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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.