Sacred Stories Told in Column and Arch

Article excerpt

ROMANESQUE art ... goes straight to the point," observes Sir Brian Young.

His instructive and delightful book "The Villein's Bible: Stories in Romanesque Carving" offers a carefully thought-out exposition of what characterizes "Romanesque" sacred narrative sculpture.

Concentrating the nub of a whole Biblical story in the tight space of a column capital, in the narrow borders of an arch, or in the tympanum, the space above a doorway, made it altogether necessary for these early medieval craftsmen (in some cases actually the masons who worked on all the stonework of the churches) to come "straight to the point."

Their carvings were a significant part of the architecture of the churches. Where their works are still in situ - often in remote places that have remained unaffected by style changes or by waves of iconoclasm - they enrich that architecture decoratively and dramatically.

Their method of storytelling often means that interrelating figures - Cain and Abel or the shepherds of the nativity - are bent into the awkward constraints of their architectural context. This, however, often only serves to intensify the action. Similarly, figures in medieval illuminated manuscripts (which certainly influenced the sculpture) are limited within the confines of an impressive but not over-large decorative initial.

So, for example, in carved depictions of the Annunciation - when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of Christ Jesus - the two figures can sometimes be very close or even touching; whereas, if more space is available for the scene, they are usually kept significantly separate, to emphasize the different worlds to which they belong.

In the same way, around the sides of a column's capital, Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and a donkey carrying baggage wend their way toward the safety of Egypt and away from Herod's infanticidal decree. All this fits into the space of a few feet and inches. There is little room for elaborate scene-setting, subplots, or distracting detail. Instead, there is a bold directness and immediacy.

Young's book serves two parallel purposes. It is an introduction to the carvings in churches in the period AD 1000 to 1250. These carvings (like medieval stained glass) made visible to the predominantly illiterate congregations the stories and lessons of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments - not to mention some apocryphal legends. His book is also an introduction of the Bible to people of the late 20th century who may be largely unfamiliar with it.

Young indicates that a modern observer might be struck by a certain naivete in these Romanesque carvings and their telling of Bible stories; but his analysis of each carefully selected example soon makes one realize subtleties that underly their expressiveness. He also helpfully explains somewhat intricate points of medieval theology illustrated by the carvings.

The term "Romanesque," like "Gothic" and "Baroque," was meant to disparage. Coined in the 19th century, it aimed to distinguish the primitive crudeness of early medieval work from the warmth, humanity, and relative sophistication of the later Gothic work - and also from the Greek and Roman naturalism and realism that had earlier preceded it. …