posted on 18/07/22
The 11th and 12th centuries were arguably the critical centuries of the Middle Ages in Latin Europe. They witnessed the birth of the papal curia, the invention of canon law, the rise of the civic commune, and the creation of a myriad of alternative religious orders. Population growth, increased contact with the eastern Mediterranean, the lessening of petty local warfare, a huge increase in monastic foundations, all fostered an extraordinary building boom.
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Although relief sculpture can be found on early medieval buildings, the designs were for the most part simplified versions of late Roman ornamental patterns. This changes in dramatic fashion in the first quarter of the 11th century. A team of sculptors seemingly under the direction of one Unbertus – Unbertus me fecit is inscribed on the face of one of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire’s porch capitals – unexpectedly recast the capital as a vehicle for figurative imagery. Where did the artists capable of such an imaginative leap come from, and what propelled them into transposing relief sculpture onto the spatially idiosyncratic surfaces of a capital?
Western France is the spiritual home of the Romanesque arch. Elaborately decorated arches were invented there and were further developed by varying the treatments of individual arches and introducing cross-rhythms through the subtle use of repeats. The result is akin to an architectural fugue. Nowhere does this better than Notre-Dame-la-Grande, where a nave extension was constructed c. 1120 precisely to support a façade. Combine the arches with figurative relief sculpture and a new type of civic showpiece is born.
The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is Romanesque Europe’s pilgrimage church par excellence. Built with active royal support in the far north-west of Galicia, Santiago grew out of a period of political and cultural suggestibility, bearing fruit in the development of a rapport between the emergent Iberian kingdoms, Rome and southern France. Pilgrimage was the underlying driver for this internationalism and pilgrimage creates a language of itinerancy, hence the many references that link Santiago with Conques, Rome and Jerusalem.
The Roman basilica as an architectural genre lived on, particularly in southern and central Italy, its columns and capitals recycled from predecessor structures or purchased from dealers in architectural salvage. The basilica also came with a particular approach to wall painting, whereby narrative paintings were framed as rectangular panels in horizontal registers in the area between the clerestory and the colonnade. By the 11th century, and possibly earlier, the registers were co-ordinated across the elevations, so the viewer effectively stood at the centre of a cycle that required them to spin around if they wished to pursue the narrative. Sant’Angelo in Formis is the best-preserved survivor of an evidently prestigious church type.
Reputed to have been begun on the same day as the neighbouring monastery of Limburg an der Hardt, Speyer Cathedral was built as a burial church for the Emperor Conrad II, one of three so-called kaiserdoms constructed on the middle Rhine (the others being Mainz and Worms). Although it was magnificently remodelled by Conrad’s grandson, Emperor Henry IV, Speyer remained true to its model – the late Roman Aula Palatina in Trier. Superbly constructed with a raised presbytery, significant real height, giant orders, and a vast eastern crypt, Speyer is a case of the Romanesque outdoing the Roman.
Glastonbury was visited by fire in May 1184, a catastrophe that left little more than a bell-tower and the abbot’s lodging standing. According to William of Malmesbury, among the many buildings at Glastonbury was one known as the Vetusta Ecclesia - an ancient wooden chapel associated with the origins of Christianity in Britain and believed to have been built by Joseph of Arimathea. So packed with the relics of saints was the ancient chapel that William describes it as ‘a heavenly shrine on earth’. This is the building that re-emerges in the later 1180s as Glastonbury’s new lady chapel. Thus, not only does the lady chapel combine two churches in one – Joseph of Arimathea’s legendary foundation and a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary – it does so in an archaicising style in a single freestanding building to the west of the monastic church – a self-conscious throwback to early medieval site planning.
Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on medieval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Saints, Shrines, and Pilgrimage – was published in 2020 He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.
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