A Romanesque church in a cemetery surrounded by countryside – such peaceful places give us a feeling of historical continuity. This, or something like it, one thinks, is what it looked like in the Middle Ages, when the church was built. Occasionally one is able to find a vantage point where there is nothing to remind one of the present. The attraction of these Romanesque country churches has something to do with their human proportions; they do not compel admiration by means of their imposing size, as city cathedrals do. And in addition, they are well away from the hurly-burly of everyday existence, and this sense of seclusion is reassuring.
Many of these Romanesque churches used to be monastery churches, and some still are. The reason so many Romanesque monasteries are surrounded by beautiful countryside is that monasteries in the eleventh and twelfth centuries devoted themselves to their rural surroundings. This coincided with the interests of the feudal lords under whose protection monasteries were often placed. Preferred sites for new monasteries were quiet valleys – still in plentiful supply at that time, as European countries were only sparsely populated. Around 1200 (following a huge leap in the population after 1150), it is thought that 12 million people lived in France, 2.2 million in England, and 7 to 8 million people in the enormous (450,000 square miles) area that was the Holy Roman Empire.
Monasticism in the high Middle Ages.
The importance of monastic life, both in terms of the culture and the politics of the high Middle Ages, cannot be overestimated. The cultural philosopher Hugo Fischer even subtitled one of his books the “Birth of Western civilization out of the spirit of Romanesque monasticism.” The importance of monasticism in the Middle Ages can be seen in the large number of monks and monasteries that existed: at the height of its development, Cluny controlled well over 1,000 monasteries; it played an outstanding role amongst the reformed monasteries of the High Middle Ages. The Cistercian order extended throughout Europe, and the momentous work of its most important figure, Bernard of Clairvaux, has been decisive in provoking judgements of the twelfth century as the “Age of the Cistercians.”
Monks played a special role within the rank of the oratores, the men of prayer. The medieval historian Hans-Werner Goetz has the following to say: “While originally quite deliberately separated from the official Church, monasticism soon became an integral part of the Church, which in any case played a quite different, influential role in the Middle Ages compared to its role today. To an extent, the monks formed a third rank between the clerics and laymen; their way of life was also an example for communities of clerics and laymen to follow.” In the early Middle Ages, monasteries were still largely communities composed of laymen. It was not until the ninth century that being ordained as a priest was generally considered to be the culmination and fulfilment of religious life. From that time, monasteries increasingly developed into communities of clerics, and scarcely a monk was not ordained.
Monasticism and worldly rule were not completely separate worlds, least of all where the recruitment of the next generation of monks was concerned. It should be borne in mind that being accepted into a medieval monastery was dependent on two conditions being met: proof of a spiritual suitability for life as a monk (normally demonstrated during the novitiate), and a gift. These gifts, made to gain admission, and originally described as “alms” in the relevant Benedictine Rule, were later increasingly large pieces of land. Monasticism almost took the ownership of land for granted, and many monasteries gradually filled up with members of the nobility. In turn, of course, this affected their position of power, and strengthened their independence. Cluny’s power was almost unlimited, and it was inevitable that it should have to take political sides – as in the Investiture Contest between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. So, for many, monasticism was, as Goetz commented, the religious equivalent of living like a lord. Its ennoblement is an important factor behind its success and huge historical significance.
The cultural creative achievements of the monasteries are not something that could be expected of poor, untutored oratores. Even during the reign of Charlemagne, monks were pioneering techniques in the crafts and trades, and many monasteries were even agricultural trade centers. In addition, Charlemagne, and his son Louis after him, assigned the modest but nevertheless important cultural tasks of his empire to the monasteries: they were responsible for the Latin liturgy and books, the Classical and Christian traditions and higher education. Scholars were gathered from all over Europe and brought to Charlemagne’s palace school; it was their task to revise traditional works and create reliable models which Charlemagne could then make compulsory throughout his empire. The churches and monasteries were instructed to build schools and choose suitable teachers. In addition, monks were ordered not just to pray, but also carefully to copy whatever books were necessary for teaching. Europe has their diligence to thank for the foundations of its libraries and the preservation of the spiritual and secular knowledge of the Ancient World. Carolingian reforms to education were the basis upon which the cultural flowering of the “Carolingian Renaissance” was able to take place; the poetry of Theodulf, and Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni are two outstanding examples of this process.
As Albert Mirgeler explains, Cluny was connected to the Carolingian spiritual world by a number of direct affiliations: through its first abbot Berno, who was previously abbot of Baume; with the model monastery of Inda via the monastery of St. Martin in Autun; and, through Alger and Gerhard, with the cathedral schools in Liege and Regensburg. Finally, Cluny was connected to Charlemagne by the common goals of the civitas dei in the sense of earthly and social fulfilment, a misunderstanding of St. Augustine’s original work. In the case of the Cluniacensians, the changeover from empire to the monastic community went hand in hand with a correspondingly higher emphasis on the monks themselves.
Pilgrims were carrying out in concreto man’s business on earth, namely arduous pilgrimages to the distant Christian Promised Land, with all the temptations to err from the straight and narrow that a devout pilgrim could expect to be exposed to on his adventurous and sometimes dangerous journey.
Many of them include scenes from the Last Judgement – with God the Father in his role as stern judge of the world and frightful representations of hell. Today, we can only guess from the graphic quality of these images what fears must have tormented people at that time, given the punishments which, according to their Christian faith, they would have to face for their sinful existence on earth.
Death and mortal agony
Historical differences in the way death is understood should perhaps be clarified a little, given that they can help us approach other medieval phenomena which may seem alien to us, such as the cult of relics or the apparently fantastic willingness to take part in crusades that were little more than campaigns of pillage and murder which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. And everyone hoped that his earthly life would be continued in Heaven, the image of Paradise Lost in the hereafter. But anyone who did not live on earth in accordance with the commandments of God, and thus God’s approval, was certain to suffer eternal torment in Hell. Death marked the transition from existence in this world to life after death, and one had to prepare for this while still living on earth. No other era in Western art has such a wealth of artistic representations of death, and the associated central theme of crossing into the hereafter, as the Romanesque period.
Mankind was filled with great fear at the prospect of death coming unexpectedly, without time for prayer and practical repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Even a pope could be visited with such a terrible death, as was shown on the tympanum of the west portal of St. Hilaire in Semur- en-Brionnais (photo, top). The pope is shown sitting on the toilet, a humiliating place to die; his soul escapes his mouth in the form of a small child, which is immediately seized by three horned devils. To the left is the abandoned Papal See. The gisant, recumbent figure – which, according to Philippe Aries, is actually “not a corpse lying down, but an unreal, standing figure … which has been placed into a lying position with its eyes opened and its head resting on a cushion – is being accompanied by two angels to Heaven, which in this case is symbolized by the hand of God resting on his head.” This explains the meaning of this type of representation of death: the gisant “represents neither a dead nor living person, but one of the fortunate few.”
The theological concept of Purgatory, which had long been current in popular beliefs, was not developed until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It modified the polarity of Heaven and Hell, thereby providing a solution to some contemporary theological problems involving the mixture of good and evil in man’s deeds and the Grace of God – a concept which was difficult to comprehend. It is possible that the belief in the existence of Purgatory resulted from a particular uncertainty: the Gospels speak of both a judgement “at the end of time,” upon the return of Christ, and also of the punishments and rewards that sinners and the just should expect immediately after death. The theological conception of death as a type of sleep which the dead person experiences while waiting for Judgement Day does not appear to have satisfied people in general. The idea of Purgatory, a place in which – like earth – one could endure suffering with a degree of hope, in which something was happening for one’s salvation, was altogether more bearable. Indeed, the construction of such a stage between Heaven and Hell fitted in much better with the view of the function of the saints by the Throne of Judgement. They had already been redeemed and received in Heaven, and were viewed as mediators between God and mankind, who could defend those souls awaiting judgement or who had been temporarily punished, but not damned for all time.
The cult of relics
Due to their proximity to God and ability to plead for mercy on behalf of anyone who called on them, saints had become mediatory figures who fired everyone’s fantasies and hopes. Most people sought to have their illnesses healed, and if this happened, it was considered to be a miracle which that particular saint had brought about by obtaining mercy. The processes which led to this happening, and which are recounted in numerous reports about miracles, are some of the most impressive witnesses to the medieval search for identity.
Spontaneous cults, such as the pilgrimage to St. Elisabeth, were powerful manifestations of popular religion, and something to which the Church had to react. Uncontrolled veneration of a saint undermined the Church’s authority as the worldly agent of God’s salvation. In order to deal with this, the Church adopted whoever was being venerated by incorporating them into the canon of saints. This gave the Church much greater control over the cult. The greater the number of people going on pilgrimages, the more important became the cult site, the grave and church dedicated to the saint – not only theologically but on a political level, too. It is therefore no surprise that even secular princes sought to involve the relics of (usually important) saints in their dealings; an example is the one discussed in Uwe Geese’s dissertation, about the visit of the excommunicated Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II to the grave of St. Elisabeth in Marburg, in 1236. The emperor used the occasion of the translation or moving of the remains of the landgravine, who had been canonized the previous year, to demonstrate to the Pope his independence from the Church: he was suggesting that she was the more authentic intercessor between himself and God.
The huge increase in the number of sacred buildings during the Romanesque period created a rapid rise in the demand for relics. Every church, indeed every altar, needed the relics of a saint to act as its sacred guarantor of consecration. Due to the large demand for relics, the teaching that the body had to remain completely intact, which had been adhered to until the tenth century, was largely abandoned. This teaching had forbidden the removal of individual parts of the body as relics, with the exception of things that regrew, such as hair, teeth, and finger and toe nails. Another idea, equally old, now gained greater prominence – namely, that the saint was actually present in every part of his body. A small bone was all that was required to have the entire saint at hand. This conception was to assert itself over the course of the Middle Ages. By the high and late Middle Ages, all misgivings had long been forgotten. There are reports that people who were dying or had just died, and were likely to be canonized, were put under pressure or even robbed because of their relics. Well-known examples are St. Francis and St. Elisabeth. The version involving Elisabeth’s corpse reads as follows: “While this holy corpse, wrapped in a grey shirt with cloths around the face, was laying on the bier,
many of those present, who well-knew the holiness of the body and were inflamed by their worship, came and cut, even tore, parts of her robes off; some cut the nails off her hands and feet; others cut off the tips of her breasts and a finger off her hand, in order to keep them as relics.” In addition, many relics were stolen or forged in large quantities. The Church was quite helpless in the face of this, and dealt with these activities by saying that anything was permissible as long as it promoted faith.
Many of these reports, which today would be considered odd to say the least, can be found in a work by Guibert Nogent (d. 1124), entitled Pignora Sanctorum (The Relics of Saints). Nogent criticizes the obsession with getting hold, and disposing, of relics, and uses particularly laughable examples to show the foolishness of such a course of action and, above all, the mistake of equating the venerable relics of a saint with a favorite talisman, to which one ascribes magical powers of healing. Such critical
contemporary accounts are of special interest to any reader who is concerned with historical accuracy, as they are the best and earliest witnesses of the popular cult of relics. This is a subject about which many strange stories were later put about, many no doubt solely for the purposes of entertainment.
The magical practices of venerating relics were always connected to material items. The many wax votive offerings displayed at saints’ graves during the Middle Ages were for the most part representations of afflicted parts of the body, or in some other way referred to the person who was appealing to the saint to be healed. These objects were considered to be magical because they forced the saint to become aware of the nature of the illness and the person praying to be healed. Even today, many churches in the Catholic parts of Europe have votive objects, expressing gratitude for recovery from illness, being rescued from drowning, etc. But these votive objects, placed there to give thanks, lack the magical urgency and power of the medieval petitioning votive offerings.
If one considers all Romanesque forms of art – churches, all the ornamenta ecclesiae, from the stone architectural sculpture complete with scenes of the Judgement and Hell, to the golden Madonnas holding the Child destined to die for our salvation, and from crucifixes to relics and the ceremonial equipment with which the death of Christ on the Cross is commemorated – the impression of a great cult of death is overpowering. And the clergy of the Middle Ages, in particular the monks who governed large tracts of land, were the main agents of this cult in this period of European history. For monasteries had developed into the main places where relics were kept. As Duby puts it, “Most abbeys were built over the tomb of a martyr or preacher of the Gospels, one of the heroes of the battle against evil and Hell … Being the guardians of order in the cult of relics, which was kept up near the sarcophagi, monks served as mediators between the subterranean world of the dead and life on earth.
Architecture and meaning
There are other points of view which are highly relevant to an understanding of Romanesque art, and in particular architecture. For example, it has frequently been stated that the churches in the Harz mountains, and the monumental cathedrals of the central Rhine region, belong to a special “imperial” Romanesque style. According to Schiitz and Muller, “Romanesque architecture in Germany was supported by the powerful members of the empire, primarily by bishops and monasteries, and also by emperors and in many cases by territorial rulers. This meant that the German Romanesque style was associated with ideas of the greatness of the Holy Roman Empire, and of the glory and power of the emperor. This is shown above all by the imperial cathedrals. They went far beyond the purpose they were needed for, and were an architectural display of imperial power, the architectural embodiment of the idea of the Roman Empire for all those who had eyes to see. Churches were not just built to hold services, but were important on a political level, as they demonstrated the rank of their builders to the world at large.”
Compared with France and England, Germany enjoyed relatively stable political conditions around the middle of the eleventh century due to a continuity of royal and imperial power. This did not change until the 1070s, when Pope Gregory VII intensified and clarified his demands that the Church should take precedence over the secular state – a process which was led by the reforms at Cluny. The central demand was that the investiture of bishops and abbots of imperial abbeys should no longer be under the control of the emperor, as it-had been until then; this would clearly restrict the power of the state to a considerable degree. The result was the well-known contest between Henry IV, who challenged the pope’s claims, and Gregory, who excommunicated and deposed the emperor. Henry was forced to make a penitential pilgrimage to Canossa in 1077, something that was a humiliation to his royal dignity. He managed to have his excommunication rescinded, but that was by no means the end of his differences with the pope. Within Germany, the empire had divided into parties loyal to the Church and to the emperor, a division that was to have long-term consequences.
Once Henry had got over this low ebb in his power, he soon started work on rebuilding Speyer Cathedral, the prestigious building of his Salian ancestors, making it even more magnificent. Clearly a demonstration of the power which he felt he had regained, or indeed never lost. Other German cities apart from Speyer also developed this imperial architecture (see pp. 46 ff.). In this context, Gunter Bandmann states that “Especially after the struggle over investiture, when the Emperor had come into conflict with the Curia, and sovereign states to the west no longer recognized the universal status of the Empire, the emperors attempted to construct an imperial metaphysics in which the pope played a subordinate role … The widening of thoughts of empire in the Classical mould only occurred gradually under pressure from its rival party, the Church … This probably also explains the fact that after Henry IV’s reign, and during the Hohenstaufen dynasty, Classical and secular forms such as vaults and galleries became part of official architecture; the wealth of forms that were part of the Christian tradition were being extended to include heathen forms.” By giving this example of royal architecture, and correlating it with many other meanings, Bandmann clearly shows that intellectual and symbolical and/or sociological aspects played a very important role in medieval sacred buildings.
The Divine and the bitter contest for the earthly Jerusalem
One motif that occurs time and again in Romanesque art is that of the City of God, Jerusalem. It plays a part in architecture, sculpture and painting (see pp. 434 ff.). Its relevance is probably most far-reaching in the field of architecture, especially if one considers that all the ecclesiastical structural forms – such as columns, apses, arches, towers, vaults – are references to the City of God, “a modification of ancient concepts of the House of the Lord.” As Bandmann says, “church architecture is … the type and symbol of the Heavenly City, the Kingdom of God, which believers were helping to fashion.” One of the Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine himself, stressed this identification in his work De Civitate Dei. A generalized approach in ascribing meaning is of little help in understanding particular architectural characteristics. Their symbolic nature will remain abstract in the face of such generalizations. In contrast, the references to the City of God in a painted or sculpted urban shorthand are concrete and obvious: a castle or a wall connected to towers, or in sacred architecture, the facade with twin towers, which – probably for this reason – found increasing favor during the Middle Ages.
The depiction of the earthly Jerusalem is also done using a circle, which is a symbol of the Divine, and a reference to the life hereafter; it appeared on many plans of Palestine in the customary pattern of a circle divided into four quarters. On the map of Palestine on p. 14, this identification is emphasized by the text on the bottom edge of the page: “Anyone making efforts to be one of your citizens, О Jerusalem, and who is looking forward to your delights, must exert himself greatly. This City of Jerusalem will not last for long, but will be an image of permanence for all time.” Immediately above the text, separated only by the picture frame, are Christian knights who are putting Muslim mounted warriors to flight. The knight on the white horse is St. George, who to some extent is viewed as sanctifying the crusades by taking part in them; his success makes plain that they are acting with God’s support. This drawing, made nearly 100 years after the First Crusade at a time when it was hoped that Jerusalem could be re-conquered, is ideological in character. It casts an idealizing light on an event that in reality was rather unholy, as even some contemporaries felt at the time. (There was a desire to be able to view the Holy Land as God’s country on earth but, in the view of Bishop Jacob of Vitry, it was lost because the scum of the earth had gathered there. And indeed, Palestine was temporarily used as a penal colony.)
The “armed pilgrimages to Jerusalem” are some of the most sinister aspects of medieval Christian fundamentalism. Their cruelty and blindness are frightening, and are a historical lesson for all, including the Church, given that by conservative estimates they cost upwards of 22 million lives.
Anyone who reads the Bible carefully will notice that some of the images and phrases used are borrowed from the building trade. Architecture clearly played a very important role from an early stage, as well as the process of building. This changed little during the Middle Ages: sources, whether in pictures or writing, paint a vivid picture of the processes at large building sites. It is not just the manuscripts that were produced from about 1000 onwards that enable us to picture these construction sites; there are also scenes from the building trade in glass windows, tapestries, frescoes, and even relinquaries and altarpieces. Written sources are scarcely less powerful – letters, accounts of lives, descriptions of building processes, such as those concerning the reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral from 1174 to 1185, or Abbot Suger’s work De consecratione ecclesiae Sancti Dionysii, which was produced between 1144/45 and 1151. Gunther Binding has introduced and evaluated these sources thoroughly.
First of all, with an expenditure of human labor that is scarcely imaginable today, the foundations were laid – frequently on damp or unstable ground. The description of the building of the monastery of Wittewierum, around 1238, discusses problems such as poor foundation soil – as well as more short-term problems such as cave-ins and heavy rainfall.
Once the foundations were ready, the building materials had to be acquired. It is reported that Louis the German had the walls of both Frankfurt and Regensburg torn down in order to build his two churches. In 1192, the marble and limestone to build Lyons cathedral were transported to Lyons from Trajan’s forum in nearby Fourvire. Indeed, Classical buildings in general were popular sources of stone. Other builders had to make even more costly arrangements: after 1026, Gauzlin, the abbot of Fleury (Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), obtained marble “a partibus Romanie” and limestone from the Nivernais, which was brought to Fleury by ship. The stones to build Battle Abbey were also transported by ship across the Channel until, by a miracle, a quarry was discovered nearby.
Then the stone masons, bricklayers and sculptors got to work, together with the mortar stirrers, plasterers and whitewashers, carpenters and roofers, labourers and handymen. Their activities and tools are depicted in countless pictures. Wooden scaffolding, similar to that used at construction sites until the beginning of the twentieth century, when steel scaffolding became more common, does not appear to have been used north of the Alps until the middle of the fourteenth century. Before that, work was done using cantilever scaffolding, and there are thorough records of the various ways in which it was constructed. At each stage of work, a level working area was created at the wall coping, and once the wall had been built higher, the scaffolding was removed and attached higher up. The construction materials were probably moved up the wall using ramps, and transported using stretchers, skips and baskets. The second half of the twelfth century saw the use of simple cranes which at first were nothing more elaborate than a rope with a basket tied to it. It was not until later that pulleys were introduced as the first technical aids. The various craftsmen got up to the higher sections of the building by means of ladders or sloping walkways, which were normally wickerwork.
Builders and founders – building as a form of Divine plan for salvation
It is now clear that the large-scale buildings of the Middle Ages were produced with enormous effort and in the face of incalculable risks. And everybody took part in the work because building a place of worship was part of the plan for salvation. Whoever took part in the construction work, either by giving building materials or physically working on the site, was blessed with the Grace of God – long before indulgences started to be sold for the same purpose. The very act of building a church included a degree of worship.
This was especially significant for those who had churches founded and built. In his second will Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim has this to say: “I have given much thought to the question of what commendable building I could erect, what I would have to spend … in order to earn myself the Grace of God … I started … to found a new church which I could build to the praise and glory of the name of the Lord, thereby both fulfilling my own promise and providing for holy Christendom.” Bishop Conrad of Constance, who was later made a saint, had the same goal in mind; one of the places he built was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was attached to the minster and was intended to save the faithful from having to make the journey to Jerusalem, or alternatively to make it easier for them to do so. This addressed the idea of copies. In those days, it was unnecessary for copies to be duplicates as they tend to be today. All that was required was a particular form – round in the case of churches of the Holy Sepulchre – to serve as a reminder of the importance of the original, or even to replace it. In the end, it was no longer important whether one had visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or in Constance. In any case, Bishop Conrad had much greater things in mind: apart from the existing minster, which was dedicated to the Mother of God, and the monastery of St. Peter in Petershausen, he founded three further churches in Constance, those of St. John, St. Lawrence and St. Paul. By doing so, he had recreated the five main churches of Rome (San Giovanni in Laterano, San Lorenzo, San Paolo fuori le mura, Old St. Peter’s and Santa Maria Maggiore), and with them the Holy City itself, in Constance, the “felix mater Constantia.”
This is also quite revealing as to the relationship of the founder or builder to the work itself. The builder as both autor and auctor, decided on the type of building and in many cases also prescribed a model. To quote Gunter Bandmann once again, “yes, we are quite justified in stating that only a few, unimportant building contractors in the Middle Ages relinquished the opportunity to make deliberate links with outstanding models in order to keep to simple customs and traditional crafts. The architects of larger contractors had to focus their ingenuity on the copy, not on creating original forms.”
The clients quite frequently took care of obtaining the building materials. Thus, Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, about the life of Charlemagne, recounts that the emperor personally brought columns and marble slabs from Rome and Ravenna to be used in his palatine chapel in Aachen. Notker Balbulus, a monk at St Gallen, relates in his Gesta Karoli, written in 885, that the emperor brought together “masters and craftsmen of all such arts from all regions this side of the ocean.” But despite this, the names of the artists have been forgotten almost everywhere. Bandmann attempts to explain away this fact in terms of it being part of “the character of serving an all-embracing idea.” Meanwhile, the example of Bernward of Hildesheim clearly shows that the bishop was concerned about safeguarding his soul’s salvation. Both Bishop Conrad of Constance and Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis were buried at the entrances of the churches they founded. This is not so much an expression of devotion as of the hope that they would benefit from the innumerable prayers of gratitude of those visiting the churches. For the churches they founded were not just the price of God’s mercy, but also guarantors that they would never be forgotten.