Romanesque architecture and art: Romanesque Art

The art of the Romanesque period was characterized by an important revival of monumental forms, notably sculpture and fresco painting, which developed in close association with architectural decoration and exhibited a forceful and often severely structural quality. At the same time an element of realism, which parallels the first flowering of vernacular literature, came to the fore. It was expressed in terms of a direct and naive observation of certain details drawn from daily life and a heightened emphasis on emotion and fantasy. For many aspects of its rich imagery Romanesque art depended on the heritage of antiquity and of earlier medieval art, while the prestige of Byzantine art remained high in Western eyes. The pilgrimages and Crusades contributed to an unprecedented expansion of the formal vocabulary through the development of closer contacts between regional cultures and distant peoples.


The first important monuments of Romanesque sculpture were created in the last decade of the 11th cent. and the first decades of the 12th cent. The primary source of artistic patronage was provided by the monastic institutions, for whom sculptors executed large relief carvings for the decoration of church portals and richly ornate capitals for cloisters. Romanesque sculpture produced an art of extraordinary ornamental complexity, ecstatic in expression, and abounding in seemingly endless combinations of zoomorphic, vegetal, and abstract motifs.

In France themes portrayed on tympanums of such churches as Moissac, Vézelay, and Autun emphasized the awesome majesty of Christ as ruler and judge of the universe. They often depicted terrifying spectacles of hell. English sculpture showed a tendency toward geometric ornamentation. However, with the introduction in England of continental influences in the mid-12th cent. there also appeared gruesome renditions of the Last Judgment, e.g., at Lincoln Cathedral. In contrast with the demonic nature and animated quality of sculpture in France and in England, there was an assertion of more massive and ponderous figures in N Italy, with the narrative reliefs from Genesis designed by Wiligelmo in Modena and by Niccolò in Verona.


Another aspect of the Romanesque revival was the production of metalwork objects, of which many outstanding examples, such as crucifixes, reliquary shrines, and candlesticks, are still preserved in church treasuries. The most productive centers of this art were the regions adjacent to the Rhine and the Meuse rivers, where the art of bronze casting reached a level of technical mastery sufficient to permit the execution of works of considerable dimension. An outstanding example of Mosan bronze casting is the baptismal font of St. Barthelemy in Liège, a large vessel supported by 12 oxen and decorated with scenes in high relief, executed by Rainer of Huy between 1107 and 1118. It was during this same period that Limoges, in central France, became an extremely active center of metalwork production, specializing in enamelwork.


Fresco painting has been more adversely affected by the accidents of time, but several large cycles, as well as numerous other fragments of Romanesque wall painting, have survived. The large and relatively unbroken expanses of wall space within Romanesque buildings presented an excellent ground for the work of the painter, and the basic forms of Romanesque fresco painting are typically monumental in scale and bold in coloristic effect. Among the foremost examples of this art still largely extant are the cycles of Saint-Savin in western France and Sant'Angelo in Formis in S Italy.

Manuscript Illumination

Manuscript illumination of the Romanesque period was characterized by a vast enlargement of the traditional fund of pictorial imagery, although in terms of overall execution and calligraphic quality Romanesque illuminated books often show a certain carelessness and lack of refinement. The Psalter, as in the early Middle Ages, continued to be the most widely read volume for religious use, and numerous sumptuously illuminated copies of this work were executed. The Romanesque scriptorium also produced large editions of the Bible, often extending to several volumes. A splendid example of such a work is the Winchester Bible, executed in the course of several generations and decorated with numerous scenes from the Old and the New Testaments. Romanesque manuscripts are enlivened by elaborate and highly inventive initial letters, on which the artists of this period lavished their bent for rich ornamental display.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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