Coming upon a remote Romanesque church from almost 1,000 years ago is one of the pleasures of traveling through the countryside of Europe. But these structures, put up when the tribes that had destroyed the Roman Empire were emerging from their Dark Ages, are almost bare, their sculptures, reliquaries and manuscripts often squirreled away in diocesan and regional museums in distant towns. It is hard to get a good sense of this unusual art.
Until this year, France -- which claims the richest collections -- had never organized a major national exhibition of Romanesque art. The Louvre Museum in Paris has finally erased that neglect with an impressive show of more than 300 works titled “Romanesque France: In the Time of the First Capetian Kings (987-1152),” which runs through next Monday.
The exhibition features an array of unusual pieces, including a quartet of wooden saints covered in precious metals, a series of stone capitals depicting delightful scenes such as two battling men pulling each other’s beards, page after page of illuminated parchment, intricate ivory carvings of characters from the Apocalypse and a carved 12th century Christ (the head from the Louvre reunited with the torso from the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of New York). An air of simple innocence pervades most of the works.
Romanesque art reflects a remarkable historical change in Europe at the end of the first millennium. Life became more peaceful as the marauding Vikings halted their raids and accepted Christianity. The population swelled, creating villages everywhere. Rudimentary nation states began to stir.
“It was the dawn,” Robert Fossier, a renowned historian from the University of Paris, writes in the exhibition catalog. “It would take two more centuries to become the morning of Europe.”
Christianity reigned. “The world ... seemed to dress itself everywhere with a white mantle of churches,” a Burgundian monk named Raoul Le Glabre wrote a few decades later as he chronicled the history of Europe around 1000. Some churches were large, serving new monastic orders or the hordes of pilgrims now trekking to sacred sites such as Rome or Santiago de Compostela in Spain. But most were small parish churches.
These new churches were built of stone, sometimes replacing wooden ones, and they were decorated with painting and sculpture to reinforce the story of Christ. The stone churches were thick, dark and cold. Architects had not invented the flying buttresses that would enable the walls of Gothic cathedrals to soar upward with great windows that flooded interiors in colored light. Romanesque architects made their walls thick enough to support the roofs. Fearful that the walls would buckle with large openings, the architects often left only slim windows for light. Some 19th century historians, mocking these churches as crude attempts to mimic the structures of Classical Rome, coined the word Romanesque to describe the architecture, and the name has stuck ever since.
Historians usually date the Romanesque period as roughly the mid-10th century to the mid-12th century. To make the period easier for the French to understand, the Louvre chose two dates in French history to bound its exhibition: 987, the year Hugh Capet took the throne of France and began the Capetian dynasty that reigned for more than 300 years, and 1152, the year Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced a Capetian king and married a future king of England. Those dates, of course, do not help most Americans. They must content themselves with knowing that the pieces on display date from the first burst of creative art in the Middle Ages.
Most works come from French collections, but there are notable contributions from American and other foreign museums.
In 1926, the Metropolitan Museum of New York acquired a wooden torso of a Christ figure carved in the region of Auvergne in southern France in the mid-12th century. The fragment had been so neglected that it was once used as a scarecrow on a farm. About the time of the Metropolitan acquisition, the Louvre finally identified a Christ head in its own collection as also coming from Auvergne in the mid-12th century. This led to speculation that the fragments must come from the same work.
Until now, the pair have not been exhibited together. Since neither fragment has a neck, they do not fit well in the display. But both head and torso were carved from poplar, the remnants of color are similar and the styles seem close -- enough evidence to persuade Louvre curators that the head and torso are part of the same sculpture.
The exhibition has also reunited four miniature ivory carvings of four Elders of the Apocalypse from the Metropolitan, the British Museum in London and two French collections. The pieces, carved in the Calais area in northern France at the end of the 11th century, were once part of a group representing the 24 Elders sitting on thrones in heaven in the Book of Revelation. All four are crowned, bearded, barefoot and stiffly facing forward. Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, the curator of the exhibition, calls them “masterpieces of Romanesque art.”
The Romanesque era produced a revival of large free-standing sculpture. The tribes that sacked Rome had destroyed many classical statues, and early Christians condemned statues as idolatry. But the religious fervor of the 12th century created a need for large figures to carry in processions and attract attention in churches.
Some of the most striking works in the exhibition are the busts of saints used as reliquaries. St. Cesaire, for example, an almost life-size wooden bust from Auvergne, is covered with silver, copper, sapphires and amethysts. The saint’s long, carved fingers surround the small cavity in his midsection that houses the relics.
Stone sculpture became so prevalent that it was denounced by the monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1127 as a diversion that tempted Christians “to read in the marble rather than in our books.” But his admonition was not heeded. The capitals on top of columns were often sculpted to narrate tales, and the exhibition displays an array of these capitals.
In an 11th century stone capital from the Poitou region in western France, known as “The Dispute,” two men are pulling each other’s beards and preparing to smash each other with fists but are held back by their imploring wives. In a 12th century marble capital from the Paris area, a patient and puzzled Daniel sits calmly in the den flanked by two ferocious-looking lions that seem to ignore him.
Manuscript illumination, which had been declining in quality, revived during the Romanesque era, and the exhibition is rich in samples, many displaying verve and movement. Two of the most lively are the frontispiece to a copy of Flavius Josephus’ “History of the Jewish War,” showing the author presenting his book to two Roman emperors, and a page from a prosody, or book of chants, depicting a woman dancing with bells in her hands. Both are 12th century parchments from the south of France.
One disappointment of the exhibition is the absence of Romanesque murals, but that is not the fault of the Louvre. The walls of Romanesque churches were originally filled with frescoes that recounted the biblical versions of the story of Christ. But these frescoes were neglected over the centuries, many fading and breaking into fragments. No country except Spain has managed to remove many Romanesque frescoes from their walls and preserve them on canvas. But it did so only to thwart an international gang of businessmen in the 1920s from selling the frescoes to museums in the United States.
France follows the usual practice of keeping the remnants on the walls, even though they may deteriorate. French officials first began to fret over the state of their Romanesque paintings in the 19th century. Prosper Merimee, the inspector-general of historic monuments and the novelist who wrote “Carmen,” appointed a commission in 1840 to study the problem.
The commission decided to keep the fragile frescoes in place, attempt to preserve them as much as possible and make full-size copies in watercolor so the memory of them would not be lost. As a result, the exhibition in the Louvre can offer only watercolors of the faded fragments of murals, and the copies are not very satisfying.
The best place to experience France’s frescoes, though pale and broken up and hard to make out, is surely in the churches themselves -- which may send many Louvre visitors out into the countryside in a further quest for Romanesque art.
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