Picasso’s Forgotten Fascination with Romanesque Art

Pablo Picasso was known for his interest in different styles and artistic periods. However, the influence of Romanesque art on his works is often forgotten.

Jul 5, 2023By Dora Sesar, BA & MA Art History and Hispanic Studies, PhD Candidate Medieval Art History
romanesque art picasso pablo influence


Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, in the southern Spanish region called Andalusia. His father was an artist, so Picasso started his artistic education during his childhood. His first word was piz which is Spanish for pencil. His family moved to A Coruña in Galicia in 1891, when Picasso was 10 years old. A few years later, in 1895, they moved to Barcelona, where Picasso and his father both became connected to La Llotja School of Fine Arts. His father worked there as a professor, while Picasso enrolled as a student. However, in 1897 Pablo’s father sent him to Madrid to study at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts which was considered to be the best in the country.


Pablo Picasso and Catalan Romanesque Painting

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The Four Cats bar in Barcelona, via Pinterest


In Madrid, Picasso started showing his aversion to formal studies. In 1899, he returned to his beloved Barcelona, a city that appears in many of his paintings from this period. Picasso gladly joined the artistic scene of modern Barcelona.


pablo picasso self portrait
Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso, 1907, via Wikiart


He started visiting The Four Cats Café where many avant-garde artists came to meet. In this bar, Picasso had his first solo exhibition. In Barcelona, he started looking at the Catalan Romanesque painting, the art of frescoes and altarpieces of the 11th and 12th centuries which greatly influenced his works.


Romanesque Elements in Picasso’s Works

pablo picasso the visit
The Visit by Pablo Picasso, 1902, via Wikiart


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Picasso was well known for his interest in different styles, influences, and cultures. However, he adapted them in his own way by creating new styles. During his formative years which are now known as his Blue Period that lasted from 1901 until 1904, Picasso implemented many elements from Catalan Romanesque painting. So, what were the elements that Picasso took from the Catalan medieval paintings?


Picasso’s biographer Marilyn McCully sees a connection between Picasso’s painting The Visit and the visitation scene from the upper right part of the Romanesque Lluçà altarpiece from the 13th century. For example, in his work, Picasso does not use any kind of background, which is characteristic of Romanesque frescoes and altarpieces. Both Picasso’s figures and the medieval ones look heavily elongated and flat, two-dimensional with emphasized black outlines.


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Altarpiece from Santa Maria de Lluçà, 1210-1220, via Museu Episcopal de Vic, Barcelona


These figures also have geometrical facial features. Their heavy eyebrows are shown in the form of strict lines and their almond-shaped eyes are very peculiar. Even their feet have geometrical shapes, as they are triangularly pointed. The dresses also look similar since Picasso painted dresses in medieval fashion. Another interesting fact is that Picasso’s painting was made on a panel and not on canvas, and panels were broadly used in the middle ages.


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The Crucifixion by Pablo Picasso, 1932, via Widewalls; next to Erill la Vall Descent from the Cross, the second half of the 12th century, via Wikipedia


What was it that Picasso found so interesting in the Romanesque painting? Stylistically speaking, Picasso was attracted to Romanesque painting because of its simplicity and effectiveness. On the other hand, Picasso also used thematic motifs that are specific to the Catalan Romanesque painting, mainly focusing on the skulls and the crucifixions. Violence and death were also frequently depicted themes.



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Black Jug and Skull by Pablo Picasso, 1946, via Tate, London


There are more reasons why Picasso got so interested in the art of the 11th and 12th century. Picasso was Andalusian, but after his move to Barcelona, the artist got very connected with the Catalan people and their culture. He became very supportive of Catalan patriotism and he probably considered Barcelona his home.


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Detail of a fresco from Sant Pere de Sorpe, 12th century, via Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona


During his stay in Barcelona, Picasso integrated quickly into the Catalan capital’s social and artistic life. Catalonia was entering the 20th century aiming to prove itself as an independent country with a unique history and culture with roots dating back to medieval times. Romanesque art was having its revival during this time as a national symbol for the Catalans. Long-forgotten frescoes and altarpieces from isolated mountain churches were being brought to Barcelona’s museums in order to be saved from deteriorating. Romanesque art dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries, the period when Catalan country was born as well.


Romanesque art was also having its revival amid Barcelona’s avant-garde artists. Picasso was certainly not the only one getting interested in Romanesque art. When asked how much Romanesque art meant to him Joan Miró used to tap the veins in his forearm.


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Portrait of Joan Vidal Ventosa by Pablo Picasso, 1899, via Pinterest


Moving in these circles, Picasso made many friends. One of them was Joan Vidal Ventosa, a man who was very passionate about Catalan Romanesque art. Ventosa was a documentary photographer focusing on Catalan monuments. He was also an official photographer for Barcelona’s museums. He traveled through Catalonia to photograph frescoes and altarpieces in many Romanesque churches. It is possible that Picasso also accompanied him during some of these trips. Many other artists of the time were emphasising the medieval origins of their country to promote Catalan culture and independence.


Barcelona’s Romanesque and Gothic Art Exhibition 

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Frescoes from Sant Climent in Taüll, c. 1123, via Wikipedia


During the two-week-long festival of the Virgin of the Mercy, an exhibition of Romanesque and Gothic religious art was organized. For the first time, the artifacts brought from old churches were gathered in a museum. Picasso visited the exhibition in 1934, shortly before the official inauguration of the new National Museum. At this point, he was already a famous artist and his visit to the museum was covered by the press. One reporter wrote: Picasso, before those incomparable fragments of early Catalan art, admitted their power, intensity, and skill… and he stated without hesitation that our Romanesque Museum will be something unique in the world, an indispensable resource for everyone who wishes to know the origins of Western art, an invaluable lesson for the moderns.


Barcelona’s Cultural Events

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Corpus Christi in Barcelona, via Catedral de Barcelona


Cultural events held in Barcelona had a great impact on Picasso. One of the most important events was The Annual Floral Games. This was a medieval tradition during which participants and observers would gather in a city hall where they would listen to odes extolling the ancient Catalan achievements and poems proclaiming the incredible powers of different Madonnas.


Another event was known as Corpus Christi. This was a 14th-century tradition that consisted of a procession that honored the fragment of the True Cross which the city acquired during the medieval period. Gegants, giant figures that participated in this procession, originate from medieval times when they were used to spread Biblical messages to illiterate people. Once more, we can see that medieval imagery was everywhere around Picasso during his years in Barcelona. However, one year while Picasso was in Barcelona, the Corpus Christi event had a tragic outcome. During the procession, a bomb killed six people, while forty others were injured.


The Blue and Rose Period of Pablo Picasso

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The Soup by Pablo Picasso, 1903, via Wikipedia; next to Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, 1903, via Art Institute of Chicago


During his formative years, Picasso was still searching for his signature style. During his Blue Period, he aimed to bring attention to people who were living in poverty. He painted beggars, sex workers, and alcoholics. He showed people who were on the margins of society.


Medieval elements in Picasso’s paintings disappeared in 1904 when he moved to Paris and started painting in brighter pink tones. This period is known as the Rose Period. However, in 1906 Picasso returned to the small village of Gósol in the Catalan Pyrenees. His plan was to stay there for 10 weeks, away from the Parisian hustle. In this village, he was able to enjoy a simple life while painting. Indeed, he was very productive during this period. According to his biographer John Richardson, Picasso made seven large paintings, a dozen medium-sized paintings, and many sketches, drawings, watercolors, and gouaches while there.


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Virgin from Gósol, 12th century, via Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona


During his isolation in a small mountain village, Picasso changed his style once more and returned to the Romanesque elements. He was impressed with religious festivals held in the village, but also by a Romanesque church called Santa Maria del Castell. In this church, there was a Romanesque sculpture of the Virgin from Gósol that had a great impact on Picasso’s art.


pablo picasso self portrait with palette
Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso, 1906, via Philadelphia Museum of Art


Two paintings he made during his stay in Gósol show how his style evolved once again. These two works are known as Self-Portrait with a Palette (1906) and Woman with Loaves (1906). In his self-portrait, we can see the medieval elements emerging again. There is no background and the body is made out of geometrical shapes. The almond-shaped eyes are covered with two heavy lines representing the eyebrows, while the chin has an almost triangular shape.


pablo picasso woman with loaves
Woman with loaves by Pablo Picasso, 1906, via Philadelphia Museum of Art


Woman with Loaves is a painting that also shows ties between Picasso and Romanesque art. The woman shown in this portrait was clearly inspired by the figure of the Virgin from Gósol. Upon his return to Paris, Picasso continued using Romanesque elements which inspired his stay in Spain.


Picasso Retrato de Gertrude Stein 1906 miniatura
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1905-06, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


For example, he finished the portrait of Gertrude Stein that he had started a year before. However, his Gertrude now looked like a Catalan Romanesque Madonna. These Romanesque influences, their simplicity, and their effectiveness would slowly escalate in Picasso’s invention of Cubism. Roots of Cubism can be seen in his famous work called Les demoiselles Avignon.

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By Dora SesarBA & MA Art History and Hispanic Studies, PhD Candidate Medieval Art HistoryDora holds a bachelor’s degree in Art history and Spanish language and literature from the University of Zadar, Croatia. She also obtained her master’s degree in Art history and Hispanic studies at the same university. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student at the department of Art and Musicology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Her research is focused on Romanesque art and architecture. She is working as a teaching assistant at the University of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she is exploring the connections between art and psychology through two subjects: Psychopathology in visual arts and Psychopathology in cinema.