Pre-Romanesque art and architecture

Pre-Romanesque art and architecture

Pre-Romanesque art and architecture is the period in Western European art from either the emergence of the Merovingian kingdom in about 500 or from the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 8th century, to the beginning of the 11th century Romanesque period. The term is generally used in English only for architecture and monumental sculpture, but here all the arts of the period are briefly described. The primary theme during this period is the introduction and absorption of classical Mediterranean and Christian forms with Germanic ones creating innovative new forms, leading to the rise of Romanesque art in the 11th century. In the outline of Medieval art it was preceded by what is commonly called the Migration Period art of the "barbarian" peoples: Hiberno-Saxon in the British Isles and predominantly Merovingian on the Continent.

Imperial styles

Carolingian art

Carolingian art is the roughly 120 year period from about 780 to 900 AD, during Charlemagne's and his immediate heirs rule, popularly known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Although brief, it was very influential; northern European kings promoted classical Mediterranean Roman art forms for the first time, while also creating innovative new forms such as naturalistic figure line drawings that would have lasting influence.

Ottonian art

German pre-Romanesque art during the 120-year period from 936 to 1056 is commonly called Ottonian art after the three Saxon emperors named Otto (Otto I, Otto II, and Otto III) who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 936 to 1001.

After the decline of the Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire was re-established under the Saxon (Ottonian) dynasty. From this emerged a renewed faith in the idea of Empire and a reformed Church, creating a period of heightened cultural and artistic fervour. It was in this atmosphere that masterpieces were created that fused the traditions from which Ottonian artists derived their inspiration: models of Late Antique, Carolingian, and Byzantine origin.

Much Ottonian art reflected the dynasty's desire to establish visually a link to the Christian rulers of Late Antiquity, such as Constantine, Theoderich, and Justinian as well as to their Carolingian predecessors, particularly Charlemagne.

Ottonian monasteries produced some of the most magnificent medieval illuminated manuscripts. They were a major art form of the time, and monasteries received direct sponsorship from emperors and bishops, having the best in equipment and talent available.

Regional styles


In the 7th century the Croats, with other Slavs and Avars, came from Northern Europe to the region where they live today [] . First Croatian churches were build as royal sanctuaries, and influences of Roman art was strongest in Dalmatia where urbanization was thickest. Gradually that influence was neglected and certain simplification, alteration of inherited forms and even creation of original buildings appeared. All of them (dozen large ones and hundred of small ones) were build with "roughly cut stone" bounded with thick layer of malter from outside. Large churches are longitudinal with one or three naves like "church of Holy Salvation (Sveti Spas)" on spring of river Cetina, build in 9th century. The largest and most complicated central based church from 9th century is dedicated to Saint Donatus in Zadar. From those times, with its size and beauty we can only compare the chapel of Charlemagne in Aachen.

Altar fence and windows of those churches were highly decorated with transparent shallow string-like ornament that is called "pleter" (meaning to weed) because the strings were threaded and rethreaded through itself. Motifs of those reliefs were taken from Roman art, sometimes the figures from Bible appeared alongside this decoration, like "relief in Holy Nedjeljica" in Zadar, and then they were subdued by their pattern. That also happened to engravings in early Croatian script – Glagolitic. Soon, the glagolic writings were replaced with Latin on altar fences and architraves of old-Croatian churches.

From "Crown Church of King Zvonimir" (so called "Hollow Church" in Solin) comes the altar board with "figure of Croatian King" on the throne with Carolingian crown, servant by his side and subject bowed to the king.

By joining the Hungarian state in the twelfth century, Croatia lost its independence, but it did not lose its ties with the south and the west, and instead this ensured the beginning of a new era of Central European cultural influence.


Anglo-Saxon art covers the period from the time of King Alfred (885), with the revival of English culture after the end of the Viking raids, to the early 12th century, when Romanesque art became the new movement. Prior to King Alfred there had been the Hiberno-Saxon culture, producing in Insular art the fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic techniques and motifs, which had largely ceased in Ireland and Northern England with the Viking invasions. Anglo-Saxon art is mainly known today through illuminated manuscripts and metalwork.


After the demise of the Carolingian Empire, France split into a number of feuding provinces, so that lacking any organized Imperial patronage, French art of the 10th and 11th centuries became localised around the large monasteries, and lacked the sophistication of a court-directed style.

Multiple regional styles developed based on the chance availability of Carolingian manuscripts (as models to draw from), and the availability of itinerant artists. The monastery of Saint Bertin became an important centre under its abbot Odbert (986-1007) who created a new style based on Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian forms. The nearby abbey of Saint Vaast created a number of works. In southwestern France at the monastery of Saint Martial in Limoges a number of manuscripts were produced around year 1000, as were produced in Albi, Figeac and Saint-Sever-de-Rustan in Gascony. In Paris there developed a style at the abbey of Saint Germain-des-Prés. In Normandy a new style developed from 975 onward.


The first form of Pre-Romanesque in Spain was the Visigothic art, that brought the horse-shoe arches to the latter Al-Andalus Arab architecture and developed jewellery.

After the Arab invasion, Pre-Romanesque art was first reduced to the Kingdom of Asturias, the only Christian realm on the country at the time which reached high levels of artistic depuration. (See "Asturian art"). The Christians who lived in Moorish territory, the Mozarabs, created their own architectural and illumination style, Mozarabic art.

The best preserved Visigothic monument in Portugal is the Saint Frutuoso Chapel in Braga.


Southern Italy benefited from the presence and cross fertilization of the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Normans, while the north was mostly controlled first by the Carolingians, and then by the Ottonians. The Normans in Sicily chose to commission Byzantine workshops to decorate their churches such as Monreale and Cefalu Cathedral where full iconographic programmes of mosaics have survived. Important frescos and illuminated manuscripts were produced.


*Joachim E. Gaehde (1989). "Pre-Romanesque Art". "Dictionary of the Middle Ages". ISBN 0-684-18276-9

External links

* [ El Portal del Arte Románico Visigothic, Mozarabe and Romanesque art in Spain.]
* [ Spanish Pre-Romanesque Art Guide; Introduction to Asturian Art.]
* [ Preromanesque art of Croatia.]

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