Regional Variations in Romanesque Figural Arts & Churches

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  • 0:01 Romanesque Europe
  • 1:07 France and Spain
  • 2:32 Northern Europe
  • 3:14 Norman Romanesque
  • 4:25 Italy
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Romanesque style was highly regionalized. In this lesson, we are going to explore some of the different ways that this style was used across Medieval Europe.

Romanesque Europe

Look at this column. Would you say it's Roman? No, it's not quite Roman. But it is Roman…like. Roman…ish. Roman…esque. From roughly 1050-1200 CE, European art and architecture went through a revival, based largely on the gradual reintroduction of several Roman features, like this column. We call this style the Romanesque for that reason. The Romanesque period was the first time since the fall of Rome that art and architecture underwent some serious innovations and reclaimed a dominant place in people's lives. However, this style didn't quite look the same everywhere. In fact, one of the key characteristics of the Romanesque period is a tendency towards strong regional variations. So, let's take a quick tour through medieval Europe and see how things started to change as art became a little more Roman…esque.

France and Spain

Let's start with the Romanesque styles of France and Spain because this is where the resurgence of art and architecture really began, winding along the pilgrimage road that people traveled on their way to the tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. It was this pilgrimage that led to the rise of new pilgrimage churches along the way, churches that needed to be large enough to hold crowds of pilgrims. To increase their size, and especially the available interior space, these churches reintroduced vaulting, or the use of arches to create a ceiling. French and Spanish pilgrimage churches, which tended to contain several sacred relics for pilgrims to worship, also introduced radiating chapels, or smaller chapels jutting out of the side of the church so they pilgrims could visit the relics without interrupting Mass.

The rise of pilgrimage churches in France and Spain also led to a revival in stone carving. The pilgrimage churches used reliefs to depict biblical scenes or images connected to the relics within the church. In particular, pilgrimage churches in this region put a lot of effort into decorating the tympanum, the space above a doorframe enclosed in an arch. One of the most common themes was the Last Judgment, reminding pilgrims that their piety would be rewarded when the righteous are rewarded with eternal salvation.

Northern Europe

The styles that emerged along the pilgrimage trails of France and Spain spread across Europe as other pilgrimage sites emerged. In Northern Europe, the Romanesque style took on its own characteristics. In particular, German churches embraced a level of experimentation with the styles of vaulting, giving them a less consistent style. These churches often embraced a groin vault, composed of perpendicular arches for extra support. Northern European artists also heavily focused on goldsmithing and metalworking,and found lots of work creating reliquaries, which are objects to hold and display relics, that were used across Europe.

Norman Romanesque

In England and the part of France called Normandy, all under the control of William the Conqueror, another unique variation of the Romanesque appeared. The churches in this region were more ornate and featured massive bell towers that shot into the sky, a symbol of their closeness to God. Norman churches also followed the Northern European habit of experimenting with the shapes and designs of their vaulted ceilings, often motivated as much by aesthetics as practical structural support. Speaking of support, in order to keep those towers structurally sound, the Normans developed a system of exterior supports called buttresses. It was this style of Romanesque architecture that would later lead to the famous Gothic style.

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