Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean and the Cloister in Moissac

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 abbey church of Saint-Pierre in Moissac can be regarded as the building that initiated the great Romanesque cycles of historiated cloister capitals. As testified by the inscription on the pillar in the middle of its west side, this abbey, endowed with rich estates and an important monastic library, erected a cloister under Abbot Ansquitil in the year 1100. On all four sides of the cloister double colonnettes alternate with single ones. Their capitals are preponderantly carved with narrative scenes. In his dissertation “The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac” of 1929/31 Meyer Schapiro describes these capitals as historiated capitals and thus coined the term by which this particular form of capital is now generally known.
Each of their individual sides forms a spatial unity, a separate narrative episode. Each is framed above – rather like a proscenium arch – with helices, a pronouncedly concave abacus and a centrally placed console block. A powerful impost block with bevelled edges, usually decorated with figures, animals, foliations, flowers, or characters, is placed over the calathus and thus completes the overall trapezoidal shape of the capital.

In this part of the CENOBIUM project the KHI-MPI has collaborated with two French art historians, Quitterie Cazes and Chantal Fraïsse, who together wrote the texts for the individual capitals and the description of the cloister as a whole.