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"Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct . . . and to refrain from destruction."

Simone Weil (1909-43), French philosopher, mystic.



Two forces affected the development of church architecture in France from the 10th to the 12th century. One was the growth of large, wealthy monastic orders, and the other was a rapid increase in the number of religious pilgrimages to holy shrines.

The Romanesque style in architecture can be thought of as a product of the architectural experiments of the Carolingian period and as a response to the needs of monasteries and pilgrimage churches. Romanesque style varied from region to region, reflecting local traditions and requirements. The largest and most important Romanesque structure was the Benedictine monastery church at Cluny in Burgundy (begun in 1088 and destroyed in the 19th century). Cluny was the center of the Benedictine order in France. The massive monastery church, crowned with a stone vault, contained five aisles, two transepts, a chevet (an ambulatory with chapels radiating from the apse), an imposing westwork, and a narthex. The pattern established at Cluny was imitated by Benedictine churches throughout France.

The ability to surpass the limitations of a wooden beam ceiling by constructing a stone barrel vault allowed the builders of Cluny to make the body of the nave unusually broad. Although the use of wooden roofs continued in northern France, the stone vault was one of the most successful Romanesque innovations. The stone roof took several forms: a barrel vault, pointed as at Autun Cathedral (1120-32), or a groin vault, as at Vezelay (1089-1206). Although the walls were made extremely thick to support the stone vaults and give an impression of enormous weight, the interiors were well lit through clerestory windows set high in the walls of the nave above the lower roofs covering the side aisles.


The principal fulfillment of the devout medieval Christian was a pilgrimage to Rome, or to one of the many European shrines that contained holy relics. Pilgrimage routes crossed national boundaries to shrines as distant as Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and churches were built along these well-traveled routes, many of which traversed France. Romanesque sculpture developed as decorations in these pilgrimage churches and is characterized by its highly stylized depictions of natural forms. The most prominent location for religious sculpture was in the tympanum over the main west door leading to the center aisle of the church. Here artists depicted scenes from the life of Christ or other subjects familiar to pilgrims and suitable for their contemplation. A fine example of such a carved tympanum survives at the church of Saint Pierre in Moissac. Sculpture also adorned columns, capitals, wells in cloisters, and crypts.


The ancient art of enamelwork, which had continued to develop in France throughout the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, reached unprecedented heights in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the technique of champleve came into general use. Limoges was a center of production, and its enamelwork was prized throughout Europe.


Alden Rand Gordon
Source: 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v.9.0.1

Art Database (searchable, in French only)
The "Joconde" database is a catalogue of drawings, stamps, paintings, sculptures, photography and objects of art conserved in more than 60 museums throughout France. It contains details on more than 130,000 works, dating from the 7th century to the present, representing over 10,000 artists.

Introduction to French Art & Architecture

Pre-Historic, Celtic & Roman Periods

Merovingian and Carolingian Periods

Romanesque Period || Gothic Period

Renaissance Period || Baroque Period

18th Century || 19th Century || 20th Century


Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Gustave Caillebotte

Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Gustave Courbet

Edgar Degas, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Gauguin

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Le Corbusier

Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse

Jean François Millet, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso

Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin

Henri Rousseau, Georges Pierre Seurat

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh


Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Fauvism

French Sculpture, Impressionism, Museums

Neoimpressionism, Postimpressionism

Realism, Rococo Style, Romanticism

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