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Romanesque mural painting

The paintings of Romanesque art

Romanesque art is considered the first international European art, as it was born simultaneously in several parts of the continent. This art emerged in the 11th century, and its expansion was possible thanks to the crystallisation of the Way of Saint James and the relationships it promoted.

It is an art at the service of religion, and its style was destined for the construction of churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. It reached its maximum splendour during the 12th century and had a religious didactic function.

The main characteristic of Romanesque buildings is the presence of colour. The inside of the temples was decorated with mural paintings that aimed to transmit the principles of Christianity to the faithful, like the sculpture.

Originally, these paintings were in the chevet of the church, the apses, along the sidewalls, in the barrel vaults, and the back part. The iconographic programme was very rigid and followed a hierarchical arrangement.

The apses usually depicted the divinity, the apostles, and saints in the middle sections of the churches, and animals or decorative motifs in the lower part. This distribution was intended to represent the hierarchy of the society of the time.

However, this order began to relax in the mid-12th century. It was then that the apostles began to be depicted in the apses. At this stage, paintings of Old and New Testament narratives predominated.

Paintings from the Pantheon of the Kings in San Isidoro de León. Photo: Museum of San Isidoro.

Paintings from the Pantheon of the Kings in San Isidoro de León. Photo: Museum of San Isidoro.

In Castilla y León, Navarra and Aragón persist few of these works due to their poor preservation. However, the mural paintings in the Pantheon of San Isidoro de León are particularly noteworthy. Their quality and condition have led this space to be referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art.

The six vaults that cover the crypt are decorated with mural paintings on a white background. The different representations depict scenes from the Passion, Nativity, and Resurrection of Christ.

Painting in manuscripts

Despite the predominance of monumentality, the minor arts were also present in the Romanesque period. The drawing of miniatures was one of the most prized arts of the period. It developed in ecclesiastical centres, cathedrals, and monasteries. Therefore, illustrations from this period are mainly found in religious texts.

In the 12th century, the illustration of manuscripts in the peninsula adopted a style typical of the early medieval tradition and at the same time took on different currents coming from Europe. The drawing of this period is more descriptive, and the proportions adopted are more realistic. However, the symbolic character and the expressive use of colour continued to predominate.

The centres of copying and illustration were mainly located in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. During the 11th century, the Iberian Peninsula was divided into two. In the north, the Christian kingdoms were growing. Meanwhile, in the south, Islam was still resisting. It was not until the end of the Reconquest that the work of illustrators reached the south.

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