These new churches were built of stone, sometimes replacing wooden ones, and they were decorated with painting and sculpture to reinforce the story of Christ. The stone churches were thick, dark and cold. Architects had not invented the flying buttresses that would enable the walls of Gothic cathedrals to soar upward with great windows that flooded interiors in colored light. Romanesque architects made their walls thick enough to support the roofs. Fearful that the walls would buckle with large openings, the architects often left only slim windows for light. Some 19th century historians, mocking these churches as crude attempts to mimic the structures of Classical Rome, coined the word Romanesque to describe the architecture, and the name has stuck ever since.
Historians usually date the Romanesque period as roughly the mid- 10th century to the mid-12th century. To make the period easier for the French to understand, the Louvre chose two dates in French history to bound its exhibition: 987, the year Hugh Capet took the throne of France and began the Capetian dynasty that reigned for more than 300 years, and 1152, the year Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced a Capetian king and married a future king of England. Those dates, of course, do not help most Americans. They must content themselves with knowing that the pieces on display date from the first burst of creative art in the Middle Ages.
One disappointment of the exhibition is the absence of Romanesque murals, but that is not the fault of the Louvre. The walls of Romanesque churches were originally filled with frescoes that recounted the biblical versions of the story of Christ. But these frescoes were neglected over the centuries, many fading and breaking into fragments. No country except Spain has managed to remove many Romanesque frescoes from their walls and preserve them on canvas. But it did so only to thwart an international gang of businessmen in the 1920s from selling the frescoes to museums in the United States.