Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200)
Decoration for Monasteries
WORLD'S BEST SCULPTORS
Some hundred years elapsed before the last bastions of resistance yielded and people ventured to set up large figure compositions carved out of stone in the open air. The slow maturing that culminated in the advent of monumental sculpture had taken place throughout the 11th century in the Benedictine monasteries of France. The reform of the Church, that attempt to purify the men of prayer and, by freeing them from the defilement which kept them at a remove from holiness, to fit them to fulfil their social function better, had actually begun with the monastic institution. This enabled the latter to capture the fervour of the faithful, attract the growing flood of pious donations, and create suitably inspirational Christian art to illustrate the message of the Bible.
HISTORY OF SCULPTURE
EVOLUTION OF VISUAL
The first use to which the monks put the superabundance of wealth thus acquired was to decorate the places where they silently absorbed the word of God, where they met to sing his praises at all hours of day and night. The rule of St Benedict required them to pray at such length in the name of the people so as to amass the favours of heaven for them. For it was thought that the more brilliant the liturgical office, the more generously those favours would be granted. Moreover, as liberated from the desires of the flesh as abstinence could make human beings, the monks felt that they belonged to the highest degree of terrestrial hierarchies and had come close to the realm of the angels. The church in which they chanted in unison with the choir of seraphim seemed to them the antechamber of Paradise. They wanted their house to reflect on earth the perfection of the heavenly city. Furthermore, the Benedictine monastery was itself a city like the Roman city. Like the latter, it was enclosed in a precinct as a protection against corruption. Inside it two adjoining buildings, the basilica and the cloister, a kind of square surrounded by porticoes, formed a virtual replica of the ancient forum.
The sculptors' first mission was to decorate this central space. No statues in it as yet, but at least they could decorate the tops of columns and pilasters, using what they saw on the remains of antique monuments as models. They were required to go further, to populate the profusion of plant forms stemming from the Corinthian acanthus with figures, as painters did around the initials on the parchment of lectionaries. For it was not only a question of decorating, but also of teaching, and, by means of such images that recalled scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospel, and episodes from the exemplary lives of guardian saints, of supporting the monks' meditations, of displaying before their eyes the symbols of the vices of which they had to purge themselves. The bas-reliefs decorating sarcophagi, the only elements of Roman sculpture left undestroyed, supplied models. Nevertheless it is obvious that sculptural themes were mostly borrowed from illuminated manuscripts, ivory plaques and goldsmiths' pieces, in other words they still came from the treasuries, and these forms, projected on to the wall, were still confined to the interior, to the area of withdrawal encircled by the monastic closure.
Not until the very end of the 11th century were sculptures taken out of the sanctuaries and openly exposed to the view of the masses, because the clergy no longer feared that they would take them for the images of ancient gods. Henceforth the facade of the basilica was treated like a Roman arch of triumph. Sometimes sculptured figures covered it completely, but usually they were assembled around the portal, that key position. It was the place of transition from a depraved world to that other world of which the monastic community gave a foreshadowing by the harmony of its chants, the masterly arrangement of its processions, the heady scent of incense and the shimmering lights. The portal was the symbol of the conversion enjoined on every sinner.
The audacity that made this innovation possible grew stronger in the richest and most prestigious houses, at the nodal points of those widespread networks woven in the progress of reform, of those congregations that the monasteries assembled from one end of Christendom to the other, especially in the congregation headed by the abbey of Cluny. Closely associated with the Church of Rome from its foundation, Cluny had greatly increased the number of its daughter houses in the south of France and Spain, in the highly Romanized provinces. Then, at the height of its renown, it laid claim to the cultural heritage of the Empire and took over the role once held by the imperial chapel. This return to great outdoor sculpture was firstly an affirmation of power. By half-opening the door, allowing a glimpse of the pomp of the liturgical feast and giving a foretaste of the joys promised purified souls, monasticism displayed its power to intercede. So decorative sculpture primarily fulfilled what we might call a political function, such as it had assumed in Antiquity, when it demonstrated on church portals the authority emanating from the city.
But once it became public, sculpture also sought to be a demonstration of orthodoxy. In opposition to the threatening sects whose leaders, denounced as heretics, were pursued and burnt when they persisted in rejecting the incarnation, destroying crucifixes and claiming that man could communicate directly with God, and that ecclesiastical intermediaries were unnecessary, the tympana, the lintels and the column statues proclaimed first and foremost that God blessed those who erected magnificent monuments to his glory. Showing the apostles, prophets and Christ too in the body, they proclaimed that the Word was made flesh, that he had lived among men.
Thus in the adornment of the monastic church, that impregnable fortress raising the trophies of daily victories won over the forces of evil, the aim of drawing the faithful on to the paths of truth was already evident. Showing at Moissac the risen Christ surrounded by the twenty-four Elders as the author of the Apocalypse had seen him at Patmos, giving on Autun Cathedral a glimpse of the Last Judgment, meant lifting a corner of the veil, inaugurating the apostolate by which the good news was spread to the far corners of the world, as the great scene exposed for the instruction of pilgrims on the tympanum at Vezelay has demonstrated in masterly fashion for nine centuries.
The architectural decoration of religious
buildings in the second half of the 10th century was usually very simple.
It consisted of decorated panels, moulded imposts and a few reused capitals
from immediately preceding periods. [Note: the term "capital"
refers to the distinct, typically wider section at the top of a pillar
or column.] The large-size capital was very rare insofar as the large
buildings used rectangular pillars as an element of separation between
nave and side aisles. Only small churches or crypts used columns needing
a carved capital. Among the examples of this period which extend and continue
the last capitals of Late Antiquity we find the pre-Romanesque capitals
of Brescia and Capua in Italy, (See also Romanesque
Painting in Italy) and the Mozarabic formulas of San Cebrian de Mazote
(Valladolid) in the Iberian peninsula.
The transition from ornamental to figurative
in the decoration of the capital researched by Henri Focillon and the
role of the figure intended to emphasize and lighten its function are
only two aspects of the amazing wealth of experiments which helped to
form the style peculiar to Romanesque plastic
art and give it its architectural character during the 11th century.
In northern France, where the forms of cubic capitals can be compared
with those of the Ottonian world, the capitals of Vignory, ornamented
with geometric, plant and animal motifs in a half-flat technique, testify
to concerns similar to those observed in the south of France. At Saint-Remi
of Reims some stucco capitals with a varied repertory of foliage, animals
and figures are preserved. In Normandy, the two series of capitals at
Bernay, the older of which may go back to 1020-1040, relate both to Burgundy
and the Loire region; these contacts have been partly explained by the
activities of a celebrated prelate, William of Volpiano, summoned to Burgundy
by the Duke of Normandy at the very beginning of the 11th century. Shortly
after the mid-century, the duchy looked towards England, notably after
the conquests of William the Bastard (later the Conqueror) in 1066. The
best evidence of this is at Jumieges, Bayeux (home of the famous Bayeux
Tapestry), Thaon, Rouen and, in the third quarter of the century,
the geometrized decoration of the basilica of the Trinity and the chapel
of Sainte-Croix at Caen.
The tower-porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, built on an almost square plan, has a ground floor and one upper storey in its existing state. Each of its external facades is pierced by three openings on both levels. To the east, the central door, framed by two niches, is flanked by the doors to spiral staircases which allow access to the upper part. Each level is subdivided into nine bays with an almost square plan by large piers confined by semi-columns, although the shapes vary according to their position and storey. They support grained vaults, except in the three bays which precede the three minor apses hollowed out of the thickness of the east wall of the upper storey.
This monument, whose architecture already
marks it out as Romanesque, is exceptional for the series of capitals
decorating it. On the ground floor, the acanthus reigns on large capitals
reflecting the antique culture of the master who engraved his name (Unbertus
me fecit) on onc of the most conspicuous capitals. Thc Romanesque synthesis
he effected was nurtured by certain drawings, a few sheets of which have
been discovered in Rome and Paris, by observation of the antique and the
desire to ereate new schemata with the help of the palmette, for example.
In a second group of capitals the acanthus disappears and the style is
dryer and more linear. The human figure which invades the capitals on
the upper floor already appears on the ground floor in the representations
of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Flight into Egypt.
Note: For details of Romanesque sculptors
from the Middle Ages, see: Medieval
The Romanesque church contained sculptured
picture cycles on capitals either facing and answering each other or arranged
in series in particular parts of the building, such as the crypt (cycle
of St Benedict in Saint-Denis) and especially the choir enclosure and
ambulatory, as in the churches of Auvergne: Issoire (Passion of Christ),
Mozat (Resurrection) and Saint-Nectaire. This iconography hidden at the
back of the sacred space invites us to consider each capital in relation
to the nearby wall paintings and to its position in the building. Essentially
it consists of images of the Passion, the Salvation, the Resurrection,
the Last Judgment, lives of the Saints, struggles between the Virtues
and Vices, and typological correspondences between the Old and New Testaments.
Beside these decorations reserved in principle for those at prayer, the
church displayed outside, especially at the entrance. on the facade, portal
and tympanum, large sculpted frescoes intended to offer the passer-by
both a synthesis of Christian doctrine and the Church's conception of
the world order: this was the great iconographic triumph of the Romanesque
The meaning of the images is nearly always
spelled out by inscriptions which sometimes identify specific elements,
but more usually provide the interpretative key to the whole work, like
the formula surrounding the mandorla containing Christ in Majesty accompanied
by the Terramorph on the north tympanum of the 12th-century church of
San Miguel d'Estella in Navarre: "This present image that you see
is neither God nor man, but he is God and man whom this sacred image figures."
By its monumentality, the sculpture of the Romanesque tympanum completed by that on the archivolts sometimes forms the only decoration of the whole facade (Conques). At other times, the tympanum is integrated with the facade, as in the little chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe at Le Puy where the lobes surrounding the tympanum are ornamented with an Adoration of the Lamb by the Elders of the Apocalypse, while on the upper part of the facade there is a frieze of figures, situated on either side of the Divine Majesty, which cannot be left out of a global interpretation. But the tympanum is first of all an integral part of the portal and its meaning has to be clarified by that of the sculptures on the trumeau and the embrasures, as well as those on other portals of the facade, as at Vezelay, for example. The images are integrated into a liturgical context that we forget only too often when interpreting them, sometimes for lack of adequate docmentation. Thus the lintel fragment from the portal of the north transept of Saint-Lazare at Autun which represents the enigmatic figure of a reclining Eve picking the apple with her left hand, resting her head on her right hand, and with foliage placed in the centre of the relief modestly hiding her gender, has been eXplained in different ways. Her posture had suggested that the artist was obeying a formal imperative, imposed by the dimensions of the lintel or by the iconographic intention to show Eve leaning towards Adam and whispering in his ear the idea of the sin. In reality, Adam, like Eve, was originally also depicted reclining on the lintel, because, condemned by God, they had been punished for the Original Sin and were likened to the demoniacal serpent. A risen Lazarus was represented standing upright on the tympanum, emphasizing the iconographic intent by a strong formal contrast. But Eve's reclining position must also be connected with the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, when sinners entered the basilica of Autun through this portal prostrate, and did not stand erect until they had been pardoned by the sacrament of penance. (The faithful also passed beneath the coffin of St Lazarus in his mausoleum at Autun on their knees or stooping). If the sacramental liturgy was particularly suited to a sculptural interpretation at the entrance to the church, it found numerous iconographical allusions on Romanesque tympana. The exhortation to public repentance took place between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and often throughout Lent, in front of the church door, in the porch or the atrium, places occupied by the penitents until the Easter remission of sins, The tympanum of the west portal of Jaca Cathedral, which has already been mentioned, may also be interpreted in this way, Thus we are entitled to extend this approach to Romanesque tympana in a more general way to the whole iconographic environment of the Original Sin, to the scenes of healing and resurrection which often constitute the essential part of the iconography of the capitals flanking the portal. Penitence leading to the Eucharist summarizes the meaning of the portal giving access to the church when it is passed through by the penitent who prays, in Daniel's words: "I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have done wickedly, have pity on me, Lord,"
The illustration of Good and Evil, the
sculptured presentation of the social order, of the models which had to
be followed to be a good Christian, of the prizes reserved for the just
and the punishment awaiting those who strayed from the right path, were
clearly and inexorably displayed on the tympana of the Last Judgment.
At Conques and Autun, the Divine Majesty sits in Paradise welcoming the
chosen with one hand and rejecting the damned without appeal with the
other. At Antun, the inscription engraved on the mandorla of Christ clearly
stresses his role as judge. At Conques, another inscription warns: "0
sinners, if you do not change your lives, know that a harsh judgment awaits
you." When the angels announce the Resurrection and the Last judgment,
the dead leave their graves to stand before the supreme judge, Michael
weighs the souls and presides over the general organization of thc tympanum
into two zones: the chosen on the right, the damned on the left. The contrast
Stylistically, the Autun sculptor has found
the best way to accentuate the contrasts in the plastic rendering. The
scene of souls being weighed is exemplary in this respect. The angel gently
bears the dish of the chosen from which the innocent souls already rise
in the beatitude of contemplation and have no difficulty in making the
scales weigh down on their side, in spite of the desperate efforts of
the infernal monster, in whose skeleton-like rendering the artist has
given of his best. The inclusion of the group in the general iconography
of the Salvation is emphasized at Conques by the appearance, below Christ,
of the Cross and the instruments of the Passion, a reminder of the Redemption
and Christ's victory over death and sin, a victory which is expressed
here, as in antique imperial iconography, by the exhibition of the trophies
and the imtruments of this victory.
Henceforth the presence of the Virgin forms
one of the essential concepts of Romanesque visionary iconography. We
have found her presiding over the procession of the chosen on the tympana
of the Last Judgment, and she also appears about 1140-1150 on the tympanum
of the cathedral of Saint-Etienne at Cahors where, surrounded by the apostles,
she watches the Ascension of Christ standing in a mandorla (a theme more
frequently portrayed afterwards: Lucca Cathedral). The originality of
the Cahors tympanum lies in the representation of episodes from the martyrdom
of Stephen, the church's patron saint, insofar as he had been present
at the vision of the Trinitary God.
and The Vision of Matthew
Protecting the entrance symbolically, the porch may adopt the form of a triumphal arch as at Civita Castellana or that of a ciborium resting on columns as at Modena, Cremona, Piacenza and San Zeno in Verona. In this case, we often find a pair of lions couchant bearing the columns which support the edifice. These wild beasts, as impressive as those which appear to Charlemagne in a dream in the Chanson de Roland, are generally represented holding a quarry between their paws, a human form, a ram, deer or some other animal. Bearers of the monument since they are sometimes replaced by genuine atlantes (Piacenza), the lions pinned to the ground by the columns, guard the entrance to the building according to a very old tradition (Salerno Cathedral) which medieval symbolism modifies through the text of the Bestiaries. From the early 12th century, the porches of northern Italy may have answered to a political desire to imitate the Christian monuments of papal Rome; at the same time they served as the focal point of religious, judicial or simply civic ceremonies.
Like the lions, each element of the porch,
portal and facade may be studied individually, not forgetting for all
that the general impact of an iconography with which the scenes on the
church doors were also integrated in the Middle Ages. The antiquizing
trend, which may also be underscored by the arrangement of decorations
in superposed reliefs, is always more or less present on the formal level.
The Romanesque sculptor made progress in his craft through the study of
antique sculpture. Antiquity sometimes supplied pieces to be reused directly,
for example the Gallo-Roman lintel ornamented with a suevetaurilia from
Beaujeu (Musee de Lyon) which also seems to have inspired the Romanesque
lintel of Charlieu. There are a great many examples of this inspiration,
such as the frieze on the facade of Nimes Cathedral, for which the sculptors
sought models in antique sarcophagi. Observation of Antiquity and Romanesque
visionary iconography coalesce on the west portal of Saint-Trophime of
Arles, which, set against the facade of the church, combines the theme
of the apocalyptic vision with that of the Last Judgment; its architectural
structure gives great prominence to the architraves and frieze, as also
to the main colonnade which serves as a frame for the large statues. The
portal of Saint-Trophime of Arles comes at the end of Romanesque development
around 1190. On it we can observe the course followed by the sculptors
in their search for a monumental rendering of the triumphal facade.
The iconographic conception of a facade
may adopt the formula of a sculptured crowning in the form of a frieze
of standing figures (apostolado) as at Sanguesa in Navarre and other Spanish
churches, accompanying the Divine Majesty and the Tetramorph (Carrion
de los Conces, Moarbes) or again quite simply, as at Saint-Gabriel in
Provence, taking advantage solely of the architectural motif of the round
window to associate with it the four evangelist symbols.
There are close connections between the
formal structure, iconography and style of the facades of all these churches,
which form a homogeneous regional group with some differences of course,
mainly reflected in the stylistic handling. Even if an outside hand appears
here and there, the local and regional tradition is attested by monuments
of secondary importance which vouch for the existence of sculptors' workshops
specializing in the large-scale production of these repetitive arch mouldings,
pre-carved in series depending on the size of the portal for which they
were intended. The skill of this regional school brought it considerable
success during the Romanesque Middle Ages, as proved by the diffusion
of some of its basic plastic concepts (Sicily). Small Romanesque portals
with decorated gables are found as far as the Gironde, following the model
of prestigious buildings such as those of Poitiers, Angouleme and Perigueux.
The actual form of the portal with arch mouldings extended over a wide
area towards Brittany for example (Dinan) and especially southwards (Morlaas)
and even to Spain where it appears from the early second half of the twelfth
century at Santa Maria de Uncastillo (Aragon). Then it recurs in other
edifices: witness the magnificent north portal of the collegiate church
of Santa Maria de Toro (Zamora). The latter shows the twenty-four Elders
of the Apocalypse arranged radially on either side of Christ flanked by
St John and the Virgin on the outer arch moulding; the intermediate one
is adorned with plant motifs, the lower one with censer-bearing angels
on either side of Christ, and these angels reappear inside the lobes of
The oldest historiated Romanesque cloister was built shortly before 1100 in the abbey of Moissac. Its model may have been the cloister commissioned by Odilo at Cluny before 1048. A daughter house of the abbey of Cluny from 1047-1048, Moissac flourished to an extraordinary degree, its prosperity leading to the construction of a new abbey church consecrated in 1063. This was a building with nave and narrow side aisles, and an ambulatory revealed by excavations, although it has not been possible to determine whether it already had sculptured capitals. The cloister was built nearer the end of the century, as indicated by an inscription engraved on the central pillar of the west gallery: "In the year of the incarnation of the Prince Eternal 1100, this cloister was finished in the days of the Lord Abbot Ansquitil. Amen." The porticoed cloister walks had alternating single and twin marble colonnettes adorned with rich capitals carved with geometric and plant motifs, historiated scenes and animals. The style of these works also betrays their date, because certain abaci decorated with portrait busts of figures are very close to the Toulouse works of Bernard Gilduin. The essential contribution of the Moissac cloister was to give the sculptured pillars a privileged place in the overall disposition. Eight apostles occupy the corner pillars. which tallies with their symbolism as pillars of the universal Church. A ninth, Simon, stands today on the central pillar of the west cloister walk. Abbot Ansquitil took the decision to have the image of his predecessor, Durand, sculpted on the central pillar of the east cloister walk, which has something to tell us about the high place the monastic order sought to occupy in the contemporary Church. Stylistically, these figures, like those of the Saint-Sernin reliefs at Toulouse, seem to be particularly inspired by ivories and goldsmith's works. Iconographically, the sculpture of the forty-one historiated capitals centres on the Gospel story, thc Old Testament, apocalyptic and eschatological scenes, the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. Stephen, Saturninus, Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius, as well as the miracles of St Benedict and St Martin.
Whereas at Moissac the scenes are isolated
on each capital, a step forward was taken at La Daurade in Toulouse where
we find a continuous story arranged on a group of capitals, just as illuminated
manuscripts continued an illustrated narration over several pages.
This is the formula adopted during the 12th century in a certain number
of cloister walks: Gerona, Sant Cugat del Valles, Tarragona. The oldest
series of reliefs in the Silos cloister forms an Easter cycle continuing
down to Whitsuntide; the pillar with doubting St Thomas naturally finds
a place there. The north walk of the Saint-Trophime cloister at Arles,
dating to about 1180, is a model of iconographic cohesion; it incorporates
both the statue figures and the scenes on bas-reliefs and capitals, the
latter so arranged as to be seen solely from the covered walk. The program,
strictly focused on the glory of Christ, with allusions to the Old Testament,
also includes the saints venerated at Arles, Trophimus and Stephen.
In accordance with the rule, the Cistercian
cloisters, especially the older ones (Le Thoronet), had no decoration
at all and this was of course the case with the Carthusians, the Premonstratensians
and the Grandmontians. But the moment has come to ask if there is an iconography
peculiar to the Romanesque cloister. We should note that the images and
their locations are extremely varied. They may be purely ornamental or
fantastic or taken from Bestiaries or from everyday life, like a gaze
turned on the outside world. They may be connected with the facade decoration
or objects in the treasury. They may be concentrated in one part of the
cloister or on a single capital, or unfold through a whole cloister walk
in a complete cycle. Sometimes they assume the form of pillar reliefs
or column statues or extend as paintings along the walls or ceilings of
the walk; and lastly they sometimes adorn the upper walk (Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert).
Apart from tbe presence of an inscription or the effigy of the founding
abbot (Cuxa, Ripoll), a reference to the rule (column-statue of St Benedict
in Saint-Pere of Chartres, wall painting of St Augustine in Saint-Sernin
of Toulouse capital of St Ursus at Aosta) and some illustrations alluding
to the common life or its models (Entry into Jerusalem, Washing of the
Feet, Last Supper), we have to admit that the cloister imagery is extremely
varied, open and receptive to the outside world. The incoherence of some
cloisters is due to the fact that the walks were often built successfully
or subject to interruptions that might last more than a century (Elne,
Ripoll). The type of homogeneous cloister like Monreale in Sicily, with
its colonnette shafts carved or adorned with mosaics, is the exception
rather than the rule. The monotony of the marble
sculpture in some cloisters has been explained by the "mass production"
practised by specialized marble masons (Subiaco, Cuxa); the richness and
fantasy of others by the many different functions of the cloister and
by the possibility that the walks were open to the faithful on certain
days and at certain hours, especially in urban settings. But this explanation
is inadequate, for the richly decorated upper cloister walk of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
was only accessible to the monks from the gallery of the abbey church
or their own dormitory and had no direct communication with the lower
The cloister basin or fountain, which bore a striking resemblance to baptismal fonts, stood in the middle of the cloister garth. Sometimes it was housed in a small building and placed in the middle of the cloister walk opposite the church or at the corner of two walks. It served for the monks ablutions and took the form of an outer basin fed with water from a raised central dispenser (Conques, Monreale, Poblet). These fountains are decorated with masks (Lagrasse) or heads of a more learned iconography (Saint-Denis), with colonnettes and capitals (Cuxa), and may be surmounted by a prestigious crowning feature such as the later horseman on the bronze fountain of Saint-Oertin at Saint-Omer. The Gothic cloister, with its delicate colonnettes and foliage capitals. puts the emphasis on a new aesthetic. Nevertheless, the 12th-century Gothic cloisters in the north, contemporary with Romanesque cloisters in the south of France, are still richly sculptured. Column-statues smaller than those of the portal splays adorned the cloister of Saint-Denis around the middle of the 12th century: they are known from the drawings of Montfaucon. The cloister of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux at Chalons-sur-Marne, possessed some fifty column statues and an equal number of historiated capitals justifying the admiration in which 12th-century monastic commentators held this cloister, sometimes interpreted as an imago mundi and compared to Paradise and the Heavenly Jerusalem by Honorius of Autun and Hugh of Fouilloy. The recent reconstruction of an apocalyptic program with the Four Horsemen and the Elders comprising a zodiacal group in the dispersed cloister of Saint-Avit-Senier in Perigord reinforces the links between the iconography of cloisters and facades (possibly about the second quarter of the 12th century) and confirms the idea of the cloister as prefiguring the advent of the heavenly city.
For the next Europeanwide movement, see: Gothic Sculpture.
For more facts about Romanesque sculptors, see: Art Encyclopedia.