Romanesque Art

Exterior, St. Sernin, Toulouse, France, consecrated 1180, (photo by: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons) and Interior, St. Sernin, Toulouse (photo by Jose Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/, via Wikimedia Commons)

  • Romanesque (“Roman-like”)—a broad range of styles, embracing the regional variants that flourished in Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries

The 11th and 12th centuries in Europe were a time of profound changes. Territorial expansion in Europe continued, with the Muslims in the south, Magyars from the east, Vikings from the north. William the Conqueror of Normandy invades England in 1066, defeating the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings to gain the crown promised him by the previous king, Edward the Confessor. The Normans also expanded their territory in Europe, expelling the Arabs from Sicily, and pledging allegiance to both the Byzantine Emperor and the Pope in Rome. Manorial estates were still the center of feudal power in Europe, but this system was beginning to decline. Military and political equilibrium allowed for economic growth, especially along the traditional trading routes as feudalism declined, partially because of the growth of towns. This decline was also the effect of the Crusades, plagues, and the signing of the Magna Carta in England.

Christianity in this period was also beginning to shift and change. As the towns grew, and more monasteries were founded, people began to travel more. Many of these people were traveling to pilgrimage sites to visit relics believed to have come from certain saints. The most sacred pilgrimage sites for Christians were Jerusalem and the two apostolic sees in Europe, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The sites in Europe were safer and the trip was shorter than the journey to Jerusalem. An extensive network of churches, hospices, and monasteries were constructed along the routes.map_chemin
All of this meant that medieval church design had to change, as many of the churches along the routes now had to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims, while still allowing for cloistered monks attending to their daily prayers. The Latin Cross basilican plan of the earlier periods was adapted and enlarged so that there were side aisles in addition to the nave, which allowed the pilgrims to move around and through the outer portion of the church and access the radiating chapels of the apse without disturbing mass. Ceilings were also made higher, and of stone, using Roman-style barrel vaults with ribbing that helped to contain the thrust, moving it down and through to the wide buttressing piers on the exterior of the church, as can be seen in the images of St-Sernin in Toulouse above.


Romanesque Church plan with sections labeled

The pilgrims coming to these churches were coming to see the relics of saints that were encased in elaborate reliquaries made of gold, silver, enamels, and precious jewels. One of the early examples of a Romanesque pilgrimage church that still contains its reliquary is Sainte-Foy in Conques in south western France. The reliquary is said to contain the skull of the saint, encased in a wooden structure covered in gold, jewels (including antique cameos from the Greco-Roman period), and rock crystal.


Reliquary of Sainte-Foy, c. 1000 (photo by artistes successifs du 9eme au 14eme siecles – Tresor de Conques, Public Domain,

The church itself is built in the Romanesque style, with high stone barrel vaulting that improved the acoustics while lowering fire risks, side aisles, and radiating chapels off the apse. As with most Romanesque churches, the church is oriented so that the main entrance is to the west, and the apse to the east. At the west entrance is a tympanum with an image of the Last Judgement on it, a reminder to the pilgrims what they were trying to avoid by completing their pilgrimage to that holy site. Here there is a real attempt to render the scene in a Roman fashion, with some naturalism to the forms and interactions, but with a distortion of proportion in the way the forms relate to the spaces they inhabit. This tympanum is also one of the few to retain traces of paint, giving a sense of what the medieval pilgrim would have seen when they approached the church. Otherwise, the scene is laid out as would be expected, with the saved and Heaven to Jesus’s right, and the damned and Hell to his left. Jesus is in a mandorla in the center, surrounded by saints and angels carrying relics of the Passion, their attributes, and the Bible. The image of Hell at the bottom was meant to be terrifying, as it was supposed to function as a warning of the dangers of sin.

Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, Conques, France, 1035-1060, exterior (photo by By Flaurentine – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and interior (photo by By Velvet – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tympanum, Sainte-Foy, Conques, c. 1130 (photo by By Daniel Villafruela. – Own work., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Saint-Pierre in Moissac was a Benedictine monastery and pilgrimage church built in the 12th century. The South tympanum at this site is covered in the image of Christ in Majesty, and imagery supporting this theme is also carved onto the surrounding lintel, archivolts, voussoirs, jambs, and trumeau. There is less naturalism here than at Conques, with extreme distortions, especially in the images of the 24 elders of the apocalypse that are peering back and up at the central figure of Jesus in the mandorla. The statues in the trumeau are of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the New Testament Saint Paul. These are heavily elongated, abstracted figures that swirl through the space of the trumeau, and do not really seem to realistically stand on the base provided. The animals sculpted with them are also non-naturalistic.

South Portal with Tympanum, Saint-Pierre, Moissan, France, c. 1115-1130 (photo by By Josep Renalias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons) and detail (photo by By Josep Renalias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Prophet Isaiah (?) and Saint Paul, Trumeau, South Portal, Saint-Pierre, Moissac, 1115-1130

The cloister of the monastery of Saint-Pierre was also heavily decorated with sculptural elements for the contemplation of the monks. The capitals of the columns were decorated with motifs that combined elements of early Medieval interlace forms with Islamic-style floral decoration that reflects the influence of Moorish Spain and the impact of the Crusades on the art and culture of Western Europe. There were also a number of figural capitals, so that the monks could meditate on biblical stories, sin, and other themes of salvation. Also included in the decoration of the cloister is an image of the reforming abbot of the monastery (also bishop of Toulouse), Durand de Bredons, who the monks were trying to get canonized at the time.

Cloister and decorated capital, St. Pierre, Moissac and Gislebertus, Historiated Capital, Saint-Lazare, Autumn, c. 1130 (photos by By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Gislebertus, Last Judgment, West Tympanum, Saint-Lazare, Autumn, c. 1120-1135 (photos by See page for author [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Christophe.Finot – Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0,

Manuscript art in this period also began to change. Although these were still handmade objects, primarily produced in scriptoria of monasteries, the growing importance of the universities in cities like Oxford, Paris, and Bologna meant that there were urban, often secular, centers of production as well. The images within the manuscripts reflects much of the stylistic changes in sculpture already seen in the discussion of the pilgrimage churches. Figures were made in a hybrid Byzantine-Roman style, and seemed to float in their frames, while surrounding them on the page would be images of animals, Greek key designs, or designs that combined interlace and Islamic forms. This shows the very cosmopolitan nature of Europe in this period, and the returning emphasis on Greco-Roman learning as texts returned to Europe through Spain and the crusaders returning from the Middle East.

Stavelot Bible,  Christ in Majesty, 1093-1097 (photo by By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Initial T from the sacramentary of Saint-Saveur de Figeac, 11th century

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and is over 230 feet long; contains 626 human figures, 731 animals, 376 boats, and 70 buildings and trees. The work is an example of medieval women’s art, and is actually an embroidery versus woven tapestry. It shows the death of Edward the Confessor; preparation for the invasion; the ships leaving Normandy; and the Battle of Hastings, culminating with the death of Harold and the coronation of William as King of England. The work was probably made in Canterbury in about 1070 for Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, who was the half brother of William the Conqueror. One of the consequences of this invasion for England was the drawing of the island into European continental politics, and another was the transfer of the Romanesque style of architecture to England, often referred to by the English as the French style of architecture.

Bayeux Tapestry, and details c 1070 (photos by By Pseudopanax at English Wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Unknown – Bayeux Tapestry, Public Domain, and By Bayeux Tapestry designer and seamstresses [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

This new, more French architecture can be seen in a comparison of the church of Saint-Étienne in Caen, the capital of William’s Duchy of Normandy, begun c. 1067, and Durham Cathedral in England, begun in 1093. The plans of both churches are very similar, as are the interiors. Both incorporate groin vaults, rather than barrel vaults, which prefigures the later Gothic style. The nave, with the gallery and clerestory above, and the heavy bunched piers on the interior of both churches also have a similar feel, showing the transfer of artistic styles to England with the political transfer.

Plan, Sainte-Étienne, Caen, begun c. 1067 (photo by By Victor Ruprich-Robert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Plan, Durham Cathedral, begun 1093 (photo by By Jchancerel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Interior, Sainte-Étienne, Caen, begun c. 1067 (photo By Harmonia Amanda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Interior, Durham Cathedral, begun 1093 (photo by Foto: Nina Aldin Thune; this version adapted – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By the end of the 12th century, architecture, Christianity, and thought were all shifting again in Europe, which would lead to the development of the Gothic style.


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