Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean and the cloister in Estella

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.

Among the many Romanesque cloisters of Spain, that of San Pedro de la Rúa in Estella (situated on the Pilgrims’ Way of St. James) is distinguished by a cycle of capitals of remarkable interest for its extraordinary iconographies and motifs. Although only part of the cloister has been preserved, it reveals in its decoration – even in its present fragmentary condition – a particular christological and hagiographical programme.

The CENOBIUM Project was supported, in this Spanish segment, by the Amigos del Rómanico, by the Archbishop of Pamplona and Tudela, and by Luis Duran Arregui, president of the Amigos de la Catedral de Tudela, and has worked in partnership with Esther Lozano López, Inés Monteira Arias and Juan Antonio Olañeta Molina, who wrote the texts on the capitals. The architectural description and building history are also by Esther Lozano López.