Bishop and Abbot Oliba and three museums with a treasure trove of Romanesque art

Thanks to the architectural treasures on display in many towns and mountains, the image we have of Romanesque architecture is one of bare, grey stone. However, the bright colours that were once on display in churches and monasteries are now preserved in the Romanesque heritage collections of museums. A great debt is owed to Bishop and Abbot Oliba, the great promoter of this mediaeval artistic style in Catalonia.

Under the watchful gaze of Oliba, here are some places where you can marvel at colours obtained using natural pigments, part of a heritage preserved across Catalonia and strongly associated with its landscape.

A good starting place for this route around Romanesque art museums is Europe’s largest and oldest collection of murals and wood panel paintings at the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC), in Barcelona. Gold and silver work, along with stone and wooden sculpture, completes a mediaeval art collection in a very good state of conservation. Here you can view some of the famous paintings from the churches of Sant Climent and Santa Maria de Taüll, two of the most valuable examples of Romanesque architecture in the Pyrenees. The most important Romanesque treasures on display at the MNAC include altar frontals such as the one of Avià (which depicts mediaeval liturgy in a similar style to modern comics), the altar frontals of Esquius and La Seu d'Urgell, capitals, baldachine and altar paintings from the Benedictine Monastery of Sant Serni de Tavèrnoles.

Oliba’s legacy has an even stronger presence at the Episcopal Museum of Vic, which might not even exist if it wasn't for him. The reliefs and capitals of Vic Cathedral, a Romanesque building consecrated in 1038 by Bishop Oliba, are today on display in this museum. The Cathedral is a very fine example of early Romanesque architecture. Later on, in the 12th century, it was furnished with embellishments by what’s known as the Vic-Ripoll workshop, which also sculpted the entrance of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll. The entrance to the Church of Sant Vicenç de Malla, the altar frontal of the Church of Sant Martí de Puigbò or the Erill la Vall Descent from the Cross are other important examples of Romanesque art on display in this museum, which also contains a dedicated Oliba space where interactive elements, a multimedia guide and audio-visual displays take you through the life of the bishop and abbot.

Finally, the Diocesan and Regional Museum of Solsona is home to an important collection of mural paintings from the Romanesque churches of the Berguedà region. You can view pre-Romanesque and Romanesque groups of mural paintings from the Church of Sant Quirze de Pedret, in Cercs, the earlier group having been discovered underneath the later one. The two pre-Romanesque fragments, the Praying Figure and the Knight, were placed either side of the window of the central apse, underneath the painting of the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse. Paintings from the apse of the Church of Sant Vicenç de Rus, a reliquary with a prismatic box and a deposit dug out from the Church of Sant Martí de Puig-reig and the sides of the altar of the Church of Sant Andreu de Sagàs are further additions to the rich Romanesque heritage of this museum.

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