Instances of equivalence between Romanesque painting and sculpture: examples from the Boí Valley


Jordi Camps

Davallament d'Erill la Vall. Conjunt complert amb les peces del MEV i el Mueseu Nacional, 2005
The Descent from the Cross from Erill la Vall with the figures from the Museu Episcopal de Vic and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, gathered on the occasion of the exhibition Romanesque masterpieces: sculptures from the Boí valley, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, 2005.

If one had to choose the most impressive Romanesque works of sculpture from the Pyrenees, there can be no doubt that the list would have to include the Descent from the Cross from Erill la Vall and, especially, the Christ of Mijaran, unquestionably the sculptural equivalent of the apse of Sant Climent in Taüll in quality and representativeness. All seven figures that comprised the group in Erill have survived, and they are now split between the Museu Episcopal de Vic and the Museu Nacional; on the other hand, the superb bust from Mijaran is only a part of the Christ on the Cross that belonged to the group making up a very large Descent from the Cross, whose composition was probably similar to the one in Erill. It comes from the church of Santa Maria in Mijaran, one of the most important in the valley, and it is now the object of worship and veneration in the parish church in Vielha.

It is not my intention to analyse these groups here, but to view them as part of an original context that fulfilled certain functions. They are works that also speak to us of the importance of the models, the references, the prestigious works, and the careers of the masters, the workshops and artists in general. And to a certain extent, they also make sense depending on the place for which they were created.

To this end, I invite you to compare some images of these sculptural groups with those of the mural paintings in the churches in Taüll in order to observe some similarities between them.

Christ on the cross and Lazarus from Taüll

First, we shall look at the treatment of the body of the crucified Christ, focusing on some aspects of his anatomy, in both Erill and Aran. They are details that at first sight might go unnoticed, but which could be very significant, and which were described by the scholar Rafael Bastardes in his meticulous studies. Notice the way the ribcage and the area of the sternum are painted. The latter shows an extension, for which the anatomical term is the xiphoid process. I should add that it is a feature that, detected in these examples, is not seen in many other cases (see for example the Crucifixion in the group from Sant Pere in Sorpe for contrast).

  • Xiphoid process. Photo: Wiquipedia
  • Descent from the Cross from Erill la Vall, second half of the 12th century (detail of Christ), Museu Episcopal de Vic. Full image
  • Crucifixió de Sorpe, half 12th century, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

This extension of the sternum is an element characteristic of all the images of Christ associated with the groups in Boí and Aran, which are also scattered around Els Pallars and even La Noguera, if we take into account the lost crucifixes of Mur and Montmagastre. It can be seen, among others, in those in Erill, Santa Maria in Taüll, and Durro (the latter lost in 1936) in the Boí Valley; in Mijaran and in the Christ of Salardú in the Aran Valley; further south, in the lost Christs on the Cross of Mur, Llimiana (Pallars Jussà) and Montmagastre (La Noguera). The figures of the thieves in the Erill group also have it.

The Boí valley. Map from the The Romanesque Heritage of the Vall de Boí

If we focus on the Boí Valley it is surprising to see that, technical differences aside, some figures in the mural paintings in Taüll are painted almost identically in some depictions of naked or half-naked bodies. The clearest example is the depiction of the poor man Lazarus, next to the door of the rich man Epulon’s house, on one of the arches in front of the apse in Sant Climent (it can be seen in the Museu Nacional). The theme reflects a parable from the Gospel According to Luke (Luke, 16, 19-31) in which a poor leper lying on the ground next to a rich man’s house was trying to calm his hunger with the crumbs and scraps that were falling from the table of his opulent banquet.

  • Christ of Mijaran (detail), 13th century, Sant Miquel church in Vielha. Photo: Jordi Camps
  • The poor man Lazarus (detail), c. 1123, Sant Climent de Taüll. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

A topical comment

Let me just say in passing that leprosy, already detected in Antiquity, was one of the most widespread and feared contagious diseases in the Middle Ages. And on top of the physical pain it entailed, it also meant marginalization for whoever contracted it. This leads us to think about this current pandemic and about some of its effects and consequences. Institutions and hospitals were created to attend to those suffering from this disease. The hospital of Santa Maria dels Malalts, or dels Mesells, a term used to refer to lepers, was founded in Barcelona in the twelfth century. It was built just where the chapel of Saint Lazarus now stands (Plaça del Padró), one of the few Romanesque buildings to have survived in the city.

In fact, the image of exclusion corresponds perfectly to the depiction we were looking at in Taüll, with Lazarus next to the rich man’s house. It is therefore an image that transports us directly to this current situation and the risks of social exclusion.

Going back to the mural paintings, we can see that in Santa Maria in Taüll, some of the images of naked figures in the depiction of Hell, on the south wall of the baptismal chapel, also reveal a similar treatment, with the extension of the sternum, although far more simplified than in Sant Climent and in the sculptures of Christ.

Hell from Santa Maria de Taüll (details). Photos: (1) Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (2) Jordi Camps

About the images of Mary

On a different note, the sculptures of Mary also offer a unique way of presenting a piece of clothing comparable to painting, as some art historians pointed out in the first third of the twentieth century. It is the veil (or maphorion) that completely covers her head. If we look for it among the sculpted figures, it can be seen like this in the images of the Virgin Mary in the groups from Erill, Durro and Santa Maria in Taüll (all of them in the Museu Nacional), as well as in the images that must have depicted the Three Marys at the Tomb, from Santa Maria in Taüll (now conserved in Paris and the United States). This particular component, with its sinuous and elegant design, was compared to the exceptional figure of Mary painted on the wall of the apse of Sant Climent in Taüll, almost beneath the Maiestas Domini, on the axis marked by the central window. We should add that we see this piece depicted in other cases, like for example in the large Catalan Bibles of the eleventh century. However, with its singular shape, for some authors it has been a reason to date the sculptures to the same period as the paintings, around the year 1123, when the church was consecrated.

Transversality in the arts. Ripoll as an example

This is not the time to discuss this question. What I would like to do now is place the emphasis on these examples of correspondence between works of painting and sculpture, even more so when the subject of the Descents is highly significant in the Boí Valley, and when we are talking about some of the most outstanding groups of Romanesque painting. I have however been focusing attention on the case of the Boí Valley. Other regions or centres of Romanesque art, such as Ripoll, also give us a transverse view of artistic creation, based on the use of models or of outstanding works as references, examples from a considered glorious past, a highly prestigious works. Some of the themes sculpted on the twelfth-century main doorway are therefore inspired on scenes from the Ripoll Bible (Vatican Apostolic Library), while there are clear similarities between the stylistic characteristics of the decoration of the stonework on the doorway and some images carved in wood, most particularly the Altar frontal from Sant Pere in Ripoll (now in the Museu Episcopal de Vic). These similarities between works with different formats, techniques and material supports are in fact also due to the existence of programmes controlled by an outstanding personality, quite possibly the commissioner or someone in charge of an important workshop. These programmes entailed coordination during the entire production process, a fact that sometimes still surprises us because the study of works of art has often separated them on account of their technical specialities and their supports.

  • King Solomon’s Dream, Ripoll Bible (page 95 recto and detail), Vatican Library. Link to the digitized Bible: Manoscritto – – 95r
  • Altar frontal from Sant Pere in Ripoll, half 12th century, Museu Episcopal de Vic
  • King Solomon’s dream calls for wisdom and sees the majesty of the Lord in an aureole, Monestir de Santa Maria de Ripoll, half 12th century. Photo: Jordi Camps

For now it is difficult to draw conclusions about the programmes of images in the churches of the Boí Valley based on details like those we have just discussed. In any case, they show to what extent some formulas could be used in works of different formats and possibly from different periods. We must remember that the stylistic characteristics of the twelfth-century sculptures from Aran and Erill are perceptible in works from the western Catalan Pyrenees datable to around 1250 or perhaps later. Therefore, there could quite possibly have been a prestigious work that was the cause of the prolonged transmission of some of these formulas. Or perhaps the production of these images was the result of a common coordinated programme, controlled by someone in authority, or due to some aspect of the ideas of the time, or some historical event.

I have put all these forward as elements for analysis and reflection, in the hope of being able to return to these subjects in the future, thanks to new discoveries that could transform our knowledge of these emblematic works.

Related links

+ posts

Art Medieval

Jordi Camps
Art Medieval

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CAPTCHA * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.