April 19, 2013
A week or so ago, Dennis Aubrey over at Via Lucis - that amazing blog dedicated to photography of (mostly) Romanesque architecture in France – posted an entry about the sculptural decoration of the 12th century facade of the Prieuré Sainte Gemme. Aptly titled Curious Corbels, the post features some of those highly imaginative carvings – from realistic human heads to rather cartoonish figures, ferocious beasts and demons – so typical for the Romanesque era.
This reminded me that for quite some time now I have been meaning to do a post about the only still extant set of Romanesque carvings here in Vienna, i.e. the decorations on the main gate of the Stephansdom [St. Stephen's Cathedral], the so-called Riesentor [Giant Gate]:
This richly decorated portal was begun c. 1237 and completed about fifteen years later, at a time when the Romanesque style had already begun to give way to the Gothic. However, its sculptures and ornaments are still firmly rooted in the Romanesque tradition. Thus, the tympanum shows Christ in Majesty flanked by two angels – unfortunately, though, this piece is not easy to capture on photo because it’s half-hidden by a close meshed the anti-pigeon-net:
Surrounding the tympanum is a series of archivolts with richly carved mouldings (which, actually, I have already mentioned and shown in one of my earlier posts). At the foot of the archivolts one finds the figures of the twelve apostles, and below that an amazing frieze of weird and fantastic creatures:
It is this frieze which interests me here and which, on the verge of the Gothic, shows the imagination of Romanesque sculptors and masons in all its bizarre glory one last time.
There are, of course, some relatively ‘normal’ human figures, even though most of them are confronted by fierce creatures such as this disproportionately large lion:
Lions, as is well known, were a favourite subject in high medieval sculpture and, right enough, here’s another one:
Next in line: dragons…
… and, presumably, an ape:
It’s hard to say what exactly the creature in the next photo is meant to represent. Personally, I’d refer to it as a demon, but it’s hard to say really…
It’s easier to identify the two gentlemen in the next picture: a cripple and the head of a man grasping his beard. It is equally difficult, though, to determine what their meaning is supposed to be.
Most scholars believe that the weird imagery in this frieze is meant to symbolize the moral perils of earthly existence, the confrontation of mankind with the snares of the devil. I must say, it’s hard to argue with that when looking at figures like these two…
… probably two of the most striking figures in all medieval art and definitely two of my personal favourites!
October 15, 2012
Remember how, back in August, I was so infatuated with the amazing photos of Romanesque architecture on the Via Lucis Photography blog that I just had to go and look at some actual Romanesque buildings myself? As you probably recall, I ended up going to this place called Bad Deutsch Altenburg which, I believe, is the best location to get your fill of Romanesque within half an hour’s drive from Vienna. But, like all addicts, I soon craved for more and, a week or so later, I found myself en route to the Styrian mountains to visit what as far is I know is Austria’s largest Romanesque church:
Having read this post’s title you won’t be surprised to learn that this is the church of Seckau Abbey which is 21 m wide and estimated to have been c. 64,5 m long in its original state. When I say that the original length of the church can only be estimated, it is because both the facade and the apse were entirely rebuilt in the 19th century. These ‘restoration’ works were done in a Neo-Romanesque style, so they blend in rather nicely with the still extant 12th-century nave.
Seckau Abbey was founded in 1141 as a convent of canons regular of St. Augustine, and the construction of the church was begun immediately. The nave must have been completed by 1218, the year in which a two-towered western facade was added. In that same year an episcopal see was founded at Seckau, as suffragan to the Archdiocese of Salzburg. This may seem a bit strange considering that Seckau Abbey was and still is situated pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but during the Middle Ages it was something of a cultural hotspot – let me just say that it is one (of the two) candidates considered as the likely place of origin of the famous Carmina Burana manuscript. And of course the church’s impressive architecture is testimony to the abbey’s glory in its medieval heighday too.
Built on a basilical plan, the nave arcades are borne by massive piers and columns with richly decorated cushion capitals. While the carvings on the capitals are ornamental rather than figural, they still are quite remarkable and add an extra touch of chic to the otherwise plain stereometry of the architecture:
Originally, the nave was covered by a flat wooden ceiling, but at the end of 15th century an elaborate late-Gothic rib-vault was added. Admittedly, this is a bit of show-stealer and it dramatically changes the impression of the space, so Romanesque purists may not be too happy with it. In my opinion, though, its visual richness creates a fascinating and aesthetically pleasing contrast with the monumental simplicity of the Romanesque arcades and walls…
But then, as wel youl know, if I had to pick sides I’d still go for Team Gothic rather than Team Romanesque, so my personal opinion might not be objective in this case…