Church walls and ceilings were decorated extensively in France during the 11th and 12th centuries. Composed mainly of scenes from the Bible, the aim of this mural painting was to inform the mostly illiterate church congregation, and serve as a form of devotion. French Romanesque murals were characterized by more abstract, dynamic and animated imagery than elsewhere in Europe. The best site for such pictorial works is the abbey church of Saint-Savin sur-Gartempe. When it comes to Romanesque painting in France, apart from Touraine and the neighboring provinces, Maine, Anjou, Poitou, Berry and Orleans, which comprise a particularly favored region, we must mention three other important zones: Burgundy, Auvergne and Roussillon.
As has been suggested by the art scholar Duprat, French Romanesque painting can be conveniently divided into four groups, which differ essentially in manner: the fresco paintings of the west, with subdued color on a light background; the bright paintings on blue background found chiefly in Bugundy and in the south-east; the paintings of Auvergne, with their dark background, and the Catalan paintings of the Eastern Pyrenees. Of course this division is valid only in its broad lines, and we can find paintings with light backgrounds in Auvergne and Burgundy. In any case, many works cannot be attached to any particular school or group.
Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is the oldest hall church of the Poitou region in France. Its choir and transept dates back to between 1060 and 1085 and the nave to between 1095 and 1115. The high colonnades of the central nave are spanned by a barrel vault. The extensive remnants of the original painting on the piers and the vault give a clear idea of the lively character of Romanesque churches.
The fresco cycle in the vault of the monastery church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe narrates stories from the Old Testament in a rather confusing sequence. The artist had the task of representing the story of Moses, from the creation of the world until his death, and it had to be told by means of selected and exegetically representative scenes which were to be distributed all over the vaulted ceiling. As a result, the story of the Bible turns into a concise account of the history of civilization of the medieval world.
When establishing the narrative composition, priority was given to the arrangement of narrative events rather than to the continuous narrative flow. One of the scenes depicts the creation of the first human couple. It is the only scene in the cycle which contains events that unfold in chronological succession but are represented in a unified pictorial space.
God the Father is seen bending over the reclining Adam and removing one of his ribs. Then Adam is depicted standing upright next to his creator, listening to his admonitions and winking at Eve. Eve, who has her back turned to the tree of knowledge, turns round and together with her husband leaves the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man.
Popular subjects, such as the building of the Tower of Babel, were made to stand out in spectacular fashion. The scene depicting the building of the Tower of Babel even turns into a kind of visual instruction in the state of the medieval building trade: the rough-hewn ashlar blocks are carried along on men’s shoulders.
Holding an angle-iron in his right hand, we see an architect standing on the tower, about to take up a stone which somebody is handing to him. A mason in the foreground is taking mortar out of a bucket. next to the bucket there is a cable which used to pull up the container. Then, suddenly, God the Father makes his appearance in order to punish the worker’s actions with the confusion of tongues.
This fresco belongs to a Noah cycle related in eight episodes in the context of an Old Testament series extending over the vault of the former Benedictine monastery church. A New testament sequence adorns the presbytery and galleries, and further frescoes are in the vestibule and the crypt. The superb series of paintings on the barrel vaulting were executed in one session by at least four artists. The remaining groups of works were apparently the responsibility of a single, leading artist in each case.
The fresco cycle in the vault of the monastery church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe narrates stories from the Old Testament in a rather confusing sequence. When establishing the narrative composition, priority was given to the arrangement of narrative events rather than to the continuous narrative flow.
Thus, popular subjects, such as Noah’s Ark, were made to stand out in spectacular fashion. As was common in the Middle Ages, the artist who created this picture showed the ark as a lateral elevation. Judging by its hull, the ark is a Viking ship with a stem fortified by monsters, and a three-story superstructure and small wheel-house just as described in the Bible. Animals look out through the round-arched windows, and Noah’s family crouch above.
(Above and below) There are wonderful wall paintings in the Cluniac chapel of Château des Moines at Berzé-la-Ville, near Cluny. The chapel contains the tomb of Abbot Hugh of Cluny (1049-1109) who designed the programme of the mural paintings of highly peculiar iconography. These paintings represent the best surviving examples of the art of Cluny.
The apses and convent chapel on the upper level of the northern transept of the abbey church of Saint-Chef, east of Lyon, converted in 1056, contain remnants of what was surely once extensive fresco work. The paintings in the chapel were freed of later painting in 1967, and, though damaged, are in a quite good state of preservation. In the small apse niche one can see a depiction of Christ in his glory, surrounded by angels and the symbols of the Evangelists.
The church of St Savin-sur-Gartempe, some thirty miles east of Poitiers, contains the most extensive cycle of Romanesque wall-paintings in France. Those in the crypt represent scenes from the lives of the two patron saints of the church, Sts Savinus and Cyprian. They were believed to be two fifth-century Christian converts who lived in northern Italy. Persecuted for their faith they fled to a location on the Gartempe river in France, where they were put to death. Their relics were discovered in the ninth century and are preserved in the crypt of the church.
The lower church of the abbey church was dedicated to Sts Savin and Cyprien. On the walls of the crypt the Last Judgment and scenes from the martyrdom of the saints are represented.
The early twelfth-century wall-painting in the apse of the chapel of the summer retreat of the abbots of Cluny at Berzé-la-Ville – probably a replica of one originally found in the apse of the now-destroyed abbey church of Cluny III – has as its unusual theme the Twelve Apostles combined with the Traditio Legis. In this Christ grants to St Peter the authority to govern the Church, symbolized by the handing over of a scroll; thus Peter is identified as the precursor of the popes.
The wall-painting is dominated by the figure of Christ in Majesty in a mandorla. He hands St Peter a scroll granting him authority to govern the church, and is surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. The style of the wall-painting is characteristic of that in Rome and southern Italy at the beginning of the twelfth century, and exhibits the strong influence of Byzantine painting.
In the apse of Cluniac chapel of Château des Moines at Berzé-la-Ville, near Cluny, Christ is enthroned as omnipotent ruler of the world. To the right, the arm of this imposing figure extends beyond the luminous sphere to pass the scroll of the law to St Peter, who is accompanied by other apostles and four further saints.
The chapel of the priory of Saint-Gilles at Montoire was entirely covered with paintings of which the only ones that remain today are those of the original apse, painted in fresco with additions in distemper and encaustic, and those of the transept apses and two apsidioles. This chapel, which is very beautiful despite the many mutilations it has undergone through the centuries, once had Ronsard for its abbot (Pierre de Ronsard, 1524 – 1585, was a French poet and “prince of poets” – as his own generation in France called him).
It is periodically endangered by the sudden rising of the River Loire. The damp has completely unstuck the ground of the paintings at the base of the walls, particularly as the river’s successive floodings have buried these more than a yard deep. The Biblical art of Saint-Gilles presents an exceptional and very striking spectacle. Christ figures in the three apses and on the vault of the triumphal arch; in the center apse we see him teaching, in the south apse handing the keys to St. Peter, in the west apse sending the Holy Spirit to his apostles.
Carolingian influence is obvious, especially in the paintings of the triumphal arch, where Christ, in a medallion, is shown crowning the Virtues which have defeated the Vices. Near Montoire, the church of Saint-Jacques-des-Guerets – at Troo is also at the mercy of the River Loire’s water levels. On the north wall of the choir, on two registers, are the Massacre of the Innocents and the Nativity. On the left of the axial window, a touching Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John at the foot of the cross, which is black and green with a yellow border. In the embrasure of the window, the Finger of God, St. George and St. Augustine. On the south wall we see Pride overthrown and Anger piercing itself with a sword. Further on, Paradise, with a great figure of St. Peter, then the martyrdom of St. James, the legend of St. Nicholas and finally the Raising of Lazarus.