Romanesque Sculpture
History, Characteristics, Iconography of Medieval Statues, Reliefs.

Pin it

Romanesque stone relief carving by
French medieval sculptor Gislebertus,
from the Cathedral of Saint Lazare,
Autun, France
. It shows Judas Iscariot
hanging himself, helped by devils.

The date is 12th century (1120-1135).

Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200)
Origins, Characteristics


Sculptural Decoration for Monasteries
Public Religious Sculpture
Ottonian Sculpture
Development of Romanesque Sculpture
Tower Porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire
Abbey Church of Cluny
Interpretation of Romanesque Religious Iconography
The Apocalypse and The Vision of Matthew
The Triumphal Facade
Historiated Cloisters

In art, the term Romanesque art
can be used to cover all immediate
derivations of Roman architecture
in the West, from the fall of Rome
(5th century CE) until the rise of
Gothic art in about 1200.
More commonly however, the word
Romanesque describes a specific
style of architecture and sculpture
that arose simultaneously in France,
Germany, Italy and Spain during the
11th century. This religious art is
characterized by a massiveness of
scale, reflecting the greater social
stability of the new Millennium.
For murals see Romanesque Painting,
for gospel illuminations and other
forms of book painting, see:
Romanesque Illustrated Manuscripts.

Sculptural Decoration for Monasteries

Following early Christian sculpture, the first European-wide architectural style was Romanesque architecture, which properly emerged during the period 1000-1200.

The slow maturing that culminated in the advent of monumental sculpture had taken place throughout the 11th century in the Benedictine monasteries of France. The reform of the Church, that attempt to purify the men of prayer and, by freeing them from the defilement which kept them at a remove from holiness, to fit them to fulfil their social function better, had actually begun with the monastic institution. This enabled the latter to capture the fervour of the faithful, attract the growing flood of pious donations, and create suitably inspirational Christian art to illustrate the message of the Bible.

Shrine of the Three Kings (1180-1225)
in Cologne Cathedral. Created
by Nicholas of Verdun, a leading
member of the school of Mosan art
in the Meuse River valley, Belgium.
See also: Godefroid de Claire, who
may have been resonsible for the
Stavelot Triptych.

Master of Cabestany (12th century)
Master Mateo (12th century)
Benedetto Antelami (active 1178-1196)
Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278)
Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-1314)
Arnolfo di Cambio (c.1240–1310)

For a list of the world's finest
works of three-dimensional art
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For the definition of certain
architectural terms, see:
Architecture Glossary.

See: Sculpture History.

Medieval Sculpture (c.400-1000)
German Gothic Art (c.1200-1450)
English Gothc Sculpture
German Gothic Sculpture

See: History of Art Timeline.

For a list of the top 100 3-D artists:
Greatest Sculptors.

The first use to which the monks put the superabundance of wealth thus acquired was to decorate the places where they silently absorbed the word of God, where they met to sing his praises at all hours of day and night. The rule of St Benedict required them to pray at such length in the name of the people so as to amass the favours of heaven for them. For it was thought that the more brilliant the liturgical office, the more generously those favours would be granted. Moreover, as liberated from the desires of the flesh as abstinence could make human beings, the monks felt that they belonged to the highest degree of terrestrial hierarchies and had come close to the realm of the angels. The church in which they chanted in unison with the choir of seraphim seemed to them the antechamber of Paradise. They wanted their house to reflect on earth the perfection of the heavenly city. Furthermore, the Benedictine monastery was itself a city like the Roman city. Like the latter, it was enclosed in a precinct as a protection against corruption. Inside it two adjoining buildings, the basilica and the cloister, a kind of square surrounded by porticoes, formed a virtual replica of the ancient forum.

The sculptors' first mission was to decorate this central space. No statues in it as yet, but at least they could decorate the tops of columns and pilasters, using what they saw on the remains of antique monuments as models. They were required to go further, to populate the profusion of plant forms stemming from the Corinthian acanthus with figures, as painters did around the initials on the parchment of lectionaries. For it was not only a question of decorating, but also of teaching, and, by means of such images that recalled scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospel, and episodes from the exemplary lives of guardian saints, of supporting the monks' meditations, of displaying before their eyes the symbols of the vices of which they had to purge themselves. The bas-reliefs decorating sarcophagi, the only elements of Roman sculpture left undestroyed, supplied models. Nevertheless it is obvious that sculptural themes were mostly borrowed from illuminated manuscripts, ivory plaques and goldsmiths' pieces, in other words they still came from the treasuries, and these forms, projected on to the wall, were still confined to the interior, to the area of withdrawal encircled by the monastic closure.


Public Religious Sculpture

Not until the very end of the 11th century were sculptures taken out of the sanctuaries and openly exposed to the view of the masses, because the clergy no longer feared that they would take them for the images of ancient gods. Henceforth the facade of the basilica was treated like a Roman arch of triumph. Sometimes sculptured figures covered it completely, but usually they were assembled around the portal, that key position. It was the place of transition from a depraved world to that other world of which the monastic community gave a foreshadowing by the harmony of its chants, the masterly arrangement of its processions, the heady scent of incense and the shimmering lights. The portal was the symbol of the conversion enjoined on every sinner.

The audacity that made this innovation possible grew stronger in the richest and most prestigious houses, at the nodal points of those widespread networks woven in the progress of reform, of those congregations that the monasteries assembled from one end of Christendom to the other, especially in the congregation headed by the abbey of Cluny. Closely associated with the Church of Rome from its foundation, Cluny had greatly increased the number of its daughter houses in the south of France and Spain, in the highly Romanized provinces. Then, at the height of its renown, it laid claim to the cultural heritage of the Empire and took over the role once held by the imperial chapel. This return to great outdoor sculpture was firstly an affirmation of power. By half-opening the door, allowing a glimpse of the pomp of the liturgical feast and giving a foretaste of the joys promised purified souls, monasticism displayed its power to intercede. So decorative sculpture primarily fulfilled what we might call a political function, such as it had assumed in Antiquity, when it demonstrated on church portals the authority emanating from the city.

But once it became public, sculpture also sought to be a demonstration of orthodoxy. In opposition to the threatening sects whose leaders, denounced as heretics, were pursued and burnt when they persisted in rejecting the incarnation, destroying crucifixes and claiming that man could communicate directly with God, and that ecclesiastical intermediaries were unnecessary, the tympana, the lintels and the column statues proclaimed first and foremost that God blessed those who erected magnificent monuments to his glory. Showing the apostles, prophets and Christ too in the body, they proclaimed that the Word was made flesh, that he had lived among men.

Thus in the adornment of the monastic church, that impregnable fortress raising the trophies of daily victories won over the forces of evil, the aim of drawing the faithful on to the paths of truth was already evident. Showing at Moissac the risen Christ surrounded by the twenty-four Elders as the author of the Apocalypse had seen him at Patmos, giving on Autun Cathedral a glimpse of the Last Judgment, meant lifting a corner of the veil, inaugurating the apostolate by which the good news was spread to the far corners of the world, as the great scene exposed for the instruction of pilgrims on the tympanum at Vezelay has demonstrated in masterly fashion for nine centuries.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate the statues and reliefs of Romanesque sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Ottonian Sculpture

At the beginning of Romanesque art, the medieval West was divided into two large geographical zones, a southern and a northern one. The former was characterized, during the second quarter of the 11th century, by the spread of a sombre vaulted type of religious building. It had no sculptured decoration, but the small regular stonework used in its construction made its own contribution to the architectural decoration by means of small blind arcades and mural bands. This early southern Romanesque art spread rapidly from northern Italy, southern France and Catalonia. An early northern Romanesque art (also known as proto-Romanesque) was characterized in the Ottonian and Salian imperial regions by a return to the architectural formulas of the first Christian basilicas (timber-roofed. well-lit buildings) expressing the political desire of the Carolingian and Holy Roman Empires for a renewal of the old Roman Empire. Essentially, Ottonian art comprised two great phases, the first covering the second half of the 10th century and the first quarter of the 11th until the death of Henry II in 1024 and the extinction of the Saxon dynasty, and the second continuing under the Salians until approximately the end of the third quarter of the 11th century. (See also: German Medieval Art.)

The great masterpieces of Ottonian sculpture were church fittings with monumental aspirations, made of bronze. The technique of casting an alloy of copper, tin and zinc in a mould, known since Antiquity, was particularly developed in the Ottonian centres in the Rhineland and northern Germany (Hildesheim, Augsburg, Maim, Magdeburg). In addition to the very rapid diffusion of small objects such as crucifixes, Ottonian Ottonian metalwork - notably bronze-founding - became famous at Hildesheim under Bishop Bernward (993-1022), the tutor of Otto III, and two imposing monuments have been preserved, the doors and the triumphal column. These works stand out forcibly in buildings characterized by the purity of their forms and architectural bareness. They provide brilliant testimony to the antique and Carolingian vision that presided over Ottonian artistic creation close to the centres of power. They are the jewels of the Hildesheim bronze workshops which also produced and exported a number of small-scale works (candlesticks, chandeliers, crucifixes).

The technical skill represented by the founding of each of the leaves of the Hildesheim door in one piece is only equalled by the plastic effort employed to animate a flat surface with figures in high relief sculpture. The scenes from the Old and New Testaments, depicted in cycles on separate registers, show a combination of the static force of antique models and the movement inherited from Carolingian illuminations. This pictorial summary of the Christian doctrine standing at the very entrance to the church had its counterpart in the interior in other fittings of bronze and gold, as well as in the painted decorations. The bronze column, luckily still there today, is a major monument of Western art because it reflects the political and religious aspirations of the circles of power. This triumphal monument, 12.5 feet high with a diameter of 23 inches, erected to the glory of Christ, is modelled on the Roman triumphal columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Trajan's exploits are matched here by events from the public life of Christ; his victories over death and evil correspond to the emperor's victories over the barbarians. The underlying imperial ideology is reflected in one of the most beautiful illustrations of art in the service of a power which the quality of the style only enhances.

Beside these prodigious works of medieval art, architectural sculpture played a minor role in the Ottonian realm. The Carolingian column capital derived from the classical Corinthian model (Essen, Paderborn) was almost entirely abandoned, and capitals ornamented with figures or masks are very rare (Gernrode, Zyfflich). The Ottonian capital particularly is cubic in shape; the basket is a cube whose lower corners are rounded. This structure, very simple to rough-hew, which provides four smooth bare faces was probably intended to receive the addition of painted decoration in certain cases.

The Development of Romanesque Sculpture

The architectural decoration of religious buildings in the second half of the 10th century was usually very simple. It consisted of decorated panels, moulded imposts and a few reused capitals from immediately preceding periods. [Note: the term "capital" refers to the distinct, typically wider section at the top of a pillar or column.] The large-size capital was very rare insofar as the large buildings used rectangular pillars as an element of separation between nave and side aisles. Only small churches or crypts used columns needing a carved capital. Among the examples of this period which extend and continue the last capitals of Late Antiquity we find the pre-Romanesque capitals of Brescia and Capua in Italy, (See also Romanesque Painting in Italy) and the Mozarabic formulas of San Cebrian de Mazote (Valladolid) in the Iberian peninsula.

The first regional experiments in carving capitals represent one of the essential aspects of the rise of monumental Romanesque sculpture during the first half of the 11th century. They are part of the working out of the different features of early Romanesque architecture. These regional experiments are apparently unconnected but they testify to a common concern destined to culminate in Romanesque art proper. In northern Italy, early Romanesque, with little ornamentation, welcomed capitals in crypts and ambulatories, as in San Stefano at Verona. During the first half of the 11th century (around 1038 at Caorle), a group of capitals characterized by faithful and direct imitation of the antique Corinthian model appeared in basilicas at the head of the Adriatic, between Venice (San Nicole) di Lido) and Trieste (San Giusto). The acanthus leaves are handled slackly and the volutes curve back under the corners and under the dado of each face of the basket. At Aquileia, around 1020-1030, under the patriarchate of Poppo, the workshop was inspired by an antique capital in carving all the capitals in the basilica and its members were so proud of the result that they had no hesitation about placing and exhibiting the original in a privileged location, at the crossing of the transept. The two Corinthian capitals re-employed at Romainmotier (Switzerland) in the second quarter of the 11th century testify to a similar dependence on antique sculpture. At Aquileia the fidelity of the copy does not conceal what constitutes the essential aesthetic transformation of the new Romanesque capital as compared with the antique model: the evolution of the acanthus leaf to the palmette.

At about the same time, in the south of France and Catalonia, there was a search for the technical means to solve the problem of adapting the surface motif used on panels (interlacings, palmettes and rosettes) to the roughhewn surfaces of the capital. From the end of the first third of the 11th century at Le Puy, Tournus and Sant Pere de Roda there appeared a series of capitals based on the Corinthian scheme which show the pre-Romanesque shallow relief giving way to chamfering and deep grooving. This tendency continues in the ambulatory of Tournus, at Issoudun, and then before the end of the century in the cathedral and Saint-Allyre at Clermont-Ferrand. A second group of capitals with squaring and proportions closer to cubic forms has baskets completely covered with interlacings blossoming into palmettes and foliage: Sant Perl' de Roda, Sainte-Foy at Conques and Aurillac. Links with pre-Romanesque relief work appear more clearly in the sculptured capitals with animal and plant themes in shallow relief in the church of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou in Conflent, reliably dated to the early 11th century.

The transition from ornamental to figurative in the decoration of the capital researched by Henri Focillon and the role of the figure intended to emphasize and lighten its function are only two aspects of the amazing wealth of experiments which helped to form the style peculiar to Romanesque plastic art and give it its architectural character during the 11th century. In northern France, where the forms of cubic capitals can be compared with those of the Ottonian world, the capitals of Vignory, ornamented with geometric, plant and animal motifs in a half-flat technique, testify to concerns similar to those observed in the south of France. At Saint-Remi of Reims some stucco capitals with a varied repertory of foliage, animals and figures are preserved. In Normandy, the two series of capitals at Bernay, the older of which may go back to 1020-1040, relate both to Burgundy and the Loire region; these contacts have been partly explained by the activities of a celebrated prelate, William of Volpiano, summoned to Burgundy by the Duke of Normandy at the very beginning of the 11th century. Shortly after the mid-century, the duchy looked towards England, notably after the conquests of William the Bastard (later the Conqueror) in 1066. The best evidence of this is at Jumieges, Bayeux (home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry), Thaon, Rouen and, in the third quarter of the century, the geometrized decoration of the basilica of the Trinity and the chapel of Sainte-Croix at Caen.

Subsequently Normandy adopted highly geometrized and schematic abstract motifs, making them one of the characteristics of a Romanesque style whose contribution to Western art was essentially architectural. Interregional connections were also established between Burgundy and the region of the Loire and the Rhone valley. From the early 11th century, Burgundy possessed monuments of the first importance: Cluny, Romainmotier, Saint-Philibert of Tournus, Saint-Benigne of Dijon. The last-named abbey church, which played such a large part in the flowering of the Romanesque apse during the first two decades of the century, under William of Volpiano, has in the present-day crypt some magnificent capitals decorated with complicated monsters accompanying corner masks and figures; their innovative nature makes them one of the most striking experiments as regards style. In Paris, the capitals from Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the Musee de Cluny contrast with these series by the monumentality of the Christ in Majesty represented on them and add fresh fuel to the controversy over the chronology of these works. At the centre of Capetian power, the capitals of the cathedral of Sainte-Croix at Orleans and those in the crypt of Saint-Aignan pose both the problem of dating the birth of Romanesque sculpture in the valley of the Loire and that of tracing the sources of inspiration of these varied experiments.

The Tower Porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire

At the beginning of Romanesque art, the Loire basin was a geographical zone of intense artistic activity. Helgaud, the monk of Fleury, has left handsome witness to the wealth of foundations by Robert the Pious at Orleans, which include for example the construction at Saint-Aignan of Orleans before 1029 of a chevet modelled on that of Clermont Cathedral perhaps with an ambulatory and radiating chapels. An ambulatory may also have existed in the basilica (dedicated in 1014) of Saint-Martin of Tours (unless it belonged entirely to the apse built after the fire of 1090). The dating of this church at Tours has been the subject of scholarly polemics for more than a hundred years, like those which surround the chronology of the best preserved monument in the region: the tower-porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire.

This abbey (Saint-Benoit-de-Fleury), standing on the banks of the Loire, has a very old history, since its foundation goes back to 651. Reformed between 930 and 943 by Odo of Cluny, the abbey of Fleury became one of the main intellectual centres in the West under the direction of Abbo (988-1004) and Gauzlin (1004-1030). A centre of studies, with a large library and a famous scriptorium, the abbey, during the 11th century, was one of the repositories of the antique culture in which the medieval monastic culture was forged. Archeological excavations have partially disclosed the flat chevet and the transept of the monastery church built during the last quarter of the 9th century, after the Norman invasions. This edifice probably already possessed a western tower. A fierce fire devastated the abbey in 1020 under the abbacy of Gauzlin, who decided on the construction of a tower at the west end. The chevet of the present church was only built by Abbot William (1067-1080), and consecrated in 1107. The nave in its turn was not rebuilt until the 12th century. As for the tower-porch with its exceptional wealth of sculpture, when does it date from? From the years following the fire and thus from the abbacy of Gauzlin? Was there a direct relation between the fire and the reconstruction of the tower? How many years after the actual fire was this reconstruction? Was it one of the works of Abbot William?

The tower-porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, built on an almost square plan, has a ground floor and one upper storey in its existing state. Each of its external facades is pierced by three openings on both levels. To the east, the central door, framed by two niches, is flanked by the doors to spiral staircases which allow access to the upper part. Each level is subdivided into nine bays with an almost square plan by large piers confined by semi-columns, although the shapes vary according to their position and storey. They support grained vaults, except in the three bays which precede the three minor apses hollowed out of the thickness of the east wall of the upper storey.

This monument, whose architecture already marks it out as Romanesque, is exceptional for the series of capitals decorating it. On the ground floor, the acanthus reigns on large capitals reflecting the antique culture of the master who engraved his name (Unbertus me fecit) on onc of the most conspicuous capitals. Thc Romanesque synthesis he effected was nurtured by certain drawings, a few sheets of which have been discovered in Rome and Paris, by observation of the antique and the desire to ereate new schemata with the help of the palmette, for example. In a second group of capitals the acanthus disappears and the style is dryer and more linear. The human figure which invades the capitals on the upper floor already appears on the ground floor in the representations of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Flight into Egypt.

The relations between the ground-floor capitals of the porch of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire and those of Meobecq and comparisons with the capitals of disputed date in Saint-Hilaire of Poitiers, Saint-Martin of Tours and Maillezais pose interesting methodological problems concerning the chronology of early Romanesque sculpture in France. How should we situate the model and its copies? Can mentions of the construction work be used to date the completion of the sculptures? As regards style, the hand of one member of Unbertus workshop has been detected at Meobecq (Indre), a monument dedicated in 1048; but to which of the successive buildings at Meobecq does the dedication refer? Supporters of an early date think that the Saint-Benoit capitals belong to the worksite opened around 1026: hence their importance for the origins of Romanesque sculpture. But is it conceivable that Unbertus's experiments with the Corinthian scheme and the appearance of the historiated capitals at Saint-Benoit are more than half a century earlier than the first Corinthian capitals of Saint-Sernin at Toulouse or those of about 1100 at Vezelay? That is unacceptable to defenders of an evolutionist theory of Romanesque sculpture for whom the Romanesque style once formed followed a regular course.

Note: For details of Romanesque sculptors from the Middle Ages, see: Medieval Artists.

Abbey Church of Cluny

One of the major events in the history of the Middle Ages was the foundation of Cluny in 910 by William III of Aquitaine. A great centre of reform in the observance of the Old Benedictine Rule, Cluny, under the direction of men of exceptional ability such as Mayeul and Odilo, rapidly created an unparalleled network of monastic daughter houses. Among the most prestigious buildings of the late 10th century figures the abbey church of Cluny II (960-981), which had a chevet with staggered apses, a comparatively narrow transept, a nave with side aisles and a galilee - a plan used by many 11th-century churches. As it soon proved too small, and ill-adapted to the economic expansion of the mother house of the Cluniac order, a new church was founded in 1088; although partially consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1095, construction continued until the solemn consecration of 1130. It was an enormous building, whose design is reflected in many smaller churches, primarily in Burgundy (Paray-le-Monial, La Charite-sur-Loire, Autun). It had five aisles preceded by a galilee and two facade towers, a double transept and an apse with ambulatory and radiating chapels. The vaults rose to a very great height above three storeys. The unfortunate demolition of this building between 1798 and 1823 has deprived us of a unique monument known only by archeological researches and a few surviving elements.

This abbey church which all Christianity envied was decorated with sculptures, paintings and mosaic art; an echo of them is found in the great Burgundian complexes such as Vezelay for sculpture and Berze-la-Ville for painting. (See Romanesque Painting in France.) The west front, from which numerous remains of richly polychromed sculpture have been rediscovered, has been restored on a hypothetical basis by the American archeologist K.J. Conant; its tympanum was decorated with a theophany in the spirit of the one formerly on the tympanum of the Monte Cassino basilica, and still to be seen on several Burgundian churches (Charlieu, Perrecy-les-Forges). The unrivalled quality of the Cluny sculpture, its beauty and its role in the subsequent development of medieval sculpture, can be grasped from rediscovered fragments of the choir screen and eight surviving capitals from columns in the ambulatory of the great basilica. The importance of the foliage sculpture is well known, not only on the capital entirely decorated with leafwork derived very closely from the antique Corinthian, but also on the other capitals. They are surprising for the absence of an architectural frame and for the way in which the figures fit into the foliage of the Corinthian squaring. Figures instead of palmettes appear at the corners of the baskets, whereas elsewhere they occupy the centre of a single face, magnified by mandorlas. A coherent iconographic program centred on a moral and cosmological symbolism incorporates the Virtues, the tones of the Gegorian music scale, the Seasons and the Rivers of Paradise. It must have fitted into the larger ensemble of paintings and sculptures, to judge by two extant engaged capitals representing thc Sacrifice of Abraham and Adam and Eve. The mastery of the nude, the forceful modelling, the movement of the drapery folds, and the restless linework reminiscent of illuminations, as well as the majestic handling of the Corinthian scheme, are noteworthy features of these masterworks which the monks of Cluny raised to the summit of Western art, shortly before 1120 (possibly even about 1110). (For an historical survey of nudity in medieval painting and sculpture, see: Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20), and also please see Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).)


Interpretation/ Meaning of Romanesque Sculptural Iconography

The Romanesque church contained sculptured picture cycles on capitals either facing and answering each other or arranged in series in particular parts of the building, such as the crypt (cycle of St Benedict in Saint-Denis) and especially the choir enclosure and ambulatory, as in the churches of Auvergne: Issoire (Passion of Christ), Mozat (Resurrection) and Saint-Nectaire. This iconography hidden at the back of the sacred space invites us to consider each capital in relation to the nearby wall paintings and to its position in the building. Essentially it consists of images of the Passion, the Salvation, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, lives of the Saints, struggles between the Virtues and Vices, and typological correspondences between the Old and New Testaments. Beside these decorations reserved in principle for those at prayer, the church displayed outside, especially at the entrance. on the facade, portal and tympanum, large sculpted frescoes intended to offer the passer-by both a synthesis of Christian doctrine and the Church's conception of the world order: this was the great iconographic triumph of the Romanesque period.

The facade design is centred on the tympanum which rests on a lintel and concentrates the spectator's attention by its semicircular form. Its iconography always fits in directly with that of the portal and in a broader sense with the facade as a whole. The latter is made up of different architectural elements, each of which has a place and plays a specific role in the structure of the whole. With its portals, round windows, rose window, high windows, gable and towers, the facade is a screen which lends itself admirably to the display of a carved or painted decoration which the ecclesiastical and civil powers utilized with dexterity.

The meaning of the images is nearly always spelled out by inscriptions which sometimes identify specific elements, but more usually provide the interpretative key to the whole work, like the formula surrounding the mandorla containing Christ in Majesty accompanied by the Terramorph on the north tympanum of the 12th-century church of San Miguel d'Estella in Navarre: "This present image that you see is neither God nor man, but he is God and man whom this sacred image figures."

The great Romanesque tympana bear witness to a remarkable architectonic calculation, to careful iconographic planning and uncommon technical skill; and they show that large sums of money were available to buy the materials and pay the artists. The latter sculptors or masters of works, were a force to be reckoned with from the moment when they dared to sign their work, as at Autun beneath the feet of Christ in Majesty, in the midst of religious inscriptions, using the somewhat presumptuous formula Gislebertus hoc fecit. The close tie between iconographic conception and artistic execution is clearly emphasized in the phrase inscribed on the 12th-century tympanum of the church of Autry-Issards (Bourbonnais) accompanying the divine glory carried by angels: "God made everything. Man makes, has remade everything. Natalis made me." It should, of course, be added that the execution of the great Romanesque tympana was a team undertaking. At Conques, as at Autun and elsewhere, the tympanum is made up of juxtaposed blocks of stone carved before they were put in place. Technical observation of the bonding shows how complicated the sculptors' researches were before completion of the definitive formula for putting the stones in place. The main problem was to ensure the coincidence, which was not always sought for (Autun), of the stone-cutting with the cutting up of the iconography (Conques, Vezelay).

By its monumentality, the sculpture of the Romanesque tympanum completed by that on the archivolts sometimes forms the only decoration of the whole facade (Conques). At other times, the tympanum is integrated with the facade, as in the little chapel of Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe at Le Puy where the lobes surrounding the tympanum are ornamented with an Adoration of the Lamb by the Elders of the Apocalypse, while on the upper part of the facade there is a frieze of figures, situated on either side of the Divine Majesty, which cannot be left out of a global interpretation. But the tympanum is first of all an integral part of the portal and its meaning has to be clarified by that of the sculptures on the trumeau and the embrasures, as well as those on other portals of the facade, as at Vezelay, for example. The images are integrated into a liturgical context that we forget only too often when interpreting them, sometimes for lack of adequate docmentation. Thus the lintel fragment from the portal of the north transept of Saint-Lazare at Autun which represents the enigmatic figure of a reclining Eve picking the apple with her left hand, resting her head on her right hand, and with foliage placed in the centre of the relief modestly hiding her gender, has been eXplained in different ways. Her posture had suggested that the artist was obeying a formal imperative, imposed by the dimensions of the lintel or by the iconographic intention to show Eve leaning towards Adam and whispering in his ear the idea of the sin. In reality, Adam, like Eve, was originally also depicted reclining on the lintel, because, condemned by God, they had been punished for the Original Sin and were likened to the demoniacal serpent. A risen Lazarus was represented standing upright on the tympanum, emphasizing the iconographic intent by a strong formal contrast. But Eve's reclining position must also be connected with the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, when sinners entered the basilica of Autun through this portal prostrate, and did not stand erect until they had been pardoned by the sacrament of penance. (The faithful also passed beneath the coffin of St Lazarus in his mausoleum at Autun on their knees or stooping). If the sacramental liturgy was particularly suited to a sculptural interpretation at the entrance to the church, it found numerous iconographical allusions on Romanesque tympana. The exhortation to public repentance took place between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and often throughout Lent, in front of the church door, in the porch or the atrium, places occupied by the penitents until the Easter remission of sins, The tympanum of the west portal of Jaca Cathedral, which has already been mentioned, may also be interpreted in this way, Thus we are entitled to extend this approach to Romanesque tympana in a more general way to the whole iconographic environment of the Original Sin, to the scenes of healing and resurrection which often constitute the essential part of the iconography of the capitals flanking the portal. Penitence leading to the Eucharist summarizes the meaning of the portal giving access to the church when it is passed through by the penitent who prays, in Daniel's words: "I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have done wickedly, have pity on me, Lord,"

The illustration of Good and Evil, the sculptured presentation of the social order, of the models which had to be followed to be a good Christian, of the prizes reserved for the just and the punishment awaiting those who strayed from the right path, were clearly and inexorably displayed on the tympana of the Last Judgment. At Conques and Autun, the Divine Majesty sits in Paradise welcoming the chosen with one hand and rejecting the damned without appeal with the other. At Antun, the inscription engraved on the mandorla of Christ clearly stresses his role as judge. At Conques, another inscription warns: "0 sinners, if you do not change your lives, know that a harsh judgment awaits you." When the angels announce the Resurrection and the Last judgment, the dead leave their graves to stand before the supreme judge, Michael weighs the souls and presides over the general organization of thc tympanum into two zones: the chosen on the right, the damned on the left. The contrast is striking.

On the side of the chosen, calm, happiness, order and rhythm are opposed to the disorder, agitation, ugliness and horror prevailing on the side of the damned. At Conques, the symmetry between Abraham welcoming the chosen to his bosom and Satan sitting in Hell accentuates thc contrasts. A procession presided over by the Virgin and St Peter includes those whose task it is, in 12th-century society, to preserve the faith and the feudal order, the kings, bishops, abbots and monks, while, following the model of St Foy, pilgrims and Christians in general are awaited in paradise in glory and perpetual peace. Among the damned, languishing in despair, torments and thc horror of deformity and monstrosity, the sins of Christian society, lust, lying, adultery, avarice and pride, are punished with tortures, but so are the sins which harm the smooth running of the feudal society represented here by the counterfeiter and the bad soldier.

Stylistically, the Autun sculptor has found the best way to accentuate the contrasts in the plastic rendering. The scene of souls being weighed is exemplary in this respect. The angel gently bears the dish of the chosen from which the innocent souls already rise in the beatitude of contemplation and have no difficulty in making the scales weigh down on their side, in spite of the desperate efforts of the infernal monster, in whose skeleton-like rendering the artist has given of his best. The inclusion of the group in the general iconography of the Salvation is emphasized at Conques by the appearance, below Christ, of the Cross and the instruments of the Passion, a reminder of the Redemption and Christ's victory over death and sin, a victory which is expressed here, as in antique imperial iconography, by the exhibition of the trophies and the imtruments of this victory.

The iconography of the Last Judgment as the last stage in the work of Redemption can be connected with the iconographics more directly associated with the work of Salvation, and so once again with the images which accentuate the penitential role of the tympana. A fine example is the tympanum of thc Descent from the Cross on the Portal of Forgiveness of San Isidoro at Leon. Between the last stages of this work of Redemption and the coming of Christ for the Last Judgment come other theophanic visions illustrated on tympana, such as the Ascension and the Transfiguration. At La Charite-sur-Loire, an important Cluniac priory, two tympana are decorated (about 1135), one with the Epiphany, the Presentation in the Temple and the Transfiguration, while the other represents, for the first time in Romanesque art, the welcome of the Virgin Mary by her son in the heavenly Jerusalem (Assumption). While the illustration of the Transfiguration can be related to the introduction of the feast of the Transfiguration to the Order of Cluny by Peter the Venerable, it is particularly close to the Ascension of Christ on the formal level. The Assumption of the Virgin, which is attributable to the Venerable's belief in the corporal assumption of Mary, should also be related to the fact that the patronal feast was celebrated at La Charite on the day of the Assumption.

Henceforth the presence of the Virgin forms one of the essential concepts of Romanesque visionary iconography. We have found her presiding over the procession of the chosen on the tympana of the Last Judgment, and she also appears about 1140-1150 on the tympanum of the cathedral of Saint-Etienne at Cahors where, surrounded by the apostles, she watches the Ascension of Christ standing in a mandorla (a theme more frequently portrayed afterwards: Lucca Cathedral). The originality of the Cahors tympanum lies in the representation of episodes from the martyrdom of Stephen, the church's patron saint, insofar as he had been present at the vision of the Trinitary God.

At Vezelay, after 1135, the great central tympanum evokes the Ascension, the Second Coming, the Sending of the Holy Spirit, and the Mission of the Apostles in the setting of a large triumphal theophany. Synthesized images and cyclical representations are sometimes associated in the iconography of the great Romanesque tympana. At Neuilly-en-Donjon for example, juxtaposition of images and coherence of interpretation are particularly explicit. The Virgin, who never won access to the tympanum on her own until the Gothic period, here finds herself in a privileged position thanks to the episode of the Epiphany, which, however, is a direct reference to the homage of the nations to Christ (as on many Romanesque tympana: the Door of the Goldsmiths at Compostela, Notre-Dame-du-Port at Clermont, Pompierre, Pontfroide, Beaucaire Saint-Gilles-du-Gard). At Neuilly, the figures walk on the backs of two impressive beasts occupying the lower zone of the tympanum. The angels sounding the trumpet recall the resurrection of the dead. The lintel is occupied by the representation of the Original Sin which emphasizes another basic idea of this complicated iconography, the opposition Mary/Eve, and by the depiction of the meal in Simon's house, through which pierces another penitential image, that of Mary Magdalene, whose penitence is generally considered as having made amends for Eve's fault. She appears here above the entrance door of a church which is dedicated to her, as at Vezelay.

For a look ahead to the works of the 15th century renascimento, see Italian Renaissance Sculpture.


The Apocalypse and The Vision of Matthew

The visionary iconography of the great Romanesque tympana took its inspiration from the textual sources. the Old and New Testaments, with a preference for the apocalyptic text of St John and the vision of St Matthew (XXIV-XXV). The west portal of Anzy-lc-Duc (Saone-et-Loire), executed by two sculptors' workshops, including one from Charlieu, shows the simple handling of the various sources, since it presents on the tympanum a Christ in the act of blessing in a mandorla borne by two angels appearing on the firmament, on the lintel, the twelve apostles of the Ascension standing, presided over by the Virgin, and on the archivolt, the Elders of the Apocalypse. More simply still, a number of Romanesque tympana represent only the Majestas Domini between the evangelist symbols or in a mandorla carried by angels, as we have seen at Cluny. At Moradillo de Sedano (Burgos), an image of the Majesty in the mandorla is surrounded by the evangelist symbols, carried by angels. The twenty-four Elders occupy the first arch moulding while the apostles Peter and Paul, who usually stand on either side of the door, are here incorporated into the tympanum. So there is a wide variety of formulas for showing the faithful the great synthetic visions in which the theophany sometimes merges with the image of the Last Judgment.

Among the great theophanies, the vision of the Apocalypse is one of the most valued by Romanesque patrons. The most spectacular example is provided, about 1130-1135, by the Moissac tympanum which stands at the back of a porch whose lateral registers, backed against two buttresses, are also sculptured and, since the early 19th century, exposed to superficial weathering which is the object of technical investigations today. On it Christ is sitting on a throne surrounded by the four Living (turned into evangelist symbols by the presence of books) and two angels. The twenty-four Elders, seated and crowned, appear on three registers, their heads turned towards the Apparition. Tbe synthesis corresponds closely to the textual model, because even such a detail as the sea of glass is represented. Many interpretations have been put forward to explain the deeper meaning behind this apparently simple vision. Emile Mille, for example, saw it as the transcription into stone of an illumination of the type of that on folios 121-122 of the Saint-Sever Apocalypse. But the Moissac tympanum is a distinctly Romanesque work, a synthetic and triumphant vision in which the seraphim, strangers to the Apocalyptic vision, establish a noteworthy bond with the non-apocalyptic theoophanic visions. If we take into consideration the sculptures carved on the side walls of the porch, the meaning of the Christ on the tympanum is slightly modified because they include a summary of the story of the Salvation, from the Incarnation to the promise of the Last Judgment.

In a less thorough way, certain Romanesque tympana reproduce concrete passages from St John's visionary text. The one at La Lande-de-Fronsac represents the moment when John in his preparatory vision, ready to transmit his message to the seven churches of Asia, turns round and sees the Son of Man with the sword, the seven candlesticks and the seven stars. But here again the presence of the Majesty standing in the centre of the tympanum refers more broadly to the Romanesque Majesties already mentioned.

Too often considered as directly dependent on the art of the Moissac tympanum, the portal of Beaulieu (Correze) illustrates with especial brilliance the vision of the apparition of Christ at the end of time according to St Matthew (XXIV-XXV). The triumphal sense of this image, which has even been compared to representations of the victorious emperor and at which the prophet Daniel is present among a multitude of witnesses, is enhanced by the representation of the cross adorned with carved precious stones and carried by angels. It is the trophy we referred to when describing the tympanum of Conques. Here Christ also appears victorious over all the animals displayed on the double lintel. The three temptations are represented on one of the engaged piers of the porch, the story of Daniel on the other. Note the importance of the association of the vision of Matthew with Daniel and of the appearance of the cross-trophy which also refers to the cross-sign which will shine in the sky to announce the resurrection of the dead and so by implication the Last Judgment; the theme at Beaulieu is not however the Last Judgment, but the revelation of Christ's second coming. How should we situate this triumphal image in relation to the art of the Master of Moissac? It is a question much discussed among art historians, especially since Emile Mille saw in the Beaulieu tympanum a model for the one at Saint-Denis. This question being set aside, as well as the chronological anomalies that such an assertion implied, a date shortly before the mid-12th century seems more probable. It is also suitable for the sculptured facade of Souillac which must have had a similar porch: an illustration of the miracle of Theophilus occupied the inner face of one of the side walls of the porch.

The Triumphal Facade

Shortly after 1100, stimulated by the rediscovery of Antiquity. Romanesque sculpture arose in north-western Spain, at Toulouse and in northern Italy. At Santiago de Compostela and San Salvador de Leyre in Navarre, the search for monumentality is expressed by the proliferation of decoration over the whole surface of the church facade. The vertical series of prophets under arches which appear at Modena in the work site of Wiligelmo are another response to this quest. Throughout the 12th century. Romanesque sculptors pursue this conquest of the facade destined to become a great display of monumental sculpture in different forms. A particularly striking example, in spite of the many restorations it has undergone since the Middle Ages, is the facade of Angouleme Cathedral which reproduces an eschatological vision distributed over the whole front. The decoration is no longer concentrated solely on the tympanum; it spreads out and develops into a complex composition made of particular images subject to the overall meaning. The idea of translating a monumental decoration on to a facade is not strictly speaking a Romanesque innovation, because monuments such as Old St Peter's, Rome, and the basilica of Porec (Parenzo) had already shown the way by means of pictorial techniques. Romanesque artists looked back to Antiquity, to the formulas of triumphal arches and town gates, to find monumental models and solemnify the entrance to the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy town that is the church.

Protecting the entrance symbolically, the porch may adopt the form of a triumphal arch as at Civita Castellana or that of a ciborium resting on columns as at Modena, Cremona, Piacenza and San Zeno in Verona. In this case, we often find a pair of lions couchant bearing the columns which support the edifice. These wild beasts, as impressive as those which appear to Charlemagne in a dream in the Chanson de Roland, are generally represented holding a quarry between their paws, a human form, a ram, deer or some other animal. Bearers of the monument since they are sometimes replaced by genuine atlantes (Piacenza), the lions pinned to the ground by the columns, guard the entrance to the building according to a very old tradition (Salerno Cathedral) which medieval symbolism modifies through the text of the Bestiaries. From the early 12th century, the porches of northern Italy may have answered to a political desire to imitate the Christian monuments of papal Rome; at the same time they served as the focal point of religious, judicial or simply civic ceremonies.

Like the lions, each element of the porch, portal and facade may be studied individually, not forgetting for all that the general impact of an iconography with which the scenes on the church doors were also integrated in the Middle Ages. The antiquizing trend, which may also be underscored by the arrangement of decorations in superposed reliefs, is always more or less present on the formal level. The Romanesque sculptor made progress in his craft through the study of antique sculpture. Antiquity sometimes supplied pieces to be reused directly, for example the Gallo-Roman lintel ornamented with a suevetaurilia from Beaujeu (Musee de Lyon) which also seems to have inspired the Romanesque lintel of Charlieu. There are a great many examples of this inspiration, such as the frieze on the facade of Nimes Cathedral, for which the sculptors sought models in antique sarcophagi. Observation of Antiquity and Romanesque visionary iconography coalesce on the west portal of Saint-Trophime of Arles, which, set against the facade of the church, combines the theme of the apocalyptic vision with that of the Last Judgment; its architectural structure gives great prominence to the architraves and frieze, as also to the main colonnade which serves as a frame for the large statues. The portal of Saint-Trophime of Arles comes at the end of Romanesque development around 1190. On it we can observe the course followed by the sculptors in their search for a monumental rendering of the triumphal facade.

Essentially, the flowering of the sculptured triumphal facade occurred rather late in Romanesque art, after the middle of the 12th century, when the iconographical and formal novelties of Gothic art had already proved themselves on cathedral facades in northern France. As we shall see later, one of the main contributions of the Gothic facade was the emergence of the column statue. The degree to which Romanesque art of the second half of the 12th century was susceptible to infiltration by Gothic innovations is the subject of constant research. The column statues on the portal of Santa Maria la Real de Sanguesa, for example, have been thought to be inspired by the sculpture of Chartres, either directly, or through the intermediary of Burgundy, because of their elongated proportions and the verticality of the narrow, pleated drapery folds. The reality is more complex and the differences outweigh the similarities. The large statues which adorn the splays of the portal at Ripoll in Catalonia had also been linked with Saint-Denis and Chartres, within the framework of the general theory of the radiation of French art.

It is true that at Ripoll we are already far from the Moissac reliefs or again from those on the pillars of Sts Peter and Paul at Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. The Ripoll statues are no longer bas-reliefs, but genuine works in the round, which replace the column up to the height of the figures' shoulders. The latter, although tending to replace the column, are not load-bearing elements; they have the essentially iconographic role of a disengaged statue. The Ripoll apostles seem as if they were frozen in the splays of the portal. This domination of representation over function is even more prominent at Saint-Gilles-du-Gard in a diversity which testifies to the thematic and stylistic issues with which Romanesque sculptors were confronted in the elaboration of the great facades.

A richly sculptured triumphal entrance, set against the facade of the 11th-century church, was conceived shortly after the middle of the 12th century at the celebrated abbey of Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia. The facade is formed of juxtaposed blocks, without mortar. The very sandy material used contains calcareous cement, absorbs water and is very sensitive to the corrosive action of the air, the reason for the serious conservation problems from which the reliefs suffer. The portal, without tympanum, which has the figures of Peter and Paul and episodes from their lives in its splays, also houses the stories of Cain and Abel, Jonah, and Daniel, as well as personifications of the months of the year depicted on the jambs of the entrance proper. A vast composition arranged in storeyed friezes is presented on the great rectangular facade. At the summit God in Majesty sits on a throne, blessing the faithful and presenting the book, surrounded by four angels and two of the evangelist symbols, the other two being located on the lower storey. The twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse are arranged standing upright in the upper frieze, carrying cups and cithers. They dominate the next register which is decorated with twenty-four of the blessed, among them apostles and prophets, praising the Lord. The fourth and fifth friezes present scenes taken from the cycle of Exodus and the Book of the Kings. The lower levels are occupied on the left by David and his musicians and on the right by Christ accompanied by four personages, including an ecclesiastic, surmounting representations of animals, a centaur, a horseman and, in very high relief on either side of the portal, a lion grasping an animal in its claws. The base is also embellished with other historiated and animal scenes, while the lateral returns of the facade complete the iconography of the whole. (See also Romanesque Painting in Spain.)

The triumphal meaning of the Ripoll portal is directly emphasized by the form and composition of the architecture of the sculptured facade. In their deliberate imitation of an antique triumphal arch, the builders have shown a profound knowledge of this type of monument, enabling them to organize the complex on two superposed levels underscored by the tiered arrangement of the corner columns and crowned by a continuous frieze. Comparison with the decoration of the Carolingian reliquary in the form of a triumphal arch offered by Eginhard to the abbey of St Servatius at Maastricht points up the triumphal symbolism, for in both cases the upper register is occupied by an image of the triumph of Christ surmounting the figurations of historical persons who have announced, prepared or contributed to the fulfilment on earth of the kingdom of Christ. What we have is a Christian version of Roman programs for the glorification of the emperor.

The general symbolism of the Romanesque facade is also expressed on the formal level by a progression towards the summit of the axis of the door. The image of Christ overhangs the composition, while the eyes of the figures on the upper register converge on him and the whole facade is composed as a sort of momumental triangle, with the Almighty at the top. Some scholars have even seen in it the complete reproduction of what must have been the painted decor of many Romanesque buildings, the upper part corresponding to the decor of the flattened apsidal dome and the middle registers to that of the walls in the nave. Indeed, in Italian apses, historical personages do accompany the image of the theophany. The Ripoll facade, whose prodigious iconography is open to every possible exegesis, also stresses a verticality which in some ways recalls another of the great themes of Romanesque art, the Trinitary concept. Beneath the feet of the enthroned Christ on the upper register, in the centre of the outside arch moulding of the portal, the Lamb is shown carrying the cross in a disc, adored by two angels; lower down, in the intrados of the arch of the door, still in the axis, the image of Christ in a medallion is accompanied by incense-bearing angels. This correspondence in verticality, which has already been noted in the choir mosaic of San Vitale at Ravenna, recurs in the majority of Romanesque facades.

Let us pause now to examine one of the reliefs on the lower register of the facade which represents a horseman armed with lance and shield, for it recalls the large number of Romanesque horsemen from the west of France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, even from the north (Ham-en-Artois), which generally occupy a prominent position on the church facade, sometimes trampling a beaten enemy beneath the horse's feet and accompanied by a female figure. In some cases, these horsemen have been identitied, often wrongly, with St James or, more plausibly, with Constantine and Helen, but a seigniorial interpretation, possibly even connected with the donors, is more fitting in many cases. The local historical and political circumstances in which it was decided to erect such facades often elude us. The monastery of Ripoll became the pantheon of the Catalan dynasty from the time the facade was put in place. The style of its sculptures, moreover, has much in common with that of the sarcophagus reliefs of the Count of Barcelona, Raymond Berenguer III (d. 1131), preserved in the church. Neither facade nor sarcophagus were executed until some years after the count's death, when his son Raymond Berenguer IV had completed the reconquest of Tarragona and southern Catalonia from Islam.


The iconographic conception of a facade may adopt the formula of a sculptured crowning in the form of a frieze of standing figures (apostolado) as at Sanguesa in Navarre and other Spanish churches, accompanying the Divine Majesty and the Tetramorph (Carrion de los Conces, Moarbes) or again quite simply, as at Saint-Gabriel in Provence, taking advantage solely of the architectural motif of the round window to associate with it the four evangelist symbols.

The overflowing of images on to the facade implies the integration of the portal iconography with the facade, as at Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. In an architectural design modelled on the Roman triumphal arch, the facade of Saint-Gilles is articulated into three portals which incorporate tympana, archivolts, lintels and splays in an interplay of columns and sculptures. Two antique structures are superposed: the facade ornamented by pilasters with figures and the columned portico surmounted by an entablature. Can we even imagine the impact that such an ensemble and its iconography, framed by the tympana of the Epiphany and the Crucifixion must have had before the end of the 12th century? It implies the adoption of everything that Provence could ofter by way of antique monuments in the service of the triumph of Christianity.

The Portals

Among the different regional groups of Romanesque portal, the group in the west of France is very characteristic during the 12th century by its architectural, iconographical and stylistic coherence. The facade generally exhibits a vertical division into three zones separated by buttress columns and is closed at the extremities by clusters of columns surmounted by a lantern topped by a pyramid. In the centre, the facade proper is crowned by a gable and pierced by bays on the ground floor and the upper storey. The articulation of the wall by columns and niches is common to the majority of facades in Poitou and Saintonge: Parthenay-le-Vieux, Aulnay-de-Saintonge, Saint-Hilaire at Melle, Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Poitiers and the Abbaye des Dames at Saintes, to name only a few. The tympanum is still absent from the portals which are characterized by the multiplication of arch mouldings sculptured with figural elements finely carved in a soft limestone which permits exceptional ornamental subtleties. Stone sculpture extends to the facade as a whole, to the niches, capitals and archivolts, but, in the form of work in the round or simple sculptured slabs, it also stands within niches, on the wall and the gable. Generally the portal is set in the thickness of the wall, while the latter is given an elegant rhythm and softened by niches and sometimes even by a thinning down of the upper part. At Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes (Deux-Sevres), the facade has an enormous central window and the portal pierced in a fore-part is unusually deep. In all these monuments, the sculptured capitals and arch mouldings set off the portal and the other architectural elements of the facade, making them seem like chisel work carved in stone.

There are close connections between the formal structure, iconography and style of the facades of all these churches, which form a homogeneous regional group with some differences of course, mainly reflected in the stylistic handling. Even if an outside hand appears here and there, the local and regional tradition is attested by monuments of secondary importance which vouch for the existence of sculptors' workshops specializing in the large-scale production of these repetitive arch mouldings, pre-carved in series depending on the size of the portal for which they were intended. The skill of this regional school brought it considerable success during the Romanesque Middle Ages, as proved by the diffusion of some of its basic plastic concepts (Sicily). Small Romanesque portals with decorated gables are found as far as the Gironde, following the model of prestigious buildings such as those of Poitiers, Angouleme and Perigueux. The actual form of the portal with arch mouldings extended over a wide area towards Brittany for example (Dinan) and especially southwards (Morlaas) and even to Spain where it appears from the early second half of the twelfth century at Santa Maria de Uncastillo (Aragon). Then it recurs in other edifices: witness the magnificent north portal of the collegiate church of Santa Maria de Toro (Zamora). The latter shows the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse arranged radially on either side of Christ flanked by St John and the Virgin on the outer arch moulding; the intermediate one is adorned with plant motifs, the lower one with censer-bearing angels on either side of Christ, and these angels reappear inside the lobes of the portal.

The iconographic program of facades often includes at the top a representation of the Cross or Christ as at Saint-Jouin-de-Marnes, and statues distributed freely over the facade or set in niches which represent saints and other figures standing or on horseback, including the famous horseman mentioned earlier and episodes from the Old and New Testaments. A wealth of imagery appears on the modillions (minstrels, musicians, sculptors at work) and on the archivolts of portals whose arch mouldings are invaded by familiar and picturesque scenes. Among the latter, personifications of the months are very popular, decorating the entrance of both modest and imposing churches. They picture men and women carrying out the work appropriate to each month of the year. This theme is common in the Romanesque period, whether as a linear arrangement with the personifieations of the months juxtaposed on either side of the portal or as in the buildings of the west, set out on the arch mouldings around the portal. Accompanied by the signs of the zodiac, these images fit into the cosmic figurations of the world, the cycle of time, the rhythm of the seasons and everyday activities.

The development of the calendar on the portals with arch mouldings of the west of France is quite remarkable and systematic. Sometimes the battle of the Virtues and Vices is associated with the calendar; so are the Wise and foolish Virgins (Aulnay, Civray) or other themes like the Elders of the Apocalypse (Saint-Jouin). In January, the peasant is resting (Civray) or Janus may illustrate the beginning of the year (Saint-Jouin). In February, the peasant warms himself by the fire. Then the year continues, with various agricultural labours and images illustrating the start of a season, as at Civray where the month of April is personified by a young man standing between two trees; in July we find the harvest, in August threshing, in September picking or treading the grapes. Finally the year ends with the month of December when the peasant is usually sitting at table, in the shelter of home. The lime-stone used by the sculptors has suffered from weathering and many facade carvings are almost illegible today. But the general sequence of themes is easy to discern; whereas at Aulnay each month is carved on an arch-stone flanked by the corresponding sign of the zodiac, more frequently each of these elements occupies one arch-stone or even two, as at Cognac, Argenton, Fenioux and Civray. Sometimes inscriptions throw light on the theme.

In the Middle Ages, the representations of the months referring to the activities peculiar to each region are often accompanied by the seasons, the Rivers of Paradise and other features which have to do with the interpretation of time and the cycle of annual life. These images are presided over by the figuration of the year. The months surround the year just as the apostles or the Elders of the Apocalypse surround Christ in Majesty. On the sculpted facades of religious buildings, the representations of the months are often placed around the portal; the personification of the year does not occur here because it is implicitly replaced by the image of Christ enthroned in Majesty portrayed elsewhere. Thus the geographical and cosmological order of the world is displayed at the church entrance by way of the cycle of the seasons and the months, and refers directly or indirectly to Him who governs the order of things, the world and the creation.


The Historiated Cloister

The cloister is a porticoed court on a square or trapezoidal plan situated at the heart of the clerical community; around it stand the buildings of everyday monastic life (chapter, cathedral, collegiate church or monastery proper). The cloister acts as a service gallery, a covered walk, a place of passage and meditation. Typologically, the Romanesque cloister derives from the atrium of the Roman house and the late antique basilica by its form and its organizing purpose. The atrium of the basilica of San Lorenzo at Milan is of quite special interest for the origin of the medieval cloister, for it possessed a series of small side rooms to which access was had by means of two staircases located in two lateral avant-corps. The atrium of the medieval cathedral at Salerno has a series of small loges behind which are the rooms where the canons lived. In a wider sense, the word cloister was often applied to the monastery as a whole in the Middle Ages.

The cloister stood at the heart of monastic life from a very early period. During the 11th century, it generally had no sculptures. Of irregular plan or having four equal galleries often with semicircular barrel vaulting, its cloister walks in the 11thcentury opened on to the court by arcades supported by massive masonry pillars following the Carolingian model. It was not until the 12th century that the cloister was invaded by a wealth of sculpture covering columns and pillars. Since the 19th century the quality of these works and the ease with which they could be dismantled have attracted the covetousness of collectors and antique dealers. One of the most astonishing products of this collecting zeal is The Cloisters in New York. It originated with the collection formed by the sculptor George Grey Barnard who lived in France before 1914 and bought many pieces from the cloisters of Saint-Guilhelm-le-Desert, Bonnefont and Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, among others, which he wished to use as models for his American students at the Beaux-Arts. Purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925. the Barnard Collection has become a museum of medieval art whose architectural conception is that of a monastery with several cloisters. The history of medieval cloisters is indeed eventful, especially in France after the Revolution, or even before it, as was the case with the cloister of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux at Chilons-sur-Marne which has now been re¬stored by archeologists. The history of the cloisters of Saint-Etienne and La Daurade at Toulouse is exemplary in this connection. Their dispersion was soon followed by regret and the desire to restore them. Hence the decision to create a historical and didactic museum headed by an erudite scholar who, along with others. had much to do with the image we now have of the Middle Ages: Alexandre du Mege. As early as 1817, du Mege began setting up the sculptures on a continuous plinth so that they should serve as "objects of study for those who cherish the knowledge of Antiquity." He reconstructed the door of the chapter house of La Daurade, the precursor of further reconstructions of celebrated cloisters, closer to us and based on other criteria, such as that undertaken by the Historical Monuments Service at Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.

The oldest historiated Romanesque cloister was built shortly before 1100 in the abbey of Moissac. Its model may have been the cloister commissioned by Odilo at Cluny before 1048. A daughter house of the abbey of Cluny from 1047-1048, Moissac flourished to an extraordinary degree, its prosperity leading to the construction of a new abbey church consecrated in 1063. This was a building with nave and narrow side aisles, and an ambulatory revealed by excavations, although it has not been possible to determine whether it already had sculptured capitals. The cloister was built nearer the end of the century, as indicated by an inscription engraved on the central pillar of the west gallery: "In the year of the incarnation of the Prince Eternal 1100, this cloister was finished in the days of the Lord Abbot Ansquitil. Amen." The porticoed cloister walks had alternating single and twin marble colonnettes adorned with rich capitals carved with geometric and plant motifs, historiated scenes and animals. The style of these works also betrays their date, because certain abaci decorated with portrait busts of figures are very close to the Toulouse works of Bernard Gilduin. The essential contribution of the Moissac cloister was to give the sculptured pillars a privileged place in the overall disposition. Eight apostles occupy the corner pillars. which tallies with their symbolism as pillars of the universal Church. A ninth, Simon, stands today on the central pillar of the west cloister walk. Abbot Ansquitil took the decision to have the image of his predecessor, Durand, sculpted on the central pillar of the east cloister walk, which has something to tell us about the high place the monastic order sought to occupy in the contemporary Church. Stylistically, these figures, like those of the Saint-Sernin reliefs at Toulouse, seem to be particularly inspired by ivories and goldsmith's works. Iconographically, the sculpture of the forty-one historiated capitals centres on the Gospel story, thc Old Testament, apocalyptic and eschatological scenes, the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. Stephen, Saturninus, Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius, as well as the miracles of St Benedict and St Martin.

Whereas at Moissac the scenes are isolated on each capital, a step forward was taken at La Daurade in Toulouse where we find a continuous story arranged on a group of capitals, just as illuminated manuscripts continued an illustrated narration over several pages. This is the formula adopted during the 12th century in a certain number of cloister walks: Gerona, Sant Cugat del Valles, Tarragona. The oldest series of reliefs in the Silos cloister forms an Easter cycle continuing down to Whitsuntide; the pillar with doubting St Thomas naturally finds a place there. The north walk of the Saint-Trophime cloister at Arles, dating to about 1180, is a model of iconographic cohesion; it incorporates both the statue figures and the scenes on bas-reliefs and capitals, the latter so arranged as to be seen solely from the covered walk. The program, strictly focused on the glory of Christ, with allusions to the Old Testament, also includes the saints venerated at Arles, Trophimus and Stephen.

During the Middle Ages, the decoration of the Romanesque cloister with figure carvings gave rise to lively religious discussions which in part sum up the notion we have formed of monastic ideals. While the Moissac cloister seems to havc been completed at the very end of the 11th century, it was certainly the outcome of earlier experiments and tensions that we know little about. Hence the eloquent anecdote about the abbey of Saint-Florent near Saumur, whose cloister Abbot Roger of Blois (985-1011) had already undertaken to decorate with polychrome stone sculptures accompanied by inscriptions: "claustralis fabrica mira lapidum sculptura cum versuum indiciis ac picturarum splendoribus est polita." But under Frederick, an abbot of the first half of the 11th century (1022-1056), discussion turned into action when he ordered the limbs and heads of these cloister carvings to be smashed with a hammer. True, it is difficult to equate this source with what we know of the date of the sculpture's appearance in the cloisters, and the phrase "claustralis fabrica" is ambiguous; but it at least allows us to evoke the important role that painting must have played in the decoration of the early cloisters. Moreover, this incident seems to be a premonitory sign of the vigour with which St Bernard (c.1124), and with him the Cistercian Order in general, expressed his opposition to the richly ornamented Cluniac cloister: "What are these ridiculous monsters, this deformed beauty and this beautiful deformity doing in the cloisters beneath the eyes of the brothers intent on their reading? What are these disgusting monkeys doing? These ferocious lions; These monstrous centaurs?"

In accordance with the rule, the Cistercian cloisters, especially the older ones (Le Thoronet), had no decoration at all and this was of course the case with the Carthusians, the Premonstratensians and the Grandmontians. But the moment has come to ask if there is an iconography peculiar to the Romanesque cloister. We should note that the images and their locations are extremely varied. They may be purely ornamental or fantastic or taken from Bestiaries or from everyday life, like a gaze turned on the outside world. They may be connected with the facade decoration or objects in the treasury. They may be concentrated in one part of the cloister or on a single capital, or unfold through a whole cloister walk in a complete cycle. Sometimes they assume the form of pillar reliefs or column statues or extend as paintings along the walls or ceilings of the walk; and lastly they sometimes adorn the upper walk (Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert). Apart from tbe presence of an inscription or the effigy of the founding abbot (Cuxa, Ripoll), a reference to the rule (column-statue of St Benedict in Saint-Pere of Chartres, wall painting of St Augustine in Saint-Sernin of Toulouse capital of St Ursus at Aosta) and some illustrations alluding to the common life or its models (Entry into Jerusalem, Washing of the Feet, Last Supper), we have to admit that the cloister imagery is extremely varied, open and receptive to the outside world. The incoherence of some cloisters is due to the fact that the walks were often built successfully or subject to interruptions that might last more than a century (Elne, Ripoll). The type of homogeneous cloister like Monreale in Sicily, with its colonnette shafts carved or adorned with mosaics, is the exception rather than the rule. The monotony of the marble sculpture in some cloisters has been explained by the "mass production" practised by specialized marble masons (Subiaco, Cuxa); the richness and fantasy of others by the many different functions of the cloister and by the possibility that the walks were open to the faithful on certain days and at certain hours, especially in urban settings. But this explanation is inadequate, for the richly decorated upper cloister walk of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert was only accessible to the monks from the gallery of the abbey church or their own dormitory and had no direct communication with the lower walk.

The iconography of the cloister is not limited to carved capitals or wall paintings. The doors giving access to the church or the monastic buildings are often adorned with archivolts, capitals and even a sculpted tympanum. The tombs of benefactors or members of the community helped to embellish the cloister walks, often on a monumental scale. Of all the monastic halls surrounding the cloister (refectory, dormitory, etc.), the chapter house is the most decorated (wall paintings at Brauweiler and Sigena). The splay statues of the chapter house of Saint-Etienne at Toulouse brilliantly illustrate an intermediate formula between the bas-relief (Saint-Caprais at Agen) and the column figure (Saint Georges de Boscherville); they portray the apostles, models of the communal life. The chapter house entrance at Saint Georges de Boscherville in Normandy (about 1175) decorated with column statues and capitals illustrates the passage from the Rule of St Benedict devoted to the abbot's duties with depictions of life, death and monastic discipline: this, together with other examples, proves that sometimes an iconography peculiar to the cloister actually did exist during the 12th century. The chapter house is not always in the same location. In England it is often large and spacious and to give it height it is not designed to open directly into the cloister but into an access-giving corridor behind it. Worcester is the oldest known example. In the Gothic period it assumes an octagonal shape (York) or is organized in relation to a central column (Westminster). In Lower Normandy, chapter houses are built along an axis parallel to that of the church and project from the wall of the dormitory. Three are built directly against the church, fourteen are separated from it by the sacristy, three by the sacristy and a staircase, and one (Longues) is built over the refectory. The Cistercian chapter house was a rectangle divided into aisles by pillars.

The cloister basin or fountain, which bore a striking resemblance to baptismal fonts, stood in the middle of the cloister garth. Sometimes it was housed in a small building and placed in the middle of the cloister walk opposite the church or at the corner of two walks. It served for the monks ablutions and took the form of an outer basin fed with water from a raised central dispenser (Conques, Monreale, Poblet). These fountains are decorated with masks (Lagrasse) or heads of a more learned iconography (Saint-Denis), with colonnettes and capitals (Cuxa), and may be surmounted by a prestigious crowning feature such as the later horseman on the bronze fountain of Saint-Oertin at Saint-Omer. The Gothic cloister, with its delicate colonnettes and foliage capitals. puts the emphasis on a new aesthetic. Nevertheless, the 12th-century Gothic cloisters in the north, contemporary with Romanesque cloisters in the south of France, are still richly sculptured. Column-statues smaller than those of the portal splays adorned the cloister of Saint-Denis around the middle of the 12th century: they are known from the drawings of Montfaucon. The cloister of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux at Chalons-sur-Marne, possessed some fifty column statues and an equal number of historiated capitals justifying the admiration in which 12th-century monastic commentators held this cloister, sometimes interpreted as an imago mundi and compared to Paradise and the Heavenly Jerusalem by Honorius of Autun and Hugh of Fouilloy. The recent reconstruction of an apocalyptic program with the Four Horsemen and the Elders comprising a zodiacal group in the dispersed cloister of Saint-Avit-Senier in Perigord reinforces the links between the iconography of cloisters and facades (possibly about the second quarter of the 12th century) and confirms the idea of the cloister as prefiguring the advent of the heavenly city.

For the next Europeanwide movement, see: Gothic Sculpture.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on early European Sculpture, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a book we strongly recommend for any serious students of Romanesque sculpture and architecture.


• For more facts about Romanesque sculptors, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.