Romanesque Architecture, Sant Climent de Taüll, Catalonia, Spain

Romanesque Architecture & Art in Spain

The history of Romanesque architecture & art and 10 Romanesque masterpieces

Kasper Christiansen
Text & photos: Kasper Christiansen
23. January 2020 (revised)

Spain has an exceptionally rich heritage of Romanesque architecture and art. In the north of the country, where the Pilgrim routes meander through the landscape towards the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the religious churches were built like pearls on a string.

Further south, Beautiful Romanesque churches were built in cities like Segovia, Toledo and Ávila and in the Catalan Pyrenees, in and around the Vall de Boí, no less than 8 churches and 1 erimitage were built. The latter churches are on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and as UNESCO write on their website, the "exceptionally well-preserved rural churches" in Vall de Boí form "the largest concentration in Europe of Romanesque art". It is from these churches, that the uncommonly lavish collection of Romanesque murals, that can now be seen in the MNAC Museum in Barcelona, stems from. The museum also holds art works like crosiers, frontals, carved wooden figures, etc.

Romanesque architecture dominated the Christian areas of Spain for a period of close to 300 years, From 10th century to the middle of the thirteenth century. The Romanesque style is the first uniform architectural and artistic style in the history of Europe, and along the pilgrim routes to the church of Santiago de Compostella in north-western Spain, hundredes of churches were built.

‘‘Romanesque style in the first pan-european architecture’’
The cathedral of Ávila - romanesque archtiecture
The cathedral of Ávila - the cathedral in the city of Ávila is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain

The origins of Romanesque Architecture

The early so-called first Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque arises - as the name denotes - in Lombardy, northern Italy. From here it spread into France, Catalonia (North-eastern Spain) and also further north in Europe. The romanesque style builds on elements from Roman, Byzantine, Lombard and Norman architecture.

In the middle ages, masons travelled extensively. There were close contacts between the Eastern Mediterranean, like Sicily where the Hohenstaufen Kings ruled, Constantinople and Western Mediterranean Spain an France.

Characteristics of Romanesque architecture

The style is a relatively uniform style over an extensive area, that is characterized by

  • Thick walls
  • Simple exterior of the building and lack of sculptures in facades
  • Blind arches as ornamentation for the exterior, the so-called Lombard bands.
  • Symmetrical plan
  • Interiors painted with frescos
  • Arches, doors, windows, vaults, and arcades are almost always semi-circular

Many buildings were built by Lombards Masons and artists, called magistri comacini, who covered a large territory. The word, Lombardus, was even used as a general for masons in many parts of Europe in this period.

The Romanesque architecture is dominated by churches - more churches than castles were built in the Romanesque period. Many of the churches (and bridges) were built on the pilgrimage routes towards Santiago de Compostela.

Santa María de Ripoll
Santa María de Ripoll - details from the capitals in the cloister of Santa María de Ripoll

Romanesque Art & architectural ornaments

Romanesque art is, in general terms, religious art. The artists find their material in the Bible and religious literature. In Barcelona's National Art Museum of Catalonia you can find the World's biggest collection of Romanesque art.

Main characteristics of the Romanesque Art
  • The whole church is often painted with frescos
  • Frontals on painted wood
  • Sculptures on portals
  • Metalworks (bronze, copper, etc.)

The Lombard bands

A main feature in Lombard architecture is the Lombard band - blind arches on the exterior part of the churches. The small, semi-circular arches ornament the churches.

Lombard bands
Lombard bands - details from the Sant Climent de Taüll, that has Lombard bands on the apse and the church tower

Altar frontals

The Romanesque altar frontals are generally painted on wood. The the altar frontal from Avià (see the photo below), shows the influence from the renewed byzantine art from the 12th century: characters are becoming more individualized. We see Mary as "Sedes Sapientiae", at the throne of wisdom, with Jesus in her arms.

Romanesque Altar frontal from Avià
Altar frontal from Avià - the altar frontal from the Romanesque church Avia.

Romanesque sculpture

Romanesque sculpture can be architectural sculpture or carved wood figures, typically of Virgin Mary with Jesus child.

Sculptures from Santa María de Taüll
Sculptures from Santa María de Taüll - descent from the cross

The Romanesque portals

The exterior of the Romanesque churches has only scarce ornamentation. The only place that has ornamentation is the portal, which in some cases is extensively ornamented.

Ornamented romanesque portals
Ornamented Romanesque portals - details from the portal of Santa Maria de Ripoll.
Romanesque mural painting . fresco painting
Romanesque mural painting - fresco from one of the churches in the Catalan Pyrenees with clear references to byzantine art

One of the best examples of a richly ornamented portal in Spain is found in the small town of Ripoll, north of Barcelona and close to the Pyrenees, as we shall see in the following.

The murals paintings - the fresco

The mural is the most important art form in the romanesque period. The big walled areas in the churches (with tiny windows) were ideal for this art form.

The Romanesque murals form the most beautiful collection of so-called primitive art in Europe before Giotto. The Romanesque murals in Spain are for the frescos, what Venice and Ravenna are for mosaics. The frescos are almost certainly done by foreign masters, who travelled a long distance to produce the murals.

Romanesque art is a quite simple and direct. However, as the art historian Ernst Gombrich has shown when speaking about early Christian art, is that important to understand, that the most important purpose of the artist is to communicate a message as effectively as possible.

Human and divine representation

But how is it possible that romanesque murals are based on religious images, when they were forbidden countless times in the Old and New Testament. The Byzantine Emperor Leo III (he ruled 717 to 741) famously banned relious images, starting the iconoclasm and the ban continued under his successors. During the Council of Hieria in 754, religious images were oficially banned.

However, there were also opposite views. Gregor the Great had said that:

Images in the church are made for people who cannot read

In 843 the iconoclasm ended, and religious images were saved. However, art became conscious that the images could not be naturalistic. This is an important point: the images of the romanesque art are not portraits, but archtypes that draw on tradition. The images represent the divine world and the faces of the religious figures become longer and further removed from realism.

Only slowly does art become more realistic in the 13th century: the religous images become less rigid and more naturalistic and individualized, something that further evolutioned in Gothic art.

Agnus Dei, agnus dei, fresco
Agnus Dei - from a Romanesque fresco
The fresco technique

The freco is made by applying plaster directly on the walls or ceilings and painting directly using the wet plaster as surface.

The pigment is mixed with water an applied on a layer of wet lime mortar or plaster. The result is that the painting is absorbed in the plaster. Then the plaster dries (in a couple of hours) the pigments are preserved, and the paintings are conserved for hundreds of years.

The paintings were made directly on the walls on the curving vaults. Most often, Christ the majesty, is in the centre. In other cases, we see the Saint Mary with Jesus.

Removal of the paintings using the strappo technique

In 1907 a group of archaeologists from the Institute of Catalan Studies (Institut d'Estudis Catalans), founded by Enric Prat de la Riba, made an excursion to the Vall de Boí, where they studied the Romanesque churches, and seeked to protect the artistic heritage. The renowned Catalan architect, Josep Puig i Cadafalch formed part in the group.

After the preliminary studies, it was decided to save the morals by bringing them to Barcelona, using a newly invented technique, since they were in danger of being sold and exported to foreign art collectors, who were willing to pay enormous sums for the art objects.

The mural paintings were then removed and transported to Barcelona in the period 1919-1923. It was done using a special technique called 'strappo', applying horsehide glue to the paintings. The glue was then peeled off, together with the paintings of the mural.

The themes of the mural paintings

Which themes are dominating Romanesque art? Of course, most of the themes are religious themes from the bible. Christian themes like heaven and hell. Especially central is the pantocrator figure, who normally dominates the center of the apse.

Organization of space in the Romanesque church
The apse - the pantocrator (or the apocalyptic Christ)

The apse is generally used for depictions of Christ Pantocrator, the all-knowing God, which is a much-loved motif in the Romanesque mural paintings. Christ Pantocrator can be seen in orthodox Christianity and goes back to early Christian art from the sixth or seventh Century, seen for example in the Saint Catherine church in the Sinai Dessert.

The figure normally occupies the half-dome in the apse or the nave vault, and he is very different from Christ on the cross. Here there is no suffering, Christ looks firmly at the observer with a stern or melancholic look. Christ is bearded and his head is surrounded by a halo, and he holds the New Testament in his left hand and the right hand is teaching or blessing.

The western facade (exit): The Apocalypse

The west-facade, where the exit is located, is generally used to scare the visitor on his way out. Often, we see depictions of Hell and the Devil here, from the apocalypse.

Technique - no perspective nor realism!

The murals show a profound knowledge about byzantine techniques and Byzantium was an important learning centre. In the Romanesque art, there is no or little interest in perspective - and there is a deliberate intent to avoid realistic representations. The Romanesque art represents a divine world without time or perspective. The fundamental role of the paintings is pedagogical: to tell the Biblical stories to the illiterate people in the church.

Metalworks - the crosiers

The crosier, or the pastoral staff, crozier, or bishop's staff, as it is also called, is one of the most beautiful art objects from the Romanesque period, are the artfully crosiers.

The crosier is a central object in the catholic church. In the Bible, the metaphor of the shepard (God) and the herd (the ‘flock’ of Christians) is used frequently. We see this reference in the word "pastor", for the priest. The inspiration for the crosier comes from the shepard's crook, with its curved top being used to hook the animals. The staff is referred to as the "rod of God". In the Old Testament, Exodus (4), we can read that "Moses took the rod of God in his hand". The crosiers were often made in Limoges, an important workshop in France.

The crosiers of the MNAC Museum

This crosier functions as a liturgical insignia, a symbol of the bishop's power and authority. The crosier is often formed as. We see scenes from the visitation (BIBLE) or of the arch angel fighting.

Crosier with Saint Gabriel

This piece is the upper part of a Romanesque style Episcopal crosier. The piece is made of chiselled and gilded copper, with the application of "champlevé" enamel and glass beads. The head ends in a snake's head. We see the archangel Saint Gabriel fighting the dragon. Gabriel stands on the dragon on crosses with his spear. It is also a metaphor for the shepherds' struggle against the evil spirit.

Crosier, metalwork, Saint Micahel
A highly elaborated crosier - details from the Crosier of Mondeñedo showing the theme of the archangel Saint Gabriel

The tail extends into the knot where eight dragons are seen in the shape of salamanders. In the lower part, three other serpents appear, adorned with turquoise. They form small scrolls on their tails. This crosier belonged to Bishop Pelayo II of Cebeira and the crosier comes from the church of Santa María do Campo in Ribadeo, where it arrived around 1270, but was produced between 1220 and 1240.

The San Esteban church in Segovia
The crosier - the crosier is one of the more elaborate works of art from the Romanesque period - the

14 Romanesque works of architecture & Art in Spain

1. Catalan Romanesque Churches of the Vall de Boí

The Vall de Boí south of the Pyrenees (around 4 hours' drive from Barcelona) have an unusual collection of Romanesque Churches. No less than 8 churches are collected on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The collection of Romanesque churches in the Vall de Boí

UNESCO say that these 8 churches as "represent an especially pure and consistent example of pictorial art and architecture in the Lombard Romanesque style".

  • Sant Feliu de Barruera
  • Sant Joan de Boí
  • Santa Maria de Taüll
  • Sant Climent de Taüll
  • Nativitat de Durro
  • Santa Eulàlia d’Erill-la-Vall
  • l’Assumpció de Santa Maria de Coll
  • Santa Maria de Cardet
  • Hermitage of Sant Quirc de Durro

The extraordinary collection of churches within a small circle of kilometres is uncommon. The small village of Taüll has two beautiful temples of Santa Maria and Sant Climent - and before it had a third, Sant Martí, that was Gabriel during a landslide in the 19th century.

The patrons behind the churches in the area, were the Etrill family, feudal lords from the area, whose wealth grew rapidly at the end of the del 11th Century.

They participated in the reconquista of Alfonso I de Aragón, who won important battles against the muslims in Zaragoza (1118) and Calatayud (1120). It was the loot from these wars that financed the romanes churches of the Vall de Boí.

The Sant Climent de Taüll church

This church is the most important Romanesque church in Spain, and the church with the most important mural paintings. However, the paintings were moved to Barcelona in the beginning of the 19th century (see above) and can now be seen in the Museo Nacional d'Historia de Catalunya. The architecture is extraordinarily clean and is clearly inspired by the Lombard first romanesque.

Sant Climent de Taüll
Sant Climent de Taüll - maybe the most important Romanesque church in Spain
The mural paintings of Sant Climent de Taüll

The wall paintings are spectacular and a highlight in Romanesque art. The robes fold and create a three-dimensional effect.

The volumes in the folds of the robe reflect some movement and realism in the image. Christ is located within a mandorla, but he almost falls out of the mandorla - his feet are pointing downwards. His face is is framed by the hair. Below the mandorla, there are several horizontal bands. Below you will find Virgin Mary and the apostles. They clothes are simpler than the ones of Christ.

Christ is surrounded by a Tetramorph, the symbol of the four evangelists: John with the eagle, Mathew with wings, Mark and the Lion and Luke and the Bull.

Romanesque mural wall paintings, Sant Climent de Taüll, today at the MNAC Museum, Barcelona
Romanesque mural wall paintings - the famous wall paintings from the Taüll Church in the Spanish Pyrenees, has been transferred to the MNAC Museums in Barcelona

Santa María de Taüll

Not much is known about the church Santa María de Taüll, but it muast have been built in the beginning of the 12th century, together with the Sant Climent and the Sant Joan de Boí, and it was consecrated in 1123 by the bishop of Roda-Barbastro, Guillem. The church is located right in the old center of the village Taüll, a few hundred meters from Sant Climent de Taüll, located outside the village. The church has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2000.

The wall paintings of Santa María de Taüll

Originally, all the church was painted with frescos (apse, walls and columns), but at the beginning of the 20th century, only part of the frescos in the apse and the side walls remained. These were moved to the MNAC museum in Barcelona, where they can be seen today.

As opposed to most of many other Romanesque churches, it is not the majestic Christ that is the central motif in the apse, but Saint Mary with the child. We see the Maiestas Mariae that is derived from the byzantine Virgen Kiriotissa. She is more like a support for Jesus, than a mother, and is completely immobile.

The three Magi have their hands covered (veiled), so that they do not touch the divine object. Over their heads are the stars described in the Bible. Below, we see Saint Peter with white hair, Saint Paul. We see the Adoration of the Magi. Next to Mary stands  Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Also, Abel is present as allegory of Christ's sacrifice).

The adoration of the Magi , Santa María de Täull. Today at MNAC, Barcelona
The adoration of the Magi - details from the apse in the Santa María de Taüll Church (transported to the MNAC Museum).

Other murals from the Catalan Pyrenees

The mural painting of Sant Joan de Boí

This Romanesque church is located in the Boí Valley. The church is from the 12th century.

The Martyr of Saint Stephen
The Martyr of Saint Stephen - detail from the mural painting from the Sant Joan de Boí church.

The most important remaining fresco from the church it the lapidation of Saint Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs. The murals are made by the Mestre de Boí.

On the mural, we see the lapidation of Stephen by several men, who are throwing stones. From the right side, we see at ray of light coming from the sky. The light is a symbol of the devine salvation. Stephen is calm and knows that he is blessed and that heaven is waiting.

Sant Joan de Boí, the Boi Valley
Sant Joan de Boí - another important Romanesque church from the Vall de Boí
The murals of Santa María de Aneu

The church of Santa María de Aneu is located outside the Boí Valley, further east than the churches in Taüll. The splendid murals of Santa María de Aneu, take the symbology from the Book of Isaiah in Old Testament (6, 6-7)

"6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

The Murals of Santa María de Aneu
The Murals of Santa María de Aneu - detail showing a seraphim touching the lips of Isaiah with coal.

2. San Esteban (Segovia)

The San Esteban church is located in Segovia, north of Madrid, and was built in the 12th century. Its beautiful tower of 56 meters (for a long time it was the tallest bell tower on the Iberian Peninsula) can be seen from afar in the city.

San Esteban in Segovia
San Esteban in Segovia - one of several Romanesque churches in Segovia

3. The Cathedral of Santa María d'Urgell

The Romanesque Cathedral of Santa María d'Urgell is located in the city of Seu d'Urgell. As its name tells, the church is dedicated to Saint Mary.

Construction began in 1116, making it one of the earliest cathedrals in Catalonia. In the 20th Century, there were several restorations of the church, the first under the direction of the renowned architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1918. In spite of these restorations, the church is almost entirely romanesque.

Seu d'Urgell
Seu d'Urgell - the best example of a Romanesque cathedral in Catalonia
The murals of Seu d'Urgell - the Apse from the Cathedral of Urgell

The muralls of the Seu d'Urgell are exhibited in the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. Christ is seen in a mandorla surrounded by a Tetramorph. Below a Greek fret, the apostles Peter, with the keys, and Andreas with the cross are seen.

Romanesque frescos from Seu d'Urgell
Romanesque frescos from Seu d'Urgell - details showing Saint Peter with the keys and Saint Andrew the apostle with the cross.

4. Santa María de Ripoll

Santa María de Ripoll is one of the most exceptional Romanesque churches in Spain, foremost known for its splendid portal, extensively ornamented by stories from both the Old and the New Testament.

Romanesque church in the village of Ripoll
Romanesque church in the village of Ripoll - Santa María de Ripoll
The portal

The portal of Santa María de Ripoll is conserved almost entirely. It has scenes from the Old and the New Testament.

The San Esteban church in Segovia
The portal of Santa María de Ripoll - one of the most impressive Romanesque portals in Europe.

5. San Vicente (Ávila)

The Basilica of San Vicente, is one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain. According to myth, the church is built over the tombs of three Christian saints, martyred by the Roman emperor, Diocletian: Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta.

The church is built on a Latin cross plan. The church is one UNESCO's World Heritage List, together with the Old Town of Avila and its ten extra muros churches. The church was built around 1130.

San Vicente (Avila)
San Vicente (Avila) - ribbed vaults in the central nave.
The Romanesque West Portal

The Romanesque West-Portal in the San Vicente church shows an impressive quantity of figures and vegetal motifs. In the tympanum we see images from the last supper.

San Vicente (Avila)
San Vicente (Avila) - the West-portal

6. Iglesia de Santa María Magdalena (Navarra)

The church was built in the middle of the 12thcentury. The church is around 25 meters long. Its apse is different from most others in Romanesque architecture since it is not circular but straight.

The main entrance (seen on the picture above) is semi-circular and tells stories from the New Testament. In the tympanum, the all-mighty Christ (pantocrator) is represented together with the four evangelists, and on their knees: Mary and Martha (or Lazarus). Above him are four archivolts.

Church of Santa María Magdalena in Tudela (Navarra)
Church of Santa María Magdalena in Tudela (Navarra) - the details shows the pantocrator, the evangelists and four archivolts.

7. Santa María la Real (Sangüesa)

Santa María la Real is a small Romanesque church located in the town Sangüesa in the region of Navarre. The architecture is between Romanesque and Gothic and especially the elaborated portal with scenes from the last judgement is impressive.

The church was donated in 1131 by the King Alfonso I ('The Battler) to the order Knights Hospitaller, that had their headquarter in Jerusalem until 1291.

Santa Maria la Real in Sangüesa
Santa Maria la Real in Sangüesa (Navarre) - one of the most important Romanesque churches in Navarre.

The church has an extensively ornamented. To the left, we see The Three Marys: Mary Magdalene, Virgin Mary and Mary of Jacob (the mother of James the Less). To the right we see Peter, Paul and Judas Iscariot. In the tympanum, we see the Final Judgement.

Detail from Santa Maria la Real in Sangüesa . Final judgement
Detail from Santa Maria la Real in Sangüesa - the Final Judgement

8. Eunate

Not much is known about the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, besides that it was built in the 12th-century. It was built in the middle of the filds, aroudn 2 km. from the village of Muruzábal on the Way of Saint James. Only few octagonal Romanesque churches exist in Spain, and this is one of them. Some scholars have tried to connect it to the religious order, the Knights Templar, who built churches inspired in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, but no certain connection has been proven.

Saint Mary of Eunate - octagonal romanesque church in Eunate, Spain
Church of Saint Mary of Eunate - an unusual, octagonal Romanesque church in Eunate, Spain.

9. San Martín (Segovia)

The church of San Martín in Segovia was built in 1117. It is a Mozarabic church (built by the Christians during the reign of the Muslims in Segovia. The church is famous for its Romanesque-mudejar-styled bell tower, that has similarities in common with the bell tower in the cathedral of Seville.

The San Esteban church in Segovia
San Martín in Segovia - an imposing church in Segovia

10. Puente de la Reina

Puente de la Reina is a Romanesque six-arched bridge over the Arga River from the 11th century. The bridge was built between Pamplona and Estella on the road to Santiago de Compostella. Building the bridge meant, that it was made easier to cross the river one the French Way (El Camino Francés), the most popular pilgrimage route to the Saint James church (Santiago de Compostela) from France, running through cities like Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño and Burgos.

Puente de la Reina, on the French road to Santiago de Compostela
Puente de la Reina - the Romanesque bridge crosses the Arga river, and makes passage to Santiago de Compostela easier.

11. Besalú

This Romanesque bridge in the small town Besalú cross over the Arga River. The bridge dates back to the 11th century. The roads to Santiago de Compostela crosses here. Besides the Romanesque bridge, Besalú has several Romanesque churches: Sant Vicenç from and Sant Pere de Besalú,

Besalú Bridge
Besalú Bridge - a Romanesque bridge in the village of Besalú north of Barcelona

12. Sant Pere de Rodes

Sant Pere de Rodes is a former Benedictine monastery, in North-eastern Spain. The monastery exists from at least 878 AD, but the Benedictine monastery was founded in 945. Many pilgrims start their pilgrimage here ending at Santiago de Campostella.

Sant Pere de Rodes in northern Cataloni
Sant Pere de Rodes in northern Catalonia - the church has a dramatic location on the coast, not far from the French border

13. Sant Pere, Sant Miquel & Santa María (Terrassa)

Sant Pere, Sant Miquel and Santa Maria are located within a short distance in the city of Terrassa, 30 minutes' drive from Barcelona. Built from the 11th to the 12th century. The Catalan architecht Josep Puig i Cadafalch did research on the three churches in the beginning of the 20th century. Sant Pedro is the biggest of the three churches in Terrassa, and has one wide nave.

The romanesque church Santa María in Terrassa, with Lombrad bands
The Romanesque church Santa María in Terrassa - Terrassa, Spain. The detail shows the Lombard blind arcades and bands above the entrance.

14. Sant Pau del Camp (Barcelona)

A small Romanesque Benedictine Monastery in Barcelona. The original monastery was founded by Guifré-Borrell before 911, and was destryed by Almanzor. The church standing here today was built between the 12th and 13th century. The courtyard has multifoiled arches and the exterior has Lombard bands and symbols of the evangelists Mathew and John.

The romanesque church Santa Pau del Camp, Barcelona
The Romanesque church Santa Pau del Camp (Barcelona) - The photo shows the entrance with Lombard bands and the symbols of Mathew and John.
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