Romanesque Painting and Sculpture in Germany and England

The Bernward Doors made ca. 1015 for the Cathedral of Hildesheim (Germany). The doors include reliefs from Biblical scenes, like stories from the Book of Genesis (left door) and episodes from the life of Jesus (right door). These bronze doors feature the oldest known monumental image cycle in German sculpture and the oldest cycle of images cast in metal in Germany.
God accusing Adam and Eve, detail of the left leaf of the Bernward door.

From all the north and northeast European countries, only Germany produced a great amount of important works of sculpture and painting during the Romanesque period, although it must be mentioned that there are beautiful examples (from the late Romanesque) of stone carving in England (see two statues, one of them representing Saint John the Evangelist in the first cathedral of York). In the German countries the facades were not only decorated with geometric ornamentation (typical of English cathedrals), but the doors were also covered with figures of saints and apostles. Since the end of the eleventh century, German sculpture was gradually regaining expressionism and great skill in arranging and representing drapery’s folds. The churches were enriched with sepulchral monuments and figurative grave stones, and to the pillars’ shafts dividing the naves there were often attached some decorative sculptures. Later, in the early thirteenth century, German sculptors received the influx of the great artistic schools that formed during the construction of French Gothic cathedrals (like Chartres), and in consequence were also influenced by that artistic and decorative force brought by the great Gothic sculptors from across the Rhine.

The adoration of the magi, detail of the right leaf of the Bernward door.

Beautiful works in stone, marble and metal were carved in Germany during the Romanesque period. The most famous are the bronze doors of St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim (known as Bernward doors) from the early eleventh century. From that starting point, the art of German foundry and casting highly progressed, especially in the production of liturgical objects, some of which are great little masterpieces; also baptismal fonts, lamps, chandeliers, censers and chalices were filled with figurines of all kinds entangled with foliage and vine trunks.

The goldsmiths also developed wonderful gold and silver arks to hold the relics of each city’s patron saints. The biggest and perhaps the most beautiful of these, is the ark called the “Shrine of the Three Kings” in the Cologne Cathedral. It has a church’s shape, with two floors with arcades and under each arch there is a figurine. This ark is from the late twelfth century and made by Nicholas of Verdun, an extraordinary goldsmith who influenced Rhenish and Mosan art*. Along with the art of casting, goldsmiths employed embossing by manufacturing reliquaries with church-shapes, silver altars and front decorative pieces embedded with gems and enamels.

The Shrine of the Three Kings, a reliquary said to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi (Cologne Cathedral). It is considered the largest reliquary in the western world.
Detail of the shrine of The Three Kings.

In the art of metal embossing, the Germanic Romanesque masterpiece is the golden altarpiece of the Cathedral of Basel, now kept in the Museum of Cluny in Paris. Within five embossed niches there are figures in bas-relief of the Redeemer (with the Earth globe in hand), three angels and Saint Benito. In this piece Byzantine influence is well evident: the angels, as chamberlains, carry a baton, a typical feature of the Archangels of the Greek Church. The presence of Saint Benito is explained by assuming that this center piece was given as a gift by Emperor Henry II, who though had healed through that Saint’s intercession.

The altar frontal, also known as the Basler Antependium, from early 11th century (Musée de Cluny, Paris).

The text containing detailed descriptions of the arts of this time, called Schedula diversarum artium, written by monk Theophilus, provided also many indications about metallurgy with some practical advice to manufacture all kinds of objects from churches’ chalices and chandeliers to spurs and brakes for horses. During the Romanesque period, enamels failed to reach the commercial success French enamels reached, but enamels from Cologne, brighter than those of Limoges though less rich in color, were prized by connoisseurs. In the art of ivory carving, Carolingian tradition was still the norm for the production of book covers, chess pieces, etc.

Detail of the mural frescoes at Sylvesterkapelle in Goldbach (Germany).
Mural Romanesque decoration at St. Georg church in Oberzell (Reichenau island, Lake Constance, Germany).
Fresco at St Peter and Paul church at Niederzell (Reichenau island, Lake Constance, Germany) ca. 1120.

In Germany, decorative painting reached important developments during the Romanesque. From the middle of the eleventh century the monks of Reichenau enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as mural painters. Their prestige was maintained for more than three generations. Their early works are preserved in the chapel of Saint Sylvester (Sylvesterkapelle) of Goldbach and in the basilicas of St. Georg in Oberzell and St. Peter & St. Paul in Niederzell, in the own island of Reichenau on Lake Constance. In a painting in St. Michael of Burgfelden, the themes allusive to the parable of the Samaritan also included a case occurred in 1001: the violent death of the Knights of Zollern, which gives these paintings a certain value at attempting to represent a historical event. In another work of the Reichenau School is a large composition of the Last Judgment interpreted with dramatic effectiveness hitherto unknown in the Rhenish region. The relationships that surely sustained the Benedictine monks of Reichenau with the headquarters of Monte Cassino in Italy may explain some influence of these Italian decorators.

Detail of the mural decoration at St. Michaels church in Burgfelden (Germany).
“The Church enthroned”, 12th century fresco at Prüfening Abbey (Bavaria, Germany).

Another school of Romanesque decoration flourished in the region of Cologne, another one in Westphalia, and another in Saxony. Particularly important are the wall paintings of the Prüfening abbey, near Regensburg. In general, throughout Germany, religious and civil Romanesque monuments were adorned with the bright colors of frescoes, and if there was no space or resources to produce large figurative compositions, at least strips of interlaced and decorated edgings along arches’ curves were added.

Miniature with the portrait of Emperor Otto II (Musée Condé, Chantilly, France).
Portrait of Emperor Otto III, enthroned, miniature from the Evangeliary of Otto III (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Germany) from late 10th or early 11th century. This manuscript contains the Vulgate versions of the gospels plus some preliminary texts including the Eusebian canon tables. It was produced at Reichenau Abbey and contains 276 folios. This particular miniature represents the Emperor enthroned surrounded by personifications of the four provinces of the Empire (Roma, Gallia, Germania, and Sclavinia) bringing him gifts.
Christ washing the Apostles’ feet, miniature from the Evangeliary of Otto III (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Germany).
The Magi, miniature from the Pericopes of Henry II (Munich, Bavarian State Library, Germany) ca. 1002 – 1012. This lavishly illuminated manuscript is considered the masterpiece of the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau. It has 206 vellum folios.

But the major works of the German Romanesque decorative painting are the prodigious miniatures found in codices, which usually have on its front page a great composition with the image of its owner (like the famous miniature, ca. 985, with the portrait of emperor Otto II on his throne, now in the Museum Condé de Chantilly) and with other numerous miniatures interspersed in the rest of the manuscript’s pages. These miniatures are characterized by the naturalism of gestures, their expressive force, and their elegance and beauty. Especially at the beginning (late tenth and early eleventh century) the miniature school of the Ottonian court produced the most important works of Western painting of the Romanesque period. Some codices from this first Romanesque period appear to resurrect classic techniques and styles. The fame reached by the scriptorium of Reichenau was extraordinary. Among the codices probably illuminated in Reichenau are the “Evangeliary of Otto III”, from around 1000 kept in Munich, and the extraordinary “Book of Pericopes* of Henry II”, made between 1002 and 1004 before this prince was crowned emperor and later offered by him to the cathedral of Bamberg. The figures drawn in these codices acquired a sublime transcendentalism, placed on flashing golden or light purple backgrounds producing a strange impression of emptiness full of mystery. Only when entering the twelfth century, German miniatures began to indulge with emphatic realism, somewhat cartoonish, which would become the predominant characteristic of German painting in later periods.

Nativity, a miniature from the Sacramentary of Robert of Jumièges (Municipal Library of Rouen, France). In the English Romanesque miniature is clear the Irish tradition with its color spectrum and the typical dynamism of the Celtic composition. Therefore, it is fundamentally different from the German contemporary miniatures.
“The Pentecost”, miniature from the Pontifical of Archbishop Roberto.

In England, Norman constructions filled with geometric carved decoration didn’t leave much space for fresco painting. When moving to Great Britain most Norman barons, who followed Duke William during the conquest, brought their own devotional books, bibles, missals and books of hours. Even some Norman sculptors and painters would go to Britain, and were well received by the French nobility already enriched with the spoliation of Saxon princes. Then a new school of miniature established in England that would last until the end of the Middle Ages. Its style is, however, typically English, and an English manuscript can be always taken apart from another French or Norman. In the English manuscripts colors are paler; there are certain yellows and greens that are of typical Irish tradition. In general, English drawing style offers certain elegance and refinement that does not match that of the French manuscripts. In a word, the English Romanesque miniature retained some very well defined Celtic reminiscences destined to experience a completely independent artistic evolution. This is evident by the study of both, the “Pontifical of Archbishop Roberto” produced in Winchester in the late tenth century, and in the “Sacramentary of Robert of Jumiéges” given as a gift to the Norman monastery of Jumiéges by the Archbishop of Canterbury (1006-1023). The miniatures of the first manuscript subdued compositions to a decorative rage that is in strong contrast to the contemplative serenity depicted by the codices of continental Europe.

The “Domed Head” Reliquary from the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Berlin). It was made in oak covered with copper plates and with “champlevé” enamels. The figurines are made of ivory. Ca. 1175.
The cover of the Pericopes of Henry II (Munich, Bavarian State Library, Germany). The center plate represents the Crucifixion and is considered a masterpiece of ivory carving. The influence of Byzantine art is reflected in its frame embedded with precious stones and “cloisonné” enamels.
Zoomorphic aquamanile* in form of a lion made in bronze from the beginning of the XIII century (German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany).
Daniel in the lion’s den, relief in stone at the Annenkapelle of Worms Cathedral (Germany). This relief follows the Syriac tradition of framing figures under arcades.


Mosan art: A regional style of art from the valley of the Meuse in present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, mostly applied to the Romanesque period. This regional “Mosan Romanesque” reached a high level of development during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Aquamanile: (from aqua + manos = water + hands, plural aquamanilia or aquamaniles) is a ewer or jug vessel in the form of one or more animal or human figures. It usually contained water for hand-washing over a basin, which was part of both upper-class meals and the Christian Eucharist. Most known ancient aquamanilia were made in metal, typically in copper alloys (brass or bronze).


Ottonian art: A style of the pre-romanesque German art, also involving works from the Low Countries, northern Italy and eastern France. It was named after the Ottonian dynasty which ruled Germany and northern Italy between 919 and 1024 under the kings Henry I, Otto I, Otto II,Otto III and Henry II. Within the art history timeline, Ottonian art follows Carolingian art and precedes Romanesque art, though the transitions between periods are gradual rather than well marked. Since it was a style restricted to a few of the small cities of the period, some of their important monasteries, and the court circles of the emperor, it is referred in a wide sense as part of the Romanesque art.

Gospel pericopes: An ancient manuscript that contain only the passages from the gospels which are to be read during the liturgical year, making it easier for the priest celebrating Mass to find the gospel reading.