The Basilica at Vezelay in France and the Lincoln Cathedral in England are both exquisite examples of building ornament from very different times. The Romanesque Basilica at Vezelay, completed in 1104 and located in Burgundy, France, has many stone-carved statues and stonework that give this building a sense of mass. Ornate figures adorn tops of capitals and decorate areas above entryways—truly inspired care and craftsmanship was placed into this building that took almost thirty years to complete. Its most notable work is the tympanum above the main entry into the nave of the church. This massive building stands in a testament to the design and construction methods characteristic of Romanesque architecture, which stands in contrast to the Gothic stylings of the Lincoln cathedral located in Lincoln, England. Statues and sculpted forms are present at this cathedral, but stained glass windows are the primary mode of ornament in this magnificent piece of architecture. The color palette of the cathedral’s windows seems to make the interior of the building sing of heaven’s glory—the Lincoln Cathredral seems light and open. When looked at together, these two wonderful pieces of ancient architecture are extremely different, but they both attempt to elevate the material, physical world to the heavens above.
Brilliant Romanesque sculpture on display at Vezelay
In the heyday of Romanesque architecture, large buildings could be constructed using large load-bearing wall and columns leaving relatively little room for wall openings and windows. Arches were frequently used for door and windows, but their overall size and scale was quite small when compared to doors and windows seen in Gothic architecture. With this being the case, Romanesque architects concentrated more on sculptural elements rather than windows and openings to adorn their buildings. The quintessential example of this sculptural quality of Romanesque architecture can be seen on the tympanum above the main entry to the Basilica at Vezelay. It is truly a magnificent example of craftsmanship and storytelling that was unprecedented in its time. The design of the tympanum had its roots in the religiosity of the 1100s depicting a scene of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms. Surrounding Jesus are his apostles and commoners, an unrefined non-Christian group, with rays of the sun extending from Jesus’ hands to his apostles. The relief is often interpreted as the Pentecost but is oft debated. At its heart, though, it tells the story in which Jesus has commanded his apostles to reach out to the ends of the earth and spread his good word. This message was simple enough for the average illiterate person of the 1100s to comprehend but certainly conveyed a very deep biblical call to action.
The Rose Window at the Lincoln Cathedral
Structural advances soon took building design away from heavy Romanesque structures like the Basilica and more towards open and light architecture seen during the Gothic period. Stained glass windows soon became required fixtures in all cathedrals and became the primary method of storytelling in cathedrals. These windows were unique to other forms of art from its period since light was refracted through it rather than off it—a truly revolutionary concept for its time. This fact that light was required to illuminate these windows was symbolic in itself since light is often equated to goodness. Without light these windows seem somewhat dark and dreary. But with the light, stories depicted on stained glass windows are transformed and brought into a vibrant new life.
There is none more exquisite an example of Gothic stained glass than at the Lincoln Cathedral in Great Briain. Before entering the Lincoln Cathedral, the eye is brought to the rose window in between the two dominating towers. This window does not tell a specific story, but rather, it does something much more important to the outsider—it brings them inside. This circular window is highly symbolic in its form and placement and is meant to express man’s sense of the eternal in a material world. It is delicately constructed with a tracery evokes the natural forms seen in a leaf. The window is oriented towards the south, or the region of the Holy Spirit, and is thus meant to bring the third person of the Holy Trinity into the building.
Romanesque and Gothic Architectural Storytelling
To the illiterate people of the Romanesque and Gothic periods of architecture, the methods of storytelling through architectural ornament were integral to an understanding of God. While very different in form, both sculpture and stained glass told churchgoers the story of God that they could not read in the Bible. In the Basilica at Vezelay, the tympanum serves as the best example of storytelling within its walls the stained glass brings Christ’s stories to life at the Lincoln Cathedral. After nearly one thousand years, elements such as these stand as a testament to the rich culture and time in which they were created and they will certainly stand many more years telling their stories to new generations.