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 7
Romanesque Sculpture and Painting

TODAY it is difficult to comprehend the total significance of Romanesque sculpture and painting and their meaning and function for the peoples of the Middle Ages. Since sculptured portals and painted murals were found only in abbeys, priories, granges, and parish churches, since access to illuminated manuscripts was confined to monastic enclosures, and since illiteracy was dominant, it is easy to imagine that scenes from the Old and New Testament had an enormous, didactic impact on the populace. In an age in which everyone believed and life was oriented toward eternal salvation, the individual could discover the good Christian way and see the pitfalls of evil in the sculptural portals and murals. The full meaning of these depictions can be understood only within the context of the zealous spirit of the Medieval pilgrimage and the importance of Christianity in everyday life.

Romanesque sculpture is located on exterior portals such as Saint-Gilles-du-Gard (figs. 96-98), on inner narthex portals as at Vézelay (figs. 93- 95), on piers in the cloisters of Moissac and Arles (figs. 102, 105), or on capitals in many parts of the monastery (see Anzy-le-Duc and Moissac, figs. 107-109). Traces of color on several portals suggest that originally Romanesque sculpture was polychromed. Frescoed paintings decorate crypt vaults and walls, chapels ( Berzé-la-Ville, fig. 112), or nave vaults (see Saint-Savin, figs. 122, 123). Paintings in the manuscripts illuminated by monks in the scriptoria of monasteries (figs. 104, 113, 115) were available only to the minority who could read.

Most Romanesque sculpture is an integral art of the structure of the building. Instead of being applied or attached to the bearing wall as in Greek, Roman, or Renaissance architecture, the sculptural blocks are structural. Monumental figures and narrative scenes are not just architectural, in their relation to the building, but are also architectonic, vital sections of the working masonry.

The three portals inside the narthex of Vézelay, in Burgundy, comprise one of the most impressive sculptural ensembles of this period. According to Adolf Katzenellenbogen's article (see bibliograph) the large central portal (figs. 93-95) depicts the Ascension of Christ combined with the Mission of the Apostles. "Until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles whom He had chosen" ( Acts 1:2) sets the stage for Christ's role as Saviour of mankind through the teachings of the Apostles. The tympanum (fig. 93) shows Christ flanked by the Apostles. His power to save mankind (left side with quiet clouds and open books) and condemn (right side with stormy clouds and closed books) is clearly revealed, while the lintel, containing Lydians, Greeks, Africans, and others, manifests Christ's desire to preach the Gospel to all nations and convert all to Christianity. The trapezoidal compartments surrounding Christ and the Apostles contain the physically and mentally sick people who must be cured, while the archivolts, the double arch embracing the tympanum, emphasize the cosmic aspect of these events by containing the Signs of the Zodiac and Occupations of the

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