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The Spirit of Romanesque

Romanesque Art: Selected Papers

by Meyer Schapiro
Braziller, 368 pp., $30.00

Meyer Schapiro, now in his early seventies, is, without question, one of the leading art historians of the older generation, and his fame is based as much on his publications as on his gifts as a teacher. Those who have heard him lecture are unlikely ever to forget his style of delivery, full of passion and persuasive eloquence, which keeps the audience almost hypnotically spell-bound. After listening to Schapiro lecture in London many years ago, I overheard the remark that St. Bernard must have preached the Second Crusade in a similar way.

Schapiro’s contribution to scholarship lies chiefly in two periods, the art of the early Middle Ages and modern art. I remember him giving a lecture on the Book of Kells at the Courtauld Institute one day and on Cézanne at the Warburg Institute the next, both equally memorable. The present volume reflects his long-standing interest in Romanesque art, chiefly in France, and, in fact, it was in this field that he began his scholarly career, some fifty years ago, with a doctoral dissertation for Columbia University, devoted to the sculptural decoration of Moissac Abbey.

We are told by the publisher that Romanesque Art is the first in the four-volume series of Schapiro’s Selected Papers. The subsequent volumes are to include studies ranging from Early Christian to modern art. The publication of “selected papers” by various well-known scholars, living or dead, has become fashionable in recent years, and there is, it seems, a ready market for them. It is undoubtedly very convenient to have articles which were scattered in periodicals, some not readily accessible, and in even more tiresome Festschriften gathered in one volume. Unfortunately, the price of these collected reprints is often beyond the means of students and younger scholars.

Romanesque Art consists of eight articles, the earliest written in the late Twenties, the last read at the International Congress of the History of Art in 1961, so it includes youthful studies and a number of mature works. The author states that he is “aware of many imperfections, inconsistencies, and unclear formulations in those papers, but to correct them would require more rewriting than I can undertake now,” and that his justification for reprinting them is the belief that they “still have some interest for students of [Romanesque] art.” He further admits that “except in a few places, it has not been possible for me to add references to more recent literature.” This is understandable enough, though it is a pity that a younger person was not entrusted with this task, for the usefulness of the book would have been thus greatly increased. A model for this kind of work is Henri Focillon’s The Art of the West, first published in 1938, and when translated into English in 1963 (twenty years after the author’s death), it was provided with invaluable annotations and a new bibliography by Jean Bony. However, it would be ungrateful and ungracious to labor this point, for the advantage of having these papers, even if practically unchanged, assembled in a handy and handsome book is self-evident. The author can rest assured that his works not only “still have some interest,” but will be a source of inspiration for many generations of art historians to come.

Two of the papers included in the book deal with the problems of aesthetics. In the first, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art,” Schapiro argues against the belief that Romanesque art is dictated solely by structural or religious intentions, and puts forward the view that it is, on the contrary, often imbued with spontaneity and individuality. In both book illumination and architectural decoration, the artists of the period frequently went far beyond what was required of them in providing a set of pictures for a liturgical book or some religious carving on a tympanum. Delightful initials, often depicting monsters or humorous subjects, were not needed for the better understanding of the text, but were used extensively merely to give pleasure and to provide entertainment. The celebrated letter of St. Bernard, attacking the practice of carving cloister capitals with monsters, shows that even a puritan such as he could not help but admire the inventiveness and artistry of such a nonreligious decoration, employed for no other than aesthetic reasons. Schapiro writes:

…recalling the monstrous sculptures of the cloisters, we are impressed by the fact that although Bernard condemns these works as meaningless and wasteful, he has written so vivid an inventory of their subjects and characterized them with such precision; every theme he mentions may be found in surviving Romanesque churches and cloisters. The saint has perused these capitals no less attentively than have the monks whom he reproaches for meditating the sculptures instead of the Bible or the Fathers. Only a mind deeply drawn to such things could recall them so fully; and only a mind with some affinity to their forms could apply to these carvings the paradoxical phrase: “that marvellous deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity (mira quaedam deformis formositas ac formosa deformitas),” which resembles in its chiasmic, antithetic pattern a typical design of Romanesque art.

In the second paper, “On Geometrical Schematism in Romanesque Art,” he rejects the theories formulated by Jurgis Baltrušaitis in La Stylistique Ornementale dans la Sculpture Romane (1931), in which the French-Lithuanian scholar claimed that the forms of Romanesque sculpture were determined by basic geometric schemes which explain their seemingly arbitrary distortions. Schapiro’s argument militates against this, what he calls, artificial or schematic dialectic, which ignores the role played by the meanings of the works and their historical development.

Both papers, written sixteen years apart, reveal Schapiro’s humanistic approach, and his passionate beliefs that the art of the past should not be studied with preconceived ideas and that rigid theories distort our understanding of it. The art of the distant past can be comprehended only if it is studied by a method which takes into account “the critical correlation of the forms and meanings in the images with historical conditions of the same period and region.”

This quotation comes from my favorite article of Schapiro’s, “From Mozarabic to Romanesque,” published in The Art Bulletin in 1939 and included in Romanesque Art. Silos, that enchanting Benedictine abbey south of Burgos in Castile, has been the subject of a heated controversy, chiefly between the great American scholar Arthur Kingsley Porter and a group of French archaeologists, headed by Paul Deschamps. The French view was that Romanesque sculpture originated in Languedoc—in Toulouse and in Moissac—and that consequently the Romanesque sculpture of the rest of Europe was derived from the French. Porter, with his usual frankness, accused French scholarship of narrow chauvinism, and produced overwhelming evidence refuting the theory of the Languedocian origin of Romanesque sculpture on the grounds that, at the same time, in other centers in France, Italy, and Spain, sculpture of a similar character was being produced.

Spain or Toulouse” was the issue between the two opposing parties, and the date of the sculpture preserved in the marvelous cloister of Silos became the object of numerous studies claiming such diverse dates for its execution as before 1073 and during the second quarter of the twelfth century. Meyer Schapiro’s contribution to this controversy, published in 1930, is, sadly, not included in the present volume. In it, he dated Silos to between 1080 and 1118, and suggested that the most likely date was the end of the eleventh century. All in vain, for French scholars still reject any possibility that Silos can be earlier than Moissac (for instance, in the selected papers of Georges Gaillard, Études d’Art Roman, published posthumously by the Sorbonne in 1972, his article of 1932 is reprinted, ending with his unshakable belief in the priority of Moissac over Silos).

Schapiro’s 1939 article on Silos, included in the book, provides a masterly and fully documented study (in which thirty-eight pages of text are followed by thirty-five of footnotes) of the cloister sculpture and of the paintings in the Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse, executed in Silos between 1073 and 1109. The paintings are a belated example of Mozarabic art, the style developed by Spanish Christians under Moorish rule, in which, as Schapiro comments, “the figures in a common action are detached from each other and immobilized.” (See illustration on this page.) The sculptures are in the early Romanesque style, in which, he writes, “the activity of a figure…often exceeds in its energy of response the natural organic adjustment to the surrounding objects.”

Schapiro analyzes in detail this curious coexistence of old and new artistic tendencies in one monastic community at the close of the eleventh century, explaining that the stylistic duality was a product of the religious situation which existed at the time in Castile, when the old Mozarabic rite, peculiar to Spain, was replaced, in 1080 or 1081, by the Roman rite. This change was not accepted without some resistance to Roman authority, and the two works, the book and the sculptured cloister, illustrate well the struggle between tradition and the innovation that was taking place at Silos. Schapiro’s convincing and sensible arguments provide the best explanation so far of the preciosity and exotic flavor of the Silos sculptures, presumably earlier by a few years than the sculpture of another famous cloister, that of Moissac Abbey in Languedoc, not far from Toulouse.

It is understandable that Schapiro became involved in the “Spain or Toulouse” controversy, since his first study, his doctoral dissertation, was concerned with Moissac, and so he was particularly well equipped to assess the issues involved. Part of the dissertation was published in 1931 in The Art Bulletin, and it forms more than a third of the present book. The paper deals with the cloister, dated by an inscription to 1100, and with the celebrated tympanum (see illustration opposite) and sculptures of the enclosing porch, which are later by about twenty years. For a youthful work, the study is astonishing in the penetrating stylistic characterization of the sculptures, detail by detail, so much so that, writing in 1963, Jean Bony still called it “the most complete study of Moissac.”

However, as it stands, the paper has some weaknesses resulting from too great a reliance on formal analysis. We are told, for instance, that the style of the figures on the exotic marble trumeau—the pillar supporting the tympanum—is a “dilution of the powerful forms of the tympanum,” and that the trumeau is even later than the reliefs on the wall of the porch. (See illustration below.) Such a suggestion implies that the original trumeau (without which the gigantic tympanum would have collapsed) was replaced by the present one within a few years, which is most unlikely, unless it was necessitated by some overriding structural reason for which there is not the slightest evidence.

In fairness to Schapiro, it must be said that he is not alone in believing the trumeau to be later than the tympanum, for, writing in 1946, Marcel Aubert (La Sculpture Française au Moyen-Age) put forward a theory that the Moissac portal was originally in the west wall of the church, and consisted of the tympanum (without the lintel and the trumeau!) plus the figures of St. Peter and Isaiah on the door-jambs, both executed between 1110 and 1120. Because of the decision to fortify the façade, the portal was dismantled and moved to its present position in the south wall of the west tower, and during this work, between 1120 and 1125, the lintel and the trumeau were inserted, the porch added, and the reliefs on its walls carved between 1125 and 1130. “Everything was finished before 1131, the date of the death of Abbot Roger, whose statue is placed on the exterior wall of the porch.” These neat but highly artificial arguments (the distinguished author seems to have been unaware of Schapiro’s publication on Moissac) end with a blunder, for the statue of Roger is inscribed with the title BEATUS (Blessed), which the abbot would hardly have applied to himself.

Schapiro was more perceptive and, pointing to the naturalism of the statue, declared it to be later than the portal without, however, specifying its date. As an exercise in formal analysis, “The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac” is a masterpiece. On reading it, we become aware of the considerable differences in the treatment of the various groups of capitals, which were carved by a fairly large team of sculptors. What at first sight appears homogenous is, in fact, full of unexpected variations. Our appreciation of Romanesque art is thus considerably enriched, and the method of stylistic analysis employed by Schapiro in this youthful work can still serve as a model for scholars today. In this paper, however, Schapiro did not attempt to relate the sculpture of Moissac to the art of the period, and did not define its place in the development of Romanesque sculpture as a whole. The stylistic differences between the sculpture of the cloister and of the portal are not under dispute, but the rapid transformation of one style into another is a mystery yet to be explored.

Two further papers in Romanesque Art relate in one way or another to Schapiro’s interest in Moissac. One of these, and of a comparatively recent date (1954), is entitled “Two Romanesque Drawings in Auxerre and Some Iconographic Problems.” The drawings in question, of which one represents Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Elders of the Apocalypse, were attributed to southwestern France by Emile Mâle in 1922, on the grounds that the composition is derived from the Mozarabic illuminations of the Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse, and especially one which was painted about the middle of the eleventh century at St. Sever in Gascony, and that this or a similar composition was used as a model for the tympanum at Moissac.

Mâle carelessly supported his arguments by an iconographical detail which he believed was unique to these three works—the Auxerre drawing, the St. Sever Apocalypse, and the Moissac tympanum—and this Schapiro exposes as having no validity, citing numerous examples, even some reproduced in Mâle’s own book. He then goes on to demonstrate that the two drawings, which were originally part of a Missal, were executed at St. Julien at Tours at the end of the eleventh century. This is only a crude summary of a paper which is like a detective story in which all the missing links are revealed by ingenious and learned deduction, and the truth finally uncovered. What Mâle believed was a Mozarabic model for Moissac turns out to be a purely French composition, probably evolved in the monasteries of the Loire valley.

The second paper which obviously emerged from Schapiro’s interest in Moissac is “The Sculptures of Souillac,” first published in 1939. The abbeys of Souillac and Beaulieu, which with Moissac were in the diocese of Cahors, possess portals, or fragments of portals, stylistically related to Moissac. In this paper, the author finally commits himself to dating these works precisely, if only in a footnote: the tympanum of Moissac to about 1115, Souillac 1115-1120 (in my view somewhat too early), the porch of Moissac 1120-1130, and Beaulieu to between 1125-1130. Unfortunately, he does not go into the problem of the reconstruction of the sculptures of Souillac where, in addition to four complete reliefs, including one trumeau, there is a fragment of a second trumeau, as if there were two doorways (the only other Romanesque church with two portals, which originally included trumeaux, is St. Lazare at Autun).

Schapiro’s study is almost entirely devoted to the peculiarities of the composition, which Schapiro describes as “discoordinate,” and to an explanation of the meaning of the sculpture according to contemporary interests and motives. Thus the relief with the story of Theophilus in three episodes—the pact with the devil, the submission of Theophilus-vassal to devil-seigneur, and the liberation from the contract through the Virgin’s aid—is explained by analysis of the twelfth-century situation in the region. The ancient legend of Theophilus becomes the story of feudal greed for power and of a treacherous pact. “Not in Souillac alone but throughout Romanesque art can be observed in varying degree a dual character of realism and abstraction, of secularity and dogma, rooted in the historical development and social oppositions of the time.”

The most recent of the articles reprinted in Romanesque Art is “A Relief in Rodez and the Beginnings of Romanesque Sculpture in Southern France,” published in 1963. In it, the author confesses that the relief with the figure of Christ in Rodez museum has puzzled him since his student days. The relief bears a stylistic resemblance to the celebrated capitals of Cluny Abbey in Burgundy, assigned by Porter and Conant to the end of the eleventh century. Surprisingly, Schapiro dates the Rodez relief to the second quarter of the eleventh century, although a date around 1070 would be, in my opinion, far more appropriate and make the resemblance to Cluny less astonishing.

The final paper in the book, “New Documents on Saint-Gilles,” also concerns the chronology of Romanesque sculpture, namely the much disputed façade of St. Gilles in Provence. With the discovery of a colophon in the necrology of St. Gilles in the British Library, Schapiro was able to date some funerary inscriptions on the west wall of the crypt of St. Gilles Abbey to the year 1129. In consequence, the wall, which in the past was believed to have been constructed after 1142, has been redated, suggesting that the construction of the west façade above could have been started about 1130, though this still remains a matter of controversy among art historians.

Schapiro’s contributions to our understanding of Romanesque art place him among the great masters of this field of learning. New generations of art historians will undoubtedly alter some of his interpretations and conclusions; this is inevitable, and is how it should be. But his writings will always be read with profit and pleasure, for they combine a distinguished style with distinguished scholarship.

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