Romanesque Art and Sculpture in Spain

Although churches and monasteries dominate the Romanesque world, mainly because of their size and visibility, Romanesque culture also includes art (frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, some stained glass) and sculpture. And since religion governed much of medieval life, the best examples of medieval art and sculpture are generally found in religious buildings.

The Romanesque world extended roughly from about the late 10th century to around 1200.  In Spain, it flourished in the northern half of the country and is notable by its absence in the south which –despite advances made by the Christian kingdoms of the north– was still firmly held by Muslim al-Andalus.

Among the characteristics of Romanesque churches were the thick, solid looking walls necessary to support the weight of the heavy stone vaulting. As a result, windows were typically small and narrow, leaving the interiors of the churches dim. Nevertheless, most interiors were brighter than they appear now, because they were covered with brightly coloured frescoes. 

Unfortunately, however, in many instances the frescoes have disappeared, often covered by lime to protect against plagues or plastered over by later generations, or simply having succumbed to the ravages of time and neglect.

Happily, some outstanding examples have survived.  In León, the Royal Pantheon of the Basílica of San Isidoro survived even the depredation of Napoleon’s soldiers (who made off with much of the gold and jewelry), and is one of the greatest in situ treasures of Romanesque fresco art in Spain.

Pantheon of the Basilica of San Isidro, León.

Covering virtually all the wall surface of the pantheon, these still remarkably vivid paintings draw on a range of medieval interests: Biblical scenes including the lives of Christ and the Apostles, signs of the Zodiac and a wonderful pictorial calendar depicting agricultural activities related to each month.

Nevertheless, probably the best place anywhere in Spain (and possibly Europe) to view Romanesque art is the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona where altar paintings and numerous frescoes from walls and ceilings were carefully stripped in the 1920s from abandoned churches in isolated Catalan valleys and beautifully restored for public viewing.

Catalan frescoes, as a whole, are the jewels of Romanesque mural painting.  Boldly conceived, the figures show something of a Byzantine influence, with large eyes and piercing black pupils that fix us with their gaze, and strongly outlined limbs beneath the richly coloured vestments.

Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona. 12th-century altar frontal. From the church at Durro, Vall de Bol. Scenes of martyrdom.

Like the structural differences between Catalan and Castilian churches (e.g. the Lombardy-inspired towers), the interior decorations of Catalan Romanesque churches also show at this early age factors that distinguish Catalonia from its western neighbours. 

Catalonia’s close relationship with the Mediterranean (it was just about to embark on its own imperial trip into that sea) and its proximity to southern France and Italy meant that it tended to look in a different direction from Castile.  Its architecture and art are but one facet of the political and cultural uniqueness of Catalonia that defines the ongoing struggle between centralisation and regionalism in the country as a whole.

The frescoes that adorned Romanesque churches were not mere decorations but rather served a didactic purpose. So too the sculpture that began to be used extensively during the period.

In an age when the masses were illiterate, sculpture and painting offered the faithful a visual memory aid to the Bible and to Christian ethics. St Bonaventure puts it this way: Images were made for the simplicity of the ignorant, so that the uneducated who are unable to read scripture can, through statues and paintings of this kind read about the sacraments of our faith in, as it were, more open scriptures…. They were introduced on account of the transitory nature of memory, because those things which are only heard fall into oblivion more easily than those things which are seen (Binksi 35).

Most of the sculpture was concentrated around the entrances, above and around the doorways (tympanum, archivolts and side jambs), and the capitals atop pillars.

Romanesque capital. Sta. María de Piascas in Cantabria. Adoration of the Three Wise Men.

The capitals, inside and outside, especially in the cloisters of monasteries, are wonderful places to spot small-scale gems of medieval life and imagination: knights on horseback or jousting, peasants at work, fabulous animals and birds, monsters and beasts; but biblical scenes also abound, all telling a familiar story whose lesson would not be lost on the faithful.

Nevertheless, it is the larger porticos that are the glory of Romanesque sculpture. In the cathedrals and larger churches or monasteries, the sculpture can be spectacular, from the intricate and delicate plant decoration of the archivolts over the polylobed south door of Santa María Magdalena (Zamora) to the breathtaking entrances to the former Benedictine Monastery of Santa María (Ripoll, Catalonia) and to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Zamora: Sta. María Magdalena. South Door

The 12th-century Western portico to the Catalan monastery of Ripoll –a vast tableau of Biblical figures in six horizontal layers surrounding the richly ornamented doorway– is now protected by a glassed-in porch, but nevertheless shows the ravages of weather.  Fortunately, it survived the torching of the rest of the building, set aflame by fanatical liberals in the 19th century.

Ripoll, Sta María. Western Portico.
Moving upwards from the lowest layer, where monsters fight, we can still make out Old Testament scenes drawn from Exodus (Moses) and Kings (David and Solomon) to the triumph of God and His people inspired by the Apocalyptic visions of Revelations in the New Testament. 

The whole tableau has been interpreted too in political terms: a grandiose illustration of Christian victory at a time when the Reconquista had gathered considerable momentum, and important Catalan cities had recently returned to Christian hands: e.g. Lérida (Lleida) and Tortosa in 1148.

It carries an air of self-confidence befitting a people on the march, specifically the Catalans. At the time, Ripoll was the cultural heart of Catalonia, and its library one of the best in Christian Europe, and a centre through which Arabic learning filtered to the north.

Impressive as it is, the portico to Santa María in Ripoll is outclassed at the western extreme of the peninsula by the remarkable and aptly named Pórtico de la Gloria, the western doorway to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago de Compostela: Pórtico de la Gloria.
A late 12th-century work by one Master Mateo, it is widely recognised as the most outstanding Romanesque group sculpture in Spain and perhaps in Europe, fortunately still in excellent condition, having been protected from the elements since the mid 18th century  by a Baroque façade. 

The proximity of the façade does, however, impede viewers from standing back and enjoying a wide angle view of the three arches that make up the portico.   That is what weary medieval pilgrims would have seen first upon arrival at the church, a fitting climax to their long and arduous journey.

They would have looked upwards in awe at the unobstructed view of a dazzling array of figures, furthermore painted in rich colours (much of Romanesque sculpture was in fact polychrome, but here as elsewhere the colours have worn away), and they would undoubtedly have marvelled at the centre dominated by a massive, almost ten foot high, throned figure of Christ in Glory, and immediately beneath, seated on the single central column depicting the tree of Jesse, the figure of St James (Santiago, holding a pilgrim’s staff), whose bones they had come to venerate. Santiago, greeting them as they made their way into the church, mediating between them and their Saviour!

If modern pilgrims cannot enjoy the same panorama, they can at least follow those Medieval and later pilgrims, including saints and popes, in placing their hands in the indentation below the feet of Saint James as a sign of gratitude for their safe arrival. And from there they can move to the other side of the same pillar and bend and touch heads with the kneeling figure of a man popularly believed to represent Master Mateo himself. Known locally as the saint of the bumps, the statue is traditionally believed to bestow some of the Master’s talent and wisdom on those who touch it with their heads!

Again, the stone carvings are not merely decorative.  They are meant to inspire devotion and they are meant to convey a message.
Reproduction of the Portico de la Gloria at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The central and largest arch is the Christian church, the true church triumphant, flanked on the left by an arch with figures representing the Jewish faith awaiting the Messiah, and on the right another arch depicting through deformed monsters or devils the false dogmas of pagans.

But what makes the Pórtico de la Gloria exceptional are the details of the parts and the harmonious composition of the whole. The figures of the prophets and apostles supported on the jambs are strongly individual and wonderfully expressive.

They can be identified by symbols associated with them (e.g. keys for the apostle Peter) or simply by a scroll carrying their names, but the faces, the hands, the poses of the bodies make them far more alive than the formalised shape of most medieval statues.

There is the mischievous smile of the clean-shaven Daniel sharing a moment with Jeremiah, whose furrowed brows suggest surprise at his friend’s demeanor (locals like to say that Daniel is actually eyeing the lovely Queen Esther across from him.  Has he just made a suggestive comment about her to the pessimistic Jeremiah?).

On the other side of Daniel, Isaiah looks somewhat ill-tempered as he stares grouchily across his shoulder at Moses, as if Moses has just said something to upset him.  On the other side of the arch, James the Greater (i.e. St James or Santiago) and his younger brother, the youthful John the Evangelist, are deep in conversation, James clearly doing the talking as he emphatically taps his left  hand with a scroll, and John’s eyes, looking downward, capturing wonderfully his reflective role.
Apostles on right hand pillar: From left to right: Sts. Peter, Paul, James the Greater (i.e. St James/Santiago), John the Evangelist. To left, on single pillar is the main carving of St. James (Santiago).
In the archivolt above Christ, the twenty four elders of the Apocalypse (whose musical instruments are so realistically portrayed that they have been invaluable to musicologists in identifying Medieval instruments), have clearly taken a break from their orchestral labours, and are making the most of the moment to chat with their neighbours.

The general impression is that these figures break the bonds of their stone and the space they are confined in and come alive before us; they have individualistic qualities that herald the Renaissance: they are serious, funny, preoccupied, surprised, so like human beings.

So much so that they aroused the fury of an anti-religious fanatic during the Civil War of 1936-39, who tried to blow up the Portico but fortunately failed.  It would have been a devastating artistic loss, but great art is inherently dangerous to ideologues, who like to control what people say, and these figures have been talking across the centuries and have not been silenced. Rosalía de Castro, the great Galician poet of the 19th century, captured the spirit of the Pórtico to perfection:

Saints and Apostles, see them!  It seems

that their lips move, that they are talking quietly
one to another.

Are they alive?  Could they possibly be made of stone
those lifelike figures
those marvellous robes
those eyes brimming with life ( Casas 219).

Binski, Paul     Medieval Craftsmen: Painters Toronto 1991
Casas, Penelope  Discovering Spain  New York 1996
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda K  The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago  New York 2000
Norman, Edward    The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History London 1990
O’Neill, John P (ed)    The Art of Medieval Spain a.d. 500-1200 New York 1993
Palol, Pedro de & Hirmer, Max    Early Medieval Art in Spain London 1967
White, Robert     A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York 1998
León, San Isidoro Royal Pantheon:
Zamora, Sta María Magdalena:
Santiago, Pórtico de la Gloria:
Sta. María de Piascas, Cantabria:
Reproduction of the Pórtico:,_Santiago_de_Compostela.jpg?uselang=es
The Apostles, Santiago:
For a detailed examination of the Pórtico de la Gloria in Spanish, see: Click “Lectura” and then click “Quien es quien.”