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In broad terms, "Romanesque" may be used to describe all sources of Roman architecture in the West from the year 800 until the arrival of the Gothic style sometime around 1150. However, Romanesque typically refers to a specific type of architecture—the assimilation of the Roman style of arches with the barrel style of building—as well as sculpture and other arts.

Originally coined by the Normans, the style emerged in Germany and spread to France, Italy and Spain during the 11th century. Each country altered the style to suit the character of its inhabitants and to accommodate the materials on hand. For example, German Romanesque architecture boasted tall spires and a more streamlined appearance, while Italian Romanesque used an abundance of marble and more brightly colored hues. In France and Normandy, the cathedrals were beautiful yet severe-looking.

A Short History of Romanesque Art and Architecture

Romanesque art and architecture developed slowly, beginning in the city of Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany. It was here that the Frankish King Charlemagne (Charles the Great) settled after consolidating his empire and conquering Italy. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned King Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. This appointment, however, put a strain on the king's relationship with the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, where the Islamic influence opposed the worship of images.

As a result, many Byzantine artists and craftspeople migrated to Italy, which had by then severed its political bonds with Constantinople. Charlemagne gathered together these artisans as well as those from the former Western Roman Empire to decorate and adorn his palaces in what became known as the Romanesque style. The style was based on upon Classic architecture yet was greatly influenced by Byzantium art.

The earliest architects of the Romanesque style were by and large monks and priests. Distinguished primarily by its immensity of scale, the Romanesque style is epitomized in the massive churches, cathedrals and monasteries built across Europe to accommodate the Holy Relics acquired during the Crusades and to allow hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to view them. The success of the Crusaders prompted further construction of new churches throughout Europe in the full-blown Romanesque style of architecture, referred to as Norman architecture in Britain and Ireland. Many of the original abbeys were also commissioned in this style, including the Abbey at Westminster.

However, it was not just churches, cathedrals, monasteries and abbeys that were built in this style, but castles as well. Used as foundations of power for the Norman leaders, the castles were designed to survive the ravages of war. In other words, they were sturdy, utilitarian, durable, defensive and strong but not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Characterised by heavy materials, a solid design and square towers, they were often built of stone. However, ornamentation existed in the form of carvings on the pillars and elaborate arches and windows inside the castle. While beautiful to behold, they were used to support the weight of the stone roof, making them practical as well.

Romanesque Ornamentation

The frenzy of church and cathedral construction—an estimated seven thousand churches were built in the Romanesque style over the next century—prompted an enormous demand for decorative religious art, including sculpture and low-relief woodcarving.

One need only look at the exquisite low-relief woodcarving found in the framework surrounding the doors in Norwegian churches, as at Glass and Aal, and the finely detailed scroll-work borders on the choir-stall and wooden reliquary of the former monastery of Lokkum (1224) in Hanover to appreciate the nuanced beauty of the Romanesque style.

Woodcarvings in higher relief made their appearance toward the end of the Romanesque period. The doors of the cathedral of Spoleto in Italy are considered to be one of the finest achievements of Romanesque high-relief carving. Completed by native artist, Andrea Guvina in 1214, they are decorated with 28 scenes from the life of Christ.

All manner of animal forms decorated Romanesque buildings. Yet, despite their fantastical character, a move toward greater realism is also apparent. Nordic fantasies are intertwined with the dragons, lions, vipers and basilisks derived from the Bible and ancient fables. Found on windows, pedestals, friezes, tables of arches, capitals and corbels, these animal carvings also accompanied the sculpture of the human figure with which Romanesque art purposefully enriched the Christian world.

The Romanesque style eventually gave way to the Gothic style, first in England, France, and Spain, and finally in the middle of the 13th century, in Germany.

A lost art, not entirely lost. The beauty of Romanesque carving can be replicated in all its glorious detail by our talented team of carvers at Agrell Architectural Carving.