Romanesque Art: History, Characteristics & Facts

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Romanesque Art

Romanesque Art – Artistic style that spread throughout much of Europe, between the 11th and 13th centuries AD.

What is Romanesque Art?

Romanesque is an artistic style that spread throughout much of Europe between the 11th century and the early 13th century AD.

It manifested itself in a more relevant way in architecture, characterized by its appearance of solidity and by the use of the semicircular arch and the barrel and groin vaults. For this reason, when the style began to be identified and studied in the 19th century, it was given the name “Romanesque” as it was considered a derivation of Roman art.

Its development coincided with the expansion of feudalism, the founding of the religious order of the Cistercian, the reform of the Benedictine order that would give rise to the order of Cluny, the crusades and an intense movement of pilgrimage towards the churches that possessed sacred relics.

Characteristics of Romanesque Art

The main characteristics of Romanesque art are the following:

  • It presented a large number of local currents with their own characteristics.
  • The most important manifestation of Romanesque art was religious architecture, especially on churches and monasteries.
  • The different artistic disciplines, such as painting, sculpture and mosaic, were subordinate to architecture. The walls of the churches were covered by paintings and reliefs that had a narrative function: to transmit to the faithful, generally illiterate, the principles of Christianity. For this reason, Romanesque churches have been called “stone bibles“.
  • The structure of its buildings laid the foundations for the later style, the Gothic.
  • During the Middle Ages, both architecture and sculpture and painting were considered mechanical arts, that is, manual, and did not have the same value as intellectual activities. As a consequence, the Romanesque artists had no social relevance and their names have not lasted.
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Architecture in Romanesque Art

The clearest manifestation of Romanesque architecture are the churches.

Many of these buildings housed relics of saints, considered sacred to their faithful, and therefore were pilgrimage centers that received travelers from all over Europe.

To generate an efficient space, both for the usual liturgy and for the worship of relics, during the Romanesque a type of floor plan was developed with side naves, a transept and an apse with chapels, which allowed pilgrims to circulate through the church.

Romanesque Art: History, Characteristics & Facts

The churches were oriented from west to east and the shape of this plant, known as the Latin cross, was symbolically associated with the crucifixion of Christ.

The most characteristic features of the constructions were the vaulted roofs, normally resolved with continuous barrel and ribbed vaults; although in some regions of France small domes were also used to roof the sections of the ships. The transept had a dome-shaped roof, generally with a flat roof.
photo of the church of Santa Fe de Conques

Barrel vault in the church of Santa Fe de Conques, France.

To resist the thrust of the domed roof, the walls were thick and massive and their openings narrow, flared.

photo of the church of San Martín de Tours

Church of San Martín de Tours, in Frómista, Spain.

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Sculpture and Painting in Romanesque Art

Sculpture and painting were subordinate to architecture during the Romanesque. Just as painters and sculptors were considered artisans who only contributed to the main objective, which was the building, these expressions were not considered relevant in themselves.

Sculpture of Romanesque Art

Its most characteristic manifestation are the reliefs, especially those that were located in the doorways of the churches. Another relief support were the capitals of the columns. It is, in all cases, a synthetic, repetitive and schematic sculpture, with no intention of realism or naturalism.

The most important themes were the biblical ones, especially the image of Christ the Judge of the world (Pantocrator) on the main portal. Saints, Gospel accounts, fantastic scenes and parables were also represented.

photo of a sculpture from the church of San Trófimo de Arles

Tympanum of the western facade of the church of Saint Trophimus in Arles, in France.

Painting of Romanesque Art

Much of the Romanesque painting has been lost. There have been manifestations of decorations in churches, made with the fresco technique, and few examples of painting on board and book illustrations.

In Italy, mosaic decorations are also common.

In the same way that it happened with sculpture, the function of painting was narrative, therefore the main concern of the artists was the clarity and expressiveness of the images. These take schematic and synthetic forms, with conventional features that are repeated in different works.

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Most Outstanding Works of Romanesque Art

Some of the most outstanding works of Romanesque art are the following:

The Basilica de la Madeleine in Vézelay, built in 1037 in France.

photography of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The south facade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, known as Fachada de las Platerías.

photograph of the facade of the silversmiths

Frescoes in the church of San Clemente de Taüll, in Spain.

photograph of the church of San Clemente

Mosaics in the church of San Vital, in Ravenna, Italy.

photograph of the church of San Vital


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