“Romanesque” is a term used to describe Western European Art from the late tenth to twelfth century AD. During this period, the end of barbaric invasions and a period of economic growth brought about an era of religious revival, led by the reform movements springing from ‘Monasticism.’ This interest in religion by the masses manifested itself in pilgrimages and a competition between various communities to build impressive new churches. Romanesque sculpture was figurative in style, and can be discussed under two heads, the architectural sculptures for adorning the buildings, and the standard ones involving ivory, metal, or enamel works.
Romanesque Architectural Sculpture
The most fulfilling spiritual act for a devout Christian in those times would be a pilgrimage to Rome, or to one of the many shrines in Europe, housing holy relics. Romanesque architectural sculpture sprung up as decorations in these pilgrimage centers and churches.
There were many different subjects that were depicted, both secular and religious, such as scenes from the “life of Christ,” stories from the “Bible” & “the book of Genesis,” scenes from “common everyday life,” “hideous monsters,” and “geometric forms.” The facades of the cathedrals and churches were adorned with the scenes from the “New and Old Testament.” The images of “Christ in Majesty” and the “Last Judgment” were the commonest subjects. With Romanesque churches, relief sculpture emerged to be as important to the church as the building itself.
The main idea behind the complete sculptural scheme was to convey that the pilgrims should recognize their mistakes, repent, and redeem themselves; and to preach a moral and religious message, which the general population would have otherwise failed to comprehend. The Romanesque sculptures, which reminded the sinners of their sins was more often than not, alarming and aimed to shock more than awe. These reliefs, since they did not depict Christ, were not very grand, but were fearsome or at the best entertaining. Therefore, Romanesque sculpturing became a visual medium to spell out the tenets of the Christian faith. One of the most commonly repeated motifs of sculpture is the ‘spiral.’ Another is the depiction of ‘entwined animals.’
Metalwork became very sophisticated during this period. Many spectacular Romanesque shrines, decorated with enamel, designed to hold relics, such as “The Shrine of the Three Kings,” provide us ample proof. The excellence of the Mosan enamel art is evident from the “Stavelot Triptych” and “Reliquary of St. Maurus.” Smaller caskets were generally all made of metal and enamel. A few non-religious pieces, such as jewelry and brooches have been discovered, which point towards the fineness of metalwork during this era. “Gloucester Candlestick” made of bronze, doors & other sculptural works at “Hildesheim Cathedral,” and the doors of the “Basilica di San Zeno” in Verona, are some other fine examples of metalwork Romanesque Sculpture. Ivory sculpturing includes “Cloisters Cross,” a large ivory crucifix and moderate in size, “Lewis Chessmen.”
This label, “Romanesque,” while hinting at its key creative influence belonging to the Roman Era, fails to inform of its two other key inspirations, the ornamental Insular style of Northern Europe and the Byzantine Art, especially painting. These influences come to the fore in many earlier designs of this period. Romanesque period gave way to the Gothic Art form in the thirteenth century.