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Romanesque Art

Romanesque was the art form of the Early Middle Ages, a period approximately from 800 to 1150. It was the style of the Frankish and Norman occupants of Gaul and Italy. Romanesque art evolved out of the classical Roman and Byzantine style elements, and spread over Western Europe. Most Romanesque paintings of Western Europe have disappeared. Yet, the important Romanesque churches for instance were completely covered with pictures and colourful decoration, and so were the palaces of the nobility and the mansions of the wealthy merchants and bankers.

Romanesque religious painting in churches and abbeys date from Carolingian times (from the reign of Charlemagne) in the ninth century. The priories and abbeys founded by the Clunisian Order were richly decorated with mural frescoes, but the later Cistercian Order, from around 1150 on, even if it continued at first to build in Romanesque architecture, banned decorations of sculpture and painting. Even Cistercian austere thought had to ply for the insatiable hunger for images of humans however, so that Abbot Suger re-introduced wonderful images in his first Gothic cathedral of Saint Denis in Paris, and Gothic cathedrals came to be decorated again. But still: less frescoes are to be found in Gothic churches than in the early Romanesque churches. Gothic art would emphasise images in the stained glass windows of its cathedrals, less on its walls.

Romanesque was very narrative in style. Art forms like colour and line were thoroughly subservient to the stories that were told in the pictures. Much decoration in abstract patterns, both in straight or jagged lines and in fluid lines, was used in churches or on palace walls. Byzantine influences in mural frescoes were still felt.

Romanesque paintings show figures in simplified forms that we would call primitive now. Compositions were linear, clear, seldom superimposed. Each narrative element received separate attention. The Roman rounded arch was a predominant feature of Romanesque architecture, and is thus also found frequently as style element in paintings.

Mostly pure, simple colours were used. Blue paint was extremely expensive, and difficult to be acquired; so it was sparely applied in smaller areas. Painters used bright and contrasting colours in general, and many ochre red and yellow colours were used, as ochre earths were readily available. The painters gave no particular attention to colour, except for its decorative effect.

Too much of Romanesque painting was lost to be able to draw general conclusions on content. The art that remains is religious art, however, mainly portraits of Saints or scenes of the Old and New Testament.

Perspective and three dimensions, and elements to create space in general, were hardly known or given attention to. Chiaroscuro was used in draperies of figures in the Byzantine way. Shadows were rarely emphasised, also in images of buildings. Architecture was usually represented as seen parallel to the viewer, so that no fleeing lines or shadows were necessary. True dimensions of figures and constructions or plants were rarely respected. The idea of a building behind a figure or next to a figure was more important than the actual dimensions of that architecture, as compared to the height of the figure.

Most of the Romanesque painters have remained anonymous.

The Ark of Noah in the Abbey of Saint Savin

Painted around 1100

The abbey of Saint Savin in France dates from the ninth century. The decorations of its church are from the eleventh century, but may have been made for the greatest part at the end of that period. In this church can be seen the most valuable, old and beautiful Romanesque mural paintings of France. More than sixty episodes from the Old Testament can be admired on the nave vault alone. The church is entirely Romanesque, its round arches apparent everywhere, in the windows as in the forms that join the columns of the long nave. The nave vault has a total surface of four hundred sixty square meters, and all this space must have been filled with polychromed paintings, as all the other vaults and walls of the church and the crypt. This was a habit for Romanesque churches. We see these mostly nowadays completely devoid of decoration, as the plaster with the paint has fallen down over the centuries to show now only the clean, white stone walls. At one time, however, all the interior walls of the churches were covered with paintings in strong colours and even the sculptures of the porches were polychromed. The decorations were laid on a coating of fine sand and slaked lime, to a fresco. The lime, once it had absorbed the pigments of the colours, hardened on drying, and thus perpetuated the hues on the vault of Saint Savin.
The episodes of the pictures of Saint Savin are very narrative, as shown immediately by the high number of scenes in the vault. About sixty scenes have survived and at least a dozen more must have been painted there before 1100.

We take only one of these scenes to show a few Romanesque figures of style. One of the most spectacular pictures that catch the viewer’s eye when he or she looks at the vault is the Ark of Noah.
Romanesque art in churches like Saint Savin was a very popular art, naïve in depiction but not naïve in objectives. The first goal of the artists of Saint Savin was to draw attention to stories of the Bible. The artists therefore made simple pictures that were direct and plain, with few symbols and with a kind of charming earthiness in expression. Spectators saw picture after picture in one architectural and decorative whole so that - more than each individual scene - the assembly of the pictures must have been truly impressive, and have been the greatest, most impressive work of art of the surrounding countryside.

The lines of the Ark are horizontal, parallel to the long side of the nave. No stylisation of forms and lines was sought. We see the Romanesque arches as utilised in all of the windows and vaults of the church also in the structure of the housing of the boat. In that structure is a simple hierarchy. There are several floors filled with figures. Four-legged animals are seen below. On the first floor are the birds of heaven, closer to God and thus more mysterious. They are drawn higher than the horses. The human mind and spirit is swifter still, so the human figures look out of the top windows. This theory is repeated on the left since the prow of the boat is in the form of a dog’s head and the dog looks very expressively, and in a very funny way, at Noah’s dove or raven.

The mural frescoes stayed close to reality even though the picture of the Ark was a completely imagined boat. The boat consist of long planks nailed together, and it looks much like a Norwegian Viking ship as might still have been seen in Normandy by the artists. It is as if indeed the painters had seen boats like this, and been interested and puzzled by the way such ships were constructed. We feel a naïve surprise here at the wonders of the construction, so that the boat is depicted with pride in detail. For the devote people of the village of Saint Savin, such a strange boat was exotic enough to make them think of far lands and of times past.

Two large figures, which are totally in disproportion with the rest of the paintings, catch mysterious capers. What these two do on the deck is difficult to determine. Are this Noah and his son inspecting the roof and looking whether all is well? If yes, imagination of this idea was more important than a realistic rendering, and this is what we might expect since academic rules and information exchange on the art of painting was still unorganised and rudimentary. If Noah had to be shown working on the roof, Noah could not have been shown as a small figure, for that figure would not have been remarked from down in the church. And Noah was a great figure of the Bible, so he had to be shown as great as he was in the mind, and not necessarily as the man was in reality, and as compared to the size of the boat in the picture. The artists of Saint Savin who worked at the nave were apparently simple, straightforward people. They may well have been master artists that worked at one church after the other, but who only made the design of the scenes, whereas more local artists drew and coloured the pictures. The master artists saw examples in other Romanesque churches. They imitated an artisan style of representing Bible stories, as these needed still to be taught. The artists knew the Bible well, but they did not think too much about more delicate and more intricate detail than the essence of the story.

The painters of Saint Savin have not painted what they saw. They did not observe nature, humans and objects, with the eyes of realists, to imitate them in their pictures. They painted more the concept of things as they imagined them in their minds. They painted a boat like the archetype of a boat, and they painted an image of the humans in the boat, but the two images were not in the right proportions because viewers would have it so more difficult to recognise the people in the ship. Moreover, the people were at least as important as the boat, so why not paint the figures as large as the ship?
The painters of Saint Savin painted more what they knew than what they saw. And this fact was to the benefit of the viewer. The painters knew that if they would surrender to their senses only, their message would have been much more difficult to interpret.
The images of Saint Savin are crystal-clear and hence very efficient in communication, the main aim of the pictures. Ernst H. Gombrich (1909-2001) said on this, "The whole history of art can be considered in terms of the struggle of painters to paint either what they saw with their mind rather than what they saw with their eyes. The last part of the previous phrase is even a contradiction for we cannot see with our eyes alone, our mind blends many things, concepts, images together to form what we see ultimately".

The artists did have a feeling for grace and elegance however. Look for instance at the robes of the figures on the deck. The flow of the folds indicates a beginning of refinement, of more eyes for nice detail, and for an introduction of elements of embellishment for grace’s sake only. There is also a sense of drama in the water flowing under the boat and in the drowned men that can be seen in front and behind the Ark.

Some rudimentary decoration of a green frieze as background was added, but the Saint Savin artists had no eye for landscape. They were only interested in the story of the great men of the Bible. Much of the colours have probably faded, so that the only hues that are now still to be seen in this Ark of Noah are green and much brown or ochre. Blue pigment would have been difficult to obtain, so red, black, white and green were indeed the main colours of the palette of the painters.

The boat is shown parallel to the viewer, so that no perspective is shown in the scene of the Ark. The other pictures of the nave also lack perspective, as these rules had not yet been rightly observed. We can discern some chiaroscuro, but no use of shadows on the ground. Volumes are almost entirely shown in the robes of the figures, hinted at in the way the folds drape around the bodies, much in the Byzantine style. This was the only style element the Romanesque painters knew to create illusion of volume. Volume is shown by line alone. Yet this does not mean that the painters had no feeling of depth. The Ark evokes an impression of volume, and so do the figures. These are definitely not just flat shapes. So we see how observation of nature and reality had started already, before becoming mature in later periods. In a few pictures of the nave a frugal landscape is hinted at, but only shown by a few flowers and a few houses. Perspective was very naïvely shown by setting the houses of the background in a somewhat oblique position.

The abbey of Saint Savin was founded around the year 800. Its mural frescoes date from the end of the eleventh century. Art in France was still Romanesque then. Saint Savin was a precursor for the grandest abbey that Western Europe would know, for the abbey in the French region of Burgundy called Cluny. Saint Hugues of Semur (1024-1109) was a monk in Saint Savin before he became the abbot of Saint Martin of Autun, and councillor of Bernon who would be the first abbot of Cluny in 909 F19 . The abbey of Cluny was thus founded in the beginning of the tenth century, a hundred years later than Saint Savin. Bernon built Cluny I, and the church was consecrated in 927. Bernon’s abbey grew prosperous, and Cluny II was started around 948. Hugues de Semur, the eldest son of Damatius, Count of Semur, was in the meantime abbot of Beaume-les-Messieurs, and became in his turn abbot of Cluny in 1049. The largest and most splendid church of Cluny, now called Cluny III, was built from 1088 to 1130, at the initiative of Abbot Hugues de Semur.

Hugues must have known the vault paintings of Saint Savin. Cluny III must have been extensively covered with magnificent mural frescoes also. Cluny III was the largest church of Western Europe until Bramante’s Saint Peter’s was built in Rome. It was a church about 187 meter long and 75 meter wide in the largest transept. This imposing church was destroyed in the eighteenth century, so that very little of the building - and no wall painting – is left. Cluny’s mural frescoes must have been painted thirty to forty years earlier than the paintings of Saint Savin. But Hugues had travelled to Rome and to Spain; he was a man with an international vision. Would such a man have remained content with the rather naïve pictures of Saint Savin, or would he have wanted better, more sophisticated pictures? We will never know.

Cluny’s frescoes do not exist anymore, so we cannot answer this question. But Hugues had a small chapel built for his private devotion, not far from Cluny, at Berzé-la-Ville, the "Chapelle aux Moines". The wall paintings of Berzé, dating from 1110 to 1120, have been preserved, and they are just marvellous! They are more sophisticated than the Saint Savin paintings, but also seem to have been more influenced by the Byzantine traditions, whereas the ones from Saint Savin look entirely, wonderfully local.

France’s middle and southern regions counted many grand Romanesque churches and abbeys, and especially Burgundy was rich in such monuments. When Cluny and its abbots became too rich, and also too lax in their monastic rules, a few monks desiring more spirituality in their monastic life, founded a new abbey just a few tens of kilometres to the north of Cluny. Robert, abbot of the Clunisian abbey of Molesme, founded the abbey of Citeaux in 1098, and here new austerity and closer observance of Saint Benedict’s advices became the rule. One of its now best known monks, Bernard de Clairvaux, who had come to live in Citeaux in 1112 before becoming the abbot of a daughter abbey of Citeaux, Clairvaux, preached the first crusade at Vézelay. He argued against the Clunisian philosopher Pierre Abélard, and together with other monks of Citeaux he enforced a movement of religious renewal. From 1122 to 1156 Peter the Venerable was abbot of Cluny. Whereas Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153) persecuted Pierre Abélard, Cluny protected the philosopher, took him in, and Abélard could die peacefully in Cluny. Peter the Venerable of Cluny, Bernard de Clairvaux, the Cistercian, and Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, from whom came the genesis of Gothic art, were contemporaries. Also the Abbey of Saint Denis had first taken in Abélard, under Abbot Suger’s predecessor, but Suger disapproved of Abélard, and later even had the nuns of Argenteuil expelled. The prioress of these nuns was Héloise, Abelard’s mistress. With time, Cluny lost influence and Citeaux prospered.

Cluny had continued the Carolingian tradition to decorate its churches. But Cluny’s appeal waned. Cluny had founded about two thousand priories, all over Europe, of which the abbot and leader was the sole Abbot of Cluny. Cluny had only about twenty abbeys, which were independently led. Cluny thus represented a central model of monasteries.
The Cistercians had already founded 350 abbeys around 1200 from about 15 in the first two decades of 1100. Citeaux spawned finally around 750 abbeys over Europe, so that its expansion in the twelfth century was comparable to the expansion of Cluny in the eleventh. Each of these abbeys was led by an abbot, who was autonomous in his management of the abbey. Citeaux represented the distributed model with autonomous management in monastic life. Citeaux proved in the next decades to become far more influential than Cluny.

Citeaux commanded inner silence and piety. It proclaimed that these should not be distracted by images, by sculpture and paintings. The early Cistercian monks sought meditation and devote prayer in their churches. In that they did not want to be distracted by pictures or sculptures. Therefore the Cistercian order banned sculpture and frescoes from its churches, and simplified its architecture.
Bernard de Clairvaux, one of the most important early Cistercians, wrote in 1125 his "Apologia ad Willelmum Abbatem Sancti Theodorici", an apology to his friend William or Guillaume de Saint Thierry, in which he stated that no painted figures, no sculpted figures save the wooden crucifix, no precious stones, no gold or silk could be tolerated in Cistercian abbeys and only iron chandeliers but no items of the cult in gold G122 . Superfluous decoration was abandoned, the dimensions of the Cistercian churches were more modest, and windows were colourless, walls whitewashed. Even in manuscripts the richly decorated first capitals of a chapter had to become monochrome. In 1150, the Chapter General of the Cistercians added:, "We interdict that sculptures or paintings be placed in our churches and in other places of the monasteries because when they are looked at, one often neglects the usefulness of good meditation and the discipline of the religious importance." G131 . It would be difficult to be clearer, and it meant the temporary end of decoration of churches.

Luckily, Abbot Suger of Saint Denis (1081-1151) disagreed. Bernard de Clairvaux and Suger engaged in polemics, but Suger’s worldly power as the main advisor of the King of France matched the spiritual might of Bernard, and an equilibrium of understanding set in between the two men, so that Bernard could preach what he wanted and Suger could remain the aesthete. And gradually, with the Gothic splendour of France’s cathedrals erected to the example of Suger’s church of Saint Denis, images and sculptures were introduced again, first in stained glass windows and then in decoration by painting of the columns and walls. The Cistercian abbey churches would stay devoid of decoration, but cathedrals built to Suger’s ideal were painted again, even if frescoes were indeed avoided. But painted and sculptured altarpieces were put in predominant places. The altarpieces became larger, and if at first they contained mainly sculptures, later, in the late thirteenth century, they became painted polyptychs. Then later still, canvases with oil paintings were also hung in the churches.

One cannot but admire the grandness and earnestness of spiritual elevation of the first churches built by Cistercian monks. But Cistercian art centred on architecture, inner richness instead of outward show of the splendour of God’s universe; and that meant the end of interior decoration, so the end of Romanesque mural religious frescoes. Cistercian art was in its beginning, in the twelfth century, still Romanesque art, but it gradually evolved to the architecture of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis near Paris, to Gothic. Religious painting in Cistercian monasteries and churches simply stopped, so that the Carolingian Romanesque tradition was broken.
Citeaux emphasised private devotion and study, so that the art of mural frescoes almost ended, but the pictorial arts continued in the manuscripts, in the books copied and enlivened with illuminations in the austere scriptoriums of the Cistercian abbeys. With time, the illuminators would become oil painters, but for that, art history would have to wait until the beginning of the fifteenth century. Abbot Suger transferred his attention from frescoes to the stained glass windows of his Gothic churches. The frescoes on the grand scale of Cluny and of Saint Savin, of the early Romanesque churches, ended thus with Citeaux.

Rests of Carolingian frescoes and Clunisian painting can be found in isolated places, in rare and badly damaged mural frescoes of France. We mentioned Saint Savin and Berzé-la-Ville. There are Carolingian frescoes dating from around 850 in the crypt of the abbey of Saint Germain in the town of Auxerre (Burgundy). There are twelfth century frescoes in the cathedral of Saint Cyr and Saint Julitte in Nevers. There are thirteenth century pictures in the cathedral of Saint Stephen of Auxerre, as well as in Saint Peter’s of Brancion. More examples remain. But these are mere rests of what once was a great art of painting, quenched by the advent of the Cistercian Order.

Great examples of Romanesque Western-European paintings remained preserved in small churches of the Pyrenees regions, many of them in Spain’s Catalonia. The Catalans restaured many of the frescoes by taking them from the 1920’s on away from the walls of the mountain churches, and bringing them to Barcelona. It might have been better to preserve the paintings in the churches themselves, but that would have been a very costly and arduous task. The frescoes were kept in the museum of a large city, where more people could and can admire them. The paintings are now wonderfully displayed in the grand Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the MNAC of Barcelona. That museum is remarkable, not only for these splendid Romanesque paintings, which are unique for Western Europe. It is also a magnificent palace of the arts, one of the grandest museums of Europe.

The above paragraphs on the pictorial representation in the churches of France proved a typical evolution for that country and for the churches that were under the influences of the Abbeys of Cluny and Citeaux. Italian churches, however, were less touched by Citeaux rigour, so that many churches of the Gothic period remained covered in their interior with frescoes there. The Gothic spirit touched less Italy, and still less as one moves south.

The paintings in the church of Saint Savin are doubly remarkable. They are the oldest mural paintings of France and among the very oldest found in Europe. These paintings represent a multitude of Bible stories. They prove the erudition of the artists, but the representation remained naïve and primitive in detail and sophistication of art. Yet, we have learned to understand why the artists preferred this mode of representation.

This decoration should be seen in its entirety and in its splendour of colouring in a large Romanesque church, as it was in the eleventh century. Such effort of imagination is impossible of course, since many of the scenes have disappeared, and the colours have faded. Yet, the entire work must have been dazzling and impressive.

The church of Saint Savin en Gartempe still exists. What happened to Cluny and Citeaux? Cluny III was enormous. It had two main towers, five bell towers, over three hundred windows, and its walls were so high that although it was a Romanesque building its walls needed a form of buttresses to support the weight of the roof. The church of the Cluny Benedictine monks must have been as richly decorated as Saint Savin, and that in the grander style of Berzé-la-Ville. At the time of the French Revolution, Cluny’s twelve remaining monks were only a ghost of the former pride of the abbey. The basilica was abandoned, and then sold. Merchants used the church as a quarry, blowing up the vaults with dynamite. We may regret the destruction of Athens and Rome and of the glory of the Ionian cities around the Mediterranean. When we say that this was the gradual work of uncivilised hordes, then Cluny’s destruction in the period from 1793 to 1823, in just thirty years, was also the work of Barbarians. Cluny’s destruction was the main cultural crime of Western Europe. Together with Cluny very many other cathedrals and basilicas were destroyed: the towns of Tours, Bruges, and Liège lost their main churches to demolishers and stone merchants. But as the French Revolutionaries tore down the major cathedrals of European Christianity, there were just too many other smaller, as well as imposing churches, to destroy to eradiate Christianity. And Napoleon Bonaparte had to conclude a concordate with the Pope to be crowned Emperor. Citeaux knew a similar fate as Cluny and was entirely destroyed, so that only one building, its old library of the fifteenth century, remains.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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