Apr 8, 2020 in Review

Surrealism and Romanesque

Works of art depict themes related to political, social, religious, and philosophic ideologies, which were topical at the time of their creation as well as attractive to the artists. Surrealism is an art movement that appeared in the twentieth century on the principles of the dream theory, which tried to actualize the feelings and concerns of the unconscious. The Romanesque is another art movement that existed from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries in Europe. Works that represent these two movements are very different, each showing the typical themes and underlying principles of the art trend. This essay will discuss two works of art, the Central tympanum of the Saint Magdalene narthex (1140-1150) by Jean-Pol Grandmont and The Accommodations of Desire (1929) by Salvador Dali through the lens of iconography as well as religious and philosophical factors characteristic of their movements.

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Surrealism borrowed many principles from Dadaism and even encouraged some Dadaists to join the movement. It focuses on the idea of actualizing the imaginative unconscious self, such as dreams and every form of illusory fictions. The pioneers of surrealism used the dream theories to depict the imaginations of dreams without following strict rules of rationale. However, he previous movements created their art on the basis of rational grounds, which did not allow the realization of the unconscious, and, hence, many view surrealism as a revolutionary movement. This art trend appeared during and immediately after the First World War, when people were seeking refuge from the rationale which had seen the beginning of the war. Therefore, surrealism enabled people to distract from daily matters and indulge in the virtual, which could not result in war as the rationale did. 


Being at the age of eighty-seven, Dali created the work The Accommodations of Desire in 1929. He made it while being in Paris for a surrealist exhibition.  This piece of art is a surrealism painting. Dali employed an irrational paranoid-critical method. He fixes lion heads on a canvas material and adds various effects with collage techniques. The artist depicts lumpish white pebbles using oils.  He cuts and pastes lion heads on these stones, which obviously carry some hidden meaning. Therefore, the work is a combination of the realism features and collage techniques of gluing print paper on the canvas to complement the main idea of the painting. Dali combines colors in a unique way, making a dark brown background, which smoothly transforms into gray closer to the edges. Moreover, he uses white color for some pebbles; red is also conspicuous in the painting. There are white sacs holding the white, red, and yellow pebbles as well as images, which seem very mysterious. In the center, the artist shows the shadows of the sacs on the brown background.

This piece of art embodies fear, terror, and future uncertainty or decay. At the time of The Accommodations of Desire creation, the themes of terror and fear reigned the human minds as people recovered from World War I. The artist depicts those ideas with great expertise, and the audience can feel his feelings, which he apparently cannot articulate with words. Using different colors on the canvas and the naturally looking background, Dali portrays his uncertainty and fears of what the future would be like. The painting is a visual representation of his dreams, or fears that the painter can only express through imaginative art and the dream theories. The expression in this piece of art goes beyond the rational mind and appeals to the unconscious person. The painting reflects the movement through its expression of feelings. Surrealism’s principle was to allow the depiction of the unconscious that would free the stream of imagination and emotions. Dali expresses terror and decay using attractive pebbles that is typical of the dream theory.

Romanesque is an expansion of the then popular Byzantine art which relates mostly to the depiction of religious themes and ideas. This art movement appeared at the pinnacle of Roman Catholic Christianity, when people experienced disappointment as the return of Christ did not materialize. As a result, Romanesque concerned mostly religious themes, and it was widely and commonly applicable to church decorations.

Jean-Pol Grandmont’s Central tympanum of the Saint Magdalene narthex is a work that the artist created in the 1130s at Basilica of Saint Magdalene in Vézelay, mirroring the ideas that the representatives of Romanesque esteemed. The work has been in existence for centuries. In the tenth century, Christians in Europe started appreciating sculpture and carvings as a part of art and also as a means to decorate their churches as well as express their religious themes and ideas. At that time, Christianity was thriving as it managed to convert most of pagans. Initially, Christians were opposed to the idea of carvings and sculptures, but with the apocalypse failing to come and the internationalization taking place in Europe at that time, they gradually accepted these forms of art and became active artists. 

The material of the art matches perfectly the color that symbolizes the theme of unity in Christianity for all humans. The work is a tympanum sculpture made of carvings and casting on stone or concrete. The sculpture is light brown in color. The brown color indicates the durability and inevitability of the theme as well as the sculpture since during Romanesque times, the crusade was everlasting.

The work mirrors the movement through the subject it portrays. Romanesque centered on the theme of Christ’s allegory. Its representatives borrowed heavily from the Byzantine movement. Therefore, in this case, he work bears Byzantine iconography. Also, the depiction of religious themes and Christ allegory was a Byzantine principle, which Romanesque borrowed and widely applied as obvious from the given sculpture. The depiction of the works of the apostles’ and the call to evangelize is in line with Romanesque.

The subject of the work is the apostles calling to evangelize the ungodly in God’s world. During that time, Christians had been waiting for the return of Christ and the apocalypse respectively; however, to their disappointment, the millennium passed without any of these predictions coming true. The need for crusades and the expansion of the Roman Catholic are contributory factors in the development of the Romanesque movement. The work depicts the popularity of the crusade and the expansion of the church.  The carving and casting of the people on the tympanum assist in delivering the main idea. The carving of Christ, which seems illuminated, serves as the light and purpose for the crusades that the Roman Catholics were conducting. The compartments portrayed the Christian countries and the mission of apostles as they did many wonders for people. The tympanum acted as a Christian allegory for the crusaders’ mission and a spiritual defense for the crusades themselves. At the time when the Roman Empire was operative, and the expansion and development of the Roman Catholic was underway, the tympanum became an example of the Pentecostal mission of apostles.

In conclusion, a particular work of art gives much information about the movement it belongs to and also about the ideas and opinions of the artists. The social, political, philosophical, and religious factors as well as historical background impact the features and theme of the work. In fact, different external factors lead to the development of art movements, and they influence artists’ behavior and principles they uphold. The Central tympanum of the Saint Magdalene narthex is a Romanesque sculpture, which appeared in 1130, portraying the ideas of the inevitability of the catholic crusades. Similarly, the work The Accommodations of Desire depicts the free and liberal art, which allow the unconscious to speak. A piece of art is not only a product of the artist’s creativity but also a result of the external environment and factors that were typical of a certain period Therefore, any painting perpetuates the spirit of its creator as well as time of its creation. 

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