Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean and the Cloister in Monreale as the culmination of different artistic currents

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 first phase of this project will concentrate research and digital visualizations on the cloister in Monreale (derives from Mons regalis: King’s mountain) in Sicily. Originally part of a monastic complex built under the royal patronage of the Norman king William II, this cloister constitutes a significant example of Romanesque artistic production not only in Italy but throughout the entire Mediterranean. It is one of the largest, most complex and, in terms of composition, one of the finest twelfth-century cloisters, and it distinguishes itself by the richness and variety of its details as well as by its comparatively excellent state of preservation. It combines a wide variety of contemporary currents in Romanesque decorative sculpture within an architecturally unified cloister. Between 1174 and 1189, at least five different highly-skilled workshops were assembled from different artistic traditions and distinct geographic regions in France, Italy and Spain.