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The History of Romanesque Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014
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Sculpture known as Romanesque (11th and 12th centuries) is largely religious art. It owed its development to the increasing wealth of the church, to the practice of making pilgrimages, and to an enormous expansion of monasticism. The building of churches along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and the building problems set by new liturgical needs in the monasteries provided the basis for the development of sculpture.

The greatest achievements of Romanesque are in architectural sculpture, especially in carved column capitals and portals. Figures and other motifs, almost always in relief, are made to fit into the architectural framework, often by radically distorting their natural shape. This integration of sculpture and architecture is perfectly exemplified in the royal portal of the Chartres cathedral (late Romanesque). Some excellent large free-standing sculpture was produced, but usually in materials other than stone. It includes crucifixes, Madonnas, lecterns, and candlesticks in wood or metal.

The principal function of Romanesque sculpture was to give expression to the truths of revealed religion. The art of the monks, like the monks themselves, was concerned more with the transcendental world than with the world of nature. On the whole, it is either remote and severe or visionary and expressionistic.

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The patronage of the Cluniac monks in France provided the impetus for the most outstanding school of Romanesque sculpture. The great tympana (semicircular areas above doors) of the churches at Autun, Moissac, and Vézelay are among the most powerful religious sculptures of all time. Even today, without their original coloring, their visions of the Last Judgment, Pentecost, and Christ in Majesty are awe-inspiring. One of the greatest Romanesque sculptors is known to us by name, since he took the unusual step of putting his name, Gislebertus, on his tympanum at Autun, where he was active from 1125 to 1135. He was responsible for the excellent column capitals at Autun and for the one great nude of the period, the Eve of Autun.

Splendid sculpture is also found in many churches in Spain. The portals of the great pilgrimage center, Santiago de Compostela, and the beautiful reliefs in the cloister of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos near Burgos are outstanding. Among the most notable examples of Romanesque carving in Italy are the 12th century work of Wiligelmo at Modena and Benedetto Antelami at Parma.

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German Romanesque sculptors excelled in metalwork. Ottonian bronze founders made the superb gates for St. Michael's at Hildesheim and produced others that were exported to such places as Novgorod in Russia and Gniezno (Gnesen) in Poland. Prominent examples of free-standing German sculpture are the candle-bearing figure in the cathedral at Erfurt and the vigorous, monumental lion erected in 1166 as a memorial in Brunswick to Henry the Lion. The latter was the first secular memorial sculpture produced in the West. A great school of ivory and metal sculptors flourished in the area of the Meuse Valley. A splendid example of this Mosan art is the bronze baptismal font (early 12th century) by Renier de Huy in the Church of St. Barthélemy at Liège.

Wood-carved sculpture of a high order was produced during Romanesque times. Two excellent examples are the lectern supported by the figures of the four Evangelists in the parish church at Freudenstadt, Germany, and the Catalan Majestad de Battlo in Barcelona. Both have kept much of their original polychrome.

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