Vocabulary—Medieval and Romanesque Art

This post contains explanations of phrases and terms used in discussing and describing Medieval and Romanesque Art.


animal interlace: decoratin of interwoven animals or serpents, often found in Celtic and northern European art in the early medieval period.
bailey: the outermost walled courtyard of a castle.
Book of Hours: a private prayer book, having a calendar, services for the canonical hours, and sometimes special prayers.
buttress: a type of architectural support which acts by transferring the weight of the buildings from a higher pint to the ground. Flying buttresses transfer the thrust of the roof vaults to a pier.
cathedral: the principal Christian church in a diocese, build in the bishop’s administrative center and housing his throne (cathedra).
choir: the section of a Christian church reserved for the clergy. Located either between the crossing and the apse or in the nave just before the crossing, screened or walled and fitted with seats; may also be raised above the nave over the entrance.

cloister: an open space, part of a monastery, surrounded by an arcaded or colonnaded walkway, often having a fountain or garden, and dedicated to non-liturgical activities. Members of a cloistered order do not leave the monastery or interact with outsiders.
folio: a page in a manuscript, typically when a large sheet of paper or parchment has been folded twice and cut, producing four separate sheets.
gilding: the application of paper-thin gold leaf or pigment to an object as a decorative finishing detail.
illumination: a painting used as illustration and decoration for manuscripts, usually done in rich colors and often supplemented by precious materials. The illustrators are referred to as illuminators.
interlace: a type of linear decoration popular in ancient and early medieval art in which ribbon-like serpents, vines, animals or ribbons are interwoven.
keep: the most heavily fortified defensive structure in a castle.
lantern: a turret-like structure situated on top of a dome, with windows that allow light into the space below.
Latin-cross plan: a cruciform building incorporating a longer nave and shorter transept arms.
lectionary: book containing readings from Christian scripture arranged according liturgical calendar, from which the priest reads to the congregation during the service.
manuscript: a handwritten book.
parchment: a writing surface made from the treated skins of animals.
portal: a grand entrance door to an important public building, often decorated with sculpture.
provenance: the history of ownership of a work of art from the time of its creation to the present.
quatrefois: a four-lobed decorative pattern.
recto: the principal or front side of a leaf of parchment.
refectory: the dining hall for monks or nuns in a monastery or convent.
reliquary: a container used as a repository to protect and display sacred relics; often made of precious materials.
sacristy: in a Christian church, the room in which the priest’s robes and the sacred vessels are housed.
scriptorium: a room in a monastery for writing, copying and illuminating manuscripts.
stigmata: the wounds of Christ.
transept: the arm of a cruciform church perpendicular to the nave.
trefoil: an ornamental design made up of three rounded lobes.
trumeau: a column, pier or post found at the center of a large portal, supporting the lintel.
tympanum: in medieval and later architecture, the area over a door enclosed by an arch and a lintel, often decorated with relief sculpture or mosaic.
verso: the back side of a leaf of paper or parchment.
westwork: the monumental, west-facing entrance of a Carolingian, Ottonian or Romanesque church.

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