Art in Paris: La France Romane

Patrimoine: it’s a French thing, but not beyond our understanding.  The exhibition currently at the Louvre (in the space underneath the Sully staircase) until 6 June has the open-spirited title Romanesque France (“La France Romane”). This would seem to allow that other Romanesque styles might have existed elsewhere; I can cite Spain and England, for example.  Yet the exhibition goes a long way to explain why the French see themselves as the inventors of the Romanesque style in Europe.  It is so replete with many fine examples of French Romanesque sculpture, painting, and metalwork that the viewer is easily brought over to the French point of view. The vast expanse of Romanesque artistic production in France will astonish you if you have not spent much of your life studying the art of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  The exhibit contains a variety of objects from nearly every corner of France.  However, most of the objects are small and finely detailed and so necessitate close attention.  People cluster around the immured glass cases, and visibility can be limited.  Go early in the day if you can so you don’t have to wait on line.  The show will be much more enjoyable when it isn’t too crowded.  The didactic labels on the wall are in French and English and are both comprehensive and concise.  They describe historical context, various religious movements, and stylistic developments in the different regions of France around which the exhibition is organized.  But the individual labels are placed so close to the ground that they are only suitable for Lilliputians.  They are necessarily in dim light, and that further reduces legibility.  With so many objects on display (there are 296 catalogue entries) you either need to make several visits or need to cull the essence of each room. In fact, the exhibition is so large and so encyclopedic that it is easy to lose your way. It may be helpful to focus on some of the highlights and, if desired, come back for a second visit to pick up on some of the other pieces.  There is an audio guide (5 euros, available in French, English, and Spanish) and, to judge by the objects chosen for discussion, the narrator has chosen some of the most important.   One final caveat: don’t use up all your energy on the first three rooms or you’ll never get to appreciate the last three.  Bearing that in mind, this is a show that can well be enjoyed by any viewer curious about the history and culture of France and its illustrious patrimony.  La France Romane can serve to open your eyes to one of the most important artistic developments in the medieval period: the Romanesque style. The exhibition focuses on France in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, when Europe was a perilous place.  Government was local and not very stable, poverty was the lot of most of the population, and there were few urban centers.  Power rested with the Church but not necessarily centered in cities.  It was in the monasteries that there was order, food, and education.  The monks were, in a sense, the keepers of the flame.  In a population where most people could not read or write, the monks did both.  It was in their scriptoria that texts were copied and manuscripts illustrated so that Christianity could expand throughout Europe.  Additional prayer books, evangelaries, missals, lectionaries, and sacramentaries were all necessary if the religion was to spread and flourish. The section of this exhibition that deals with monasteries has some wonderful examples of Romanesque manuscript illumination.  For example, there are two full-page illuminations from a manuscript of the Life of Saint Aubin of Angers (cat. no. 101*) produced in Angers c.1100.   St. Aubin was a monk, abbot, and finally Bishop of Angers who died in 550.  Important to the local monastery, his life was inscribed and illustrated some 550 years later, and in the sixteenth century someone wrote commentary on the scenes on the top of each folio.  On the left-hand folio, the saint excommunicates a couple at a banquet table; on the right folio, he blesses the holy bread, the body of Christ in the Eucharist.  Both pictures are vividly colored, primarily in blues and reddish-orange tones.  Complex architectural frames surmount both scenes, a motif that descends from symbolic representations of the Heavenly Jerusalem.  All the figures are outline drawings, and their robes fall in neat calligraphic lines.  The artist emphasized eyes and gestures most lprobably because he was used to illustrations in the Ottonian tradition from the previous century. At the banquet, the six diners balance a severely tipped table on their supposed laps.  As tableware was not yet in use, note that this is still finger food, with generous slices of bread provided by one of the other diners.  In both illustrations the artist has used very economic means to indicate the crowds of people who attend Saint Aubin.  One or two faces are drawn, with the tops of their heads indicating the rest of the mass.  This technique does not do much to convince us that there is actually room for all those people.    A monk/artist who worked at Cluny at about the same date was also asked to draw a crowd, here to illustrate the Feast of Pentecost (cat. no. 168 A).  But he’s working from a different artistic tradition.  He’s not so much influenced by Ottonian art as he is by Byzantine ivories and wall painting done by Byzantine artists in the West.  The draperies are more graceful, and they do not totally disguise the body beneath it.  On the other hand, the Cluny scriptorium is not exempt from Germanic influence.  The letter “A” is filled with Germano-Saxon interlace.   Stylistic cross-currents were also felt, on a larger scale, in the architectural sculpture…
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