✿ The Artist (PJ McKey) ✿


During the Romanesque period, the arts were pressed into service by the church as a medium of mass-communication with which to address an ever-increasing but largely illiterate public. The teachings of the church, the hierarchy of society, and the relationship of the church and the secular world provided  the subject matter.

But that said, how did the artists of the this period think of themselves and their work? A lot has been written on this topic. Let me start by saying that the majority of the artistic work of the French Romanesque church architecture, sculptures and frescoes is anonymous. This may be hard to imagine in our celebrity-driven world where a minute of fame is worth sacrificing one’s soul. This seems even more absurd as I think of these churches standing for centuries, a tribute to the best of our desires, the desire for salvation in the midst of suffering and temptation. Some sculptural work was signed, but it is always noteworthy because of its uniqueness. Many artist are simply known as “the Master of Cabestany,” “the Master of Autun” or the “Master of Vézelay,” referring to the town where they worked or the type of depiction that bears their style.

Trumeau detail, Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Did the majority of these artisans think of themselves as a conduit – a Christian first and craftsman second, with the hand of God guiding their talents for the greater understanding and glory of his earthly mission? Certainly the incredible amount of building and blossoming of all forms of artistic expression in the Romanesque world offered opportunities to use the talents and secure work as an artist. This was a period of artist innovation. But where did these artists come from? Who taught them? Were they monks, laymen?

Their monumental sculptural work in stone had very little precedent since the Romans six centuries earlier. As far as scholarship has uncovered, wall painting, another legacy from the Romans and Byzantines, was not found within France prior to the Romanesque. One of the current theories is that these artists made the transition from other forms of expression such as furniture makers, tomb carvers, stone cutters, silversmiths and manuscript illustrators. This entire phenomenon just seems a miracle to me.

Detail of the tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

When walking into a church, I try to imagine it as a blank canvas. I wonder if the artist could envision the surfaces as potential for artistic expression: capitals, walls, columns, each offering an opportunity for a unique expression of the bible, the life of Christ, our demons and promises of salvation, or just pure abstract riots of color and pattern. The choices these artists made were inspired. It was not enough to merely create the work; it also needed to be perfectly placed in the church for the viewer.

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

The artistic experience was total, the perfect combination of beauty, subject and environment. No wonder these artists have been an inspiration for such modern artists as Picasso. There is high art at work here – talent, imagination, love, purpose, the desire to express the truth as they know it and even more, as God would want them to tell it. The desire to teach, inspire, and impart understanding was and is a profound calling. These artists must have felt the pressure to get it right. Did they understanding the power they would have? Their lessons were not in words but in the force of the visual, the impact of image, color, shape and gesture, the kind of impressions that cannot be intellectualized but arrive in the gut, personal and unfiltered.

Frescoes in nave, Eglise Saint-Martin de Vicq, Nohant-sur-Vic (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some scholars have said that they were “merely” craftsmen driven by commissions and patronage. The more talented ones moved from church to church, seizing the opportunity that this religious fervor afforded them. This meant money and perhaps even indulgences, forgiveness for past and future sins. But there is more than that in these churches. These artists must have shared the same beliefs and fears as their audience. Their work is personal, on the deepest of levels, and I believe that is what we respond to. Perhaps I have put them on a pedestal. My awe of their work can’t help but lead me there. What they have done makes me feel like a “dabbler” in the arts, a child with a crayon.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Perhaps artists are born. When the right tools were placed in their hands, they can create beauty from inspiration and purpose, their mission, externalizing what cannot be put into words. I believe this is why we revere them. They have a power, whether they acknowledge it or not.

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

22 responses to “✿ The Artist (PJ McKey) ✿

  1. “They have a power whether they acknowledge it or not.” as have you in your prose and the direction of your lenses. I learn so much through you and Dennis. Your photograph of Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) is superb and inspiring.

    • Thanks Viv. In Ottmarsheim we were entertained by a group of special needs students who burst into song when they experienced the church and it acoustics. An amazing experience.

  2. P.J,
    Magnificent photographs equaled by their commentary. I was immediately struck by your observation about the identity of these artists:

    “This [their anonymity] may be hard to imagine in our celebrity-driven world where a minute of fame is worth sacrificing one’s soul. … Some sculptural work has been signed but it is always noteworthy because of its uniqueness. Many artist are simply known as ‘the Master of Cabestany,’ ‘the Master of Autun’ or the ‘Master of Vézelay,’ referring to the town where they worked or the type of depiction that bears their style.” They seem to have seen themselves as their communities saw them: so much a part of their communities that calling attention to themselves would violate their senses of the common life. They stood behind their art, not in front of it.

    You have caught something very precious and lovely about these artists who gave glory to God and gave expression to the hope that suffering is redeemable. “They externalize what cannot be put into words.” Thank you for making my day.

  3. Pingback: ✚ The Artist (PJ McKey) ✚ | VIEWS from the EDGE

  4. in one of your past pictures you have an inscription “Fol Dives” (rich fools)… would you expend on the importance of that statement in a middle age church…

    • Fol Dives, or the Folly of Dives the miser. The rich man must choose between his money or his life, literally. He would go to heaven if he would let go his purse, but he refuses to do so, and demons take him to Hell. This was a common theme in the Middle Ages, and Hieronymus Bosch did a wonderful picture called “Death and the Miser”. You can see the miser on his deathbed reaching for the bag of gold proffered by a demon.

  5. I feel the same when I photograph an English Church, especially a Norman one, the carvings are majestic. And I truly wonder where they got the inspiration from to design these wonderful items, its amazing when you think how old they are. Its wonderful to see your photos of wall paintings, Oliver Cromwall had ours painted over, along with other despicable things. I feel like you of course there was money involved and they did travel from church to church, but they took a great pride, everyone would see their work. Although nearly everything they did was not signed, they each had they own style and most of it has survived centuries, so really the names are not important, it was the gift of the craftsman that we stand and wonder…..how on earth. Thank you for your wonderful post, I found it so interesting and of course the photos are stunning as always :)

  6. PJ, you certainly are not a child with a crayon. Your photos have the artist’s grace and eye. Lovely reflections on the work of these anonymous artists, and the power of their expression!

  7. PJ, I loved your article and photos, and especially the argument of collaboration and anonimity these artists carried on, and which is lost in our current society of the spectacle. The material documentation you guys present with all the great photos and textual insight echo some of the recent arguments by Richard Sennett in his work ‘The Craftsman’ and also in ‘Together’ from the same author. Behind the beauty and secrecy of all these art and architecture you generously uncover to many of us we can grasp how much the Romanesque is more than ever a vital and profound lesson to contemporary society.

    • Tania – I will be checking out the author you mention. I’m fascinated by the level of skill and imagination that we find in many of the churches. It’s as though a whole generations of craftsmen were inspired.

  8. “There is high art at work here – talent, imagination, love, purpose, the desire to express the truth as they know it and even more, as God would want them to tell it.”

    Indeed there is, PJ. And I share your awe of their work, but I think our notion of what an ‘artist’ is is a very modern idea.

    These amazingly skilled artisans were not ‘artists’ in any modern sense, driven by some inner compulsion to ‘express themselves’ in their chosen art medium, and being allowed the luxury of doing just that – but neither were they ‘mere’ craftsmen.

    They were Master Craftsmen (almost exclusively men, of course, in the trades) stone masons, gilders, illuminators, painters, and so on, each with their apprentices and assistants to whom the simpler or more repetitive parts were delegated under their supervision. These master craftsmen were employed by people who had power, money, purpose, and plans. They knew what they wanted, but they also expected their artisans to add their own value to their plans – to use their considerable skills to go above and beyond.

    Staying employed, as always, meant pleasing the boss, and this work was competitive. It was important that the man with the purse was convinced that you could do the job better than the team that had just finished their stint at the cathedral or palace in the town down the road. The craftsmen weren’t always members of the community where the project took place, they were independent agents, and they went where the work was. They weren’t indentured serfs, hence the original description of master stone cutters and carvers as ‘free masons’.

    These artists/artisans/craftsmen took pride in their work and produced the very best work they could, usually under some very tight constraints, but it is often those constraints themselves that are the catalyst to producing the best and most impressive results.

    If there were no rules to the game, tennis would just be two people bashing a ball around for no real reason (like much modern art?). But as soon as you add in a goal, a clear purpose, and constrain the means to get there (in tennis, the scoring system, the lines, and the net), then amazing skill and artistry will be developed to excel within and meet that challenge.

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