The term Romanesque—meaning “in the manner of the Romans”—was coined by 19th century art historians to describe the art and architecture of Western Europe from approximately 1000- 1200 A.D. And while there was a distinct Roman influence in this era, the term is rather misleading. By stressing the Roman contribution, the label does not acknowledge the other influences that are now recognized as having been equally important in the formation of Romanesque art. The artists and architects of the Romanesque period formed an aesthetic that drew from other established artistic styles, but it was much more than just a synthesis of various influences.
One significant, non-Roman influence was the Nordic tradition of the 6th to 9th century. The Nordic aesthetic, or “Insular art,” celebrated surface patterns and bold contours. Romanesque artists used this traditionally Nordic style, most notably in the concept of space. Artists manipulated areas of space to give the impression of an interwoven pattern. For instance in an unknown artist’s relief of the Adoration of the Magi that is composed from carved whalebone, the figures are portrayed as though suspended in mid air. Their bodies systematically merge and overlap to form a pattern. The appreciation for surface pattern can also be seen in the Romanesque use of color, where areas of identical color repeat across the plane, as seen in the Bury Bible.
Byzantine influences were also extremely influential in the development of Romanesque art. Western European contact with the Byzantine culture increased dramatically during the Romanesque period, Byzantine art was readily accessible to a wider range of artists. This aesthetic retained much of the Hellenistic artistic tradition that had been lost in the West—a sense of the human body, realistic facial modeling, accurate portrayal of light, and a systematic approach for representing human emotion. Romanesque artists took these techniques and forms are readapted them into their own artistic models, as seen in the surge of wall mosaics and religious imagery.
Romanesque artists also absorbed aspects of Islamic technique and form. While Islam’s political and ideological principles stood in stark contrast to those of Western Europe, their aesthetics were in many cases much more advanced, and became a sort of educational tool for artists. This is most readily seen in the use of the pointed arch in architecture. Not since ancient Rome had architecture been so ornately designed and extravagantly executed. Techniques like the pointed arch became so prevalent throughout Europe that its use continued unabated for the next two hundred years.
The Romanesque period was a time of great transformation. Romanesque society was evolving, placing more emphasis on the individual and the human experience. By selecting aesthetic qualities and approaches from previously established artistic models, Romanesque artists were able to create a new means of artistic expression that was became response to changes in both Western society and thought.
So while the Romanesque style was influenced by many past and contemporary cultures, it was much more than a synthesis of various styles. Romanesque art is replete with originality and its ability to reinterpret and transform aesthetic forms from such diverse sources is indicative of the adaptation and dynamic nature of the artists who created it.