Beginnings of Romanesque Architecture and Art
Vikings and Insular Art
The many Viking invasions of Europe and the British Isles marked the era before the Romanesque period. Beginning in 790 with raids on Irish coastal monasteries, the raids became full-scale military excursions within a century as shown by the Sack of Paris in 845 and the Sack of Constantinople in 860. For the next two hundred years, the Vikings raided and sometimes conquered surrounding areas. With the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, the era ended around 1066 when the Normans, themselves descended from Vikings, conquered England.
With the conversion to Christianity of the British Isles and Ireland, following from the mission of St. Augustine in 597, monasteries in Hibernia (present-day Ireland) and present-day Britain played a primary role in cultural continuity throughout Europe, developing the Insular, or Hiberno-Saxon, style that incorporated the curvilinear and interlocking ornamentation of Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures with the painting and manuscript examples sent from the Roman church.
Stone crosses and portable artifacts such as metalwork and elaborate gospel manuscripts dominated the period. Masterpieces like the British Book of Durrow (c. 650) and the Irish Book of Kells (c. 800), created by monks, included extensive illustrations of Biblical passages, portraits of saints, and elaborately decorative carpet pages that preceded the beginning of each gospel. Insular art influenced both Romanesque manuscript illumination and the richly colored interiors and architectural decorative elements of Romanesque churches.
The Carolingian Renaissance
King of the Franks in 768 and King of the Lombards in 774, Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor in 800, effectively consolidating his rule of Europe. He strove to position his kingdom as a revival of the, now Christian, Roman Empire. Charlemagne was an active patron of the arts and launched a building campaign to emulate the artistic grandeur of Rome. Drawing from the Latin version of his name (Carolus), the era is known as the "Carolingian Renaissance." As art historian John Contreni wrote, his reign "saw the construction of 27 new cathedrals, 417 monasteries, and 100 royal residences." His palace complex in Aachen (c. 800) that included his Palatine Chapel modeled on the Byzantine St. Vitale (6th century) became a model for subsequent architecture.
While Carolingian architecture drew on earlier Roman and Byzantine styles, it also transformed church façades that would have consequential effects throughout the Middle Ages. Emphasizing the western entrance to the basilica, the westwork was a monumental addition to the church, with two towers and multiple stories, that served as a royal chapel and viewing room for the emperor when he visited.
Carolingian murals and illuminated manuscripts continued to look to earlier Roman models and depicted the human figure more realistically than the earlier Hiberno-Saxon illuminators. This (early) naturalism had a lasting influence on Romanesque and Gothic art.
In the early 900s, concern began to grow about the economic and political control that nobles and the emperor exercised over monasteries. With rising taxes imposed by nobles and the installation of relatives as abbots, the Cluny Abbey sought monastic reform, based upon the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 480-550), written by the 5th-century St. Benedict of Nursia, that emphasized peace, work, prayer, study, and the autonomy of religious communities.
In 910, William of Aquitaine donated his hunting lodge and surrounding lands to found Cluny Abbey and nominated Berno as its first Abbott. William stipulated the independence of the Abbey from all secular and local authority, including his own. As a result, the Abbey was answerable only to the authority of the Pope and quickly became the leader of the Benedictine order, establishing dozens of monasteries throughout France. As part of its emphasis on prayer and study, the Abbey also created a rich liturgy, in which art played an important role.
Between the 10th and the early 12th centuries, three churches were built at Cluny, each larger than the last, and influencing architectural design throughout Europe. Not much is known of Cluny I, but it was a small, barnlike structure. After a few decades, the monastery outgrew the small church, and Cluny II (c.955-981) was erected. Based on the old basilica model, Cluny II employed round arches and barrel vaults and used small upper level windows for illumination. Designed with a cruciform plan, the church emphasized the west façade with two towers, a larger crossing tower (where the transepts and nave intersected), a narthex (an enclosed entrance area), a choir between the altar and the nave of the church, and chapels at the east end. All of these elements became characteristic of Romanesque architecture. With the building of Cluny III, completed in 1130, the church became the largest in Europe, rivaling St. Peter's in Rome, and a model for similarly ambitious projects.
First Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque
In the 10th century, First, or Lombard, Romanesque was an early development in Lombardy region (now northern Italy), southern France, and reaching into Catalonia. Started by the Lombard Comacine Guild, or stonemasons, the style was distinctive for its solid stone construction, elaborate arching that advanced Roman models, bands of blind arches, or arches that had no openings, and vertical strips for exterior decorative effects. Particularly dominant in Catalonia, some of the best surviving examples are found in the Vall de Boí, a designated World Heritage Site in Catalonia.
Monastic Centers and Pilgrimages
During the Romanesque era, no longer under constant threat from Viking raids, monastic centers, which had provided cultural continuity and spiritual consolation through desperate times, became political, economic, religious, and artistic powerhouses that played a role in unifying Europe and in creating relative stability. Monastic centers that housed religious relics became stops on pilgrimage routes that extended for hundreds of miles throughout Europe to the very edge of Spain at Santiago de Compostela. Christians revered Santiago de Compostela as the burial site of Saint James, a disciple of Christ who brought Christianity to Spain, and thus deeply symbolic to Catholic Europe.
The faithful believed that by venerating relics, or remains of saints, in pilgrim churches they could obtain saintly intercession on their behalf for the forgiveness of their sins. Fierce competition for relics sometimes developed between churches and even resulted in the monks stealing relics from other churches, as was the case with the reliquary of St. Foy, in order to attract more pilgrims and, therefore, more money. As ever-larger crowds began to flock to sites, monastic centers expanded, providing lodging and food and farrier services to the pilgrims. As a result of this growth, various craft guilds were employed to meet the demand for Romanesque construction.
Romanesque Architecture and Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Found throughout Europe and the British Isles, the Romanesque style took on regional variations, sometimes specific to a particular valley or town. The most noted sub styles were Mosan Art, Norman Romanesque, and Italian Romanesque.
Mosan Art, 1050-1232
Mosan art is named for the River Meuse valley in Belgium, where the style was centered around the town of Liege and the Benedictine monastery at Stavelot. Because of the region's location, it had many political and economic links to Aachen and was greatly influenced by the Carolingian Renaissance. The style became famous for its lavish and highly accomplished metalwork, employing gold and enameling in both the cloisonné technique, where metal is used to create raised partitions on the surface that are then filled with colored inlays, and the champlevé technique, where depressions are created in the surface and then filled. Noted metalworkers were Godefroid de Claire (de Huy), Nicholas of Verdun, and Hugo of Oignies. De Claire is credited with the creation of the Stavelot Triptych (1156-1158), both a portable altar and a reliquary containing fragments of True Cross, and Nicholas of Verdun's most noted work was his reliquary Shrine of the Magi (1180-1225). Mosan goldsmiths and metalworkers were employed throughout Europe by notable patrons and spread the style's influence.
Norman Romanesque (11th-12th centuries)
Norman Romanesque is primarily an English style named for the Normans who developed it after conquering England in 1066. Normandy, its name derived from the Latin Nortmanni, meaning "men of the north," became a Viking territory in 911, and the abstract decorative motifs of Norman architecture reflected the Viking love of such elements. Thomas Rickman in his An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation (1817) first used the term Norman Romanesque to refer to the style. Used for cathedrals and churches but also castles and keeps, Norman Romanesque was distinctive for its massive walls, its cylindrical and compound piers, and the Norman arch, employed to make grand archways. A wider and higher ceiling became possible, replacing the narrow limitations of the preceding barrel vault.
The style developed in Normandy, France, and England simultaneously, but in England it evolved into a distinctive sub-style that combined the austerity of the Norman style with a tendency toward decoration. A noted masterwork was Durham Cathedral (1093-1140) built under the leadership of William of St. Carilef. Though the cathedral was later redesigned in the Gothic style, some Norman elements, particularly the nave of the church, remain.
Italian Romanesque is characterized by a distinctive use of gallery façades, projecting porches, and campaniles, or bell towers. Regional variations occurred; for instance, the Northern Italian style had wide and severe looking stone façades, as seen in San Ambrogio in Milan (1140). However, the most important regional style was the Pisan style, sometimes called the Tuscan, or Central, style, favoring classical and refined decorative effects and using gallery facades and projected porches with horizontal bands of colored marble. Decorative elements included scenes of daily life, hunting scenes, and classical subjects, and bronze doors were frequently employed. The Piazza del Duomo, or Cathedral Square, in Pisa, which included the Baptistery (1153) the Cathedral (1063-1092) and the Campanile (1172) is the most famous example.
Later Developments - After Romanesque Architecture and Art
The Romanesque style continued to be employed through most of the 12th century, except in the area around Paris where the Gothic style began in 1120. Subsequently as the Gothic style spread, the Romanesque style was superseded and existent churches were often expanded and redesigned with new Gothic elements, retaining only a few traces of the earlier style. In more rural regions, however, the Romanesque style continued into the 13th century. Romanesque design was foundational to the Gothic which continued using a cruciform plan, a western façade with two towers, and carved tympanums above the portals. Similarly, Gothic art was informed by the same movement toward a more realistic treatment of the human form that can be seen in the Romanesque Mosan style. Romanesque tapestries, like the Bayeux Tapestry, influenced the formation of tapestry workshops throughout Europe in the Gothic period and beyond.
Romanesque Revival styles first developed in England with Inigo Jones' redesign of the White Tower (1637-1638). In the following century Norman Revival castles were built for estates throughout the British Isles, and in the early 1800s, Thomas Pesnon developed a revival style for churches. Romanesque manuscript illumination, with its jewel-like colors and stylized motifs, also influenced and informed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement in the middle and later 19th century.
In Germany Rundbogenstil, or round-arch style, became popular around 1830, and the style was influential in America, as seen in the Paul Robeson Theater, formerly the Fourth Universalist Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (1833-34) and the former Astor Library, now the Public Theatre (1849-1881), in Lower Manhattan.
In America the first work of Romanesque Revival architecture was Richard Upjohn's Maaronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon (1844-1846) in Brooklyn. The American architect James Renwick's design for the Smithsonian Institute (1847-1851) was a prominent example. The style became known as Richardsonian Romanesque, as Henry Hobson Richardson actively promoted the style and designed notable buildings including the Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885-1887) in Chicago and Trinity Church (1872-1877) in Boston. Harvard University commissioned Richardson to design several campus buildings, including Sever Hall (1878-1880), considered one of his masterpieces and designated a National Historic Landmark. As a result the style was adopted by other American universities in the following decades.
Do Not Miss
- Baroque art and architecture emerged in late sixteenth-century Europe after the Renaissance, and lasted into the eighteenth century. In contrast to the clarity and order of earlier art, it stressed theatrical atmosphere, dynamic flourishes, and myriad colors and textures.
- Gothic art flourished in Western Europe with monumental sculptures and stained-glass window decorated cathedrals - marked by the pointed Gothic arch.
- Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
First published on 20 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly