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 subject 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 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.

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 schlolarship 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. That when the right tools are placed in their hands, than 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.

6 responses to “The Artist (PJ McKey)

  1. A very well written quest for understanding. I always marvel at the silent artist that does it for reasons other than self… if, indeed, that what they did here in France. Your quest reminds me of the ending scene in the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when Ivan stops to look, one last time, at his anonymous salve labor creation that has no value other than he gave it the best he had …. no God here, no religion … other than artistic self worth. When visiting Ireland recently it dawned on me that over eons some human had touched every single rock in every single Irish walls … rock walls are the signature of Ireland and so much a part of so much that is Irish … I could do no better than feel humble and murmur to my self the underwhelming mantra WOW!

    • Hi Vincent – thank you for your comments. I am awed by their skills. One of the reasons I love this photography project is that I can be immersed in this mystery through the photography and be constantly reminded of the importance of these churches in the history of our ability to create lasting beauty. Take care and looking forward to meeting you at some point. PJ

  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and photographs! They are so inspiring!

    “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet. 4:10)

  3. The anonymity of Medieval artists is a very romantic legend. Literally. Its an invention of the 19th Century Romantic movement which wanted to see the Medieval Artist as a noble and self-less guild craftsman, toiling away without fame and glory in his shop with no other desire than service to God.

    While that may have been true for some monks, the great workshops that sprang up during the 10th and 11th century building boom were hardly in it for selfless purposes. It was their craft and livelihood and gave them a social status well above that of peasant. They were solidly middle-class city dwellers and, at least by the High Middle Ages, they were the harbingers of a new social order . . . but I digress.

    These guys did not sign their work generally because they did no have a concept of the artistic genius that emerged during the Renaissance and which dominates our view of Art today. In fact, they had no concept of Art as we do today. For a fuller understanding of the world view of this era, I highly recommend “Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art” by Art Historian Hans Belting.

    In short, the Church did not “press the arts into service” – in the world view of the time, what we call “Art” was a form of transcendent Presence. Thus, Christian theologians and Councils going back to at least the 4th Century describe Art as a form of ongoing Divine Incarnation (q.v. Basil the Great and the Council of Nicea II). The craftsmen who worked on these churches did so because A) they earned a living and B) it was the nature and function of art and imagery to reveal Divine Realities.

    And yes, they were geniuses of the highest level and many of them knew it since many of these craftsmen were in demand far from their home ‘base’.

    BTW – the question of signatures is the source of some controversy, perhaps best seen in discussion about the famous Ghislebertus. For most of the 20th century it was generally held that Ghislebertus was the sculptor at Autun. More recent scholarship suggests that he may have been the patron who commissioned the work. Either way, someone was proud enough of the sculpture to inscribe “Ghislebertus hoc fecit” across the typanum.

    Still . . . its breathtaking work and hopefully I didn’t spoil anyone’s fantasies about it too much ;-))

    • George, Linda Seidel’s book on Autun talks about Giselbertus, and she disputes the attribution of the name to the artist, of course. But there are other inscriptions, including innumerable masons marks incised into church walls. These must certainly be considered as signatures demonstrating pride and satisfaction on the part of the builders. The inscription “Gofridus me fecit” on the capitals of the Collégiale Saint-Pierre certainly fits in with the extraordinary imagination displayed on those Chauvigny capitals. I would like to think that it was an expression of pride on the part of the sculptor and not an advertisement for some patron. But I think that PJ’s point is that these artists are anonymous now. We don’t know who they were and probably never will. But in addition to being anonymous, there were innumerable.

      I have been doing some math lately on how many artists might have been working during those times. In the two centuries that comprised the heart of the Romanesque era, there were thousands of churches built. Five thousand of those Romanesque buildings still remain in France alone. If we just assume that there were five thousand churches built (and we know that many did not survive or were replaced by later churches in a different style), that means that twenty-five churches per year were built during that entire time. They required artisans of extraordinary skill to perform even ordinary tasks. A stone voussoir, for example, has ten faces, no two of which are parallel. And each voussoir is different from the next on any particular arch. These artisans were able to work in wood, granite, marble, porphyry, and limestone. There were goldsmiths, silversmiths, enamel workers, jewelers, and textile workers. There were specialists in stained glass, mosaics, murals, frescoes, and bronze (who created at Hildesheim the great cast bronze doors that exist still). There were builders, masons, and stonecutters who constructed the churches. And of course there were the copyists and artists who created the extraordinary illuminated manuscripts throughout Europe. How many workers were involved in this skilled work to create the facades of Saint Gilles du Gard or Saint Trophime in Arles alone?

      In the year 1000, it is estimated that the population of France was approximately six million people. That number probably doubled by 1200. This means that in a population representing twice the current population of the Paris metropolitan area, distributed over an area approximately the size of Texas, there was enough skilled labor available to build 25 new churches per year with no machinery other than that powered by human muscle. They filled those churches, monasteries, and cathedrals with thousands upon thousands of works of art. These people must have represented an entire class of artists and artisans, many of whom were mobile enough to move across Europe. They have left behind a world of masterpieces which inspire us a thousand years later. But aside from a few – Gofridus, Robertus, and perhaps Giselbertus, we don’t even know their names.

  4. Anonymity is a term known to men but not to God. I appreciate your sharing these magnificent pictures so beautifully captured through your talented vision accompanied by your compelling words.

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