The Romanesque symbolism of permanence

A poem of living stones. In their form, the Romanesque symbols are akin to clay pots. They contain, however, living water, the mystery of the Holy Grail. Carriers of ancient wisdom, they reveal the true Knowledge that prevents human death and radiate everlasting youth.

In the 12th century, raw, virgin stone is deemed androgynous, which refers to the perfection of the original state. Cut and carved, it marks the separation of the principles. The stone may be conical or cubical. The conical symbolizes the male element and the cubical the female, respectively.

The stones are not however inert masses: like the betyls, they are living bodies fallen down from heaven. They stay animate after the Fall. By virtue of its immobility, the stone is the epitome of wisdom. Often associated with water, the stone is central to the Old Testament episode where Moses strikes a stone and water streams down. (Exodus, XVII, 6).

Another biblical symbolism draws attention to the stone’s nutritious character: the Devil challenges Christ to turn the stones into loaves of bread (Matthew, 4, 3). For the 12th century man, the stone gives life but also sustains it.

The famous female mystic Hildegard of Bingen described the three virtues of the stone: humidity, palpability and the igneous solidity. Humidity arrests dissolution; owing to its palpable nature, man can tackle and subject it to his will; the fire that lies within its core makes it ever more adamant.

A stone builder is an alchemist. He explores the hidden passages of turning nothing into something. He examines all the possible crossings from virtuality to actualization. The builder, the artist, the architect, they all bear the same name and gather all artistic and professional functions. Multiplicity is imperfection, therefore one man presides over the edification of a sanctuary. Once completed, the stones can relay the effort and hold arches, keep walls upright and, as at the abbey of Mont Saint Michel in Normandy (below), thwart the unremitting oppression of the sea, in periculo maris.

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The apse of Fontevraud Abbey. According to 12th century thought, the microcosm and the macrocosm forms the being, that is everything that can have an existence. The church is a microcosm built to resemble a macrocosm whose attributes it takes upon consecration. The chancel is the upper part of a church and thus the head of the microcosm, where the plenary power resides and where the connection with the macrocosm becomes achievable. The half circular shape of the apse points to the East where the Sun (sol invictus) rises and where grace abounds. From this perspective, the configuration of the church follows the mystical plan of Hildegard of Bingen, mentioned above: an ascensional staircase releasing its lower energy under the portal (see photo below) then running through the nave, step after step, past the crossing of the transept, into the choir where the blazing vitality reaches the apex. Under the stone arches that soon made way for an ambulatory, the mystery of all mysteries is revealed to the pious eyewitness. Here, the mysticism of light and stone, verticality and potency, permanence and singularity in manifested in its entirety.

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The abbey church of Paray-le-Monial in Burgundy

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The church of Saint George of Boscherville in Normandy

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In his essay “L’art religieux du XIIe siècle”, the French art historian Emile Mâle drew attention to the relationship between the 12th century scholars and the artists: “When iconography changes, when art espouses new themes, it means that a scholar has collaborated with an artist”. Here, this capital from the abbey of Saint George of Boscherville in Normandy (Seine-Maritime) shows how figurative sculptural art draws its vigour from 12th c. scholasticism. An artist is therefore never alone in his artistic endeavors, no matter how creative and original his work is. Philosophical and theological thought, illuminated illustrations, all form the ancestry of an original artistic mind in the Romanesque 12th century.

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The church St Pierre at Lion sur Mer in Normandy

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Decorated capital at Fontevraud Abbey

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Castle Acre priory church in Norfolk, England

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Mythical creature swallowing a column at Lincoln Cathedral

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The nave of Fontevraud Abbey

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It is therefore not surprising that the city of Minas Tirith from the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was conceived in a mimicking Romanesque style. The city had been there for thousands of years and the way of conveying the idea of permanence is to relate its buildings, fortifications and the top-level palace architecture (more of a basilica, actually) to the 12th century churches and castles.

For more photos click here and you’ll be taken to my Flickr photostream. To find out where the photo was taken (before I rename and add caption to all photos), please refer to the photo tags inside Flickr

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