Hidden in Plain Sight: A Capital from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

Glencairn Museum News | Number 9, 2015

 

Romanesque capital from the cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

 

Works of art do not give up all of their secrets at once. A quick look is not enough; it is best to take some time to get to know them, whether they are painted or sculpted, large or small, plain or elaborate in design. The more care and attention given to looking, the greater the rewards of the viewing process. Often, a seemingly straightforward work of art yields real surprises, turning the simple act of looking into an adventure. At Glencairn, a Romanesque capital from the monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert promises just such an experience.

The capital comes from Saint-Guilhem’s cloister, a structure integral to many medieval ecclesiastic building complexes. Usually adjoining a church, the cloister served multiple purposes. It was generally square or rectangular in shape, and consisted of a covered walkway along its perimeter and a central space left open to the elements. The roofed portion was generally supported by open arcades that would enable passage from sheltered to unsheltered space, and the columns supporting the arcades were topped by capitals that were frequently carved with various kinds of designs. Though similar in concept to Glencairn’s cloister, the one at Saint-Guilhem appears to have had two stories, adjoining other structures that its monks regularly used. The cloister itself was used for a number of activities, from church rituals to the monks’ daily regimens of reading, prayer and meditation.

 

Figure 1: Romanesque capital from the monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

 
 

Figure 2: Glencairn’s capital takes the shape of a tall, narrow vase that widens at the lip.

 

Glencairn’s capital, which is made of limestone and dated to 1175-1200, takes the shape of a tall, narrow vase that widens at the lip. Its sculptors excavated a significant amount of stone around the initial block to create a deeply carved surface marked by dramatic alternations of light and shadow. Though the capital’s shape is subtly rounded, its carved surface designates four linked, but distinct sides. The upper portion of one of the sides is undecorated; it may have been left this way deliberately in order to fit it into a tight space, or it may have been modified later for a similar purpose.

 

Figure 3: The upper portion of one of the sides of the capital is undecorated, perhaps in order to fit it into a tight space.

 
 

Figure 4: The lower section of the pattern features a pair of vines studded with beading that emerge from the centers of two daisy-like flowers.

 

A single, overall decorative pattern repeats on each side of the capital. The lower section of the pattern features a pair of vines studded with beading that emerge from the centers of two daisy-like flowers, while smaller blossoms line the capital base. The vines intertwine at the center of the capital, delineating a diamond-shaped recess before forming two large, linked loops in the upper section. At the center of each loop, a fleshy leaf folds upward, while larger leaves drape from each of the capital’s upper corners. All of this vegetation is deeply undercut, with some sections carved completely independent of the capital’s stone core.

 

Figure 5: The upper edge of one side is decorated with an animal, perhaps a dog, biting its left hind leg.

 
 

Figure 6: A youthful face peeks out, his arched eyebrows and penetrating stare seeking the viewer’s own gaze.

 

The reliability of the capital’s repeating foliate framework can deceive the eye, and if you were to walk by quickly, perhaps that is all you would perceive. Closer examination, however, reveals a number of figures peeking from the foliage and perching on the edges of the block. The upper edge of one side is decorated with an animal, perhaps a dog, biting its left hind leg. Below, at the capital’s center, a youthful face peeks out, his arched eyebrows and penetrating stare seeking the viewer’s own gaze. Proceeding counterclockwise to the next side, we find a nude, bearded man surrounded by vines that also curl across his chest. His feet are planted on vines, and he raises his arm as if to try and pull himself out of the wilderness of foliage around him. On the next side, a clothed person appears to emerge from the greenery. Next, an acrobatic figure hangs upside down from the vines above, his short hair streaming downward from the pull of gravity, and his legs (or perhaps someone else’s?) dangle to the capital’s base.

 

Figure 7: A nude, bearded man is surrounded by vines that curl across his chest.

 
 

Figure 8: An acrobatic figure hangs upside down from the vines above, his short hair streaming downward from the pull of gravity.

 

Why have these unexpected, unclothed figures invaded the capital’s foliage? An answer may be found in the context for which this sculpture was created. First, a bit of history: the monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert was founded by a nobleman, William (or Guilhem) Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Toulouse, who lived around the year 800. A cousin of Charlemagne, William was a soldier and courtier whose adventures in love and war were immortalized in medieval song. Later in his life, he chose to withdraw from the world, and in 804 he funded the creation of a Benedictine monastery called Gellone in a remote valley of the Roussillon in southeastern France. There, he retired and became a monk himself. William was so renowned for his piety that he was made a saint in the year 1066. His tomb at Gellone became a hallowed shrine.

Accordingly, the monastery came to be known as Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. While its verdant surroundings are far from arid and lifeless, as one might expect from a desert, the monastery’s isolated location, combined with the rocky landscape surrounding it, placed it in a sort of wilderness. In this respect, medieval people likened it to a desert. This is significant because the very earliest monks of the Christian Church, and many of its monastic saints, had lived out their lives as hermits in the desert. Admiring their early Christian predecessors, the monks of Saint-Guilhem sought a similar distance from the world in order to live an ascetic lifestyle. Where the Glencairn capital is concerned, it is notable that medieval Christians seem to have envisioned the forest, full of shadows and ferocious animals, as a kind of desert—a perilous wilderness. Such a place, understood as a place of spiritual temptation, was to be resisted by the pious Christian. Perhaps the sinuous foliage of the Glencairn capital evokes a kind of desert, with its inhabitants struggling with vines and giant leaves in evocation of the spiritual trials of the monks. At the same time, the figures’ habitation of the leafy capital suggests the monastery’s actual location at the center of a wild landscape.

In addition to sheltering a community of monks, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert was an important site of pilgrimage. It was a destination in its own right, since medieval Christians made the arduous journey to visit the shrine of William and pray in the presence of the saint’s remains. Saint-Guilhem is also a stop on the Way of St. James, a route that brings pilgrims from all over France, Spain and beyond to the shrine of St. James in the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Saint-Guilhem stands along one of several different itineraries snaking through France, the so-called “Via Tolosana,” which begins in Arles and passes through Toulouse before reaching Spain. Medieval Saint-Guilhem was thus far more than a faraway wilderness outpost in which monks led secluded lives of prayer and work. We can also imagine groups of tired, footsore pilgrims trekking into the vicinity, seeking respite in addition to sacred presence. The human intrusions in the lush wilderness of the Glencairn capital thus find another parallel in the activity at medieval Saint-Guilhem, where the monastic ideal of separation from the world was countered by regular visits from the world, in the form of pilgrims.

The heyday of Saint-Guilhem’s attraction as a monastic site and pilgrimage destination endured into the later Middle Ages. Things changed after the Reformation, however. The monastery was vandalized during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, and eventually its stones were dispersed in the region. By the mid-nineteenth century, a local magistrate had a number of the cloister’s capitals and other carvings decorating his garden. Upon his passing, the sculptures were sold. A significant group of these carvings was purchased by American sculptor, collector, and dealer George Grey Barnard. They ended up at The Cloisters Museum in Manhattan, where they were brought together to form a smaller-scale (and single-story) rendition of what the original cloister may have looked like. The Glencairn capital, however, was acquired separately from the New York group in 1920 from the collector and dealer Henri Daguerre.

 

Figure 9: View of the Saint-Guilhem Cloister at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. From the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desért, near Montpelier, France, late 12th–early 13th century. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 
 

Figure 10: Glencairn’s capital depicts a wide variety of figures, plant forms and ribbon patterns orchestrated in playful compositions.

 

When medieval cloisters featured sculpted capitals, they were often characterized by great variety in pattern and subject matter. Saint-Guilhem appears to have been no exception. The surviving capitals, including the Glencairn example, depict a wide variety of figures, plant forms and ribbon patterns orchestrated in playful compositions. Two of the capitals in Manhattan are narrative: one shows the Presentation at the Temple and the other shows a group of the damned being goaded by impish devils into a massive, snarling hell mouth. The great variation in forms certainly would have kept the monks’ minds occupied as they gazed at the capitals within the original cloister. The monastic way of life, certainly conducive to prolonged visual explorations of cloister sculpture, would have found Saint-Guilhem’s monks absorbed in the carvings that surrounded them. When it comes to the visual arts, perhaps we should take a cue from these original intended viewers and slow down the process of looking in our own perusal of this sculpture.

Julia Perratore, PhD
Mellon Curatorial Fellow
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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