The main periods of the art of the Middle Ages are three in number and these periods are especially apparent in architecture. They are consequently named in general according to the architectural divisions. The art of architecture will be always found to be the dominant one in history and as far as classifications and systematic conceptions are concerned it is always necessary to move from it. According to this system the Gothic period is the latest of the Middle Ages and its centuries are in round numbers those between 1260 and 1500 A.D. The period intervening between the Byzantine or Early Christian and the Gothic will therefore be the two centuries from 1000 to 1200 A.D.
As regards the designation of the first period it will be understood that Byzantine style long outlasted the eleventh century in Eastern Europe. It was in the first place coexistent with the empire from which it derives its name, which lasted till 1453. It was subsequently practiced by the Christians of the East under Turkish rule, and in Russian art it was the main factor until the nineteenth century. In Western Europe, on the other hand, Byzantine art was not universally practiced before the eleventh century, although it was universally influential, and no high technical perfection was reached without it. There were, aside from Byzantine influences, those which moved directly from the old Western Roman Christian art of the fourth and fifth centuries, and there were the various semi-barbaric modifications of both. The most exact general title for the period between the fifth and eleventh centuries in Western Europe (500-1000 A.D.), would be ” Early Christian and Byzantine.”
The word Romanesque will be explained when we take up the architecture of the time. Meantime we will accept it and after making the necessary historic summary we will deal with Romanesque art as a whole, seeking first in the figure designs the connection and contrast with the earlier time.
It is obvious that in actual history there are no divisions of periodsthere is only a continuous chain of events which is reflected in the works of man. After given intervals of more or less duration we can distinguish very obvious revolutions and changes which lead us to coin words to characterize them, and we are then obliged to notice in general the more obvious signs of the approaching change which have been first observed in its entire later result. It is according to these signs of an approaching change that the opening date of an art period is fixed. All divisions of periods are consequently arbitrary in one sense and the transitions and connecting links which are the most interesting features of every evolution are naturally the points most to be emphasized at the beginning of what we call, for our own purposes of convenience, a new period.
Stated broadly, the essential character of the Romanesque period is its effort to be itself, its effort to study nature independent of traditional forms in design, its effort to solve new architectural problems and meet new conditions of life in an independent and original way.
It is always in political and first of all in social life that a revolution in art is effected. The forms of art are the expression and result of these conditions.
In general history we seize upon the career of Charlemagne and on the history of his time (ninth century; he was crowned emperor at Rome in the year 800) as leading up to the changes which we distinguish in the eleventh century. The Frankish Germanic state, which was founded by the barbaric war chieftain Clovis in Northern France and Southern Belgium after 481 A.D., had gradually in some cases, and rapidly in others, absorbed all the territories and tribes covered by the history of the German invasions, f excepting England, Spain, and South Italy, when Charlemagne became its monarch. It is then, broadly speaking, the whole of Central Europe which was in question; bordered by Spain on the one side and by the Elbe and the frontiers of Bohemia and Hungary on the other. France, Germany, and Italy were thus the countries of his empire, which even reached to the Ebro in Spain.
At this time most of the rest of Spain was Arabian, and the Anglo-Saxons of England were so overrun by Danish barbarism that they are hardly to be considered as within the pale of civilization. The territories of Charlemagne therefore included all that were distinctly those of West European civilization.
Meantime dissensions between the bishop of Rome (the pope) and his political rulers, the Byzantine emperors, combined with the inability of these rulers to protect him from the incursions of the barbaric German Lombards who were settled in Italy, led to an alliance between the Frankish state and the Pope. The Roman Empire of the West was thus revived. Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the west by Pope Leo III.
The theory of this proceeding was that the Roman imperial power of the west had been only in abeyance, and this theory was consistent with the fact that many of the German chieftains of the time of the invasions had nominally or actually professed themselves subjects either of the western or eastern emperor. The difference lay in the changed conditions of the actual civilization of the Middle Ages when power had fallen into the hands of feudal chieftains, the descendants of the minor German warriors and chiefs, whose great territories and consequent practical independence of any superior monarchical or imperial power made a revival of the old Roman Empire impossible. The theory was notwithstanding put into practice as far as circumstances and events allowed. For the lifetime of Charlemagne it was fairly realized in the territories named.
A triple territorial division of his empire among his grandsons set the imperial theory adrift in conflict with actualities ; but it was again revived by the German kings of the Saxon Dynasty in the tenth century. These now became as “Emperors of the West” the greatest potentates of Christendom. Western France was left to struggle with Northern (Norman) invasions ; but Eastern and Southern France were portions of this empire, Italy belonged to it ; Denmark, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary yielded to its sway.
All these political facts rest on a greater fact, which is that the civilization of Germany had risen to a point where it could and did assert itself, to a point where it was the vital and the active center of European history. The tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries were thus the great days of the Germanic emperors of the Saxon, Franconian, and Hohenstaufen Dynasties powerful kings of Germany at least, emperors of Western Christendom in title, actually rulers of Italy, with German boundaries which then included the Tyrol and Switzerland, modern Holland, and Belgium, and as much of France as lay east of the Rhone or of the continuation of its main line to the north.
It was in these countries that the great Romanesque cathedrals were built as results of this prosperity and power, and it is especially the cathedrals of Southern France, and of the Rhine at Speyer, Worms, and Mainz which perpetuate the memory of these centuries. Otherwise the Cathedral of Bamberg (Bavaria) and the churches of Hildesheim are among the most important Romanesque monuments of Germany. In Italy the Cathedral of Pisa is the greatest of its age.
In the eleventh century the Normans had become the greatest power in Northern France and their churches at Bayeux and Caen are consequently among the most important.
From the Normans and through their conquest of England at the close of the eleventh century the Romanesque style spread to England where it is frequently, though erroneously, named the “Norman” style. It appears at Peterborough, at Hereford, and at Durham, and in portions of the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury, Ely, Norwich, and York ; but there are very few “Norman ” English churches or cathedrals which have not been rebuilt or changed by later additions.
These various cathedrals were generally decorated with frescoes of which the remaining fragments are so scanty that they hardly offer even the material for a chronicle. Those surviving in St. Michael’s at Hildesheim (twelfth century) are, however, of marvelous power and artistic quality. Other fine wall paintings are to be seen in the Church of St. Savin in Poitou and in the Church of Schwarz-Rheindorf near Cologne.
In Romanesque sculpture Germany generally offers the most important monuments. The earliest are the bronze doors of the Hildesheim Cathedral. Its bronze font and chandelier are also famous relics. The cathedral sculptures of Freiberg (Saxony) and of Wechselburg are the finest works of Romanesque sculpture.