Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean and the Cloister in Aosta

Shortly before the turn of the twelfth century a type of capital emerged in Romanesque sculpture that profoundly influenced the overall character of sacred spaces and monastic cloisters and became a primary element of medieval sculptural decoration of architecture. Previously, capital decoration had confined itself mainly to ornamental, vegetative, zoomorphic, or anthropomorphic forms. Now, however, it broadened its spectrum to include narrative cycles, thus taking on the added function of depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, historical events, exempla, satirical scenes, and allegories.

As an integral architectural component, the Romanesque capital incorporated this new narrative element into its particular physical character. Its three dimensional aspect lent itself particularly to cloisters, where free-standing columns could be viewed from all sides. Thus, they provided the possibility of telling stories through a series of relief compositions, while facilitating a dialogue among and between capitals and other decorative elements of the cloister. Of additional importance is the spatial interrelation between the capital and the functional design of the cloister complex. The arrangement of themes and motifs on the capitals permits, in some cases, an aesthetic and functional interaction on the part of the viewer and gives us an idea about the liturgical role and ritual practices associated with the cloister. The three most important centers of Romanesque capital sculpture are found in Languedoc-Roussillon, northern Spain, and Sicily.

The capitals found at of Sant’Orso in Aosta shed documentary light on a cloister which remains exemplary for the artistic development of medieval capital design in the Mediterranean and which, stylistically, constitutes a bridgehead to the French cloister type. The collegiate church attached to the mid 12th-century cloister is dedicated to St. Peter and the patron and founder of the complex, Saint Ursus. Distributed across several capitals are scenes depicting historical events revolving around the origin of the monastery next to a detailed and structurally unified Prophet cycle and a narrative account of the old testament Patriarch Jacob. Therefore, not only is the life of Saint Ursus portrayed in detail on the capital depicting the advent of the rule of Saint Augustine, but so are the origins of the monastic communal life of the monastery, which can be documented to 1133 (1132) from the inscription. Furthermore, some of the representations can be interpreted in relation to the partition of the property that had been, until that date, administered by the canons of the cathedral of Aosta.