Symbols of Romanesque Sculpture
Articles on the iconography and symbology of the stone carved relief sculptures of the Romanesque churches on the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela. For the medieval mind, the visible world was just a veil which concealed the true reality and this was reflected in art. Images held complex symbolic significance.
The Romanesque attitude to images was heavily informed by the idea that as a matter of course they were subject to no single interpretation but instead carried multiple layers of meaning.
The depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s Den was one of the most iconic in the whole Romanesque canon. It was also one of the most ancient images known to man, emerging out of Sumeria in the third millennium BC.
On the south aisle of the basilica of Marie Madeleine at Vézelay in Burgundy is an exceptional carved capital often referred to as the Mystic Mill. The depiction of two male figures, one pouring grain into a mill and the other receiving the processed flour into a sack...
The Chrismon was an early Christian symbol which generally consisted of an X superimposed over a cross bearing the Greek letters Alpha and Omega on each arm. While it largely disappeared from Western European Christian art of the medieval period, the Chrismon continued to be used in Spain and its near ubiquitous presence in Romanesque Aragonese sculpture arises from a specific set of circumstances.
Representations of the pilgrimage to Compostela in Romanesque sculpture are rare. Nevertheless, such depictions are remarkable when the contemporaneous pilgrimage is conflated with the New Testament story of the Journey to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel.
Depictions of the Twenty-Four Elders are a recurrent feature of Romanesque sculpture of the twelfth century and unequivocally denoted Apocalyptic significance.
Biblical references to the Elders, all derive from that text which so preoccupied the Romanesque mentality, the Book of Revelation.
The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is featured frequently in Romanesque sculpture. It was a typological representation of the of Cult of the Martyrs.
Although the scallop shell was adopted as an emblem by pilgrims to several shrines such as Mont Saint Michel, it was to become uniquely associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
The image of an ass playing a harp is a recurrent theme in Romanesque sculpture. Invariably restricted to marginal areas such as modillions and corbels or the outer archivolt of a porch entrance.
Sculpted Atlants, crouched figures placed strategically inside and outside Romanesque churches, supporting parts of the structure of the building, are a common theme of pilgrimage road sculpture.
At Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour at Aulnay de Saintonge, a number of mysterious carved capitals are presented at repeated intervals inside and outside. The church lies along the Tours route to Santiago de Compostela. The capital reliefs both on the exterior and the interior of the church feature a series of disembodied heads or masks.
The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac appears frequently in Romanesque art. Examples can be seen on interior capitals at Autun, Conques and St Sernin de Toulouse and at the cloister of Moissac. It is also featured on the trumeau at Souillac.
The depiction of the elect residing in the bosom of Abraham is an essential theme in Romanesque sculpture and occurs as part of the large scale sculptural ensembles at Moissac, Conques and Arles.
The Capital of the Four Wind Spirits at Vézelay is a remarkable piece Benedictine Cluniac art. Located on the west face of an engaged column half way down the southern nave of the abbey church, it combines Classical and Biblical references in a sophisticated, elegant design.
The Apparition of Christ to Saint Thomas is rarely depicted in Romanesque sculpture. A short distance south of pilgrimage road near Burgos in Castile, the cloister piers of the Benedictine Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos all feature large scale images of the Resurrected Christ.
Beneath the massive tympanum sculpture of the Last Judgment at the cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun in Burgundy is a capital representing the Old Testament account of the prophet Balaam.
Samson was a Nazirite, a Hebrew who took special vows. These were to abstain from wine and the proximity to dead corpses and the cutting of one’s hair. The preponderance of images of Samson in Romanesque sculpture may be connected with the similarity between the two words Nazirite and Nazarene, the word often used to describe Jesus.
It was a time of widespread church construction and it coincided with the great age of European pilgrimage culture. A close association was formed between the roads to Compostela and the development of the style of building and sculpture known as the Romanesque.