Many people comment on our photos that they are surprised by the amount of color that appears in the churches. Some prefer the austere unadorned stone and the consider the colored churches garish. But in reality, what we commonly perceive about the Romanesque churches is essentially false, the product of 19th century restorations. The fact is that the churches were filled with color. The capitals and statues were painted, the walls were covered in frescoes and the pillars adorned.
One of the comments on our post “Color and Saint Austremoine” was from The Wanderlust Gene, which stated, “I have to admit I’m amazed by all that colour – and all the yellow in the church you showed us yesterday. An old stick in the mud, eh – i so so love my romanesque sere and forceful … It’s so interesting! I remember when I learned that the Acropolis used to be lurid – I almost died with regret for it!”
This is not unusual, because the churches have a powerful dignity and beauty when stripped down without the ornamentation. They fit our notion of the serious purpose of the religious architecture.
But the Romanesque churches were books, teaching instruments in which the tenets of the Christian faith were explained to the people. The capitals served two purposes – they told bible stories and were symbolic representations of the spiritual struggles to achieve salvation. The Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac in the southwest deparment of the Charente-Maritime is a perfect illustration. Like most churches in the Aquitaine, Saint Sulpice was devastated by wars. The nave was rebuilt in the Gothic style, but the crossing and apse are pure Romanesque.
It is the Romanesque detailing in Saint Sulpice that we find so remarkable. In this photograph of the crossing arch, you can see the painted pillars and capitals – even the squinches are painted – but look carefully at the voussoirs. They are all carved in a unique shape, one that we have only seen in the Charente-Maritime. It makes the crossing arch look like a stack of books.
In this closeup, it is possible to see the painted capital and the stacked-book voussoirs of the crossing arch.
The apse as a whole is a remarkable ensemble featuring painted walls, pillars, and vaults, of course, but also a painted cornice band that circles the entire space connecting with the painted capitals to form a seamless band of instructive decoration.
Again in closeup, we can see the capital and part of the encircling cornice in the background.
This elegant and stylish decoration has a pedantic intent, but the contribution to the visual excitement of the structure is not forgotten. The bright color and the energy of the sculpture makes Saint Sulpice an occasion for pleasure and well as religion, and we can see it everywhere in the details of the ornament.