Comparing Romanesque Tympanums: Iconography & Function

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  • 00:00 Romanesque Architecture
  • 1:08 The Basilique Sainte Foy
  • 2:24 The Cathedrale Saint-Trophime
  • 3:05 Basilique Sainte Madeleine
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Romanesque period saw a revival of art in Europe. In this lesson, we'll explore the architectural feature called the tympanum and see how this connected to European life, religion, and even holy wars.

Romanesque Architecture

Let's make a door. No, that's boring. I want a cooler door. How about we add a tympanum, a semicircular or triangular decorated surface between the horizontal post of the door frame and an arch or pediment. It's this part right here [see video]. Well, like me, people of medieval Europe didn't like boring doors, particularly not in their churches.

Due to rising wealth and prominence in the role and power of the Church, a new era of artistic production began, focused on religious art. We call this the Romanesque period, which lasted from roughly 1050-1200 CE. Romanesque architects put a lot of effort into building the largest and most elaborate Christian churches the world had seen to that point, and the tympanum was one of their characteristic traits. These works of art set the tone for the religious services within and affirmed the cultural importance of the church to its congregation. Now that's how you make a door.

The Basilique Sainte Foy

Let's take a little tour of some of the great Romanesque tympana and see what these things meant to medieval European society. We'll begin, here at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques, France. Here's the tympanum. Now, this is an era when complex art was only affordable by a few, so when we see something this complex, we can appreciate the effort, artistry, and money that went into it. The tympanum of this church is a good one for us to start with because it is really exemplary in many ways.

For one, its location was very typical. Tympana almost always appeared above the main entrance doors to the church, which are the western doors. The theme of this is also one of the most common motifs of Romanesque tympana. It is the Last Judgment, where the righteous are glorified and the sinners subjected to eternal damnation. In this tympanum, Christ appears in the center, with the saved on his right and damned on his left. For people who were on their way into the church, that scene presented an important message. Keep coming back to church, you'll be saved. Stop living a pious life, and eternal damnation awaits.

The Cathédrale Saint-Trophime

For an interesting comparison, let's head over to the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, also in France. Here's their tympanum. It's also located over the west entrance, and is also technically a Last Judgment scene, but this one is very different. The fates of the righteous and damned are not the focus here. Instead, we have a very large Christ surrounded by four winged figures representing the four evangelists. Matthew is represented by an angel, Mark by a winged lion, Luke by a winged ox, and John by an eagle. This was another very common practice in Romanesque tympana.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine

We'll wrap up our tour by heading over to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, France. You may notice that we're spending a lot of time in France, and there are a few reasons for that. For one, the French Romanesque style heavily embraced the use of decorated tympanum, but it's also the case that many of France's churches from this time period are much better preserved than other Romanesque churches. So, we have a lot of good examples, and we can see some of the diversity in the use of tympana.

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