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 4
The Romanesque Church

IT IS THE CHURCH which is the key to the nature of Romanesque architecture. To the monastic church came the pilgrims to join the choir of monks in the liturgy of praise. Born to monastic life through the second baptism of their profession, the monks gathered in the church to dedicate their lives in Christ. To point up the qualities which establish the greatness of Romanesque, several outstanding monastic churches will be discussed: Sainte-Foy at Conques, on the pilgrimage route to Spain; Saint-Sernin at Toulouse, in southwestern France; the third church at Cluny; the Cluniac priory of Paray-le-Monial; and Vézelay, in northern Burgundy.

Conques is dedicated to Saint Foy, a girl twelve years old who was martyred at Agen in southwestern France in 303. Because of the presence of her remains in a monastery in Agen, miraculous cures transpired. In the ninth century a Benedictine monk from Conques spent several years planning the theft of the relics of Saint Foy and finally brought them to Conques. A reliquary statue (fig. 28) was made to contain these relics. The gold head, probably Roman of the fifth century, and possibly the portrait of an emperor, was joined to a wooden core to which thin plaques of gold were attached. This original reliquary statuette, 2 feet 9 inches in height, was made in the last quarter of the ninth century. As miracles increased at Conques, the statue was modified in the last quarter of the tenth century by the addition of a crown, earrings, gold throne, filigree work, and jewels including antique cameos and intaglios -- mostly gifts of pilgrims. In the fourteenth century a pair of crystal balls and three mounts were added to the throne. Silver arms and hands date from the sixteenth century, while the copper plaques of the shoes and on the knees were fabricated in the eighteenth century. Miraculous cures of the blind and of workmen injured during the construction of the Romanesque church intensified the pilgrimage to Conques.

Sainte-Foy at Conques (figs. 26-36) was begun around 1050 and largely completed in the early decades of the twelfth century. Upon entering, the first impression is of a thin, soaring space, 68 feet high, flanked and crowned by yellow-orange stone (fig. 26). The sense of verticality is intensified by the rhythmic progression down the nave to the high altar. Piers with half-columns or flat pilasters and the transverse arches of the barrel vault in repetition establish a longitudinal and vertical impulse. The nave vessel is divided into compartents of space by the piers and by the pier extensions which rise up through the gallery and over the vaults. Progress, both visual and physical, down the nave to the high altar, becomes a unified, pulsating experience.

The piers (figs. 26, 27, 31), constructed of huge blocks laid horizontally, consist of a square core with four pilasters or half-columns on each side. The four elements are an integral, structural part of the pier. Each relates to and is continuous with arches which run down the nave, with transverse arches which cross the aisles (fig. 31), or with the pilasters or half-columns which extend up to the vaults (fig. 30). This organic articulation of pier has a structural logic which can be seen as one traverses the nave, looks back toward the façade (fig. 32), or gazes up at the vaults (fig. 30). The

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