As we approach the age of l’art roman, art and architecture take on a cosmic (catholic in its pure sense) purpose, which finds no parallel in any preceding culture. Though we see that up to this point much art has had deep ties with notions of sanctity and the afterlife, no work of ancient art seems to rival the comprehensive unity of cosmo-aesthetic vision required to construct a Romanesque Cathedral. (Note: I am here considering artist motivation, not skill, for a compelling case could be made that the ancient Egyptians were even more skillful in constructing the pyramids than we are today at building skyscrapers.) Intent is key, for it unlocks the mind of the artist and informs us not necessarily how but more importantly why art is made.
So why did medieval artists produce? Well, the first clue to this riddle is found in another riddle: who were these medieval artisans? We don’t know. They never signed their works. Anonymity shows us their striving for excellence was no vana gloria. On the contrary, art was considered an offering to God, the author (and artist) of all things, and as such, no artist need fear that the omniscient God overlook his handiwork. But there is much more to being an artist from the medieval Christian view than merely being recognized, by man or God. Art is an imitation of creation, and thereby participation in the Communion of life. Man, formed imago dei, thus subcreates as a mirror to the Primal Cause, and this was no view limited to just architecture and painting, but includes literature and manuscript illumination as well—all of which are key components of the collective practice and theology of medieval Christianity.
In commenting on another medieval artist’s (Dante’s) motivation for imitating harmony, regardless of whether or not the human reader might ever take notice, Singleton notes, “[God] who sees all things and so marvelously created the world in number, weight, and measure, would see that design [in human handiwork]… and would surely see it as a sign that the human architect had indeed imitated that created Universe which the Divine architect had wrought for His own contemplation, first of all, and for that of angels and of men.” (Singleton “The Poet’s Number at the Center http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042916)
In considering the cathedral of Poitou-Charentes, this notion of art as an offering for God’s enjoyment in contemplation became evident to me in reading the use of the term parure to describe the church. “Dans le décor des édifices et des objects de l’époque romane, l’ornement occupe une grande place notamment les motifs géométriques combinant polygones et cercles et la flore stylisée. Ils sont une parure. Tous ces motifs avaient peut-être une intention cosmique : montrer l’harmonie de l’univers crée par Dieu.” Here we have a view of the intent of art as an array, a necklace [une parure], of excellent craftsmanship that might please God to behold, and moreover, to wear Himself as a manifestation of His glory.
So we see that to the medieval mind, the church in its design and construction is more than a mere building to serve our needs as men. As a work of man, it at once becomes a work of art, not built for human glory but in homage of the True Craftsman. Thus, by intent, the medieval artisan strives towards excellence, not to make life more livable but to make life worth living.