In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Romanesque Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Architecture
  • Iconography

Medieval Studies Romanesque Art
Elizabeth Valdez del Álamo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0074


The fully vaulted building and its large-scale sculptural decoration is the great invention of Romanesque art of the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe. Dramatic compositions, often with figures expressively distorted for heightened emotional appeal, are characteristic of the arts of the time. Around the year 1000 CE, after devastating invasions by the Normans, Hungarians, and Muslims, a period of prosperity and rebuilding began in which the arts flowered. The church, as the greatest international power of the time, sponsored the construction of large-scale buildings decorated with sculpture, wall paintings, stained glass, as well as illuminated manuscripts and jeweled furnishings. The sheer inventiveness, liveliness, and profoundly theological basis for Romanesque art has lent itself to rich scholarship on iconography, patronage, pilgrimage, and audience reception as well as on the sociopolitical forces behind artistic production. The term, however, does not denote an international style, as does “Gothic,” with which “Romanesque” overlaps chronologically. Although Gothic can be identified as having specific origins, there is no clear point of origin or any unifying element in so-called Romanesque art. Because the Carolingian 9th century first employed the artistic forms that would characterize Romanesque, many would argue logically that there is a continuum from the 9th century onward. The word itself was invented in the early 19th century to describe pre-Gothic vaulted architecture, deemed to be “in the manner of the Romans” because of its rounded arches and barrel vaults. By extension, “Romanesque” was applied to the newly monumental sculpture that decorated these buildings, and eventually to other media produced in Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries. Ironically, even though the architecture was compared to Classical Rome, the figural arts were often described as “anti-Classical” because they were generally more fantastic than naturalistic. With its schematic renderings, and stylized expressiveness, Romanesque painting and sculpture did not find a modern audience until abstract art emerged in the early 20th century. The following bibliography selects surveys and bibliographies that should lead the user to more focused studies in the field.

General Overviews

There are few satisfactory surveys of Romanesque art mainly because it is difficult to define as a single entity (Bober in Mâle 1978; see also Historiography). As art historians classified their subject into periods, “Romanesque” became the descriptor of art c. 1000–1200 (Grodecki, et al. 1973, Avril, et al. 1982, Avril, et al. 1983; see also Textbooks), but it would also be correct to broaden the range to c. 800–1200 (Dodwell 1993, Historiography, Luxury Arts, Architecture). For graduate students or scholars wishing a thorough overview of Romanesque art, Grodecki, et al. 1973, Avril, et al. 1982, and Avril, et al. 1983 are essential reference tools. The three are part of the series L’Univers des formes, which has been translated, in part, into several languages, but these volumes are not in English. A large number of coffee-table books with spectacular photographs are currently on the market, but their formulaic texts do not provide the tools for serious research. The first grand vision of the period was furnished by Émile Mâle in his 1922 study of religious imagery of the 12th century (see Mâle 1978). He vividly described art and a society in service of the church. Mâle’s strongly nationalistic statements about the priority of French art caused him to become engaged in a war of words with Arthur Kingsley Porter (see Porter 1923, cited in Sculpture). The very influential Focillon 1980 (also cited under Sculpture), identified “laws” in which forms went through evolutionary stages and were subordinated to their context, architecture or a frame, a theory strongly affirmed by most scholars, especially in France (e.g., Grodecki, et al. 1973). Schapiro found these theories flawed, but his views were less well known because his initial response was published in German (see Schapiro 1977). Additional responses remained unpublished until after his death (see Sculpture). Unlike Focillon, Schapiro identified the coexistence of various styles in a single location and interpreted the figure-frame relationship as an expression of meaning, not arbitrary “laws.” Schapiro 1977 first demonstrated a love of art for its own sake on the part of medieval authors; religious content was not necessary for an artwork to be appreciated as Mâle 1978 assumed.

  • Avril, François, Xavier Barral i Altet, and Danielle Gaborit-Chopin. Le Monde roman 1060–1220. Vol. 1, Le temps des Croisades. L’Univers des formes 29. Paris: Gaillimard, 1982.

    The first of two volumes on Le Monde roman 1060–1220 (see also Avril, et al. 1983). The Holy Roman Empire and related sites are covered: Germany, northeast France, Burgundy, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Provence, Italy; and the Holy Land. Artworks inadequately covered in many surveys are included: civil and military architecture, enamels, metalwork and manuscripts. Plans and reconstructions, a synchronized table correlating objects with historical events, thorough bibliography, a dictionary-index, and maps, some repeated in Avril, et al. 1983. In French.

  • Avril, François, Xavier Barral i Altet, and Danielle Gaborit-Chopin. Le Monde roman, 1060–1220. Vol. 2, Les royaumes d’Occident. L’Univers des formes 30. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.

    Volume 2 of Le Monde roman 1060–1220 (see also Avril, et al. 1982) includes Norway, England, Ireland, France, Spain, and Portugal. Emphasizes movements of the population contributing to shared tastes in diverse regions. Provides a balanced view of the development of monumental sculpture, even if some dating has since been corrected. Includes essays on “Romanesque,” “Transitional,” and “early Gothic”; the importance of period mentalité; and the social and physical context for understanding images. Plans and reconstructions, a synchronized table correlating objects with historical events, bibliography, a dictionary-index, and maps. In French.

  • Dodwell, C. R. Pictorial Arts of the West 800–1200. Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Organized geographically, chronologically, and by the various painting media within centers of production (embroidery, wall painting, glass painting, manuscripts, mosaics, and panel painting). Useful introductory essays provide background on Byzantine art and the West, attitudes to figural art, traveling artists, and portable objects. Clearly lays out the issues of identifying scriptoria and their impact, set within the broader historical context. Where there is scholarly disagreement, the question is explained. Good maps, notes, separate index for iconography and named artists.

  • Focillon, Henri. The Art of the West in the Middle Ages. Translated by Donald King. Edited by Jean Bony. 3d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

    Forms and styles evolve from archaic to classic then to baroque. The relationship between architecture and sculpture is explained by “the law of the frame,” in which a figure is subject to the shape of its enclosing frame, often leading to its distortion. Enlightening, highly influential since Focillon taught in France and the United States. Nevertheless, these “laws” are not as hard and fast as Focillon makes them seem. Originally published in French in 1938.

  • Grodecki, Louis, Florentine Mütterich, Jean Taralon, and Francis Wormald. Le Siècle de l’an mil, 950–1050. Vol. 5, Le Premier millénaire occidental. L’Univers des formes 20. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.

    A fundamental survey of the art of Europe during the 11th century, with detailed maps, thorough bibliography, and names, dates, dimensions, and shelf numbers for the artworks illustrated. Chapters treat architecture and monumental decoration, as well as manuscript painting and luxury arts. Southern Europe gets short shrift for architecture, which covers only Catalonia in the Iberian Peninsula, but the same does not hold true in the other essays. In French.

  • Mâle, Émile. Religious Art in France, the Twelfth Century: A Study of the Origins of Medieval Iconography. Translated by Marthiel Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    Mâle’s lively account of art inspired by the cult of the saints, pilgrimage, liturgical drama, and Eastern sources brought the period to a broader public. The 12th century is treated as a whole, not as “Romanesque” or “Gothic.” His work is fundamental even if many specific ideas have since been disputed or corrected: for example, that Romanesque sculpture was born in France and that Abbot Suger first devised the image of the Tree of Jesse. First published in 1922.

  • Schapiro, Meyer. Selected Papers. Vol. 1, Romanesque Art. New York: Braziller, 1977.

    Valuable insight into the nature of Romanesque art is found in the articles “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” (1947), and “On Geometrical Schematism in Romanesque Art” (1932–1933; only in German until 1977). Schapiro’s must-read essay on the aesthetic attitude is still the best introduction to medieval art but lacks illustrations necessary for students to follow the argument. His critique of the “law of the frame” (Focillon 1980) is found in the essay on geometrical schematism.

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