Online College Courses for Credit

2 Tutorials that teach Romanesque Art
Take your pick:
Romanesque Art

Romanesque Art

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand the characteristics of Romanesque art.

See More

Try Sophia’s Art History Course. For Free.

Our self-paced online courses are a great way to save time and money as you earn credits eligible for transfer to many different colleges and universities.*

Begin Free Trial
No credit card required

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

310 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Exploring examples of Romanesque art.

Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about Romanesque art.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin. Today's objectives, for things we are going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, will be able to identify and define today's key terms, to describe the portal sculptures of Gislebertus, and describe the Bayeux Tapestry.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First key term is tympanum. In architecture, a semicircular space above a doorway that is often decorated with sculpture.

Archivolts. In architecture, a decorated band that forms an arch-like frame for an opening.

Jamb. Pillar, frame, post, or lintel on either side of a doorway, window, or arch.

The big idea for today is that the tympanum, archivolts, and jambs of Romanesque architecture were important areas for the display of religious art.

So the art that we're looking at today originates from the 10th to 12th centuries.

And all of the art today originated in and currently resides within three cities in France. Conques, Bayeux, and Autun.

Begin with the Bayeux Tapestry, or Bayeux Embroidery, as it's technically an embroidery. It's a magnificent example art from this or any period. It details the events leading up, to as well as the events during, the Battle of Hastings, which resulted in the Norman conquest of England and the eventual crowning of William the Conqueror as king of England.

The tapestry is a work 200 feet long, and is an important cultural reservoir that supplements what we know historically. It depicts distinct types of clothing and armor.

One of the most interesting scenes for me in this scene from the embroidery is a black and white copy of an original print of this image. The people on the left are pointing skyward and appear alarmed. The thing that they are pointing at is actually the famous Halley's Comet, which would have passed by the earth during this time on its 75- to 76-year-long orbit around the sun. It was taken as a bad omen, and one of the individuals runs to tell the current King Harold the terrible news. Kind of leaning in, saying, excuse me. Underneath Harold's feet are the wispy-looking images of ships, foreshadowing the arrival of William in the battle to come.

On this page, we're going to take a look at a form of exterior sculpture that appears on Christian churches at this time and after. This is from the Western entrance to Autun Cathedral in Autun, France. It's essentially an elaborate rounded archway, a series of incised rounded arches setting up on decorative jambs on either side of the doorway, which you can't really see here.

Artists use these spaces to create narrative, symbolic, or other types of Christian imagery that serve both religious and decorative purposes. The artist Gislebertus created this Last Judgment scene in the semicircular area above the doorway, which is called the tympanum, around 1120 AD.

And this is the tympanum here.

So we'll talk about the actual happenings in just a moment. The decorative semicircular bands above it are called archivolts. One is highlighted here in blue. The jambs, again which would have been decorated, are cropped out of this picture, unfortunately.

So the central, largest, and most important element within the composition is Jesus Christ in the traditional orant prayer gesture, seated within a mandorla of inscribed Latin text. To his right is the Virgin Mary, his mother, enthroned next to the angel there. The right hand of God is clearly the best place to be, as you'll see in a moment, if you haven't already.

The whole idea of right as good and left as bad it is a type of symbolism that itself is cross-cultural and ancient, and even retains its significance to this day.

Saint Peter, who monitors the gates of heaven, there, is shown holding keys.

And again, notice the use of hieratic scale. More important figures like Christ, Mary, the saints, even the angels, are shown comparatively larger. Shorter to each other, but all of them are larger than the human beings being judged. The righteous-- there's that term right again-- like this individual being helped out by an angel, are being led into heaven. Here we can see an individual, and he kind of looks like he's carrying a laptop bag, is depicted as a pilgrim, one who participated in a holy Christian pilgrimage.

This angel helps to divide the composition. If you look closely, you can see how he or she is sort of shoving this person to the left. So this person has been judged as unrighteous, as being directed into the unhappy line of individuals on their way to hell.

Now, notice the creepy disembodied hands that are plucking individuals up the next level and the cowering souls waiting in line. Here's the Devil coming out of a Roman-style basilica to grab hold of the soul for the unpleasantness I'm sure that's to come. It was this juxtaposition of good and evil, or rather, salvation and damnation, that reminded individuals coming into the church the reward of piety and faith in Christ and the consequences of turning from him.

Now, this last image is of an elaborate Christian reliquary, or container of a relic. Specifically that of Saint Foy, or Saint Faith, as she would be known in English. A young woman who was tortured and martyred by the Romans. The reliquary holds the supposed head of Saint Foy behind the obviously gilded mask of a male, interestingly enough. Undoubtedly borrowed from somewhere else.

So why do we care? Well, relics and the reliquaries that hold them were very important objects for veneration in Christianity. In fact, possession of relics was considered so important and the supply so limited that shady underdealings are as much part of the history of relics in the church as the actual relics themselves. It also explains why the relics themselves can seem so odd or macabre with no given context. The relics had to be a physical object of an important Christian saint. Either something touched by them, or a piece of them, or related to Christ, like a piece of the True Cross, for example. Now the teeth of a saint, the hand of a saint, the hair of a saint, a piece of the True Cross, which is a whole another fascinating story in and of itself, or the bones of a saint-- these are all examples of relics that actually exist and are considered sacred in the Christian church.

This isn't considered idolatry, but, again, the veneration of a sacred object. The object is a means of communication to God, not an object of worship itself.

Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the portal sculptures of Gislebertus? Can you describe the Bayeux Tapestry?

Once again, the big idea for today is that the tympanum, archivolts, and jambs of Romanesque architecture were important areas for the display of religious art.

And that is it. Thank you for joining me today. I'll see you next time.


Terms to Know

In architecture, a decorated band that forms an arch-like frame for an opening.


Pillar, frame, post, lintel on either side of a doorway, window, or arch.


In architecture, a semicircular space above a doorway that is often decorated with sculpture.