Looking at the mainstream of 20th and 21st century fine art in the western world, one would think that painters and sculptors were incapable of accurately rendering the human form. With rare exceptions, human subjects are extremely stylized. We know, of course, that Picasso, Monet and their contemporaries were superb draftsmen. But today’s artist is not interested in the reality of the depiction, but the artistic expression of form.
If we were to examine Romanesque sculpture and painting, we would also think that the artists of that time were incapable of realistic portrayal of human beings. The strange elongations, the oversized extremities, the ritualized depiction of features that characterized the Romanesque certainly influenced modern artists who struggled to overcome the tyranny of naturalistic representation. Even the poses were an influence – see how Derain’s painting is a direct copy of the famed Isaiah of Souillac. But for all their stylization, the Romanesque sculptors were certainly capable of realistic renderings – look at this example of Notre Dame d’Estours, carved from a single piece of wood.
It is not as if there were not models of naturalism strewn throughout the world of Western Europe. Classical Greek and Roman statuary and architectural sculpture were naturalistic. The classical artists even worked in the same architectural framework of architrave and pediment, and more importantly, the tympanum. When the Renaissance artists chose to make man “the measure of all things”, they returned to those readily available Greek and Roman models. But the Romanesque artists did not choose a classical vocabulary to express their genius. They chose the Byzantine model of religious art. Why?
First, they probably associated classical models with pagan religion, despite the fact that the later Roman world was Christianized. I think that the reason that they rejected the naturalistic world is that the people of that time were living in a world that could only be explained by symbols. Artists were charged with representing God, the Devil, good/evil, salvation/damnation, angels and demons. Roman gods were human in form (example 1, example 2, example 3) except in one of their immortal disguises. The Christian God had a human incarnation – Christ – but could otherwise only be represented symbolically.
And how this symbolic representation could work! The tympanum of Moissac has one of the most powerful depictions of divinity since the temple of Zeus in Olympia (See this short video from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum re-creation). Not until Michaelangelo’s depiction of the Creator in the Sistine Chapel was there a more compelling depiction of God, although Buonarroti’s was that of a sorcerer, a magician, a genius in the act of creation.
Clearly, this Romanesque tympanum at the Abbey Church Saint Pierre in Moissac was one of the great artistic creations of all time. This is a link to a larger version of the shot taken by PJ and will allow you to study the work in more detail.
As you can see, the figure of the crowned Christ is seated on a throne and holds the Book of Life on his knee. Around him are two angels and the symbols for the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Below and to the side are the figures of the twenty-four Old Testament elders of Revelation 4:4:
“Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads”
Each of the elders carries a stringed instrument and a cup of wine and looks up at the Savior. The amazing variety of the individualized poses shows the knowledge the sculptor had of the human body, but he worked in a vocabulary far removed from naturalism.
This fall, PJ and I will be going to shoot and reshoot a number of the great tympana in France. We’ll be at Saint Pierre in Moissac, Saint Pierre in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Saint Pierre in Carennac, Saint Etienne in Cahors, Saint Benoit in Saint Benoit-sur-Loire, Sainte Foy in Conques, Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, and Saint Lazare in Autun – a veritable all-star lineup of these sculptures. I am getting so obsessed by these sculpted marvels that I dream about them for nights on end.