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Romanesque Art

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The laws and customs of the later Roman empire, combined with those of the barbarian tribes, finally led to the beginnings of the feudal system in the 9th century. By the 11th and 12th centuries, life in western Europe was completely ruled by this system, and by the great, powerful monasteries. The style in which the churches were built is known on the continent of Europe as Romanesque. In Britain it is called Norman, after the invaders who introduced it.

The abbey church was the most important building in any community at this time, and it had to be large enough to house many pilgrims. Thick walls gave it a feeling of security, and massive pillars supported the rounded vaults of the roof, known as barrel or tunnel vaults. The Roman skill in vaulting huge buildings had been lost, so the pillars, or piers, had to be set very close together to take the tremendous weight of the stone vaults. In France, later Romanesque churches had carving around their porches and the capitals of their piers, showing rigid, solemn figures of great dignity.

Metalwork was still important. Altar vessels made of gold or bronze were elaborately decorated and enamelled. Murals (wall paintings) were often carried out on panels, and looked rather like enlarged pages from an illustrated Bible. Brilliantly-coloured miniatures with wide, decorative borders were still painted in the monasteries.

Little secular, or non-religious, art has survived from this period. This does not mean that none existed, for the feudal lords in the great castles did sometimes employ artists. However, in a Europe which suffered continual wars and unrest, castles were often destroyed while churches were spared. One example of secular art that has survived for us to see is the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

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