Romanesque Painting in Spain
History, Characteristics of Spanish Medieval Paintings.

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Romanesque Wall Painting (1123)
for the Church of St Clemente de Taull
Catalonia, Spain. By the Master of Taull.
Now in the National Museum of Catalan.
A treasure of Spanish religious art
from the medieval Romanesque era.

Spanish Romanesque Painting (c.1000-1200)
History and Characteristics of Religious Mural Art in Spain


History and Characteristics
Castile and Leon

For a general guide to religious murals, see: Christian Art (150-2000).

Spanish Romanesque Fresco.
Virgin and Child Enthroned (1130)
A masterpiece of medieval painting
by Master of Pedret, one of the
finest artists in 12th century Spain.
It is now in The Cloisters, NY.

History and Characteristics

Nowhere else can we find such a wealth of Romanesque painting, from the most archaic murals to altarpieces that foreshadow Gothic work, as in Spain, and more particularly in Catalonia. This is due to a few courageous and clear-sighted men. Among the earliest, we must mention Jose Pijoan, who in 1907 published at the Institute of Catalan Studies a rich documentary study of Catalan Romanesque painting, and Mgr Gudiol, who organized the Episcopal Museum of Vich, the oldest museum of medieval Christian art in Catalonia.

It is heartbreaking to think of all the masterpieces lost through man's stupidity: the destruction ordered by Carlos III of Bourbon and his painter Mengs - the king wished to create an elegant, refined court art which would brook no contact with Romanesque art, sprung from popular traditions and considered, at that time, primitive and vulgar; the suppression, and often destruction, of churches and monasteries during the great wave of radicalism of 1835 which spread over all Europe; and finally the civil war of 1936-9.

During the 11th and 12th century,
church walls in Spain were
frequently decorated with Biblical
scenes from the Old and New
Testaments. This form of art was
created to help the predominantly
illiterate churchgoers make sense
of the scriptures, and serve as a
focus of devotion. Spanish
Romanesque mural paintings,
notably in monasteries with
Mozarabic influences, were
characterized by a fusion of
Islamic and Spanish art, which
produced a highly colourful
linear style of iconography.
Compare painting in Germany:
see German Medieval Art (800-1250).

For basic chronology,
see: History of Art.
For dates,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For specific styles,
see: Art Movements.

The situation, however, is far less tragic than in France. In Catalonia, indeed, the Museums' Commission of Barcelona, which had begun (in 1906) by having copies made of the principal paintings, altered its policy completely and proceeded to take down almost all the mural paintings of the province, without damaging them, thus unquestionably preserving from destruction or from the greed of unscrupulous foreigners. Without this, many of these works would probably no longer be in existence.

The iconographical theme of churches and altars is centred principally on the representation of Christ in Majesty. In the case of churches dedicated to the Virgin, it is replaced by the Epiphany or the Adoration of the Magi. Christ the King is then shown seated on his mother's knee, like a living throne. This vision of the Godhead is displayed on barrel vaults or on the central cupola of the apse, whose form recalls the dome of heaven. It usually occupies the central place in altar-fronts. (See also: Romanesque Architecture c.800-1200.)

The earliest stage in Romanesque Biblical art is characterized by a powerful expressionism, and a dynamic freedom in composition. To this period - which lingers on unexpectedly in certain areas of the Pyrenees - belongs an altarpiece dedicated to St. Syrus and St. Juliet, which originally came from the hermitage consecrated to them at Durro.

The mural paintings in San Juan de Bohi, not far from Durro, display a more elongated conception of the human figure and an expressionistic power comparable to that of the Durro altar-front, without the latter's brilliant colour (vivid greens, yellows and reds). They are painted in paler tones of grey, ochre and garnet-red, but their art is more monumental and more refined. One of the most complete of these religious paintings is that of the Stoning of St. Stephen, which has a keen dramatic power.

Romanesque Painting in Gerona

At about the same time there grew up in Gerona a group of painters whose work swiftly spread southward. The best known among these artists is the Osormort Master, so-called because of the paintings attributed to him in the church of Osormort, representing scenes from Genesis and the Lives of the Apostles. Those in the little church of Bellcaira (99-100), dedicated to St.John, which depict the Pentecost, those of Marenya, devoted to St. Stephen, with a Crucifixion on the right of the central window, and those of El Brull, representing episodes from Genesis and the childhood of Christ, are also by the same master. The figures are of widely differing dimensions, the compositions and attitudes extremely varied. The tonalities are based on ochres, terracottas and bluish grey. We must notice particularly the huge eyes, the shape of the heads, the headdresses on the backs of the heads. The same features may be seen, on a severer plane, in the paintings of the crypt of Saint-Savin and in the miniatures of a manuscript of the life of St. Radegund, at Poitiers, late twelfth-century works.

The architecture of all the churches painted by the artists of this group fits in with this chronology, even if the one certain date, the consecration of El Brull in 1062, is considered an inadequate control.

Six years later, another church close by was consecrated, that of Sescorts, which shows the story of Adam and Eve. These paintings are akin to the work of a more southern group of artists, who produced the murals in the church of Polinya, consecrated in 1122, and of Barbara, consecrated at an uncertain date by the bishop San Oleguer (1116-1137).

The close relationship of style between all these works allows us to attribute them to the first third of the twelfth century.



Romanesque Painting in Roussillon

[Note: Although Roussillon is situated in France, we deal with its art in connection with the Romanesque painting of Catalonia, as Roussillon was a Catalonian dependency until 1659 - see also Romanesque painting in France.]

At the same time a series of churches in the Roussillon were decorated with paintings. The most typical examples are to be seen at Saint-Nazaire-de-l'Ecluse and San Martin de Fenouillar. In the latter, pre-Romanesque building, the walls were painted, probably about 1100, with scenes from the life of Jesus and a vast composition on an apocalyptic theme. Both can be attributed to the same artist, who was not concerned with skilful composition but communicated his own fierce feeling to these rough figures, drawn against a background of coloured bands.

In the first quarter of the twelfth century, a painter of popular character with a highly personal expressive power decorated the side walls and certain other zones in the two churches of Taull in the Bohi valley, consecrated in 1123. The use of simple colour pigments - ochres, terracotta, grey, easily obtainable locally - did not prevent him from achieving marvellously expressive compositions such as that of the battle of David and Goliath from Santa Maria de Taull.

The lasting traces of this artistic tradition are to be found in the great altar-front of Tabernoles, now standing in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, representing a series of nine bishops or abbots in mitres.

The decoration of the central apse of San Clemente by another artist produced one of the peaks of Romanesque pictorial art. Without breaking with the traditions of Byzantine art, the painter reveals his own vigorous personality, and his realistic instinct makes his figures come alive while retaining all their abstract hieratic character.

Romanesque Painting in Catalonia

The abundance of works produced, and preserved, in Catalonia allows us to study there, better than in any other European country, the simultaneous work of a few great old masters of very varied training and, following them, of a group of minor artisans, whose style combines the influence of popular tradition with elements borrowed, with varying degrees of faithfulness and skill, from the works of artists of higher quality.

Among the most notable of the latter, a few enjoy established reputations - for example the Master of Pedret, who reflects the Hellenistic tradition through Italian models (jewelled crowns, Grecian friezes, twisted draperies) and whose work includes portraiture, and shows a personal interpretation of perspective.

The portrait of Countess Lucia de Pallars, in the mural on the apse of the former monastery of Burgal - now in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona - allows us to date this work about 1085 and to place the whole group chronologically.

The Master of Mur, the Master of the Ribes canopy, the Master of the altar-front at Hix and a few others who have in common an acquaintance with plane geometry combined with a predilection for splendid colours; the two artists of the apses of Taull, that of San Clemente and that of Santa Maria, and others whose work can be recognized in the dioceses of Vich, Gerona and Barcelona, as well as some artists who specialized in panel paintings, of which we have some first class examples at Solsona, Vich, Gerona and Barcelona, also form part of the same group.

For more about the religious statuary of the pre-Gothic period, see: Medieval Sculpture (c.400-1000), which also covers Carolingian and Ottonian culture; and Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200.)

We can follow in minute detail the influence of these artists' work through the borrowings made by minor painters. For instance, the masters of Sorpe and Santa Coloma borrow important elements from the art of the Master of Pedret, in a way which is particularly noticeable in the churches of Pallars and Andorra. The consecration, in 1163, of Santa Roma del Bons, in Andorra - a church decorated by the Master of Santa Coloma - gives us a chronological indication of his activity.

We must not forget an important group of paintings carried out in Roussillon, Vallespi, Cinflent and Cerdagne, regions which belonged to Catalonia until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. All stages and all manners are represented by works of great interest, from the most archaic styles to the maturest (Serraboa, Sureda, Arles-sur-Tech - dated 1157 - Estavar, and so on) without forgetting the last stages, to which we have just referred.

The artistic influence of certain medieval artists, moreover, spread beyond the borders of the Catalan counties. In the paintings at Vals in Ariege, the work of a local artist reflects fairly directly the manner of the Master of Pedret, which can easily be explained by the fact that the latter had worked in the valley of Aran which, in the Middle Ages, belonged, like Vals, to the diocese of Cominges. Recent researches enable us to attribute unhesitatingly to the Master of Pedret the mural decoration in the cathedral of Saint-Lizier, close to Saint-Girons, consecrated in 1117.

The amazing Master of San Clemente de Taull decorated a small apse in the Cathedral of Roda, whose diocesan limits included the valley of Bohi until 1140. It was in fact the bishop of Roda, St. Raymond, who in 1123 consecrated the two churches of Taull.

Possibly owing to the personal influence of this prelate, the pupils of the Master of Santa Maria de Taull were active in far remoter regions: Berlanga, Maderuela and perhaps Tubilla del Agua, in Castilian territory, which from 1111 to 1134 - not before and not after - were under the direct domination of the King of Aragon, Alfonso the Warlike. The king worked closely with St. Raymond, who accompanied him on his military expeditions and in his efforts to repopulate that zone of Castile, undertaken partly with the help of troops from the Pyrenean region.

Somewhat outside this general picture is the magnificent painting in the Collegiate Church of San Isidoro, due, half a century later, to the munificence of Fernando II of Leon (1157-1188), who is portrayed there with his wife Urraca, and also the mutilated but important remains of mural paintings in the apse of San Pelayo de Perazancas.

The Leon paintings are in the royal Pantheon, a vaulted porch standing before the western facade of the church, to which we have previously referred. On this vault, which apparently conceals older paintings, are displayed a complex ensemble of vast compositions on historic or symbolic themes. The most attractive, with its many anecdotal details and its human feeling, is the Annunciation to the Shepherds.

During the last years of the twelfth century, beside the traditional forms persisting from an earlier stage, there appeared in Spain a few exceptionally fine examples of a European pictorial style, strongly tinged with Byzantinism. However, although this influence is undeniable, the phenomenon is a complex one, and there are only a few sporadic indications - although not unimportant - of direct connection with England. The group to which an earlier date can be attributed is that formed by different paintings on wooden panels in the Cerdagne and its extreme limits (an altar-front from Valltarga and a fragment of a canopy and altar-front from Oreilla). A miniature of the year 1195, from the monastery of San Martin del Canigou, inspired by the work of this group, helps us to fix its date. These paintings are intensely Italian-Byzantine in character. (See also: Romanesque painting in Italy.)

Two other painters must have begun to work in Catalonia at the same period, the Masters of Lluca and Avia. Their style is a return to the traditional Romanesque; their range of colours is much richer and brighter than that of the preceding group. Paintings on wood panels, such as the cross and threefold altarpiece of Lluca from which he derived his name, have been attributed to the Master of Lluca or his entourage, as well as mural paintings (Puigreig, San Pablo de Casserras).

The Master of Avia is so called on account of the altar-front of Santa Maria of Avia with its fine Nativity. He is also credited with other works, such as the altar-fronts of Rotges and San Pere de Ribesaltes.

In the region of Berga (Barcelona) and in the Roussillon, a reflection of his art, though unfortunately an unskilful one, can be found in the work of a minor painter known as the Master of Vidra.

After this date other artists went on working in a manner more exclusively influenced by Western formulae, such as the painter of the altar-front of Mosoll or the Master of Espinelves, who painted, c.1200, an altar-front for the place after which he has been named, in the diocese of Vich, and the murals in a side apse of the church of Santa Mafia de Egara in Tarrasa, dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, the primate of England who was murdered in 1170.

In the western part of Catalonia we find other examples from the same period. Some of them are traditional, such as the Last Supper and the episodes from the life of St. Catherine from La Seo de Urgel; others are strongly marked with characteristics of Byzantine art: an altar-front in the Museum of Catalan Romanesque Art in Barcelona and a cross in the National Archeological Museum of Madrid, mural paintings in San Esteban from Andorra la Vella, with scenes of the Passion and other episodes.

Further to the south-west an important group of altar-fronts and other objects with painted decoration on a background of stucco relief, such as the altar-front of Chia (now in the Museum of Catalan Romanesque Art, Barcelona) dedicated to St. Martin and signed Johannes pintor. This set of painters, who have a rare popular flavour, must have gone on working until the middle of the thirteenth century and probably even later.

The paintings in the crypt or lower chamber, built under the apsidiole of the Gospel in the Cathedral of Roda, are popular in character and belong to the second half of the thirteenth century, while in the Aragonese church of San Juan at Ancastillo we find interesting vestiges of a more sophisticated art, which may perhaps date from 1200.

The altar-front of Gesera, dedicated to St.John the Baptist, that of Liesa which depicts scenes from the life of St. Vincent, and the mural paintings, older and of far higher quality, in San Fructuoso de Bierge, form the nucleus of a late Pyrenean-Aragonese school of art which is unpolished but highly expressive.

Romanesque Painting in Sigena

The extraordinary paintings in the chapter-house of the monastery of Sigena stand out in contrast with all this, the more strikingly because their mutilated remains, which were shockingly damaged by fire in 1936, together with first-hand recollections and copious photographic documentation prior to the fire, enable us to appreciate their exceptional quality. On the arches and walls were displayed a double series of busts illustrating the genealogy of Jesus, and scenes from the Old and the New Testaments, completed, in the arches, by fantastic floral and animal designs. The dominant colours were ochre, salmon pink and sky blue, unusual in Spanish mural painting but highly effective, if we are to judge by the tiny intact sample that remains. This use of colour (style and iconography concurring) confirms a direct link with the art of the Winchester Bible, the Folio in the Morgan Library, the windows in Canterbury Cathedral depicting the genealogy of Christ, and the other English manuscripts which British historians usually ascribe to the last years of the twelfth century. A chronicler of the monastery, Prior Moreno, asserted that the paintings of Christ's genealogy at Sigena were made in 1232, which is to some extent in contradiction with the chronology accepted for the English works, but agrees perfectly with another date, 1258, at which we know the monastery church was consecrated. It was then entirely covered with paintings; those that remain in the apse today were the work of a disciple, or direct imitator, of the Chapter-house master. This second artist may have been chiefly, or solely, responsible for another series of mural paintings, those from Artajona, Olite and Artaiz, which are preserved in the museum of Pamplona.

Romanesque Painting in Castile and Leon

In Castile we know only one single example comparable in quality and in date with the paintings of Sigena: the fragments of a mural with large designs from animal life, originally in a monastery cell of San Pedro d'Arlanza in Burgos. Further west, we have an excellent replica of this in the miniature with the equestrian portrait of Alfonso IX (1188-1230) and a great heraldic lion added to the cartulary of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, known as Cartulary A. Its date confirms the general chronology of this style.

In Leon, the most important thirteenth-century fresco paintings, in the classical Romanesque tradition, are those of the former Chapter-house of San Isidoro, known today as 'Capilla de los Quinines'.

The remains of mural painting on the apse of the church of El Cristo de la Luz at Toledo, with the vision of God, figures of saints and a priest, are of uncertain date, though probably earlier. In this same town, the church of San Roman still retains a substantial part of its murals, painted about 1221, in which we find a juxtaposition of Moorish and Christian elements showing a certain Byzantine influence.

Painted panels are much scarcer in Castile and Leon. We have a couple of very interesting specimens, however: a slender figure of St. Paul in the diocesan museum of Avila, and a reliquary with the Apostles and scenes from the life of Jesus in the Archbishop's Palace at Astorga.

In most of the regions hitherto mentioned, the production of Romanesque painting went on during a major part of the thirteenth century and, except in Navarre, the Byzantine-influenced art of the beginning of that century seems to have had no imitators, in contrast with the artistic canons already assimilated from a far earlier period.

For an account of pre-Romanesque movements involving the court of Charlemagne and his successors, see: Carolingian art (c.750-900) and Ottonian art (c.900-1050).

Romanesque Painting in Majorca

We must not forget to point out that before the full development of Gothic art, a group of painters from Barcelona implanted their style in a region hitherto untouched by Romanesque art: the island of Majorca. Of this period, there remain in Barcelona part of the mural decoration of the former Royal Palace, depicting a parade of knights and soldiers: paintings of knights, animals and heraldic, floral or geometric motifs in a former nobleman's house in the Calle de Duran y Bas, and the scenes depicting the conquest of Majorca by Jaime I in 1229 discovered in a house at Calle de Montcada, which also has a richly painted wooden ceiling. At Palma, in Majorca, there are two important painted panels in a closely similar style: the reredos of St. Bernard, and a fragment of a reredos which, to judge by the iconographical arrangement of its varied scenes, must have been dedicated to St. Ursula.

A very attractive artist known as the Master of Suriguerola, in the north of Catalonia, betrays the transition to Gothic art in certain accessory and ornamental features, although in essence his training leads him to carry on the Romanesque tradition so deeply rooted in his country.

Spanish Romanesque paintings can be seen in some of the oldest churches and cathedrals in Spain - especially Catalonia - as well as in several of the best art museums in the world.

For details of book painting and gospel illuminations in Medieval Spain, see: Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Romanesque Painting by Juan Ainaud and Andre Held.

• For the meaning of medieval frescoes and altarpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For more about painting and sculpture in Spain and Portugal, see: Homepage.

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