Luxurious church of Romanesque style
The West Facade portal of St-Gilles Du Gard seems to be a detailed but an uneasy representation of many divergent parts. The frieze retains their detail despite the seasonal winds from the Mediterranean causing them to erode and lose shape. The replica of St-Gilles Gard in Carnegie museum, which was made of plaster casts also miss too much details. However, we still can see the west portal is a luxurious example of the early Romanesque style. This important pilgrimage church was influenced by the Roman architecture and sculpture in the era as well as early Christian sculpture. There are three portals on the west facade of St-Gilles. The entrance portals are recessed with carved tympana above the doorways. The lintels of the doorways are carved and connect with the friezes above the colonnades flanking the main portal. The eclectic facade of St-Gilles provides a sculptured frieze showing the consequential events of the Holy Week as well as the Passion of Christ. The sections run from left to right depicting the series of events as they occurred.
The stories on the frieze start with the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Because we could see that there is halo and cross behind Christ’s head, so that we could recognize that man is Christ. We can use this way to recognize the Christ in the rest of sculptures on frieze as well. This sculpture clearly shows Christ riding on a donkey with his apostles following him with twigs of palm tree on their hands. In front of Christ are two witnesses spreading their cloaks on His path as the Apostles follow him waving the ceremonial palm fronds. The statues of the Apostles display strong and effortless motion, exhibited by the sculptured folds of their clothing. In addition, their heads turn towards one another in exquisite profiles, which depict excited conversations among themselves. The sculpture of Christ chasing traders away from the temple follows with figures of traders saving their properties from destruction. For instance, the money-changer standing near Christ uses a portion of his garment to save a heap of money as he runs away; the man in front of Christ flees carrying doves in his hands. Another man on the furthest part of the sculpture turns towards Christ as he mockingly shakes a bag of coins to him depicting the perception of Jews as money usurer and moneylenders. Together with fleeing traders, pairs of sacrificial sheep and oxen appear to run away towards the right. The frieze section that follows shows that of Christ washing His disciples’ feet. On this portion, Peter is seen seated on a stool as Christ washes Peter’s feet using water from a basin made of clay. Peter’s sitting position and gesture depict a mood of sorrow and regret. In this story, because we know that there is a rooster under Peter’s feet, we know the story is rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Christ had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” Then he broke down and wept. So we know the there is a story between rooster, Peter and Christ. This sculpture shares the same frieze section with the disciples seated at a table sharing the last supper with Christ. A drapery covers the wide table, although the faces of the disciples are obscure due to the iconic destruction over the centuries. Therefore, it is unable to tell the mood and emotions articulated at this particular event. Two disciples occupy the left and right edges of the table. The disciple on the far left cuts a round piece of loaf using a knife and the one on the right holds a paschal lamb, which is a symbol of the Jewish Passover.
The sculpture that follows demonstrates the arrest of Christ at the Gethsemane. This particular sculpture shows Judas grasping Christ shoulder as if to embrace him, as the tall Christ inclines towards him to give in to the traitor’s ‘kiss’. Christ’s head is skillfully carved to depict an expression of great understanding and readiness for what is ahead of him. On the right-hand side of Christ stands a man who seems to be pulling him towards himself. On the left-hand side of Judas stands, a guard preparing to pull out his sword; his forward-peaked helmet presents his pagan identity. To the extreme right of the frieze shows the judgment of Christ before Pilate. On the far left of this sculpture shows a guard pulling the bound Christ before Pilate. The Pilate seemingly appears to be extremely huge as compared to his attendants although he is seated, indicating the hieratic power of the Roman Empire. His open pose also depicts his underscored arrogance due to his position in the leadership. The right side shows Christ sprung on a pillar with his arms unnaturally stretched out to form an X-shape predicting the foreshadowed of his forthcoming sacrifice. In addition, he buckles in pain due to the torture scourges he received from the guards.
A frontal statue of Archangels and Saints complete the sculptural façade of St.-Gilles posed on top of lion carvings. It is possible to tell the specific saints and archangels represented by the sculpture. On the left, stands Saint John, clothed in simple garments, carrying a codex bearing some Latin text and on the right stands Saint Peter identified by his ecclesiastical vestments, which evoke his status as the very first Bishop of Rome. From the above text, it is possible for a person visiting the frieze for the first time will definitely be able to tell what the sculptures are trying to portray. In addition, the sculptures offer a visual view of the disturbing and distracting events of the night Holy night and the Passion of Christ. Even though the sculptures have, no writings to explain the events presented, it is possible for a non-believer to tell and understand what is happening in the carvings.
Why the West Facade portal of St-Gilles Du Gard is so famous, because during the 11th and 12th centuries, the tomb of Santiago in northwestern Spain became the most important pilgrimage destination in Western Europe, finally they coming to rival even Rome and Jerusalem (Glass 3). During that time, there were lots of pilgrims arrive at the abbey church of St.-Gilles-du-Gard. And this church can help us to understand their narrative content and understand the Classical antecedents in this magnificent example of the southern French Romanesque style.
St-Gilles Du Gard was a significant pilgrimage church on a route referred to as the Via Tolosa. This was an important pilgrimage route leading from the town of Arles through Saint Sernin’s Toulouse and eventually ended at Santiago Compostela (Lyman 85). Pilgrims who used this route came from all over Central Europe, Switzerland and Italy. The significance of Saint Gilles to pilgrims in the Middle Ages led to a major construction campaign beginning in 1116 (Glass 3). During this time, the lower church’ crypt was constructed. Roman sculptural ideals and architecture dominate the features of this church. Scholars provide that the construction of the St-Gilles Du Gard began in the late 12th century and was completed in at the start of the 13th Century. St-Gilles Du Gard is therefore considered as a being a mature Romanesque order of architecture (Hourihane 116).
This church was not only of great significance to the Roman Catholic pilgrims but was an important avenue for the Roman Catholic Church to showcase religious Art (Lyman 89). The Romanesque architecture during this period of the Middle Ages was however influenced by other architectural elements most notably from Byzantine and Islamic architecture and art. The primary characteristics of mature Romanesque architecture included the stylistic application of vault coverings and the introduction of formal constructive features that now commonly define modern church architecture (Taschen 1). These traits of Mature Romanesque architecture such as exhibited in St-Gilles Du Gard show well defined systems articulating walls (Lyman 90). These walls were in turn separated by bays with an increasing elevation spanning several levels. In earlier orders of Romanesque architecture, the nave was the only construction feature that tended to have this articulation. The Mature Romanesque order transferred this architectural characteristic to the presbytery, transept walls, the apses as well as the exterior parts of these churches.
These progressive developments in Roman Catholic Church architecture precisely related to well related figural functions. These included welcoming in, sheltering and more so embracing the religion’s faithful in a dignified and stately manner (Taschen 1). The architectural design of the St-Gilles Du Gard exhibits perspective lines which create a sense of depth end into the ambulatory apse. The church’s interior is both complex as well as richly molded with materials depicting robust chiaroscuro contracts which serve to supplement reinforcements on the synthetic column outline. The St-Gilles Du Gard interior also imposes an elevated sagacity of a layered atmosphere as well as spatial depth (Taschen 1). From a structural viewpoint, one can comprehend that the aura of the interior is complemented by the use of a system of bays employed to express spatial units. This served to eliminate divisions which used transverse arches to create a unitary space. The use of spatial spaces created spatial bodies which when one was made as an addition to another together with rigid cells formed in a symmetric forms create a unique sense of space.
Isolate crossings were richly favored in Mature Romanesque architecture and served as the core fulcrum of the church structure such that it conferred order and measure to the entire building (Taschen 1). Walls such as the ones seen in St-Gilles Du Gard evidently underwent an architectural transformation in comparison to earlier orders of Romanesque architecture. The wall structure is a single plastic mass which can be disassembled to create spaces giving way to internal galleries allowing for the comfortable movement of the religious faithful within the church. Piers in the St-Gilles Du Gard replaced columns commonly used in earlier Romanesque orders (Taschen 1). These progressive architectural innovations and development allowed for the ornamental prowess of religious artists to be exhibited without smothering the walls basic architectural function. This gives the observer a luxurious feeling such that the mature Romanesque architectural order in St-Gilles Du Gard is at one with the natural setting.
Architects of the various Romanesque architectural orders are well reknowned for their construction of cathedrals, castles, village churches as well as abbey churches. Abbey churches such as St-Gilles Du Gard are still used today and common features include solid walls, semi circular arches, towers, arcades and roofs (Taschen 1). Towers were a consistent feature especially in the construction of Abbey churches. They either took the dorm of circular, square or octagonal shaped towers. Roofs on the other hand were first constructed using durable wood and later stones were laid upon. Vaulted roofs were highly favored and the two common forms of roofing included the groin vaults and the barrel vault made from bricks or stone. By the beginning of the Mature Romanesque architectural order, traces of Gothic architecture were introduced evident through the making of roofs with a pointed rib arch (Taschen 1). Arcades were a highly popular feature in abbey churches as well as other Romanesque buildings. Arcades normally included a definite row of arches which were supported using piers or columns. Large columns normally incorporated a hollow core while short columns were entirely solid and were referred to as drum columns. Piers were constructed straight from the masonry such that their shapes were commonly rectangular or squared (Taschen 1). Semi circular arches such as the ones in St-Gilles Du Gard were entries to large openings while the solid walls played an important role in supporting the roofing and in some instances served to diminish the need for buttresses.
Romanesque architecture reached its highpoint during the 11th Century. It was in this period that the St-Gilles Du Gard was constructed (Taschen 1). These churches are known for the exquisite application of color, gilding, light and rich materials. It is important to note that these luxurious churches of Romanesque style still represent the Middle Ages as a period of architectural supremacy (Sanabria 268). In deed, the stone sculptures common in these churches were merely subservient to luxurious eminence of the finished structures. Mural painting covered St-Gilles Du Gard’s interior where in most instances the paintings were consistently modified as construction continued to be exemplified. Historical records provide that colors with strong tones were highly favored by the architects of the Middle Ages (Taschen 1). The pillars are also said to have been boldly marbled though wars and erosion faded these beautiful features. In essence, much of the velvet related tones visible today are simply estimations of what the original work is though to have looked like.
For the St-Gilles Du Gard abbey church, the architects are said to have given artists the freedom to employ conforming and inventive techniques with regard to their individual prowess thus producing extraordinary liveliness and richness of these wall paintings. Some social factors are also said to have played a role in incorporating the individuality of Romanesque architecture painters (Sanabria 290). Painting as a career was only known to thrive in major towns thus on the churches on pilgrimage tools lacked local artist workshops. This resulted in situations where most of the large painted works of art were simply resemblances of other decorations observed in other similar Romanesque churches and buildings along pilgrimage routes (Taschen 1). This is evident form the uniformity of the abbey churches interior décor as well as motifs placed on tympana and capitals. This is also evident from decorative highlights which involve the highly accentuated decoration of Jesus’ life and the lives of famous evangelists. This is especially the case for decoration of the apses in St-Gilles Du Gard. In the abbey’s odd corners, walls present free spaces where it is common to find that the paintings usually at eye level depict patron saints or in other instances portray intellectual scenes (Vandersall 134). These unexpected appearances offer contrast the symmetry of the church walls with great effect. Scholars believe that such spaces served to allow artists to be flexible such that they could paint images which were not overly stereotypical or otherwise monotonous. The open spaces allowed for artistic flexibility as well as spontaneous approach to art which greatly enhanced the unique character of these Romanesque buildings.
The St-Gilles Du Gard has a comfortable and uplifting ambiance of light as well as an array of glowing colors which gives an observer the impression that this was a core spiritual aspect of Romanesque architecture. During this period, the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church was quite transparent with the objets d’art including bronze, silver and gold (Vandersall 134). This must have most certainly accentuated the luxuriousness of Romanesque churches highlighting architectural prowess. Interior features such as altars, chandeliers, canopies as well as other instruments of light were encrusted with precious stones, silver, enamel and gold. Though this is not evident in the St-Gilles Du Gard abbey, the famous abbey of Conques offers valuable insights as to the vast wealth that these architectural masterpieces were endowed with (Vandersall 136). It is considered a miracle that the Conques treasures have been well preserved over the centuries.
It is quite evident that the men who worked these buildings were of unique talents but opted collective anonymity. Given that the mathematical knowledge of the Middle Ages was limited, these builders must have been exceedingly bold and with a great degree of acquired skill. The architects, masons and laborers were indeed practical men whose use of rectangles, semi circles, circles and squares produced precise adjustments and arrangements to combinations of architectural techniques which have been alive since antiquity. It is with great awe that one reflects on their work beginning from when the ancient foundations were laid, their clear vision that resulted in the magnificence still evident today. During the Middle Ages, frugality was the norm, as such, as much as the town was an important pilgrimage route, wasteful use of economic resources was absolutely rejected. The St-Gilles Du Gard exhibits a great deal of architectural practicability and sense of security rather that expensive architectural endeavors. This is most likely due to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church sought to appeal to peasants who had to pay tithes to the church. The church as a conduit to God played an important role in the Middle Ages. With this regard, the interior space was well employed through defined bays, and interlocking cubes which resulted to richly detailed buildings. Spatial regularity in the St-Gilles Du Gard by far comes out most strongly as the most luxurious and evocative effects stemming from Mature Romanesque architecture.
Glass, Dorothy F. “‘Quo Vadis’: The Study of Italian Romanesque Sculpture at the Beginning of the Third Millennium.” Studies in Iconography (2007): 1-22.
Hourihane, Colum. “Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago (review).” The Catholic Historical Review 97.1 (2011): 115-117.
Lyman, Thomas W. “The Politics of Selective Eclecticism: Monastic Architecture, Pilgrimage Churches, and” Resistance to Cluny”.” Gesta (1988): 83-92.
Sanabria, Sergio Luis. “From Gothic to Renaissance Stereotomy: The Design Methods of Philibert de l’Orme and Alonso de Vandelvira.” Technology and culture (1989): 266-299.
Taschen, Benedikt. Romanesque – Architecture of the World. 1990. 12.May. 2015. Web. <http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/architecture/romanesque.htm>
Vandersall, Amy L. “Five” Romanesque” Portals: Questions of Attribution and Ornament.” Metropolitan Museum Journal (1983): 129-139.