Romanesque Art

Characteristics of Romanesque Art 

The amalgamation of barbarian traditions working upon Christianity, the inspiration of mediwval art, is typified in Romanesque art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Strictly speaking, Romanesque art is not easily identified, for its first appearance and later developments grew logically out of various local situations. The seventh to the twelfth centuries were dynamic and in many respects culturally integrated, for there was surprisingly enough, intercommunication among the arts. Thanks to the influence of the monastic orders, these centuries constitute a creatively unified period. Although the term Romanesque originated from the use of the true, round headed or Roman arch, it is generally applied to the greatest period of Romanesque art from about the year 1000 to 12000. The culmination of the style, however, was preceded by many centuries of development and experimentation in which some of the more interesting examples are to be found.

The Political Background

The year 476 marked the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Subsequent centuries up to about 1000 were marred by continuous warfare and invasion (from the barbarians from the north and east and the Saracens from the south) and by internal dissension within Europe. Owing to the unstable political conditions, a considerable degree of insularity and artistic independence became characteristic of the art of Europe in this period despite the unifying force of monasticism.

The Merovingian Period

Merovingian is a term given to the period from 481 to 768, or the fifth through the eighth centuries. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Romans at the Battle of Soissons in 486 and inaugurated the period of Frankish domination in western Europe. By the defeat of Alaric II, in 507, the territories of Burgundy and Aquitaine became properties of the Frankish Emperor. The Merovingian epoch ended with the expansion of centralized power among the Franks by Charles Martel and Pepin the Short, and the beginning of the Carolingian period under Charlemagne in 768.

Important Figures

There were several major figures in this period. Southern Europe was under the influence of Pope Gregory the Great. The north was influenced by St. Columba. The colossal leader of the time was Gregory the Great, who reigned as Pope from 590 to 604. He proselytized the barbarian Lombards in Italy.and he saw in monasticism an opportunity to consolidate the power of the Chruch. Hitherto monasticism had been antiecclesiastical and its supporters had been anchoritical (hermits)rather than cenobitical (celibates living in communities). Gregory the Great founded the new tradition of Christian writing, basing patristic (Fathers of the early Church) writings on Latin dialogues in the Platonic style. He wrote a series of Morallis and the Pastoral Rule, developed the chant forms which bear his name and established precedents for the promulgation of dogma. The Great Irish St. Columba (Colin Killy or Columcille) lived in the sixth century. He established monasteries all over Ireland and on the Isle of Iona and especially the important scriptorium at Lindisfarne. Under his influence the great Celtic tradition emerged and flourished, tempered by Platonic ideals. The legends surrounding St. Columba suggest that he was a kind of Hibernian John Bunyan.


Europe in the Merovingian period was a mishmash of ethnic types: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, Huns, Burgars, Poles, Mogols, Moors, Celts, Germans, Lombards, Slavs, Angels and Saxons. Central and northern Europe were filled with barbarians on the move.


In Ireland there had developed an independent monastic system distinguished from the continental Benedictine form. The Irish had never been Romanized and the local Gaelic clans were dominant even in the organization of religious affairs. They had been converted by St. Patrick (ca. 389-461) who had been educated in one of the monasteries in Gaul under Eastern (Greek, Syrian and Egyptian) influences. Irish monasticism was characterized by its complete envelopment of the secular clergy and by its failure to recognize an ecclesiastical superior to the abbot. Through the missionary zeal of St. Columba, Irish monasticism expanded into northern England and then to northern France, southern Germany, and finally Switzerland.


The Anglo Saxons began the conquest of England in 449. St. Augustine wan sent by Pope Gregory to re- establish Christianity in England in 596. The Abbey of Canterbury was founded the following year under the patronage of the Frankish Queen Bertha of Kent. The conflict between the Irish and Benedictine systems of monasticism was settled in favor of the Roman or Benedictine by the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Anglo Saxon Christian Church began to expand into the north and through missionary work, onto the continent into Frisia and as far as Germany.

Northern European Romanesque Art

Much of the art of Northern Europe in the Romanesque period was purely ornamental. The vitality and variety of the decorative motifs were primarily barbaric. The designs were geometric and two dimensional, ideally suited to the refinement of the metal work and ivory or whalebone carving. The decorated timber architecture was totally foreign to the ornament of the barbarians in central and southern Europe.


Although the extant wooden mast churches of Norway date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they probably represent a type of structure common to northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.The full or half timber construction surviving until the seventeenth century in France and England and for that matter in early America, was even mentioned by the Venerable Bede, referring to what be called a “Scotch Manner” of building. A long tradition of successful shipbuilding may have made the northerners skilled timber workers. It was customary to use ships as a place of burial. Tomb ships burials have been discovered, beginning in 1904, they are still being found in Norway, Sweden and England, the latest at Sutton Hoo at the beginning of World War II. Three important Norwegian mast churches are still preserved in Borgund, Urnes and Gol (the latter now removed to a museum in Oslo). Tall masts stand at the intersection of sleepers on which the church rest. Outside walls are made up of vertical boards framed by upper and lower horizontal beams attached to round pillars at the four corners. The gabled roofs rest on the masts, not walls, and the masts are supported by wooden horseshoe arches and cross beams. Panels about the doors and on the walls and the cube capitals of column are delicately carved with interlacing animal devices.


The Celtic and Anglican (Northumbrian) crosses, of equal arms having a boss in the center with four tapering decorated sides, appear to have been set up to mark holy spots, perhaps even in pre-Christian times. One form an obelisk crowned by crosses also appeared in Syria and Armenia. Runic inscriptions were intermingled with abstract foliate patterns and bird and animal motifs on the crosses and on silver and gold bowls and chalices. Linear ornamentation characterized the jewelry of the time, attested by numerous fibulas (brooches), buckles, necklaces, armor pieces and harness ornaments.  Various reliquaries steles, sarcophagi, and coffin covers used all over patterns carved of stone, ivory or whalebone.

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