Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Short History of Early Medieval Capitals

This blog is about many things, but my work, my art, and my research regarding the Middle Ages, take up most of the subjects covered. Regarding my research, I often come across things that run glaringly contrary to the discoveries I have made in my studies. I then feel compelled to write an essay to counter the offending notion; such will be the case with this blog posting.

I had intended to write something (and still plan to, in future), tracing the development of the acanthus leaf through the centuries, from The Roman Period, to the Rococo. In my initial inquiry into the origins of the plant as source material, I read the Wikipedia article on "Acanthus as Architectural Ornament", and came across this statement. "After centuries without decorated capitals, they were revived enthusiastically in Romanesque architecture, often using foliage designs,including acanthus."(underline supplied)

A Visigothic capital  from the National Museum, Catalonia
showing stylised acanthus leaf decoration.
7th century

Statements like this really "get my goat" as they promote the too-oft repeated notion that most of the medieval period was a dark wasteland of crude, unadorned objects and architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth. actually. Though the evidence could fill volumes, I wish to give a simple overview which will put enough light on the subject to make anyone paying attention realise the error of this sort of notion; but more specifically, disproving the statement that there were "centuries" of unadorned capitals.

I suppose this statement is not entirely untrue, because in every century, simple buildings, were built with unadorned capitals, however, this statement seems to imply that there was a period in which no ornamentation was used on any type of building. I know this statement to be untrue, but for me to simply say so, without presenting evidence, would be pointless. Therefore I began at the "beginning" (6th century) to investigate what buildings had been built at that time, and what, if any, period ornaments from that construction still remain. I then moved through the centuries, up to the 10th, which is the "most generally accepted date" of the beginning of the Romanesque period.

6th century capitals from Ravena. Two distinct churches, both built by the
same bishop at about the same time; notice the difference in style, however.

The first thing that one might find surprising from this approach, would be the number of identifiable buildings which were constructed in the 6th century. In a time when the Roman Empire "was" or had "just collapsed" there were no less than 9 important churches built (some of them major renovations) in Rome alone. (For anyone who really wants to check, I have named them; Santa Balbina, The Basilica of Sts Cosmian and Damien, The Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, San Pancrazio, The Basilica of St Lawrence Outside the Walls, Santi Apostoli, San Teodoro, Santi Vito, Modesto e Crescenzia, and San Nicola in Carcere) Many other important churches and dozens of monasteries were also built in every country of the former Roman Empire during the 6th century as well.

This trend continued into the 7th and 8th century, in which there were scores of buildings built, whose remains are yet identifiable. Wikipedia lists no less than 100 abbeys which were built in the Merovingian area of control (roughly most of France, Western Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg) in the years between 500 and 750.  After these came the "Carolingian Renaissance", which continued on into the Ottonian period; the foundation of the Romanesque style. Looking at the artifacts and artwork of these periods, I am still scratching my head, looking for those "centuries" of  "undecorated" architecture; they simply do not exist.

Capital from the crypt of Jouarre Abbey in
southern France, 7th c

One of the problems which gives rise to the notion of nothing having been created in this period, is a scarcity of surviving evidence. Though hundreds, if not thousands of important and significant buildings were built during the first four centuries of the Middle Ages, very few of them retain even the slightest trace of their original form. We have hundreds of examples of Greek and Roman buildings preserved in some form which allows us to note fairly accurately at least some general sense of their style of ornament. We seem to assume the same should be true for early medieval architecture as well. The fact which is not generally considered, in taking on this line of thought, is that most of the Greek and Roman work we have was either abandoned or buried. The country of England was well populated with a Roman society and all of their accompanying cities, towns, villas and fortifications, yet there is not one intact Roman building left in the country. It is only from abandoned and unwanted buildings in (mostly) dessert regions, that we have such a large collection of in tact Roman architecture.

By contrast, in the Middle Ages, most buildings which had been built were destroyed and re-built again and again throughout the medieval period (and beyond). St Martin's Church, in  Canterbury is generally considered to be the "oldest church in England"; it was "built" in the 6th century, yet even this building was both actually a 're-build' of a fourth century church, and incorporated a Roman tomb. Today, there is nothing save a few courses of brick and tile work from any of these earliest structures. The same can be said of the 7th, 8th 10th or 12th century renovation work done on it. The present building looks thoroughly 14th and 15th century with absolutely nothing to give a clue of what any of the previous incarnations of the building or its decoration looked like. The same can be said for nearly every other building built before the 12th century (and most later medieval ones as well)

Though built in the 4th century and re-built in the 6th, then again in the
8th centuries, with several subsequent renovations, this church retains
 no ornamental characteristics from any of those construction programmes.

Continuous reworking, alterations, and fashion changes, (even if we discount all the destruction from war, earthquakes, and fire) have nearly obliterated all but the faintest hints of the complexity of decorations and architectural ornament from 1000-1500 years ago. Reading through the history of nearly any documented 6th - 10th century building will demonstrate how true this fact is. Just two examples of the thousands which could be cited, follow. The original 6th-century paleo-Christian church on the site where the Cathedral of Naples now stands, ... was rebuilt and incorporated into the [present] cathedral when it [was] built in the 13th century. And this, concerning Santa Maria ad Nives, Faenza; Founded outside of the city walls, likely in the 6th-century,...Some of the construction still dates to the 15th century. (Emphasis supplied by me, as if the author of that statement considered the 15th century to be ancient work.)

There can be found, however, hints of what was. By examining the few remaining objects, we see that there must have been a vast array of ornament in each of the earliest centuries of the Middle Ages. These ornaments, included decorated capitals, some examples of which are shown below.

This is rather like most people's view of early medieval arts; a flat simple
 relief capital from the 5th or 6th century, now in the Louvre
Also in the Louvre, and also from the 5th or 6th century, this capital
comes from the 6th century Notre-Dame de La Daurade in Toulouse.
This church was an important building, and thus its decoration
was more lavish; nothing to do with craftsmen's skills or lack thereof .

From the Musee du Moyen Age, come these two capitals, both
from the same church, and both of the 6th or 7th century St Denis
Church .

I mentioned earlier that most of the Roman ruins which yet remain, come from dessert places or abandoned towns or areas. Actually, we can also find early medieval architecture in similar situations, mostly in southern France, and in Spain. These are not examples of the finest work produced in the time period, because they were created in remote areas, but they do, nonetheless give solid examples of the creative spirit of the early medieval cultures and the general stylistic trends of the time. The fact that they were in unimportant places was actually their saving grace, as no one had the funds to bother updating them.

Another Visigothic capital  from the 7th century, compare it to the first

I have no idea what part of history the person writing the cited statement in the Wikipedia article was thinking of, but there certainly was never a period of any duration, in medieval Western Art, when ornamentation was not used. In contrast, the people of that time loved to ornament everything. This becomes even more compelling when one studies the few surviving illuminated manuscripts from the period and realises that they loved bright colours as well. In all probability this plain grey capital pictured above would have been painted, giving it even more decorative impact than it now has.

Though faded from 1500 years of time, this manuscript from the University
Library of W├╝rzburg, (M p th f 68 fol 2v) demonstrates the bold colours
and patterns used by 6th century artists.

Because I am a furniture maker, I cannot resist including another dimension of this topic, which is the same ornamentation used in non building type objects, but yet retained the use of columns and decorated capitals as decorative elements. These could include Altars, tombs, tables, and cabinets, as the following 6th or 7th century pair of wooden doors, now in the Walters Art Museum, demonstrates.

A beautiful, small pair of 6th or 7th century cupboard doors.
I have examined these doors myself; they retain traces of red,
green, white, and black paint. Sadly, someone has sawn off
the relief carved eagles in the centre medallions,
leaving only their basic outline. Perhaps they were gilded?

Videre Scire

1 comment:

  1. It never ceases to amaze me how it`s assumed that at certain times in human history we apparently turn into blithering idiots, and all of our artists, geniuses, and engineers live under rocks for extended periods.