Romanesque Art: Metaphor for the Soul

The art of the early Middle Ages (l’art roman, or Romanesque) might seem strange to the contemporary viewer, though not as strange as the way in which the Gothic style would shock post-modern sensibilities. Take for example Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe – built on top of a cliff formed by a crater. This was one of the first stops on the way to Compostella, where pilgrims would climb the several hundred steps to the top of the cliff to reach the church. Characteristic of Romanesque art the church is composed of load-bearing walls, smaller windows, rounded arches, square towers, flat roofs, and unadorned buttresses. Its lack of external ornamentation rather mirrors a medieval understanding of humanism—that external goods are secondary to the primacy of interior, spiritual beauty in human life.

Likewise, the cathedral of Poitou-Charentes, built with round towers appears as one of the most elaborate Romanesque churches in France. Support columns are carved into the stone as multi-column-supports (prefiguring the Gothic style), which allow for larger openings to be made in the walls. Here we find a larger emphasis on external ornamentation, yet not at the price of interior beauty. In fact, the very external advancements/ornamentations themselves allow for further beautification of the interior since more light is allowed to illumine the inside. Furthermore, what this aesthetic program suggests in terms of medieval ethics is that by learning to better use the external secondary goods, one thereby becomes more able to pursue (by illumination) the primal, spiritual good.

Thus, we see that for the architects of l’art roman, engagement with space was sacred: both in structure and in adornment. In this way, the construction of such a space might harken back to another constructive allegory – the ideal city of Plato’s Republic. Though the Republic was not readily available during the Middle Ages, the comparison is apt, for as Plato paints a city in words as an allegory for the soul in action, so too does the medieval artisan carve a cathedral in stone as an icon for the soul in pilgrimage. Thus, the decoration of churches with sculptures and paintings served to engage devotees visually beyond the words of a story, and by faith, beyond the very images themselves, into a harmony with the Truth they represent. Furthermore, Truth is not limited to scriptural wisdom. The inclusion of pagan images and motifs shows that the pagan narrative did not stand in stark contradiction to the Christian meta-narrative.

As such the Romanesque (and Gothic) cathedral bears witness as a sacred space only insofar as it remains participatory with human community, and moreover, Christian Communion. For what of human design (as sub-creation) can retain the spirit of its maker when divorced from its maker’s very affection? Likewise, when the Pharisees demand that Jesus rebuke his disciples for lauding him as the messiah, he replies: “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” And so it is when I step into a cathedral. The stones really do cry out to their Maker.

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