In the eleventh century, a church-building boom started across Europe. The causes of this increased activity
were many, but one might have been a widespread sense of relief and thanksgiving following the passing
of the year 1000—the year when many people feared the world would end. Along with renewed building
activity, there was also a renewal of large-scale sculpture, especially architectural sculpture decorating
doorways and other parts of the churches.
The style of the eleventh and twelfth centuries is called Romanesque because the architecture uses
rounded arches and vaults similar to those used by the Romans (Romanesque literally means “Roman-like”).
But the people who built the great Romanesque churches were probably not directly emulating Roman
forms; instead, it is likely they were building upon traditions revived during the time of Charlemagne.
Romanesque sculpture is expressive, angular, and elastic—proportions are stretched or squashed to fit
particular spaces. Two common themes in sculpture are the Last Judgment and the Second Coming, both
reminders that the Apocalypse is yet to come. Manuscript illumination and other two-dimensional works
show a similar expressiveness: colors are bright, and figures gesture emphatically. The proportions of
figures were still very elastic, but a sharply observed realism is often seen, especially in marginal figures.
In the eleventh century, the pilgrimage became an important way for Christians to show their faith (and to
see the world). The destinations of these long and arduous journeys were always places where important
relics were housed. When the pilgrims prayed before the relics, they received indulgences, which the
Church promised would reduce their time in Purgatory after death. All churches had relics, but having more
of them or more important relics definitely increased the churches’ number of visitors; not surprisingly,
there were many fraudulent relics and thefts during this time. Relics were often displayed in reliquaries,
which were containers made of precious materials.
In France, there were five main pilgrimage roads that all converged in city of Santiago de Compostela in
northwestern Spain. Compostela was the place where the body of St. James, one of the twelve apostles,
had been miraculously transported; this relic was among the most important in Europe. Because the
churches along the pilgrimage roads shared the same purposes (and possibly the same workmen), they
form a remarkably similar group. The pilgrimage churches, including Sainte-Foy in Conques and Saint-Sernin
in Toulouse are also excellent examples of the Romanesque style in general.
The typical plan of a pilgrimage church is cross-shaped. The side aisles continue from the entrance, along
the side of the nave, along each side of the transept, and then around the apse where they become the
ambulatory. Extending from the apse and transept are many smaller chapels, each containing an altar with
a relic, which pilgrims could visit to receive even more indulgences. The aisles thus form a continuous
pathway so that pilgrims could walk around the body of the church to the chapels, collect indulgences at
each chapel, and then exit the church without disturbing the religious ceremony that may be taking place
in the nave.
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