Romanesque Architecture and Its Symbolism
While searching for the origins of European Individualism, I was struck by the overwhelming evidence available describing a discovery of “self” among the intellectuals of the 11th and 12th centuries. Prior to this period people rarely considered self as an individual, but rather thought of self in relation to the collective. Historians pointed to the love letters exchanged between Heloise and her lover Abelard, the autobiography of Abbot Guibert of Nogent, and the exquisite poetry of Dante as examples of embracing one’s individuality. However, I became discontent with my findings. What of the peasants? While the sons of lords and ladies, and various leaders of the Church, began to discover themselves apart from the collective of society as they increased their learning and explored new opportunities of employment, the common people remained enslaved to old institutions, superstitions, and their own ignorance. At this point, I stumbled upon a quote that seemed so relevant to my concerns. Francois Villon, a medieval poet, penned this verse for his mother.
“I am a woman, poor and old,
Quite ignorant, I cannot read.
They showed me at my village church
A painted Paradise with harps
And Hell where the damned souls were boiled,
One gives me joy, the other frightens me ...”(1)
I became fascinated by the relationship of the physical church in the 11th and 12th century with the peasant laity. The images on display inside the medieval church, including the actual building itself, whether obvious or symbolic, spoke more powerfully to the congregation than any sermon they would hear within those massive walls. This became my objective: to discover how the church of the 11th and 12th centuries shaped the faith of the people through these visual symbols?
I refocused my attentions from the minds of intellectuals to those of the everyday commoner. I began to understand their insecurities and fears, as well as, their need for visual affirmation that God was on their side, fighting the powers of darkness. Aware of people’s illiteracy, the church catered to the people’s sensitivity to visual images and built churches strong and militant, filling the interior with visual reminders of the constant spiritual battle from the structure of the building itself, to the sculptures decorating the capitals of the columns, to the images painted on the walls. The church’s architecture, in addition to the paintings within, served to mold the faith of the common people when words were unable to do so.
THE MEDIEVAL MIND
Due to widespread illiteracy, the written word carried little significance. As a matter of fact, Jeffery Singman, author of Daily Life in Medieval Europe, noted that the written word fell secondary to that of the spoken word. Prior to 1500, legal documents merely recorded an oral agreement. Ballads and epic poems were only written down long after the words had been set to memory. Instead, Singman concluded that the culture of the Middle Ages revolved around the visual, actual objects that one could see, hear, and touch, even smell.(2)
Events, places, people, and actual objects connected together in the minds of the medieval man to create “a network of relationships,”(3) a concept vital to the lives of peasants and lords alike. This concept can readily be seen in the relationships found in a typical medieval village. A commoner associated his family with the house he was born in, as well as the land surrounding it. The view of the manor house further reminded him of his relationship as serf to his lord. Even the peasant’s calendar revolved around the relationship of sporadic holy days, rather than the concept of weeks and months. However, one of the strongest relationships a peasant might have with his village was with the church, not only with the parish priest and the congregation, but the stone building itself.
THE MEDIEVAL FAITH
The Christianity of rural 12th century Europe remained rather barbaric. During the Dark Ages, missionaries and Roman armies often encountered tribes possessing a religion steeped in magic and fear. Recognizing the advantages available to them should they convert, many tribes agreed to be duly baptized in order that they may either appease attacking armies or gain the favor of Christendom. Oftentimes, these tribes would mesh their pagan religion with that of their new Christian religion, at times, merely changing the name. Friedrich Heer, author of The Medieval World: Europe 1100-1350, notes that by 1100 the popular religion of medieval Europe was a combination of “four religious cultures: primitive folk religion, Gallo-Roman polytheism, and two kinds of Christianity, the late Roman and Celtic varieties.” This mixture of beliefs allowed the people to retain their previous pagan practices with only a name change here and there. For instance, Pagan gods were given the status of sainthood. Worshippers supplemented their prayers with the magic of the old ways and built their new churches on the sites of former pagan houses of worship. Furthermore, the church calendar submitted to the pagan calendar, continuing to revolve around the traditional feasts that had ruled their lives for centuries.(4)
However, not all of 12th century Christendom worshipped in this semi-barbaric manner. Guibert de Nogent was furious at the absurdity in which these churches still practiced their pagan ways but ascribed them to Christianity. In his Treatise on Relics, Guibert asked, concerning the canonizing of saints (for whom there were no ecclesiastical records),
“what shall I say of such as are daily sainted and set up in rivalry to them, by the common folk of our towns and villages? Let them tell me how they can expect a man to be their patron saint concerning whom they know not even that which is to be known? For you shalt find no record of him but his mere name. Yet, while the clergy hold their peace, old wives and herds of base wenches chant the lying legends of such patron saints at their looms and their broidering-frames; and, if a man refute their words, they will attack him in defence [sic] of these fables not only with words but even with their distaffs. Who but a sheer madman, therefore, would call on those to intercede for him concerning whom there is not the merest suspicion left in men's minds to tell what they once were?”(5)
In addition, there was the issue of the collection of relics and their supposed magical powers. Rumors of healings and miracles as a result of contact with a relic spread across Europe among pilgrims. Jacques de Vitry bishop of Tusculum, born in 1180, spread one such rumor. The story depicts two crippled beggars who were healed against their will.
“[W]hen the body St. Martin was borne in procession it healed all the infirm who [had gone] blind, Now there were near the church two wandering beggars, one began to converse together and said, ‘See, the body of St. Martin is now being borne in procession, and if it catches us we shall be healed immediately, and no one in the future will give us any aims, but we shall have to work and labor with our own hands.', Then the blind man said to the lame, ‘Get up on my shoulders because I am strong, and you who see well can guide me.’ They did this; but when they wished to escape, the procession overtook them; and since, on account of the throng, they were not able to get away, they were healed against their will.”(6)
It is doubtful that such an occurrence actually happened. However, the above story shows the Medieval person was still drawn to the supernatural magic of his old faith. Guibert continued his scolding of Christians of the 12th Century for the lies and greed that came from collecting the relics. At one point two different churches boasted having the head of John the Baptist in their possession. Would the clergy have their followers believe that John the Baptist was in fact two-headed?(7)
Those who clung to the popular religion of the time, not only clung to their former pagan rituals but also continued to live in constant fear. Could one ever achieve enough merit to solicit the grace of God? The 13th century Franciscan friar, Berthold of Regensburg, once assessed that “the chances of damnation as 100,000 to 1.”(8) Their faith in God demanded obedience, not only adherence to the laws of God but also to the laws of kings. “It was a powerful law binding man in fear and love ...,”(9) states Heer. Because Medieval man made associations through relationships, peasants often relied upon nature to define their standing with God: if the crop was good that year, God was pleased with them.
Spiritual warfare was the dominant theme in the church of the 12th century. Even the ceremony of the mass symbolized this cosmic struggle. The priest, garbed in his vestments, represented Christ’s agent on earth, robed in the armor of salvation, prepared to do battle with the Evil One. Honorius of Autun, 12th Biblical expositionist, viewed Mass as “a judicial tribunal where God judged the sinning people, with the devil as prosecutor and the priest as defending counsel.”(10) The clearest representation, however, of this conflict, was in the church building itself.
THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH
It is difficult for anyone in the 21st century to comprehend the importance and significance of the 12th century church building in a medieval town or village. Gervase of Canterbury reported that when Christ Church suffered severe damage due to a fire in 1174,
“The people were astonished that the Almighty should suffer such things, and maddened with excess of grief and perplexity, they tore their hair and beat the walls and pavement of the church with their heads and hands, blaspheming the Lord and His saints, the patrons of the church; and many, both of laity and monks, would rather have laid down their lives than that the church should have so miserably perished.”(11)
Churches were often the only stone building for miles. People from kings to peasants still lived in dwellings made predominately of wood. A town’s church steeple served as a landmark for weary travelers making their way home. As William of St. Thierry approached the town of Clairvaux, he exclaimed upon seeing the town’s church, “At the first glance as you entered Clairvaux by descending the hill you could see that it was a temple of God; and the still, silent valley bespoke, in the modest simplicity of its buildings, the unfeigned humility of Christ's poor.”(12) On Sundays during services, villagers were able to escape their dingy wooden hovels, and revel in the church’s magnificent grandeur compared to their own humble dwellings. The building itself was the location for public events and services, such as town meetings and an infirmary. Is it any wonder the building of a new town church would bring the excitement of transformation to the community, not only physically but also economically and socially. Construction would provide jobs and bring in craftsmen from other countries, potentially improving the town’s economy through trade.
The architectural style of 12th century churches is known as Romanesque (Roman-like). Massive walls, rounded arches, and few windows characterized the typical village church. In the pattern of the ancient Roman basilica, the layout contained a central nave running the length of the rectangular building. Two, sometimes four, aisles were positioned on the sides of the nave. Some architects embellished this simple plan by adding a transept, an addition to the building that made the shape of the layout like that of a cross. The addition of two towers, one on each end of the transept further embellished the transept. Art Historian, E. H. Gombrich, concludes that “[t]hese powerful and almost defiant piles of stone erected by the Church in lands of peasants and warriors who had only recently been converted from their heathen way of life seem to express the very idea of the Church Militant--the idea, that is, that here on earth it is the task of the Church to fight the powers of darkness till the hour of triumph dawns on doomsday.”(13)
The church building represented God’s dwelling place on earth, much like the Old Testament Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple. The church’s thick, massive walls gave it the appearance of being a fortress, God’s stronghold--protecting his children, giving them peace, security, and joy, while warding off the attacks of His enemies. Here evil spirits were exorcized as depicted in the twisted forms of beasts and monsters writhing in pain on the capitals on top of the church’s columns and additional sculptures to be found in the interior and exterior of the building.
The Romanesque St. Trophime church in Arles, France contains an illustrative sculpture relief above the church’s front doors. Christ is depicted as the Almighty Judge of the world sitting upon a throne supported by the four creatures of Ezekiel 1:4-12 (angels bearing the resemblance of a man, lion, eagle, and ox). Christ has separated “the wheat from the tares” and has condemned the sinners to their damnation as depicted on Christ’s left by naked figures, chained, whose expressions are frozen in panicked screams. On his right, the righteous look on in bliss at being accepted by their Maker. Below the throne stand saints marked with their individual symbols ready to intercede on behalf of those entering the church’s doors.(14)
Realism in the artwork was not the goal of the craftsmen. Instead the relationship between each of the figures above the church doors in Arles to the whole of the illustration was what mattered the most. Observers were to approach the house of God with a sense of trembling and awe as they entered into the presence of the Holy One, the Judge of life and death, able to bring both terror and joy. Morris Bishop, author of The Middle Ages, suggests that exaggerated proportions that artists used like those of the distorted figures on their way to Hell served to bring about the emotion necessary to inspire this awe.(15)
The interiors of Romanesque churches were alive with color and symbolism. The towns that could afford it, covered the church’s interior walls with tapestries and paintings. Jacques Le Goff, a scholar of the Middle Ages, in his book Medieval Civilization analyzes the symbolism to be found in the different colors and objects displayed in the interior decorations. The colorful precious stones encrusting church alters ignited the understanding of the riches of God. Some were even thought to hold special powers, for instance, the yellow and green stones might cure jaundice and liver diseases. Red stones were thought to cure bleeding disorders. Objects portrayed in sculptures or paintings and tapestries, carried the meanings of deeper relationships with the supernatural world. A cluster of grapes often symbolized Christ shedding his blood for mankind, bringing to mind the juice being squeezed from the grapes as they were crushed in the wine press. Le Goff states that even animals represented significant relationships. The ostrich that leaves her eggs unattended in the sand was associated with sinners neglecting their duties to God. The dog symbolized either uncleanness, or as hunting lords preferred, ultimate fidelity. Images of mythical beasts were always intended to be demonic, however the symbolism of the unicorn was uncertain. The unicorn could either represent such the virtue of purity or the vice of hypocrisy.(16)
The images displayed inside Romanesque churches told the viewers stories without words. Pope Gregory the Great of the 6th century praised medieval artists, declaring that ‘painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read.”(17) Words ignite understanding, passion, and feelings. For the first time in the history of art there was a movement that could achieve the same results as words, without being chained to realistic representation. As Gombrich reveals: “the Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw, in the Middle Ages the artist also learned to express in his pictures what he felt.”(18)
For the 12th Century peasant, life was filled with fear and uncertainty. Le Goff suggests that there was only one cure for man’s feelings of insecurity: “to rely on the solidarity of the group, of the communities of which one formed a part, and to avoid breaching this solidarity by ambition or derogation.”(19) The common man had a long journey ahead of him before he could find freedom in a balance of individuality and community. In a way, the church prolonged that journey by continuing the superstitions of Europe’s old pagan religions. It would take another four to five hundred years before the Protestant Reformation would sweep across the continent, embracing the common man, and showing them the way to freedom from fear through a personal relationship with Christ, not only as Judge but as Friend and Savior. It was at this time that men and women of all backgrounds were able to hear and read in their own language the words spoken through the images represented in their church buildings.
God is the loving ruler of the world. He made it, and He made us to rule and care for the world--under His authority.
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
When we look at the world, however, we can see that things are not the way they should be. This is because we reject God as our ruler by trying to run our lives without Him.
10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
Note this carefully: Some people rebel quietly by just ignoring God. Others rebel more visibly by doing things that everyone recognizes as sinful. But either way, it’s rebellion against God.
God cares enough about us to take our rebellion seriously and to call us to account.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgment. this might sound hard, and many people don’t like to believe that God could feel so strongly about rebellion. But justice isn’t justice unless it brings sin to account. It’s simply wrong to turn a blind eye.
The bad news is very bad, but the good news is wonderful. God has provided a remedy for the disastrous position in which we find ourselves.
God loved the world so much that He sent His Son into the world--Jesus Christ. Jesus obeyed God completely. He was the one person who deserved no punishment. He lived a wonderful life of selfless giving, truth, and integrity, but He was executed as a common criminal. By dying on the cross, He, the perfect Man, took our punishment and brought us free forgiveness.
1 Peter 3:18
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,
The death of Jesus is not the end of the story. Before He died, Jesus said He would come back from the grave after three days. At the time nobody believed Him. But then ...
God accepted Jesus’ death as payment in full for our sins and raised Him from the dead. The risen Jesus is now what humanity was always meant to be: God’s ruler of the world. Jesus has conquered death and now gives new life to us. One day He will return to judge the world.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
By rising from the dead, Jesus proved once and for all that He did indeed have all the power and authority He claimed to have as the Son of God. That leaves us with two options ...
Our way [to live]
Reject God as ruler
Try to run our own lives our own way
Condemned by God
Facing death and judgment
God’s way [to live]
Submit to Jesus as Lord
Rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection
Forgiven by God
Given eternal life(20)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Today there is a sense that the church has swept to the other spectrum and has overemphasized individualism resulting in a rather man-centered Gospel. Instead, let us turn in humble adoration to our God who called us out of fear and uncertainty because of His own love and not any merit to be found in us. As new creations,
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
let us serve Christ and others out of thankfulness for what Christ has done. As the body of Christ, let us work together in unity for the cause of our Savior and Lord.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let our lives (corporately and individually) image God, that man may see our good works and glorify our Father, which is in Heaven (Matthew 5:16).
(1) Quoted in E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon Press, 16th ed. 1995), 177.
(2) Jeffery L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), 224.
(4) Friedrich Heer, The Medieval World: Europe 110-1350 (New York: Welcome Rain, 1961), 35.
(5) Guibert de Nogent, “On Relics” in C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York: Macmillan, c.1910), Vol I, 15-22 (www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html).
(6) Jacques de Vitry, “The Relics of St. Martin Healed Two Beggars Against Their Will,” in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]). Vol II, No 4, pp. 11-14 (www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html).
(7) Guibert de Nogent, (www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html).
(8) Jacques Le Goff, Medieval Civilization , trans. by Julia Barrow (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), 325.
(9) Heer, 35.
(10) Heer, 36.
(11) Gervase of Canterbury, “Architects at Work,” in Norman F. Cantor, ed., The Medieval Reader (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1994), 172.
(12) William of St. Thierry, “William of St. Thierry: A Description of Clairvaux, c. 1143” in Frederic Austin Ogg, ed., A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the German Invasions to the Renaissance, (New York, 1907, reprinted by Cooper Square Publishers (New York), 1972), pp. 258-260 (www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html).
(13) Gombrich, 173.
(14) Pictured and described in Gombrich, 176-77.
(15) Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968), 275.
(16) Descriptions of symbolisms in Le Goff, 332-33.
(17) Quoted in Gombrich, 167.
(18) Grombrich, 165.
(19) LeGoff, 325.
(20) "Two Ways to Live" (http://matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/) adapted by Barbara Hughes in Disciplines of a Godly Woman (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001), 29-32.