PARIS, March 16 (AFP) - At the turn of the first millennium, France was covered in a "white mantle of churches" but also undergoing a remarkable period of creativity as it developed and strengthened its feudal society.
An ongoing interest in Romanesque France has fuelled a major tourist industry with many tours to the remaining churches and monuments of the period which dot the French countryside.
But now for the first time, the Louvre museum has gathered together an exhibition of some 300 works of Romanesque art, many of which have lain hidden in the country's churches or not been on display for over half a century.
"Romanesque France" which runs at the Louvre in Paris until June 6 also assembles a number of works which were dispersed across Europe and America, including the wooden torso of a Christ figure, apparently reunited with its head.
Through a stunning collection of rare and illuminated manuscripts, complex sculptures, royal letters, and intricate reliquaries to such ordinary objects as money, tools and even a child's leather shoe with a bone skate the visitor gets a unique glimpse into daily life in France a thousand years ago.
The exhibition opens in 987 when Hugh Capet mounted the throne, heralding the start of a new dynasty, and the end of the Carolingians' imperial hopes.
It ends in 1152, the start of the Gothic era, with the annulment of the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII and her marriage to Henry Plantagenet who was to become Henry II of England two years later.
The rising influence of the Church, was to play a major role in the organisation and development of society as the number of villages grew and feudal lords built themselves castles for protection.
"Villages were born, a living cell, a parish and a lord. The cemetery, the church, the common square were anchorage points as well as the master's castle," writes Robert Fossier, history professor in the Sorbonne in the exhibition catalogue.
The founding of great monasteries such as in Cluny and Citeaux gave rise to many others which in turn became centres of creativity.
The cult of the saint was also developed, with illuminated manuscripts praising their lives, chronicling their miracles, and the start of pilgrimages to places housing their relics.
This was in turn to encourage a flow of people and ideas, with many bishops making pilgrimages to Rome, and indirectly lead to the first crusades and expeditions to the Holy Land.
Through the exhibition we learn that people already played backgammon at the time, that sculptors were giving vent to their imaginations carving imaginary beasts and that at a time when purgatory had yet to be invented the battle was between angels and demons.
There were even exchanges with the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, providing new sources of inspiration, such as carved elephants copied from Islamic silks.
Romanesque France runs at the Louvre, Hall Napoleon, website www.louvre.fr, until June 6. Open daily, except Tuesdays, from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm, and 9:30 pm on Wednesday and Fridays. Admission EUR 8.50 to the exhibition only, EUR 13 to museum and exhibition.
Subject: French News
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