Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean and the Cloister in Cefalù

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 cloister of the Cathedral of San Salvatore in Cefalù, built between 1131/1166 or 1170/1180, was commissioned by the Norman king Roger II. It is considered an important precedent for South Italian sculpture, and especially for that of Monreale. The cloister underwent drastic architectural alterations as a result of building work round it in the sixteenth century. It was also seriously damaged by the fire in the east gallery in the early nineteenth century. After the restoration of the south and west ambulatories had been completed in 2004, the cloister was once again made accessible and now presents 28 paired colonnettes with double capitals, as well as four bundled colonnettes on three of the four corners. The rest of the capitals and colonnettes are currently in store. The capitals are preponderantly decorated with foliations and scrolled tendrils, or are of corinthianizing type. The figurative capitals show such motifs as acrobats, deer, monkeys, eagles or harpies and other fantastic beasts. The two historiated capitals have been transferred to the south ambulatory of the cloister. Their reliefs tell the stories respectively of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark.