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12th century (1100-1199)
see also:
Bayeux Tapestry
Hagia Sophia
From Carolingian to Romanesque Art
  From Carolingian to Romanesque Art

Carolingian Art
Ottoman Art
Romanesque Art
From Carolingian to Romanesque Art
The history of the Carolingian dynasty is inextricably linked to the evolution of early medieval civilization in western Europe. Inaugurated by the coronation of Pepin the Short in ad751, the dynasty was eventually sent into decline by the division of the empire following the death of Charlemagne (ad742-814), whose aim of re-establishing a Roman empire involved a revival of the classical styles. With the lack of a central influence, the migrations of barbarian people brought a panorama of cultural change and a confusion of styles. However, as the)" gradually came under the influence of the burgeoning Christian culture, so this confusion of styles was gradually replaced by a trend towards unity and harmony, the like of which had not been experienced since the golden age of the Roman Empire.

Carolingian Art

The relationship between the Carolingien Empire and the Church was of great significance and proved to have a decisive effect on the development of artistic and architectural styles. During the course of the eighth century, the Church became involved in settling the regular clergy in monastic institutions. These monasteries were the subject of new architectural norms, often sanctioned and funded directly by those in power. This policy helped to create a close bond between sacred worship, imperial ceremony, architectural design, and religious furnishings. It aimed to communicate the idea that earthly events and imperial guidance were linked with historical destiny. One such example of this is the apocalyptic image of the Heavenly Jerusalem - the exemplary image of human history being redeemed by Christ - which was modelled onto silver incense burners (censers). It was also a dominant feature of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire and appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, written in the clear, elegant Carolingian minuscule script. The most important innovations of Carolingian church architecture were clearly influenced by the idea of joining church and empire in a single enterprise. The most notable examples were the westworks: these fortresslike towers found at the west end of Carolingian churches were designed partly to accommodate the emperor when he attended solemn religious functions.

Lothair Cross, late tenth century.
Cathedral Treasury, Aachen, Germany.
The treasury also contains an ivory
diptych from about ad800

The importance of the crypt also increased, chiefly as a result of the growth of the cult of saints.
This underground chamber was where relics were often kept, and it was used as both burial place and place of worship. Architectural space was apportioned in both square and circular forms, the latter echoing the Anastasis Rotunda (or Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. It is found in Saint Riquier at Centula, the votive chapel of San Satiro, Milan, and the Palatine Chapel of Aachen (although this last was most strongly influenced by the octagonal plan of the San Vitale in Ravenna). The sheer scale of the Carolingian vision had much in common with the ambitions of grandeur that dominated the Roman world. Indeed, Charlemagne's decision to restore the imagery of the Roman Empire at all levels was a striking feature of the was a striking feature of the new culture, and several works attest to the way in which classical forms permeated the new religious and imperial ideals. These include the reliquary of Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer and minister, in the form of a triumphal arch; the Corinthian capitals of the abbey of Lorch; the transepts of Aachen; and the architecture portrayed in paintings in the Grandval Bible (British Library, London). In fact, chronicles actually report that items of classical origin were brought directly from Ravenna to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). Charlemagne's capital and the coronation city of German kings (936-1531). Whereas Irish and Merovingian illuminated manuscripts had previously contained material of deliberate fantasy and abstraction - as exemplified by the Book of Durrow (Trinity College, Dublin) and the Codex Aureus (Canterbury) -the art of Charlemagne's court veered towards a style of classical, realistic representation. This style was used to adorn walls and to commemorate past events rather than encourage spiritual feelings. The classical mood was strongly evoked in the Gospel Book of St Medard of Soissons (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and in that of Lothair (emperor of the Holy Roman Empire ad840-55). A lively narrative spirit infuses the crowds of characters in the pages of the Utrecht Psalter (University Library, Utrecht) - the greatest example of early medieval drawing - and the Bible of Charles the Bald (San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome).

Odo of Metz, Palatine Chapel,
Aachen, Germany,
ad 796-805

The atmosphere of the court was such that it was clearly receptive to new ideas and initiatives. Works such as the Coronation Gospels and the Ebbo Gospels (Municipal Library, Epernay) from the important Rheims School provide evidence that, by the first decades of the ninth century, access to classical painting was paving the way for a vibrant and powerfully expressive form of graphic art. The break with the Byzantine world, which was attributed to Charlemagne's imperial claims, proved only temporary when, in ad827, the fourth- or fifth-century mystical writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, a Syrian monk, influenced the court of Louis the Pious. These works, later translated into Latin by Johannes Scotus Erigena. introduced Neo-Platonic ideas, which stated that visible form is not fashioned for its own sake but intended as an image of invisible beauty. This principle was to have a lasting effect on the aesthetics of the medieval Christian world.

Ebbo Gospels: St Mark, ninth century.
Municipal Library, Epernay

Details of two Stories of the Saint,
from the gold altar,
Sant'Ambrogio, Milan, AD824-59

Apocalypse of Saint Sever, Christ hands the Gospel to Luke,
Albigensian School, 1028-1072.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

The tendency towards a narrative style also influenced wall-painting and transformed the fresco cycles into painted sermons with the introduction of instructive titles and captions. There were also secular cycles and allegorical representations, as seen in the villa of Theodulf of Orleans and in the palace at Aachen. Some evidence has shown that Greek fresco painters also contributed to these works, perhaps as a result of the general traffic of trade in the Adriatic.
The barbarian taste for precious materials and technical skills managed to survive and be incorporated in Carolingian art; this resulted in the creation of masterpieces of gold and ivory work. The liturgical reforms proved profitable for artists and their pupils, who were now more responsive to both classical ideas and the practicalities of their art. The golden altar of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, "signed" by Vuolvinius and commissioned by Angilbert II, bears astonishing testimony to the power with which the metallic splendour of gold could enhance a narrative. The precious mounting of filigree and enamel relates the iconographie messages perfectly. Similar comments could apply to the ivory covers of The Psalter of Charles the Bald (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), the Lorsch Gospel Book (Vatican Library, Rome), the "Pax" of Chiavenna, Italy, and the amazing "Lothair crystal", now in the British Museum.

Adam and Eve from the Bible of Charles
the Bald.
San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome
Gospel Book of St Medard of Soissons,
the Source of Life.
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Martyrdom of San Lorenzo,
San Vincenzo al Volturno, Isernia, Italy,


The destruction of the fresco cycles from the monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy, (founded in 1071) in an aerial bombardment during World War II. is compensated for by the pictorial decoration that remains in Sant'Angelo in Formis, southern Italy. This monastery was established by the abbot Desiderius in about 1072 before his election to the papacy. The glorious apse, dominated by the figure of Christ and the triarchy of archangels, provides the background for the detailed narrative of the Life of Christ illustrated on the walls of the central nave. This is, in turn, linked by figures of the prophets to the Old Testament cycle in the aisles.
The cycles, which revive early Christian subjects, are completed by one of the oldest versions of the Last Judgement on the back wall. It was the Christian experience, with its capacity to communicate and its mission to understand the complete history of humankind, that produced the vitality of these works.
The same culture is to be discovered in central-southern Italv in the Exultet scrolls and the fragmentary mosaics that remain in Salerno cathedral. The most significant example is provided by the abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno; here, its theophanic cycle from the crypt of San Lorenzo is again dominated by the angelic hosts.

The Kiss of Judas,
Sant'Angelo, Formis, Capua, Italy,
second half of 11th century


Of the few surviving frescos from the Carolingian age, the fragments in St Germain d'Auxerre and St Maximian in Trier and the more complete examples of St John in Miistair and St Benedict in Malles Venosta (both in northern Italy) tend to be monumental compositions of great simplicity, highly figurative and deeply expressive, with a flair for bright, warm colours. The paintings in San Procolo in Naturno, though, are more closely linked to Lombard or Irish tradition and reveal the typical barbarian taste for precious materials and manual skills. These styles survive in various monuments, notably in the decorative sculpture of the ancient temple of Santa Maria in Valle in Cividale del Friuli and in San Salvatore, Brescia.

Detail of one of the frescos of San Benedetto, Malles Venosta, Italy, c. ad800


The Saviour and the Saints, Santa Cecilia, Trastevere, Rome, ad817-24

The move towards a revival of the Roman Empire held special meaning for Rome. Constantine's concept of historical renewal became evident in the revival of Palaeo-Christian art. This is attested by the presence of the model of St Peter's in the foundation of the Santa Prassede basilica, and the rebirth of the mosaic and its iconographie emphasis again in Santa Prassede, Santa Cecilia, and St Mark's, Venice. Reciprocal influences between Rome and other cities of the empire led to many important artistic achievements. The abbey of Fulda was modelled on the Vatican basilica, and Roman influence was evident in The Psalter of Charles the Bald and in St Peter's throne. The throne was decorated in an antiquarian style, which, with its symbolic ramifications, shows the earliest signs of commitment to the Pseudo-Dionysian aesthetic that was to influence the period.

Santa Prassede, Rome

Mosaic details of Saints Praxedes and Paul, Santa Prassede, Rome, AD930-40


Ottoman Art

The Norman invasions and the anarchic kingdoms that were set up after the dissolution of the Carolingian empire were to hinder advances in art for decades. However, two important historical events then signalled a new leap forward: the first was the foundation of the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France, in ad910, which activated a major religious revival, and the second was the ad936 coronation at Aachen of Otto I. who promised a revival of the imperial initiative that had begun so successfully under Charlemagne. The dynasty of the Saxon emperors, and the powerful bishops who supported them in their rule of the German lands during the 10th and 11th centuries, looked back to the past glories of the Carolingians and forward to renewed contact with Byzantine culture, particularly after the marriage of Otto II (ad955-83.) to the princess Theophano in ad972. Contemporary architecture and figurative art both developed from the Carolingian models, with additional emphasis on ceremonial and spiritual values. While the monumental churches, such as St Michael's, Hildesheim, Germany, were being constructed, the extraordinary skills of goldsmiths and engravers were producing masterpieces such as the Lolhair Cross (Cathedral Treasury, Aachen), the portable altar of Henry II, the cover of the Codex Aureus of Echternach (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), and the Trier diptych (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). Each of these works passed through workshops, schools, and masters, the most well-known of which were in Trier, Cologne, Bamberg, Ratisbon, and Reichenau. Some significant monumental sculptures have survived, such as the doors at Hildesheim and Mainz, and the ciborium reliefs of Sant'Ambrogio. Milan. These works point to a formal, strongly gestural, and deeply spiritual style of composition through the representations of the sculpted figures. The same applies to wall-paintings and miniature works, which were predominantly made by the schools of Reichenau ( Gospel Book of Henry II), Echternach (CodexAureus), Trier (Lorsch Sacramentary), and Cologne (Gospel Book of the Abbess Hilda). The style of drawing in these works is powerfully graphic, and the colour is full of tonal variety. Also evident are associations with Byzantine culture and the aesthetic symbolism derived from the works of Dionysius. the Areopagite. The influence of the Levant is also obvious in the most important cycle of frescos in northern Italy during that time, namely the frescos in Santa Maria Foris Portas, Castelseprio, which were possibly executed by an artist from Greece.

Cover of the Codex Aureus of Echternach,
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

Frescos of Santa Maria Foris Portas (detail),
Castelseprio, Italy

Miniature from the Gospel Book of the Abbess Hilda,
early 11th century.
Darmstadt, Germany


The decoration in the apse of the church of San Vincenzo in Galliano. Lombardy, depicts Christ between the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This cycle was commissioned by Ariberto d'Intimiano, the future bishop of Milan who had ordered the renovation of the church. The iconography is Byzantine in style and shows the influence of the Ottonian miniature. This merging of different trends ean also be seen in the foothills of the Alps in Lombard}' in the cycles at the churches of San Calocero al Piano and San Pietro al Monte in Civate. A penitential, and possibly baptismal, route existed between the two churches, forming a miniature version of the great European pilgrimages. At San Calocero al Piano, pilgrims studied the episodes of the Old and New Testaments in the 11th-century frescos and then climbed to the other church. San Pietro al Monte, to see the images of Pope Marcellus and Pope Gregory at the church entrance and the Heavenly Jerusalem on the vault inside. Other apocalyptic scenes completed this fresco cycle, which culminated in the Defeat of the Dragon, a fresco that served as a warning to pilgrims on leaving the church.

Defeat of the Dragon, San Pietro al Monte, Civate, Italy, 11 th-12th century


The fresco decorates the royal chapel of the ancient Spanish kingdom of Asturias, which was absorbed by the kings of Castile in f 230. The roof of the three-naved chapel (previously the narthex of the older church) has six elaborate cross vaults. The decoration covers the six bays and lunettes and also the south and east walls, developing the narrative in a spiral, from the Annunciation in the southeast corner to Christ Pantocrator on the ancient main door. The dating has recently been established by a new interpretation of the figures at the foot of the cross. One of the most expressive parts of the entire cycle, the Annunciation, shows a peaceful scene with shepherds and domestic animals. The announcing angel points to the incomplete Nativity fresco in the east lunette, Mary and Joseph, a donkey and ox, and in the background a portal with a column in the middle and decorated with drapes.

Fresco on the vault of the Pantheon of the Kings,
Mid-12th century.
Church of San Isidoro, Leon, Spain.



Apart from the cathedral of St James at Compostela, the final destination for the pilgrims, the most impressive churches on the road to Santiago de Compostela were those of Saint Sernin of Toulouse and Sainte Madeleine of Vézelay. In these places of worship, pilgrims could wander freely through the broad naves, transepts, apsidal ambulatories, and upper galleries, pray at the altars, admire the lofty columns and soaring vaults, and study the extraordinary figures carved on the portals and capitals. The figurative sculpture of the 11 th and 12th centuries was powerfully iconographie, reflecting the more outward nature of Christian worship, which was no longer restricted to closed monastic communities. The Mystic Wine Press carved on one of the capitals at Vézelay, the signs of the zodiac at Toulouse, the huge, angular pillars bearing reliefs of the apostles St Paul and St Jeremiah at Moissac, and many other examples of imagination and creativity on the part of religious architects and artists were designed to extol the providential cosmic order of the world created by God and redeemed by Christ.

Capital of the Mystic Wine Press,
Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay, France, 12th century


Romanesque Art

The teachings of Cluny, already well established by the year 1000, then spread to southwest Europe. They prompted the concepts of pilgrimage and monasticism throughout medieval society, which in itself placed a great deal of emphasis on human destiny and communal life. The Benedictine abbey of Cluny, which was exclusively dependent on the pope and so immune to the excessive power of feudal lords, was rebuilt twice in the course of a century, thanks to the initiative of the abbots Odilo and Hugh. The order continued to flourish, and the artistic achievements it encouraged were enthusiastically recorded by the Cluniac monk Rudolf. He wrote, "In all the world, but particularly in Gaul and Italy, churches were built and enlarged as if the world, discarding its old look, was dressing itself in white church vestments." The Cluniac order controlled the main monastic foundations on the pilgrimage routes to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, the latter particularly notable for ancient churches that had been renovated and enlarged. Many of these buildings were extensions on the basic basilica plan but with much more emphasis placed on the use of interior space. Church design was based on the symbolic shapes of the square and the circle. Walls were made of square stone slabs (lapides quadri), and columns were gradually replaced by pilasters that could support a system of vaulted roofs. The image of the Transfiguration, placed intentionally on the portal of Santiago, seemed to animate this desire to transform material into spatial arrangements that were both functional and symbolic. The development of Romanesque architecture was closely linked with the buildings' natural surroundings. This is best demonstrated by the abbey of Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, which is suspended between land and sea; the basilica of Sainte-Foy of Conques, set on a steep slope in the Auvergne; and the church of San Pietro al Monte, which sits on the summit of a foothill in Civate in the Italian Alps.

Master Mateo,
portal of the Portico da Gloria,
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain, 1183

Ciborium with stuccowork depicting Christ and Saints Peter and Paul,
Sant'Ambrogio, Milan,
mid-12th century

Equally significant in the development of Romanesque style was the role of monumental sculpture. Historical and religious scenes were created in the form of reliefs on capitals and doors, one of the best examples of which can be found in the cloisters at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. Here, intricately sculpted capitals depict events from the Bible and the lives of the saints, reflecting the increase in learning that was taking place at the time. In terms of painting, unfortunately very little has survived from this period, even though they once covered countless church walls. While much of the most impressive Romanesque architecture is to be found in France, the artistic styles in Italy were extremely diverse: the splendid Lombardic architecture was exemplified in Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, San Michele in Pavia, and in the cathedrals of Piacenza. Parma, and Modena, all situated on the pilgrimage route to Rome.
Decorative Romanesque sculpture flourished from the Lombardy region to Emilia-Romagna, and examples ranged from the capitals of Sant'Ambrogio to the facade of San Michèle. The style reached its peak during the early 12th century7 in the work of the sculptor Wiligelmo of Modena, whose great figures carved for the reliefs in Modena cathedral combined classical simplicity with dramatic force. The movements based on the journeys of pilgrims and the Cluniac monasteries created a cultural network that linked distant areas and resulted in notable achievements in painting. Over the same period, often for political reasons, styles became increasingly diversified. In countries such as Germany and Italy, for example, the Byzantine influence persisted well beyond the 12th century, whereas in France and Italy there was a much quicker progression towards the Gothic. The impact of Greek culture was felt in Venice and Rome by the 11th century and reached Sicily the following century. Art historians and critics continue to debate the direction of these exchanges and. consequently, the extent of reciprocal influences. The near-illusionist quality of Byzantine painting needed to contend with other traditional elements from elsewhere in Europe. In some cases, the exchange of these was trouble-free, while in others it was more difficult. This can be seen, for example, in the clashes with the compositional stiffness and strong graphic emphasis of Germanic culture in the church of Lambach. Western culture exhibited a much wider, more complex range of iconography in the marriage of its narrative style and symbolism.

Lunette with Crucifixion and Saints, Notre-Dame, Le Puy, France, 11tn century.
This cathedral in the Auvergne, built between the 11th and 12th centuries,
is one of the most important monuments in French Romanesque art

This was particularly true in Rome, where, partly due to the great reforming zeal of Pope Gregory VII, Romanesque pictorial art was gloriously represented, for example, in the cycle of San Clemente and the triptych of Tivoli cathedral, with its typically graphic treatment of drapery. The frescos in the chapel of Berze-la-Ville, just outside Cluny, also reflect the courtly compromise between Byzantium and Rome. Cluniac illuminated miniature art was still based on Germanic models, as in the Cluny Lectionary, though a second wave of Byzantine culture soon appeared to stimulate masterpieces such as the Souvigny Bible and the Transfiguration in the cathedral of Le Puy. The most pronounced opposition to Byzantine influence, however, was to be found in the British Isles, Spain, and Aquitaine (the ancient province of southwest France). In the Lambeth Palace Bible, for example, traditional linear decoration totally overwhelmed the formal harmony of the Italian-Greek motifs that were displayed in the St Albans Psalter.

Wiligelmo, Stories from Genesis, Cathedral facade, Modena, Italy,
c. 1099-1106.
Shown here are God the Father,
the creation of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent

Cross of the Archbishop Gero, Cologne Cathedral, Germany, pre-AD976


Considered to be the great Ottonian churches, St Michael at Hildesheim, St Pantaleon in Cologne, St Bartholomew in Paderbom, Sainte Gertrude in Nivelle, and the collegiate church of Essen collectively broadened the scope of church design. The Carolingian style of juxtaposition was transformed into new schemes and layouts that created a unified monumental structure. Lateral naves, double transepts, crypts, and galleries all provided the necessary scenario for the richness and complexity of liturgical ceremony. This was accentuated by the extraordinary variety of religious furnishings: most notably crucifixes such as those of Gero in Cologne and Otto in Essen; ante-pendiums (altar frontals). such as the ivory example thought to have once been in the Magdeburg Abbey of Hildesheim and one of Henry II in Basel: and reliquaries, including the masterpiece of miniature architecture commissioned by the abbess Theophanu.

Interior of St Michael's,Hildesheim, Germany.
Originaly dating from c.1186


A special characteristic of Modena cathedral, unusual for the Romanesque period, is that the names of its first architect, Lanfranc, and its even more important sculptor, Wiligelmo, are known. Their work testifies to the professional competition that must have existed between architects and sculptors. The reliefs on the facade narrate episodes from Genesis, which were the subject of the earliest sacred drama performances. Wiligelmo successfully combined expressive vitality and extraordinary plastic-strength, embracing both the realism and classicism of Byzantine icons as well as the calligraphic tendency evident in French sculpture. While Wiligelmo's carvings can be dated from the early 12th century, the Deposition in Parma Cathedral was signed and dated by Benedetto Antelami in1178. One of the great masters of engraving and mural painting. Antelami made important contributions to Romanesque art. While he seemed to be most responsive to the rhythms of Provencal plastic art, in other respects he displayed the vast energy that is so characteristic of artists from Emilia and Lombardy. Towards the end of the f 2th century. Antelami undertook the sculptural decoration at Parma cathedral, where his Months communicates the dignity of human labour through the passing of the seasons. The great iconic reliefs of the portals reflect the cultural depth and richness that medieval thought had attained.

Benedetto Antelami, Deposition, Parma Cathedral, Italy,


The maturity of French Romanesque painting in the mid-1 lth century can be seen in the frescos of Le Puy Cathedral. These are dominated by the figure of the archangel Michael, the iconography of which reveals the Byzantine influences that were active in southern France, especially around Cluny. The opening years of the 12th century saw an enrichment of the pictorial and ornamental repertory, as exemplified by the huge decorative landscape in the Benedictine church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe (Poitou), with its astonishing colour contrasts and iconographie variety. Further north, a feel for calligraphy was more common, with luminous and graceful compositions that reflected the religious serenity. The fresco figures in the chapel of St Gilles Priory at Montoire-sur-le-Loire and the portal reliefs of Souillac both dance and vibrate with soft light and colour.

Stories of Saint Theophilus,
Abbey church, Souillac, France,
late 12th century

Fresco of St Michael, Notre-Dame, Le Puy France, 11th century