Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
Historical Background

THE ENTHUSIASM for Romanesque art shared by contemporary architects, historians, and sensitive travelers is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1818, the archaeologist de Gerville, describing Norman buildings, wrote of an "opus romanum deénaturé ou successivement dégradé par nos rudes ancêtres." This characterization of Norman structures as the crude derivations of Roman art is understandable in the context of the Neo-Classic movement. As the eighteenth century deridingly labeled the seventeenth century as the "Baroque" and the Renaissance dismissed "Gothic" as the malformations of the barbarian Goths, the early nineteenth-century critics saw only negative connections between Norman and Roman. De Gerville's observations, however, led eventually to the use of the word "Romanesque" to designate Medoeval art between the decline of the Carolingian empire in the ninth and tenth centuries and the beginnings of the Gothic period in the middle of the twelfth century.

Archaeological disclosures and scholarly research in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in the discovery and definition of many architectural styles. These new perspectives in terms of which the past was re-evaluated and reorganized coincided with the nineteenth-century assumption that the architectural forms of the past were ideals which could be imitated, but scarcely improved. Architectural practice in the nineteenth century thus became eclectic and decorative: architects treated the past as an enormous architectural copybook from which forms could be plucked at random. But some few architects, in particular Henry Hobson Richardson, reinterpreted creatively the power and vigor of the monuments of the past. Richardson's buildings in Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, constructed in the 1870's and 1880's, give ample evidence of his extraordinarily sensitive transformation of Romanesque structures within the limitations of the broad revivalist movement. Richardson designed Henry Adam's house in Washington and in the process converted Adams to an interest in French Romanesque.

Henry Adams' famous book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, privately printed in 1904, published in 1913, has served as the key to the understanding and appreciation of Romanesque art in the twentieth century. His penetrating descriptions of the militant, mural strength of the forti+00AD fied island and its monastery gave new meaning to hundreds of structures which dot the western European landscape. By the marked contrast of the rugged Mount, the Archangel's fortress, and the soaring vertically of the Cathedral of Chartres -- the Virgin's palace on earth -- Henry Adams established a clear distinction between Romanesque and Gothic architecture and between the historical eras out of which these two periods of the Middle Ages grew.

Currently, the Romanesque is comprehended as a unique period of history -- a period not "dark" but possessing tremendous vitality. Modern architects react to the mural; massiveness, the spatial conquests of barrel and groin vaults, and the excitement of the bold massing; and their reactions are related in turn to new achievements in reinforced concrete. Modern painters and sculptors are excited by the discovery of the visual

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