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Romanesque Art: History, Characteristics & Style

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  • 0:06 A New Form for a New…
  • 3:01 Sculptural Decoration
  • 5:06 Stained Glass Windows
  • 6:20 Murals and Illuminations
  • 7:32 Secular Art
  • 8:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the explosion of Romanesque art in the 11th century. We briefly explore the causes behind this movement. Then we look at the two most notable forms of Romanesque art: sculptural decoration and stained glass windows. Finally, we examine the emergence of medieval secular art.

A New Form for a New Millennium

In the years leading up to 1000 CE, many people across Europe anxiously awaited the second coming of Christ. This was sort of like the hysteria that surrounded Y2K or the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. During this time, many Christian rulers set aside their swords, accepting the peace of God. People of all walks of life made pilgrimages to holy sites, all in the hope of giving their soul a last polish before the coming apocalypse.

The new millennium came and went, and the world failed to end. Yet while those of us living today breathed a collective sigh of relief as the world kept spinning, the people of Medieval Europe must have felt a bit disappointed. Remember, this was a time when many people's greatest ambition was to die and go to heaven.

As people realized that the second coming was perhaps not coming as soon as they'd hoped, all of that religious energy had to go somewhere. That energy found new expression in the art of the Romanesque period, as art and culture exploded across Europe.

  1. The 'Millennial Disappointment' was probably just one of the factors that contributed to this artistic endeavor.
  2. A second possible factor was that increased pilgrimages to holy sites had bred a growing spirit of internationalism in Europe. Instead of staying within a few miles of their birthplace, people traveled the world for religious pilgrimages or crusades. They came back from these trips with new ideas, and various independent styles came together.
  3. On the homefront, Christianity had triumphed in Europe. Even the terrible Vikings had been converted. The Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme in the West.
  4. Mediterranean trade routes had been reopened by the Italian states.
  5. Commerce and manufacturing had been revived, due in large part to…
  6. ...the rebirth of cities and towns, as across Europe, old urban centers refilled and new urban centers were established.
  7. This, in turn, led to the growth of a middle class of merchants and craftsmen.

All of these factors combined to make the Romanesque era one of the most artistically dynamic and culturally expansive periods in medieval history. This artistic revolution took place on several fronts.

Sculpture, once shunned by earlier Christians, became a permanent fixture of Romanesque churches, while stained glass windows made their debut, illuminating the interior of churches. And we even begin to see the exploration of more secular themes in a variety of mediums.

Let us begin with the most significant component of Romanesque art: sculpture.

Sculptural Decoration

Example of a tympanum
Tympanum

For almost a thousand years, Christians had been avoiding sculpture like the plague. Earlier Christians took the Bible's prohibition on graven images to mean that all statues or sculptures were considered idols by God.

We're not sure what changed people's minds. Perhaps the triumphant Church found idolatry less threatening since they no longer needed to compete with idol-worshiping pagans. Perhaps people just decided to take a less hard-line approach on the Bible. Whatever the reason, for the first time in centuries, stone sculptors began coating churches in decorative sculptures.

They completely reinvented the column. They began surrounding their doorways with a circular relief sculpture called a tympanum, and free-standing statues began occupying niches in churches.

Though styles varied across regions, all of these sculptural elements have a few things in common: intense expression, unbridled fantasy, and a nervous agility of form.

Stained Glass Windows

Stained glass at the Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral

As Romanesque sculptors decked their churches with saints, angels, and demons, Romanesque glaziers were experimenting with the new art of stained glass windows.

We're not sure where this art got its start. Some scholars point to England, where stained glass fragments have been found dating back to the 7th century. Others point to the Near East, where the art of making glass had ascended to a science.

Whatever the source, stained glass windows became important fixtures during the Romanesque era. These stained glass windows were relatively small and simple, with narrow frames and rounded tops. Compare this to later Gothic windows, which tend to be much larger and more complex and are generally either circular or have a pointed top.

As monumental sculpture and stained glass came to the fore, murals and illuminations took a back seat.

A few examples remain, but even to contemporaries, they must have seemed rather lame compared to the incredible sculpture and stained glass windows now decorating churches.

The best surviving examples of Romanesque murals are from the Abbey Church of St. Savin sur Gartempe.

An illuminated page in the Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus
Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus

Meanwhile, the art of illumination, or illustrating manuscripts, seems to have taken a big step backward from the Irish Book of Kells. However, we do see some neat features in this page from the Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus. Notice how St. John interacts with the border, dipping his pen in an ink well offered by Abbot Wedricus himself.

This form of a central figure surrounded by circular scenes would find its way into the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals.

Though murals and illuminations would persist for several centuries more, they gradually went out of fashion as sculpture now decorated churches, and stained glass windows could illuminate God's word for the illiterate faithful.

Secular Art

Just one type of Romanesque art remains to be discussed. This art is distinguished by its subject matter rather than its medium. In the Romanesque era, we begin to see the first traces of medieval secular art.

Bronze Statue of a Lion
Bronze Statue of a Lion

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