, which set far fewer problems than the building of the round towers of the retaining walls which must have contributed to the spread of domical vaults. Church building which was more detailed but less inventive, proceeded on the same basis.

In particular, what needs to be appreciated is the spatial rhythm brought about by the succession of bays, like a ball which a group of players passes from one to another; for this is one of the richest, most evocative effects of Romanesque architecture. This interior movement, brought about by the balance of basic elements such as pillars and transverse arches, arcades and clerestory windows, is echoed by the exterior elevations punctuated by buttresses and lightened by bays and intermediary arcading.

Independent Bays with Perfect or Imperfect Supports

These two categories are only seemingly contradictory. Recession and hollowing out make walls thinner and lighter as they get higher. Corbelling, on the other hand, causes the entire weight of a building to rest on a support diminished by the interplay of successive steps which submerge and divide internal pressures like the motion of invisible waves.

The efforts of Romanesque architects were concentrated on assuring the structural independence of the vaulted bay. The basic element was either led to independent organization by the interaction of carefully elaborated balances, or was assisted by external supports. So many different procedures and interior arrangements resulted from this choice that it would almost be possible to use them as a basis for a new system of classification for Romanesque architecture. The single naves, so suited to the demands of the liturgy (they were not divided by screens), had to make up for the absence of buttresses by a system of cloister or domical vaults which contained their own thrusts. Tunnel-vaults, on the other hand, required buttresses which could only be effective if they were applied to the probable breaking point or to the actual base of the vault. These conditions created quadrant-vaulted aisles, especially those which supported galleries so favored by the architects of Auvergne. Built after 1000 with the aid of rudimentary techniques, the narthex at Tournus turned out to be one of the most masterly constructions and one of the most powerful spatial combinations of all Romanesque architecture. At Cluny, less than a hundred years later, imperfect buttressing of the nave by the groined-vaulted aisles was avoided by doubling and staging them, thus containing the opposing counter-thrusts engendered by the pointed tunnel-vault of the nave itself.

Architectural Decoration

To complete his task and bring a collection of dead colours to life, a fresco painter takes up his brush and, with a few dazzling strokes, heightens the light on a face, emphasizes the fall of a drapery, or accentuates a contour. His work glows and is transfigured as if suddenly projected from the shadows. Just as with sketches, the technical construction of balanced masses lacks this final touch of genius.

In Romanesque architecture sculpture assumes the important function of the final touch without which the most beautiful framework is no more than a dead skeleton. Like the painted decoration on the surface of an antique vase, it endows an apparently logical, functional structure with a touch of the irrational.

It is surprising to find what a small part of the total surface of a Romanesque building was given over to sculptural decoration, whether reliefs or statues. The objective subordination of ornament is made clear by the fact that the architect almost always reserved it for the key points of the structure. On exteriors, sculpture was limited to three well spaced features: cornices, arch moldings, and the tympana surmounting doorways. A cornice runs along the top of a wall below the fall of the roof which it stresses with its firm line. The corbels which support the ledge at intervals add a flickering effect. In eastern France they are usually plain, but, from Spain as far as Berry, they are decorated with tongues and scrolls, suggesting Arab influence. In western France these are found next to figured corbels, a system which gradually extended to the banks of the Loire. These small areas did not offer much scope to sculptors depicting men or animals. In some churches in Saintonge and Upper Auvergne, however, the ingenuity of artists, for whom no detail was of minor importance provided it played its part in the whole composition, endowed these small features with the entire range of their spirited imagination. Arch moldings have a twofold function. They frame windows and doors with their curves and so serve to stress their structural roles. They also help to lighten the walls in which these apertures appear by a series of recessions and projections. By this means it was possible to avoid an ugly effect of coarsely scored stone. Usually, Romanesque sculptors reserved their skill for the archivolts of doorways whose large proportions were ill suited to being left bare, and limited the decoration of the smaller bays to discreetly molded keystones. In the West, however, and especially in Saintonge, they heaped decoration on them all, covering their surfaces with scrolls and palmettes or with small figures corresponding with the radiating axes.

These great sculptured portals proceeded from the unquestionable renaissance of the sculptor's art which, shortly before the twelfth century, completed the great architectural experiences of the eleventh and at the same time marked the result of all the continuous investigations since 1000. Their simultaneous appearance in Languedoc and Burgundy is proof of the scope of the development. The light, sober compositions of the Porte de Miegeville at St Sernin, Toulouse, and the west portal of the great church at Cluny give way to the frenzied apocalyptic visions and Last Judgments of the twelfth century. Gradually, sculpture achieved a fresher, richer and more mobile outline.

Attempts have been made to establish a connection between these great sculptured portals and the movement of pilgrims to Santiago. It is true that two of the most famous examples at Vezelay and St Gilles-du-Gard belong to shrines listed in the 'Pilgrims' Guide' as important stations on the road. Nevertheless, their almost total absence in Velay and Auvergne, despite the fact that these regions were traversed by many of these routes and were sanctified by the presence of many holy relics, very much weakens this theory. Moreover, Poitou and Saintonge, though crossed by the western roads, offer no examples of this type. We may do better to take note of the geographical setting of these sculptures which must have been difficult to assemble. This invariably coincides with outcrops of limestone, a resistant material, easy to carve and cut up into large slabs, something which can hardly be said of the granite used for the churches of the Massif Central.

Historiated Capitals

The latter region to some extent found compensation in the capitals surmounting pillars, which act as a break before the actual spring of the arch. This was a principle inherited by Romanesque architects from classical antiquity. They excluded the Doric and Ionic forms as having too little in common with their decorative ambitions but eagerly seized on the rich Corinthian variety reinterpreting it with the freedom of choice typical of their inventiveness. In the summer of 1964 a magnificent capital was retrieved from the site of the abbey church of Cluny: it probably came from the narthex constructed after the completion of the actual church about 1115-1120. With its elongated basket suddenly expanding into a powerful volute it provides a stylization of the Corinthian motif with a concentrated authority that may well remain unequalled. Early goldsmiths' work and pre-Romanesque illuminations, especially Irish, considerably enlarged the repertory with combinations of spiral and interlacing ornament as well as with zoomorphic decorations of monsters, back to back or facing one another, which were of Asiatic origin. Romanesque artists fully exploited the architectural function of capitals and, at the same time, completely recreated the details of their sculptured form. Their chief invention was to assign them an almost liturgical role by making them into illustrations of the wonderful stories on which the Christian faith is founded. Innumerable examples scattered throughout the Romanesque sphere of influence are moving illustrations of their ability to solve this dual problem successfully. (See also: Early Christian Art (c.150-1100) and Monastic Irish Art c.600 onwards.)

Two types of capital exist side by side. Each one crowning an isolated column is a complete entity. They are shaped either as truncated cones, or as cubes with their lower parts rounded off. When the column is reduced to a half-cylinder and forms a respond the capital is merely cut in half vertically and its profile remains unaltered.

These surfaces were suitable for leaf carving but were not as satisfactory as fiat expanses for the representation of human forms. Plant sculpture on stone seems never to have died out, but the representation of human forms had not been attempted until the Romanesque sculptors boldly launched the attack. Their earliest efforts, dating from about 1000, are hesitant and unformed but also surprising on account of their implied promise. The rules which these anonymous pioneers strove to formulate were those which were to continually engage the attention of later sculptors. Once again the creative process is clearly revealed at St Benigne in Dijon. Almost all the capitals of the rotunda were undecorated except for those framing the west entrance which were adorned with strange, turbulent compositions in relief, one of which has been identified by Andre Parrot as the symbols of the four evangelists. It is difficult to realize that these compositions, examples of an already accomplished technique, are contemporary with the childish gropings expressed in some of the ambulatory capitals. With due regard to the shape of the capital, an imaginative craftsman (ill-served by imperfect execution) has attempted to portray a figure in prayer. The roughly worked head has a low forehead vaguely imitated from Roman art with a long beard divided into two points by a centre parting fitted between two clumsily raised arms. An unconvincing twist of the body causes the open palms to spread out to the corners of the capital which, elsewhere, are decorated with an abundance of elongated foliage. At the side the sculptor, either as a joke or as the result of an interruption, has left the sketched outline of his work inscribed on the surface of the stone - the furrow of the beard and the gesture of the raised arms.

These glimpses of the capitals at Dijon are extremely valuable as they aptly sum up the basic principle of Romanesque sculpture: its absolute subjection to the shape and plan of supports, no matter how exacting these might be. This explains the anatomical deformations, excessive elongations and foreshortenings sometimes in combination, which so puzzled nineteenth century art historians. Romanesque sculptors hardly ever thought of imitating nature except in secondary details. Starting with an instinctive idea, they experimented with lines on stone, forcing a shape upon them, just as one looks for a profile or silhouette in a dissolving cloud. They were especially influenced by the images found in Irish illuminated manuscripts, in which human bodies were twisted and bent into extraordinary attitudes. By means of bold foreshortenings, arabesques, distortions and baffling swarms of human shapes, the sculptors freed Romanesque architecture from its implacable logic, endowing it as if by magic with a sense of balance. The nearer this art approached technical maturity, the more it seemed to achieve a virtuosity essential to its needs. The scrolls and spirals of accomplished late works such as the wall at Charlieu with its agitated sculptures already showing signs of decline share the overwhelming spontaneity of the greatest frescoes.

Decoration Reflects Secular Uncertainty and Religious Certainty

From this whirlpool of shapes arose a single idea and a sense of direction which overran the world. This evolution finally resolved the dramatic tension between souls attracted to order and tranquillity and yet set in a cruel, inexplicable world. Romanesque architects peopled the earth with churches and chapels symbolizing eternity. Yet their sense of anguish and consciousness of sin invested these buildings with strange, unhappy monsters representing a melancholy, heartfelt appeal to redemption. This bestiary of monsters, which took such a hold on Romanesque imagination, represented far more than a reservoir of forms and decorative themes. It was a type of classification of a haunted, frightening world and its resources, of evil. Everything there was linked in an infernal dance: nightmare animals, gryphons, monsters from the East, sciapods, dog-headed beasts and dwarfs with huge ears. They formed a strange picture of intellectual abandonment and sheer terror.

Romanesque Architecture in England

To England the Normans carried from France the knowledge of mature Romanesque design and craftsmanship. The early English cathedrals were constructed in this style, and there were numerous Norman castles. It is said that no fewer than seven thousand churches were built in England in the century following the Norman Conquest of 1066. There had been a native Anglo-Saxon architecture, which was of heavy, sturdy type, and this contributed some minor features to the new expression.

English Romanesque is usually known as Norman architecture. Durham Cathedral is the largest monument in which the original Romanesque character has persisted through later accidents and "improvements." But some of the most impressive bits of Romanesque construction are to be seen in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, in the transepts of Winchester, in the crypt of Worcester, and in parts of Peterborough. In general the English cathedrals had longer transepts than those in the typical buildings in France and a main tower was added over the crossing.

Romanesque Architecture in Germany

In the German Romanesque churches there is more of the old basilica, and of surviving Carlovingian features as adapted from Byzantine art by the architects who built for Charlemagne at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle); and there is a special affinity with the Lombard forms with which the Romanesque technically began. But again diversity is a first characteristic of the churches grouped under the style name. The plentiful wood of Germany often led the architects to roof the naves with that material, and therefore there was no rapid transition toward the church marked by the idioms developed from the use of the groined vault. Nor was there an influx of Norman ecclesiastics and workers as in England. Nevertheless, the cathedrals of Worms, Mainz, and Speyer, and the Church of the Apostles at Cologne, are among the typical vaulted edifices with consistent round-arch construction. Certain minor features set off the German Romanesque from other varieties - notably, plans with apses at both ends of the church and, on the exterior, a profusion of arcaded galleries and round or octagonal turrets. In Germany more markedly than elsewhere Romanesque architecture was made into something consistent, distinct from the Byzantine on the one hand and from the Gothic on the other. But as an elaborated style, as seen in the larger monuments, it is somewhat dull, with virtues that lie in the perilous realm of the picturesque. Some of the best of it in Germany is appropriately in "romantic" half-ruined castles. And indeed, throughout Europe the thick-walled, turreted, and almost windowless Romanesque way of building was employed for castles, forts, and city walls. (See also: German Medieval Art.)

Famous Romanesque Buildings

Note: Unless stated, all dates refer to completion.

- Palatine Chapel, Aachen (800) Germany
- Church of St Vitus, Corvey (885) Germany
- Cluny Church I (927) Burgundy
- Abbey of Mont St Michel, Normandy (966) France
- St Pantaleon Cathedral, Cologne (980) Germany
- Cluny Church II (981) Burgundy
- St Cyriakus Cathedral, Gernrode (983) Germany
- Church of S Baudelio, Berlanga (end 10th century) Spain
- Monastery Church of S. Pedro de Roda (1022) Catalonia
- Abbey Church of St Michael, Hildesheim (1033) Germany
- St Remi Church, Reims (1049) France
- Abbey Church of St Etienne, Caen (begun 1059) France
- Abbey Church of La Trinite, Caen (begun 1060) France
- S Miniato al Monte, Florence (1062) Italy
- St Etienne Pilgrimage Church, Nevers (begun 1063) France
- S Martin, Fromista, Navarre (begun 1066) Spain
- Abbey Church of Notre-Dame, Jumieges (1067) France
- White Tower, London (after 1078) England
- Ely Cathedral (1080) England
- S Ambrogio, Milan (begun 1080) Italy
- Pisa Cathedral (after 1083) Italy
- La Grand Chartreuse Abbey, Grenoble (1084) France
- Richmond Castle, Yorkshire (1086) England
- Notre-Dame, Paray-le-Monial (1090) France
- Maria Laach Abbey, Rhineland (after 1093) Germany
- Durham Cathedral (after 1093) England
- Lund Cathedral (1103) Sweden
- S Nicola, Bari (1105) Italy
- Speyer Cathedral (1106) Germany
- Modena Cathedral (1110) Italy
- Paray-Le-Monial (1110) France
- Abbey Church of Saint-Philibert, Tournus (1120) France
- Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy (1120) France
- Saint-Sernin Pilgrimage Church, Toulouse (1120) France
- Baptistery of St Giovanni, Florence (1128) Italy
- Cluny Church III (1130) France
- Mainz Cathedral (1137) Germany
- Krak des Chevaliers, Homs (after 1142) Syria
- Notre-Dame-la-Grande, Poitiers (1145) France
- St Lazare, Autun (1146) France
- Abbey Church of Fontenay (1147) France
- Ostelars Church, Bornholm Island (1150) Denmark
- Borgund Church, Sogne Fijord (1150) Norway
- Abbey Church of St-Benoit-sur-Loire (1073) France
- Zamora Cathedral (1174) Spain
- Dover Castle (begun 1180) England
- Monreale Cathedral (1182) Sicily
- Vor Frue Kirke, Kalundborg (church fortress) (1190) Denmark
- Baptistery, Parma (after 1198) Italy
- Worms Cathedral (1200) Germany
- Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (1211) Spain
- Church of the Madeleine, Vezelay (1215) France
- Holy Apostles Church, Cologne (1215) Germany
- Old Cathedral, Torre del Gallo, Salamanca (1220) Spain
- Cistercian Church, Heisterback (1237) Germany
- S Maria la Mayor, Toro (1240) Spain
- Heddal Stave Church, Telemark (1250) Norway
- Carcassone fortress city (12th-13th century) France. (Note: In the early 1850s, the fortifications of Carcassonne were restored by Viollet-le-Duc, the leading authority on medieval restorations.)

For a fascinating comparison between East and West, see the extraordinary 12th century Angkor Wat Khmer Temple (1115-45) and the 11th century Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (1017-29).

Romanesque Revival (19th Century)

Following the early nineteenth century Greek and Gothic Revival movements in American architecture (and also in Europe), a number of American architects started a Romanesque Revival trend. The earliest of these was James Renwick (1818-95), whose design for the Smithsonian Institute ("the castle") in Washington DC (1847-55) made it the first American public building in that style. Another architect influenced by the Romanesque was Richard Upjohn (1802-78). The greatest exponent, however, of 19th century Romanesque revivalist architecture was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86) who was responsible for masterpieces like Trinity Church, Boston (1872-77) and Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885-87) Chicago.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Romanesque - Architecture of the World", published by Benedikt Taschen (1990).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

See works of art

  • 17.190.134

  • L.58.86

  • 50.180a-l

  • 17.190.47

  • 61.248

  • 47.101.21

  • 1999.364.2

  • 25.120.1-.134


Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion


Apse from San Martín at Fuentidueña


The Virgin and Child in Majesty and the Adoration of the Magi


Plaque with the Journey to Emmaus and the Noli Me Tangere


The Temptation of Christ by the Devil


Portion of a Pilaster with an Acrobat


Manuscript Illumination with Initial V, from a Bible


Saint-Guilhem Cloister


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