54th Romanesque Days, 2023

Man, art and nature in Roman times

conference summaries

Monday, july 3d

Opening conference: Sanctifying the world

Jean-Claude Bonne, École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales

I.  Romanesque art and the question of the relationship between the sensitive and the spiritual in creation

“Man, art and nature” are not universal and unambiguous categories that can be associated with self-evident realities. When we think of “Nature” – a notion with multiple meanings that are still changing today – we can say that the Middle Ages first thought of “Creation”, an earthly world that was originally harmonious and entirely sanctified, but which, as a result of the sins of the first men, was cursed by God. This curse resulted in a disharmony within man and in the world between the sensible and the spiritual. Christ essentially re-established the posanesque image always shows the need to turn to the spiritual, it is because the spiritual infuses (the word is from Hugues de Saint-Victor) the material, what we will call a spiritualisation of the material.

But the Romanesque period and Romanesque art are not monolithic; they are shot through with tensions, tensions of which the definition of creation formulated by the same Hugues de St-Victor is a good witness: “this whole universe, this sensible world, is like a book written with God’s finger, that is to say created by divine power (virtute divina), and all creatures are like figures […] established by God’s judgement to manifest and, as it were, signify in a certain way his invisible wisdom”. While Hugues de Saint-Victor remains naturally attached, like Romanesque art, to the 4 traditional meanings of Scripture extended to the Christian exegesis of history, in the treatise from which this quotation is taken he declares his admiration for plant and animal “nature”, in other words the world in the literal sense, whose beauty seems to him to be a manifest, i.e. direct or immanent, sensitive testimony to divine wisdom. The emergence, under the name of the “twelfth-century Renaissance”, of a new awareness of the world below, an awakening, it has been said, to “the consistency of nature, its rational coherence, its autonomy from divine causality” (D. Poirel), has often been highlighted. It is true that the philosophical physicists of the Chartres School (which one of the speakers will discuss) fit perfectly into this framework. But interest in the more naturalistic image of ‘nature’ would only manifest itself in certain forms of Gothic and especially Renaissance art.  It is therefore appropriate to put forward a few proposals on the ways in which the Romanesque image is represented.

II.  The Romanesque image

The religious image (on which we will concentrate) is always attached to a support object – Bible, furniture, liturgical objects or books, capitals, church paving, etc. – to which it must show its material and symbolic attachment, without seeking to become independent of it. – (Bede says that images serve to “adorn and instruct”; I would say that ornamentation can also be a way of instructing not so much in their meaning as in the values of what they represent). Ornamentation, as I understand it, cannot be reduced to a genre of distinct motifs confined to the borders of images; it is a way of constructing shapes and distributing colours that serves both to exalt the sacredness of the support and to qualify the subject of the image in a positive but also negative or ambivalent way (which makes at least 3 possible valences). Ornamentation adds aesthetic, graphic, plastic or chromatic added value that must show its artificiality (or rather its artificial character, to stay as close as possible to the meaning of ars in Latin) in the image with which it can be closely interwoven in order to simultaneously ensure the visual celebration of the object-support of the image and the spiritualising de-naturalisation of its subject. Ornamentality (Focillon calls it ‘ornamental thought’) is a fundamental symbolic structure for the intensive qualification and re-sanctification of the medieval image of the world here below, and for attesting to the sacredness of the objects, places and people responsible for managing man’s relationship with the divine.

These over-simplified proposals will be illuminated by an analysis of the coloured line drawing and the intensive distribution of colours in a scene of the Annunciation to the shepherds (showing people, animals and plants) in a Romanesque Sacramentary from around 1100.

III.  The different kinds of creatures

These are provided by the images of Creation. Those inspired by the stories of Genesis lead up to the Fall, after which the world is transformed. 

On the one hand, the earth no longer spontaneously provides living beings with their food (which was entirely vegetable before the Fall), the forests become a hostile world and man has to clear them in order to work the land and derive the means to survive, as can be seen in the representations of the labours of the months, linked to the cyclical organisation of the cosmos. And a clever type of image shows that man is a microcosm, an analogical mirror of the macrocosm.

On the other hand, after the Fall, the living world was also transformed. The animals already distinguished before the Fall are now divided into 5 categories: the pecus, which are the domesticated animals, submissive to man, the bestiæ or wild beasts, some of which have become carnivorous and therefore aggressive (an ambivalent symbol of the positive, negative or ambivalent forces at work in the world), the birds, which are globally positive beings and mediators with the celestial world because they fly and are closer to the sky, the fish (representing the aquatic world), and finally the crawling beings (called vermin) that can be associated with the satanic world that has infused itself into Creation. But Creation is not only characterised by the opposition of Good and Evil in struggle within sinful man, it is also marked by the opposition between that which is beneficial (the fruits of labour) and that which is evil for man’s existence, such as catastrophes, scarcity, evil spells (which must be warded off), pain and death (with the fear of Judgement). It is this whole fallen Creation that needs to be resanctified, as the image should show.

IV.  The different modes of being of creatures and the animæ (souls) that animate them

In addition to the types of living beings and the way in which they appear, there is the question of their modes of being or their invisible nature, in other words the animæ that animate them, and the way in which their action is reflected in the Romanesque image.

A good encyclopaedist and populariser of theological thought in the first half of the 12th century, such as Honorius Augustodunensis, traditionally recognised four modes of being here below.

 – First, there is matter, which is made up of varying degrees of composition of the four elements, with man’s body presenting the best balance between the qualities of the four. This ancient doctrine was handed down by the Fathers of the Church, such as Isidore of Seville, who set it out in diagrams. These were taken up and amplified in the Romanesque period and constitute a type of abstract and theoretical image of the nature of creation, before the great Gothic diagrams.

– Above matter, Honorius says that man has three vires animæ (animating powers of the soul), which Hugues de Saint-Victor, who will be associated with the subject, calls the “triplex animæ vis” (the triple power of the soul). If we need to dwell on this point, it is because one of the functions of what I have called the Romanesque ornamentalisation of the image is to contribute to the figuration, which I would call both analogical (from a cognitive point of view) and animic (from a vitalist point of view), of the powers of the soul. Hugues de Saint-Victor refers to the first as animæ vis in vegetandis (which philosophers, like Guillaume de Conches, would soon call anima vegetalis), which “provides the body with life so that, once born, it grows and, by nourishing itself, subsists”. Honorius put it this way: “Life is the power of the soul that vivifies the body, and this we have in common with plants and trees”. Before meaning vegetation, which is the exemplary form because it is naked, the word vegetatio and words of the same family mean the germinative power of life, just as natura is related to nasci, which means to be born. This is a very important point if we are to understand how Romanesque imagery would entrust the artificiality of ornamental vegetation with the power to allegorise and animate the underlying life-giving power of life – what we might call the vis animæ vegetalis qui est vita – as well as its relationship (analogical and substantial) with the deeper spiritual, holy, diabolical or ambivalent forces at work in creation, which man must confront within himself. We will illustrate this theme with Romanesque images, positive, negative or ambivalent, of man inscribed (or caught?) in a vegetal rinceau (and grappling with animals).

– Above the life-giving, plant-forming soul, there is the sensory anima, the anima of the five senses that enables us to judge what is sensible. Unlike Honorius, Hugues grants animals imagination and memory. Honorius is content to say “Feeling is a power of the soul which confers sensibility on the body (Sensus est vis animæ quæ corpus sensificat)” and he adds, “we have it in common with beasts and all animate beings (cum bestiæ et omnibus animantibus)”. Honorius does not say “animals”, but he names two categories: bestiae, i.e. beasts that have become wild, and animantes, a word (animans) in the family of animal or animalis, neither of which means “animal” or defines, as we understand it, a category of beings different from men, but “animate or living being”. 

– Before turning to man’s relationship with other living beings, particularly bestiæ, we should add that man also possesses a soul that is entirely or at least more spiritual than the preceding ones, which God “breathed” into him (but undoubtedly with all the others) at creation and which can be broadly defined as ratio. It has different forms or degrees, the highest of which is called the “intellect”, which is also a vis animæ, but with access to the intelligence of incorporeal realities.

To these powers of the soul or these multiple souls (sometimes called anima, sometimes spiritus) with elusive and fluctuating limits between the spiritual (deemed incorporeal) and the quasi-corporeality necessary for its activity in the world, To these souls, in or between which theologians multiply distinctions (which we don’t need to know about here), corresponds in the images the extreme permeability or osmosis between the spiritual and the material, through the infusion of occult, quasi-magical forces into the visible, which extend far into the universe.

This is confirmed by the Romanesque image of bestiæ, to which we need to return, as well as, more broadly, the extension of the scope of living creatures other than man.

We will not go into the question of bestiaries or herbiaries, as these will be dealt with in other presentations. Unlike the usual Romanesque images, which, with a few exceptions, require only very generic representations of animals and plants, these works list a considerable number of species, defining their medical or other properties when they do not moralise them.

We cannot dwell on hybrids, such as the mermaid, the centaur or the griffin, or on unknown or little-known distant peoples with monstrous characteristics, because they are unusual, always more or less animalised, which are held to be either very real or imaginary, entirely possible in a Creation whose limits we do not know. In any case, these beings had to be susceptible to a certain exegesis (at the very least, they had to be ornamental witnesses, in the precise qualifying sense mentioned above, to the diversity and otherness of creatures). We will only mention the case of the Ethiopian (who has two pairs of eyes).  

We’ll be looking more closely at some of the major Romanesque images of the power relations between man and beast, wild or monstrous beasts whose images evoke violent disorder, the domination of beasts over man (devouring) or conversely man’s hold over beasts. These confrontations are seen as an image of the struggle of Good against the diabolical or dark forces of evil, which only exceptional men can overcome, and/or as images of the inner struggle against man’s baser tendencies and carnal impulses. But the strength of these bestiæ, however evil, can be harnessed and placed at the service of the Word by bending to the forms of the letter, which is a way of sanctifying strength (fortitudo), a vital virtue in a violent feudal world.

The most intimate links between animality, plant-forming and humanity are seen in the plant-forming of beneficial or malefic parts of animals, such as their tails, and above all in the omnipresent image in Romanesque art of a human or animal mask emitting plant matter or having it pass through it. These hybridizations are the image of a continuity of life that is indissociably sensitive and spiritual, that we would call animic rather than animistic, because the animæ, divine creations, are not, for the ecclesiastical world at least, autonomous entities, even if the superstitious belief in quasi-animistic powers acting within creation has had currency in popular culture.

But Romanesque Christianity, by relying on what Hugues de Saint-Victor might call “the spirit that is the occult force of nature (hic spiritus, id est, occulta naturæ vis)”, the divine activity or autonomy of which theologians themselves were beginning to dispute, did it not open the door to the possibility or temptation of relating the immensity of the uncontrollable in creation to occult entities such as new avatars acculturated by Roman society of mythological deities of Antiquity.

Tuesday, July 4th

The relationship between nature and spirituality in Bernard de Clairvaux and Guillaume de Saint-Thierry

Alexis Gélois, Université de Rouen

Nature in the aesthetics of the Chartres school

Oleg Voskoboynikov, École des Hautes Études économiques, Moscou, EHESS, Paris.

The role of the Chartres scholars in the revival of the natural sciences in the first half of the twelfth century is well known. Their re-reading of a number of ancient texts, including the Timaeus and the Asclepius, as well as their careful reception of Arabic translations, enabled them to renew the order of cosmological discourse. However, the very concept of the School of Chartres remains relatively vague, which means that the treatises, glosses and commentaries of thinkers such as Thierry de Chartres and Guillaume de Conches are often read and studied separately from Bernard Silvestre’s Cosmographie, a masterpiece of Latin literature, but less ‘philosophical’ at first glance. However, it is an aestheticisation of nature that explains its stakes and encyclopaedic aim, despite its discreet volume. This ability to aesthetise is found in Thierry and Guillaume, and has influenced writers of the calibre of Alain de Lille, Jean de Meung and Dante. But does it find parallels in the naturalist motifs emerging in Romanesque imagery?

“Its shape and colour signalled everything”: the medieval perception of nature represented in Romanesque art

Xavier Barral i Altet, Université de Haute-Bretagne, Rennes, Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institut fûr Kunstgeschichte, Rome

“With these words, Baudri de Bourgueil, at the beginning of the 12th century, outlined the medieval perception of nature as represented in a Romanesque embroidery that is close in every detail to the famous Bayeux embroidery. For the Catalan painter Joan Miró (1893-1983), a bird is a sign in movement on a white canvas, and for Picasso a face, an animal or a tree are represented by an abstraction of lines and a composition of colours in space that are not a photographic reproduction of the reality seen and experienced in everyday life. Using texts and images from the Romanesque period, this lecture will attempt to understand how nature was perceived by the men and women of the Middle Ages. We will also try to distinguish the perception of known nature from that of distant, mythologised, imagined and dreamt nature.

The Tamed Wilderness of the Cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

Julia Perratore, The Met Cloisters, New York

The hermit’s retreat to the desert was a central trope of Christian monasticism from its earliest centuries. The Desert Fathers embraced wildness, accepting the difficulties of living in a challenging landscape as a condition of asceticism. Yet they also exploited the natural resources around them, from stone quarries to springs, and they cultivated the land for their own benefit. The complex, seemingly contradictory monastic perspective on the non-human world, which balanced acceptance of wilderness with a desire to tame it, experienced a resurgence of importance in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In this paper, I propose to analyze the twelfth-century cloister sculptures of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert through the lens of medieval monastic perspectives on the “desert” (which I interpret, in the medieval sense, as any wild place). Saint-Guilhem is an ideal case study for this endeavor, given the great variety and intricacy of its foliate carvings, which signal special care and intentionality in their design, and given the importance of wilderness to its identity, inherent in its very name, which first appeared as an alternative to its original appellation, Gellone, at around the time of the cloister’s decoration. The twelfth century was an important period for the construction of the monastery’s “desert identity”: in addition to the community’s apparent adoption of a new name, its patron saint’s memory was preserved anew in narratives both hagiographic (the Vita Sancti Wilelmi, ca. 1125) and legendary (Le Moniage Guillaume) that, in addition to recounting Guilhem’s youthful exploits as a warrior, describe his later monastic conversion and retreat into the wilderness of the Hérault. I argue that the Saint-Guilhem cloister’s lush, leafy plant life, rendered in an astonishing variety of forms, expresses the community’s perspective on the “desert” chosen by its founder. I interpret these carved forms as representations of the monastery’s wild setting, while their petrification in regular and highly ordered patterns speaks to the monks’ attempts to subdue the wildness around them, resulting in a paradoxical controlled wilderness.  

Wednesday, july 5th

Excursion in Catalonia : Vic et Santa Maria de l’Estany

Friday, july 6th

A few remarks on the refusal to replicate nature in the Romanesque period

Neil Stratford, membre de l’Institut

Nature was never absent from the paths of medieval thought in its search for an understanding of man’s relationship to God. Nature was “a book written by the hand of God” (Hugh of Saint-Victor- quasi quidem liber est scriptus digit Dei). But a “scientific” replication of nature in its details did not, it seems, interest the Romanesque artist. Taking the vegetable world as a point of departure, my short paper will pose the question, why did a love of nature not reflect a love of the countryside, of trees or flowers or birds, in the creative process of the Romanesque artist ? By the 1180s there is a tentative turn towards naturalism in foliage sculpture and metalwork (but not apparently in manuscript illumination). This reaches its apogee from the early years of the 13th century onwards in France and this interest in botanical description must be related to the new science propagated by the Latin Aristotle, with Albertus Magnus for example. The turn to naturalism accompanies the dissemination of the vocabulary of rayonnant architecture and is restricted to a short period of about 100-150 years, depending on where you look in Europe. In its turn it gradually reverts to new stylisations of the plant forms. But in the eleventh and twelfth centuries certain biblical scenes- the Garden of Eden or the Flight into Egypt, for example- could be given an exotic vegetation, though never botanically observed. Even the herbals are tied to an antique tradition and tradition rules the foliage of the Romanesque world: acanthus, palmettes, foliage scrolls… 

Why was the replication of nature rejected ? The question is posed, not answered.

Man and bestiary in the terrestrial world of the crypt of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Victoriano Nodar Fernández, Université de Vigo

The steep slope of the land on which the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was to be built meant that an underground crypt had to be built in the westernmost area. This would serve as an underground structure to raise the western façade, presided over by the famous Pórtico de la Gloria. From around 1160, this architectural space was carefully decorated with sculptures on its double portal and on the capitals inside. The work was carried out by sculptors of Burgundian origin who had joined the cathedral workshop run by the famous Master Mateo. This sculptural decoration, in which plant themes are combined with a strong prominence of medieval bestiary, transforms this underground space into a symbolic architecture that represents the terrestrial world. A world in which the beauty of Creation is combined with the idea of the presence of evil that can compromise the spiritual life of human beings.

From desert to paradise: Conques and its pre-modern environment

Ivan Foletti, Université Masaryk, Brno

In the 19th century, travelers’ reaching the Conques-en-Rouergue site recall one of the most widespread medieval literary myths: that of a paradisiacal place erected in the middle of a desert. If these romantic texts correspond to the tastes of their time, it is worth reflecting on their roots. Located in the middle of the Massif Central, surrounded by forest and set in the Dourdou Gorge, the urbanization of this monastic site clearly corresponds to a practice where the sacred and profane intermingle. The aim of this presentation is, of course, to sketch out how a “wild” site can be transformed into a sacred place. However, there is a second, even more important line of thought: that related to the construction of a sustainable ecosystem where nature and culture are built in harmony within a Neo-Platonic system.

Bringing stone to life in the Middle Ages.
Lithic materials in Romanesque buildings in the Catalan Pyrenees

Michel Martzluff, Université de Perpignan

In the Catalan area of the eastern Pyrenees, Romanesque buildings, almost all of them religious, are associated with a wide variety of lithic materials found in nature. Compensating for the extreme scarcity of written sources and pictorial representations, are these remains capable of shedding light on the material and spiritual links that medieval man maintained with his mineral environment? Determining the choice of different rocks used as building stone, as well as the evolution of extraction and shaping techniques, and the place given to cut and polished stones in architecture, is indeed a way of approaching the perception that medieval builders had of this environment. But it is not without risk. By going beyond the primary objectives assigned to these investigations, which include establishing a chronology and assisting with restoration, the approach aimed at bringing these ‘inanimate objects’ back to life often stumbles over a relationship with the modern or contemporary world.

During the three centuries between the construction of the abbey church of Sant Pere de Rodes, which introduced major changes in the use and treatment of rock around the year 1000, and that of the cloister of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, which was just as exceptional in terms of its attachment to the Romanesque past in the early Gothic period of the Kingdom of Majorca, ‘bringing stone to life’ can be seen from several angles. One concerns the symbolic display, often prominently displayed in the chevet of churches, of rocks belonging to earlier monuments, a problematic fact for those of us who have difficulty interpreting what these remains embodied. The other, more generally, concerns the art of building, with the use of hard rock replacing “molasses”, a development that goes hand in hand with economic and technical progress. Between Cap de Creus and Andorra, this shift is best illustrated by the increasing use of granitic rock, although there are many questions about the significance of this ‘fashion’ in terms of its combination with, or competition for, other materials. Finally, as far as attitudes are concerned, a more detailed knowledge of the use of various types of limestone marble in numerous monuments now makes it easier to associate these variously coloured rocks with the tastes of the time and the values they could represent.

The plant world: a look at some of the capitals from the Daurade “workshop” in Toulouse

Max Hello, doctorant, École nationale des Chartes

The Musée des Augustins (Toulouse) now houses the finest collection of sculpted capitals from the former Cluniac priory of La Daurade in Toulouse (11th-12th centuries). The dismantling of the abbey complex in the second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century meant that the layout of this monumental ensemble was no longer clear, making it somewhat difficult to understand. However, one element still seems to bring us back to this lost continuity, as it remains constant: the plants. Its omnipresence is a reminder of its importance in medieval thought, where it is considered to be hylé, or primordial matter, by Calcidius (4th century), or as a vector of viriditas, or creative energy, by an author such as Saint Gregory (c. 540-604). In these sculptures, plants take on a wide variety of forms: sometimes naturalistic, sometimes more stylised, even geometric. In this way, it develops an essential relationship with the image, making its meaning more complex. Its aesthetic variations are an ornamental indication of the different registers of intelligence that the designer of this programme is mobilising in an informed public, namely the monks of the priory. In other words, for the monks, who have a particular way of looking at these sculptures – that of the peregrinatio – being sensitive to the different mutations in the plant world is a way of sketching out their understanding of the mystery of Creation.

The large Romanesque crucifix at Saint-Sernin in Toulouse

Gabriel Imbert (étudiant), Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès

This research has made it possible to confirm the medieval origin of the Romanesque crucifix in the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse through a meticulous study of the object and the techniques used to make it, to include it in the movement of precious monumental crucifixes from the Italo-Ottoman sphere due to stylistic similarities, in particular with that of Vercelli, and to give an interpretation of it: a Christus triumphans synthesising the Paschal mystery through the hybridisation of a crux gemmata and a living, glorious crucified Christ, a far cry from the Eucharistic Christus patiens of the Gregorian movement….

Presentation of the survey of the abbey church of Cuxa and its crypt

Heike Hansen, architecte, archéologue du bâti

Thursday, july 7th

Matin : visite de l’abbaye de Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines et de Sainte-Colombe de Cabanes

Plants in herbaria from the Romanesque period

Dominic Olariu, Université Heinrich Heine, Düsseldorf

This conference contribution will focus on a few herbaria from the period 1000-1200. Herbariums have been used for medical purposes since Antiquity. They contained materia medica which, until the 19th century, consisted of medicinal herbs and a few animal and mineral substances. These included recipes, names of herbs and images of medicinal herbs, animal substances and minerals. Herbariums from the period after 1300 have been the subject of increasing research, which has made it possible to determine their use in medicine. It is possible to attribute a function to the images in these manuscripts as part of their practical use. Herbariums dating from before 1200, on the other hand, are generally considered to be uncritical copies of ancient texts, without any real understanding or reflection on their practical utility. The illustrations in these manuscripts are of particular interest, as they raise the question of their raison d’être. They are often described as having no practical value for the user. This conference paper will attempt to examine the question of the usefulness of illustrations in herbarii from the Romanesque period.

The birth of water: ecological echoes in the mosaics of the vestibule of Saint Mark’s in Venice

David Ganz, Université de Zürich

With its location at the heart of a vast lagoon, the city-republic of Venice has been subject to the dynamic conditions of an aquatic ecosystem right from the start. From the Middle Ages onwards, devastating floods, unstable building land and a wet climate were constant problems for the city’s population. Very early on, Venice became a pioneer of ecological practices and implicit ecological knowledge. The lecture looks for responses to these particular relationships between man and the environment in the city’s medieval artistic production. By looking at the role of water in the famous mosaics in the Doge’s Chapel, San Marco, we will discover a specifically Venetian version of environmental history, dating back to the creation of the world. In this context, water is an important theme in the visual narrative. On the other hand, the materials and techniques used to decorate the church are also closely linked to the watery environment of the lagoon. Taken together, the visual, material and spatial aspects make the mosaics of San Marco an excellent test case for exploring the possibilities of eco-critical methods in art history.

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