The Spanish Romanesque illumination of manuscripts

The Creation of Adam and Eve, Bible of Sant Pere de Rodes, XI century (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris). This manuscript was painted in “watercolor”, which markedly contrasts with most of the miniatures of the time that rather seem engraved or printed on parchment.

The independent development of the different cultures inhabiting the center of the Iberian peninsula and Catalonia, a two completely independent regions during the Romanesque period, is reflected in the illumination of manuscripts. The artistic trends, however, had a common origin in the illumination of books during the period of Visigoth Spain. However, as it happened with the Spanish Romanesque architecture, the contact with pilgrims from varied cultures and regions traveling within the Iberian Peninsula greatly influenced the art of manuscript illumination. On the other hand, in the area where the Marca Hispanica* of the Carolingian Empire had previously been established, the evolution of the art of the miniature took a somewhat different course: it was deeply influenced by the Visigoth culture but showed several foreign artistic influences much more varied than those from Castile and Leon.

A folio from the Bible of Ripoll, XI century (Vatican Library, Vatican City).

The monasteries of Ripoll, Roda, Cuixá, Urgel, and other cultural centers where manuscripts were produced had a high reputation even beyond the Pyrenees. Thus, this region of the Marca Hispanica became the scenario for the cultural exchange between its monasteries and those of France and the Rhine; the region of Marca was also the first resting area in the pilgrimage way to Cordoba. As a result, most of the cultural knowledge that had been accumulated in past centuries concentrated in the northern region of Catalonia. This trend did not last long: into the XI century and especially during the XII, the Catalan culture hardened and became vulgar. As for the manuscripts, to these days survive two monumental testimonies of what once was that cultural pinnacle manifested in Catalonia during the eleventh century. These are two Bibles, now worldwide famous, the Bible of Ripoll and that of San Pedro de Roda, both are colossal manuscripts because of their size but precious because of their content, especially for their miniatures. More than a collection of illustrations, they represent a beautiful summary of all the Biblical science known at that time. The first manuscript, called the Bible of Farfa, is preserved in the Vatican Library; the Bible of San Pedro de Roda, called the Bible of Noailles, is housed at the National Library of Paris.

The “Book of Testaments” (ca. 1125), also called “Gothic Book”, is the oldest Western diplomatic codex. It contains copies of legal documents and written privileges granted to the Cathedral of Oviedo between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Everything in this manuscript is full of ornamentation, including the writing in gold and silver, and is outstanding for its use of bold red, green and purple colors. Everything in it is idealized with an overflowing fantasy (Oviedo Cathedral, Spain).


*Marca Hispanica: Also known as Spanish March or March of Barcelona was a buffer zone beyond the former province of Septimania (now the northern part of southern France) created by Charlemagne in 795 as a defensive barrier between the region occupied by Umayyad Moors of Al-Andalus and the Frankish Carolingian Empire.  In its broader meaning, Marca Hispánica sometimes refers to a group of early Iberian and trans-Pyrenean lordships or counts coming under Frankish rule.