Romanesque art and architecture flourished throughout western Europe from about 1050 to about 1200, although its first manifestations occurred before the year 1000, and its influence remained strong in some areas of Europe well into the 13th century. Unlike Carolingian art and architecture and Ottonian art and architecture, from which it drew many forms and elements, Romanesque was a truly pan-European movement.
By the beginning of the 11th century, European civilization had become stable and prosperous under the aegis of the Christian church, through whose network of abbeys the new artistic order was established and spread. An unprecedented building activity stimulated the development of innovative architectural techniques and styles, which in turn demanded new forms of pictorial and sculptural decoration.
Most Romanesque churches retained the basic plan of the Early Christian basilica: a long, three-aisled nave intercepted by a transept and terminating in a semicircular apse crowned by a conch, or half-dome. Whereas Early Christian structures employed thin, flat walls to support thin roofs and wooden ceilings, however, the masonry structure of Romanesque churches assumed far more complicated configurations, in which heavy piers and arched openings divide the interior into well-defined spatial areas, while large masses of clearly separated geometric forms impart to the exterior an aura of grandeur and power.
The greatest breakthrough of Romanesque architecture, however, occurred in interior vaulting. Groin vaults had long been used in the lower side-aisles of the nave, but the thin walls of pre-Romanesque churches could support only wooden ceilings and roofs. By redesigning and reinforcing the walls, Romanesque builders were able to span the wide and often lofty nave with a solid barrel vault and thus create completely vaulted structures.
After the fall (AD 476) of the Roman Empire the practice of decorating buildings with large reliefs ceased for almost 600 years. The revival of monumental relief sculpture as a major form of art is one of the outstanding achievements of the Romanesque period. Often highly stylized and at times verging on the abstract, Romanesque reliefs were used chiefly to embellish the church portals.
The dating of the two reliefs at Chichester representing the Raising of Lazarus (above) and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (below) depends on whether they considered post-Norman-conquest works, or typically Saxon. The approximate date of 1080, suggested by some English historians, has the merit of taking into account the Saxon as well as the French elements in this Norman work. On the other hand, several authorities believe the panels to have been executed as late as the 12th century, while yet others place them as early as the middle Saxon period. The decidedly expressionistic style of the emaciated, angular face suggests an attribution to a Saxon sculptor.
In Romanesque sculpture, the demonization of sexuality in the depiction of the sexual organs is visually crude to the point of grotesque distortion. One of the most exceptional depictions of a vulva woman is in Kilpeck, England.
The figure is steeply foreshortened and its head is not female as much as demonic; her arms are folded underneath her legs, and she is using her hands to open and display her vulva. This depiction, called a “Sheela-na-gig,” meaning “ugly as sin,” had some counterparts in Romanesque sculpture. These graphic depictions of female genitalia do in fact date back to the Stone Age and can be found in many Asian countries.
The picture shows a Romanesque sculpture in the twelth-century monastery church in Mariental near Helmstedt. It depicts a lion as a persecutor of the Good, taking a lamb.
Devil appears noting down man’s sins on the stone side wall of a choir stall in the Minster of St Martin, the former collegiate church of St Cassius and St Florentinus in Bonn (North Rhein-Wesphalia). The same choir stall contains an angel noting down man’s good deeds (below).
The choir screen of Bamberg Cathedral is decorated with a series of prophets and apostles in a late Romanesque style, executed before the dedication in 1237. The apostles dispute, two by two, in a succession of niches, the earlier pairs standing under arches that are still semicircular, the later under trefoil arches.
Although Germany has little feeling for monumentality, these apostles carry on the Ottonian traditions inspired by antiquity. The thick-set sturdy bodies are revealed by the curving folds which emphasize the bodily forms. In the broad modelling and the expressive pathos given the faces, the apostles are close to Roman models.
This image of the prophet Jonah on the choir screen in the Bamberg Cathedral is one of the finest examples of German statuary in the first quarter of the 13th century. The square head with shaven skull, the gathered brows, the intense, haunted glance, and the half-open mouth, forcefully convey the prophet’s tension and dramatic vision.
Compared with Bamberg sculptures from the Gothic workshops that began to operate around 1230, the statues on the choir screen display their Romanesque inspiration in their drapery, and it is clear that when the Gothic style was imported into Bamberg it found there a still-flourishing Romanesque art.
In technique and in general iconography the apostles in the Moissac cloister are closely akin to those in the ambulatory of Saint Sernin, but they are stronger and more vigorous in style. The pier is conceived as a stele, and the standing figure, completely incorporated into its support, is confined within the spatial framework of the arched niche. The face seen in profile is more realistic in effect than the frontal visage of the apostle from Saint Sernin; and here the apostle’s attributes are clearly shown.
This relief is on the interior west wall of the former abbey church of Sainte-Marie in Souillac. The figure of the prophet, pulsating with powerful plastic life, embodies a maximum of what Romanesque art was capable of producing in high relief. The direct model of the figure is that of Jeremiah on the south portal of Saint-Pierre at Moissac.
In the tribune of Serrabone we find Corinthian heritage with varied monsters and animals whose bodies are bent around the corners of the capital. The gallery, roofed with groined vaults resting on columns with capitals, displays a façade on which the evangelist symbols are represented.
The church of San Martín in Frómista (Province of Palencia), started in 1066, is one of the important churches with architectural sculpture built by the royal families of Léon, Castile and Aragón in the second half of the eleventh century. These churches display a wide spectrum of self-contained Spanish sculpture.
The picture shows a detail of the interior with half-columns between the nave and the side aisle.
In Romanesque sculpture, the demonization of sexuality in the depiction of the sexual organs is visually crude to the point of grotesque distortion. In one site in San Martín in Frómista (Province of Palencia) is a phallus man, whose penis has been drastically extended to the thickness of his arm.
The capitals of Old Salamanca cathedral and the statues under the dome are elegant creations, whose Romanesque maturity reflects the considered assimilation of the production of Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Italy, and the whole tradition of regional sculpture.