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The Marvellous and the Monstrous in the Sculpture of Twelfth-Century Europe

The Marvellous and the Monstrous in the Sculpture of Twelfth-Century Europe

Kirk Ambrose
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 202
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  • Book Info
    The Marvellous and the Monstrous in the Sculpture of Twelfth-Century Europe
    Book Description:

    Representations of monsters and the monstrous are common in medieval art and architecture, from the grotesques in the borders of illuminated manuscripts to the symbol of the "green man", widespread in churches and cathedrals. These mysterious depictions are frequently interpreted as embodying or mitigating the fears symptomatic of a "dark age". This book, however, considers an alternative scenario: in what ways did monsters in twelfth-century sculpture help audiences envision, perhaps even achieve, various ambitions? Using examples of Romanesque sculpture from across Europe, with a focus on France and northern Portugal, the author suggests that medieval representations of monsters could service ideals, whether intellectual, political, religious, and social, even as they could simultaneously articulate fears; he argues that their material presence energizes works of art in paradoxical, even contradictory ways. In this way, Romanesque monsters resist containment within modern interpretive categories and offer testimony to the density and nuance of the medieval imagination. Kirk Ambrose is Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado Boulder.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-549-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-20)

    The fragmentaryRuodlieb, an epic poem probably written by an eleventh-century German monk,¹ includes a remarkable verbal exchange between the eponymous hero and a captive dwarf. The hominoid begs to be freed, promising to lead Ruodlieb to hidden treasure, and frames his plea in terms of the unreliability of human speech:

    Absit, ut inter nos umquam regnaverit haec fraus;

    non tam longaevi tunc essemus neque sani.

    Inter vos nemo loquitur, nisi corde doloso.

    Hinc nec ad aetatem maturam pervenietis;

    pro cuiusque fide sunt eius tempora vitae.

    Non aliter loquimur, nisi sicut corde tenemus,

    neve cibos varios edimus morbos generantes,


    (pp. 21-39)

    At the turn of the nineteenth century archeologists coined the neologism “Romanesque” in English and “roman” in French to signal their proposition that medieval architecture revived antique techniques and vocabulary.¹ Whatever shortcomings might be identified in this term, its implicit historicism has a certain aptness with respect to many carvings of monsters that represent longstanding types. The griffin, manticore, siren, and other fabulous creatures on a pier from Souvigny (fig. 6), for example, stem from ancient pictorial traditions and are clearly identified with inscribed names, the same used by Pliny the Elder, Solinus, and other proto-scientists.² Other faces of this...

    (pp. 40-63)

    Johann Joachim Winckelmann eloquently described ancient sculptures, especially male nudes, in terms of what he considered to be Greek ideals.¹ in the wake of this foundational argument, it has became something of a commonplace to identify in the heroic male nudes of Donatello, Michelangelo, and other early modern sculptors who were inspired by antique prototypes evidence for a humanistic turn in European civilization. Within the economy of this historical model the art of the Middle Ages typically serves as a way station between the cultural heights of antiquity and the renaissance. In his magisterial study on the nude in western...

    (pp. 64-92)

    Metaphors of reading have long been applied to the interpretation of medieval sculpture. in his celebrated 1831 novel,Notre Dame, victor Hugo described the sculptures adorning medieval churches in terms of writing, as having an intelligible message.¹ An enthusiastic student of medieval monuments, Hugo was constantly in contact with leading archaeologists, who often likened medieval images to language as well. Central to the approaches of Charles cahiers, Adolphe Didron, and Charles Martin, among others, was the grounding of their interpretations of medieval art in texts, especially Biblical and exegetical.² contemporary developments probably lent force to this interpretive model. The improvement...

    (pp. 93-122)

    The first three chapters of this volume focused largely on examples of atavism in Romanesque sculpture, considering why artists embraced monstrous types that had long histories. I turn here to examine an alternative mode of artistic production, one in which sculptors departed from established pictorial types to create new forms of monsters. An unpublished twelfth-century capital in the University of Colorado Art Museum (fig. 27) is representative of this practice.¹ On two of its corners the carving features beastly maws that spew tendrils of vegetation, which, in turn, entwine two monstrous mixtures of feathered wings, avian feet, hair, serpentine tails,...

    (pp. 123-144)

    The previous chapters of this volume have examined sculptures primarily from the regions of Auvergne, Burgundy, and Lyonnais, a selection that could be criticized for manifesting a Francophilism that continues to characterize much pedagogy and scholarship in Romanesque sculpture in the Anglo-American orbit. The present chapter breaks with this trend by turning to Portugal, home to more than 200 Romanesque sites that are virtually unknown, much less studied, outside that nation’s borders.¹ Within the context of a study on monsters, which often occupy the physical or conceptual margins of works of art, there is perhaps something appropriate in mining the...

    (pp. 145-146)

    Throughout this volume, I have examined the particularities of individual representations of monsters in the belief that these addressed needs specific to their original contexts. when examined in sustained fashion, these carvings can be shown to embody ideals, offer sophisticated transformations of, or commentaries on, traditions, and function as decorous embellishments of churches. stepping away from this series of focused case studies for a moment, one might reasonably ask if broader trends might be identified. what do the monsters found in so many twelfth-century churches tell us about the period? why, in short, were so many carvings of monsters deemed...

    (pp. 147-178)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 179-188)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 189-189)