Romanesque Art


Romanesque Art:
Johan Roudy explores an interesting ornamental style.

Johan Roudy explores an interesting ornamental style

The term ‘Romanesque’ – ‘in the manner of the Romans’ – first appeared in the early XIXth century to refer to the period before Gothic style. From the 10th to the 12th century, Romanesque art marks a return of ornamental sculpture. A lot of skills and woodworking techniques from the Greco-Roman period had been lost during the past centuries, the Dark Ages or Middle Ages. Dedicated to Christianity with an educational and religious function, influenced by Byzantine and Roman art, Romanesque style is rich and diverse. If it appears somehow naive or primitive, its stylised shapes are rich in expression and it definitely does not lack of charm.

Furniture in Romanesque period
In this dangerous period, furniture had to be strong and transportable. Cabinetry hadn’t appeared yet – the furniture was first made by carpenters and didn’t show the use of carved ornament. Poorly considered during the next centuries, we have only few remaining pieces of furniture from this period, such as chests or cupboards. Tenon and mortise were not systematically used. Chests were often made of juxtaposed boards held together by nailed cross-pieces or wrought-iron hinges. Unlike woodwork, ironwork techniques, useful in weaponry, have persisted and are the only decoration on furniture.

Architecture and ornament
Romanesque ornaments can mainly be seen on architecture, in particular on churches and religious buildings. Round arches and barrel-vaulted ceilings are characteristics of this period. To support the large vaults, the walls are thick with few openings. Carved high and low reliefs appear in profusion on columns and capitals, coving, tympanums, brackets and corbels. Themes on famous tympanums on such churches as Vezelay, Autun or Conques depict the souls waiting around Christ for the Last Judgement and show some terrific scenes of hell. Sculptures are are usually not realistic, often featuring large heads, wrongly proportioned face and body features, and stylisation.
The various imagery is rich in combinations of animal, vegetal and abstract motifs. The most iconic are probably the historiated capitals and reliefs, often depicting scenes of the Old Testament (the life of the saints, divine judgement, apocalypse, creation, sins…).
Acanthus leaves, palmettes and floral elements are mainly inspired by Roman and Greek art. The shapes are very stylised, often carved deeply. Some other ornaments are inspired by the antique period, such as geometrical elements and friezes. Some Greek key frets, ribbon and flower friezes, interlace and rinceaux and chequerboard patterns often enrich the architecture.
Besides the stylisation, one of the main features of Romanesque art is the symbolism. Animals, monsters and scenes have a meaning and a message to convey to the Christian believer. Most of the representations depict internal struggles, the trials encountered on the spiritual journey and the threats that lie in wait for the sinner. Vices and virtues are thus widely represented, sometimes indecently. 

A Romanesque misericord (on the underside of a folding seat in a church)

Columns with ornamental detail

Columns with animal detail

Humour was often incorporated into Romanesque work

Among the bestiary represented, the bird is the heavenly messenger which carries the good word. It represents spirituality and is often shown talking to the ear of a man or drinking from a chalice. On the contrary, it can be a demon or a snake that whispers bad advice to the sinner, or comes out of his mouth. Many animals represent man himself, his share of animality or passions against which the believer must fight. An animal or a chimera half-man, half-animal with bird wings symbolise the sinner who has turned towards spirituality, but still has a long way to go. The man who has yielded to his vices is often presented devoured by a monster.
Domestic or wild animals are also represented, or even exotic animals such as elephants or camels.
The ‘tetramorph’ is a symbolic representation of the four evangelists around Christ in Majesty which is recurrent: the man/angel (Matthew), the bull (Luke), the lion (Mark) and the eagle (John).
Man is also represented directly. He sometimes carries a purse representing his soul, which a demon tries to steal from him. The acrobat representations – head downwards and legs turned towards heaven – mean the intimate conversion he has accomplished within himself, the efforts made to free himself from animality and turn to spirituality. The character sometimes holds his ankles, showing the intention of his gesture. The legs crossed or bound show difficulties on this path, as does the man who withdrew a thorn from the foot.
Grimacing, grotesque, sad, joyful or frightening portraits, scenes of work or everyday life can also be found.
The number of subjects and symbols is too vast to provide a complete description here. If you can find Romanesque churches in your area, take some time to walk around and search for the sculpted elements. There is so much inventiveness in this style that you may find a great source of inspiration.

Le Symbolisme dans l’Art Roman, by Gérald Gambier
Romanesque: Architecture-Sculpture-Painting, by Rolf Toman (ed.) w


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