Early Christian and Romanesque Periods

Early Christian – A.D. 300 to A.D. 800

Due to the disintegration of the power of civil governments following the fall of the Roman Empire of the West, the heads of the church were enabled to obtain both political as well as ecclesiastical control over the people. The “Barbarians” who had overrun Rome had been awed enough by the merits of Christianity to hesitate in invading or destroying the precincts of the Christian church.

The Romans, realizing this fact, had transferred much of their wealth and many of their most valuable belongings to the church. The church also drew within its gates many of the younger generation of Roman citizens who sought the protection of its robe and veil. Mention has been made of the early sufferings of the Christians in practicing their religion. This was the period of the erection of underground places of worship, known as the catacombs, the walls and wood burning fireplaces of which were covered with symbols, many of lost or hidden meaning, the handwork of the Early Christians.

When the Christians as a political party, eventually gained the upper hand in Rome, their first desires were to build houses of worship that would be symbolic of their power and beliefs; nor was there greater joy than in the destruction of the heathen temples which at one time had been the emblem of the power and glory of the old religion. The earliest Christian churches were built with stones from the ruins of the Classical temples. We find architectural details within them of the best periods of Roman art but often arranged in the most crude and unusual compositions.

With the destruction of the Roman civilization, teachers who could carry on the Classic tradition in art were not available nor wanted. Not many generations had passed when the learning based upon the old forms had almost completely disappeared and although the ruined models were everywhere at hand to copy, the skill of the craftsman was lost during the many years of political turmoil.

By necessity a new art was in the making, based upon a new philosophy, new influences, and new materials which were to form a new tradition of its own. The new craftsmen, in their ignorance and enthusiasm for the new religion, intentionally discarded the influence of the old where possible. The Early Christian period was one of meager artistic production in the decorative field. The present evidences of it are largely in architectural work. The art of the   mosaic  worker was, however, developed to a great extent.

Romanesque – A.D. 800-1100

When the Christians spread into the Western provinces of the Roman Empire, and particularly into what is now the southern part of France, they had freer rein in the construction of new edifices than they even had within the walls of Rome itself. The local artisans, uninfluenced by the Roman ruins, were obliged to create new forms with new materials in a new land with no tradition and only a limited association with Roman art. From both of these causes, an entirely new art sprang up and by the year A.D. 800, a distinct type was developed which is known as the Romanesque.

Romanesque art is as much an ecclesiastical type as the art of the Byzantine Empire. It, however, does not show as much of the Oriental influence, although an entirely new sense of detail and proportion developed which was very different from the Classic ideal. When compared with the later developments of Gothic Christian art, the Romanesque forms were distinctly massive in detail; the walls of the buildings were heavy, the windows were small, and the fireplace surrounds were immense. The round arch is repeatedly used and is reminiscent of the Roman forms and contrasts strongly with the final development of the Christian building arts in which the pointed form is shown.

Charlemagne (A.D. 742-814) was the great early patron of the arts in Western Europe, but because of the utter ignorance into which the people of this period had fallen, it is stated that Charlemagne himself could read, but could not write. He nevertheless surrounded himself with the most learned men of the time. This was the period of the introduction of feudalism, the age of chivalry and eventually the Crusades.

The latter lasted from 1098 until 1270, and while they did not accomplish the purpose for which they originally were planned, they were the first causes of a movement in the fifteenth century to revolutionize the thought of the white race. They aroused the Western European to the magnificence of Eastern culture and opened up trade routes to the East.

The crusaders brought back with them many new natural products, as well as manufactured articles such as cotton, calicos, muslins, damask, satin, velvet and camel’s hair as well as the method for weaving them. Arabian architecture and the arts exerted an unquestionable influence upon the imagination of European artists.