Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2007
Pamela A. Patton Pictorial Narrative in the Romanesque Cloister: Cloister Imagery & Religious Life in Medieval Spain New York: Peter Lang, 2004. 298 pp.; 107 b/w ills. Cloth $72.95 (0820472689)

Pamela Patton’s Pictorial Narrative in the Romanesque Cloister addresses some large, wide-ranging questions that are of interest to all who work on the function and imagery of cloisters or indeed on medieval pictorial narrative in other contexts. The central question is one that has exercised medievalists for a long time: were there any Romanesque cloisters with coherent iconographic programmes? As Patton’s contenders have narrative imagery, she also asks what was the function of that kind of imagery and how was it viewed by the resident monks or canons. Both Ilene Forsyth (“The Vita Apostolica and Romanesque Sculpture: Some Preliminary Observations,” in Gesta 25, no.1 (1986): 75–82) and Léon Pressouyre (“Saint Bernard to St Francis: Monastic Ideals and Iconographic Programs in the Cloister,” in Gesta 12, nos. 1 & 2 (1973): 71–92) pioneered work in this area, and Kathryn Horste’s (Cloister Design and Monastic Reform in Toulouse. The Romanesque Sculpture of La Daurade, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Linda Seidal’s (“Installation as Inspiration: The Passion Cycle of La Daurade,” in Gesta 25, no.1 (1986): 83–92) publications on La Daurade set down crucial markers in the study of cloister narrative programs. Definitive answers to these questions, however, have remained elusive.

In addition to tackling these difficult issues, this volume is an important contribution to redressing the imbalance it identifies in the study of medieval cloisters. The few Romanesque cloisters that survive in France have received repeated attention, despite their often fragmentary state. Many more such cloisters survive in Spain, likewise often damaged or re-ordered, but very little research has been undertaken on them. The subject is thus potentially vast, and this book wisely concentrates on three case studies from the northeastern kingdoms of Navarre and Catalonia. Within this geographical focus, Patton chose her exemplars carefully, and each cloister is located at a distinct institution: the first is the Benedictine house of San Juan de la Peña; the second, the Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor at Tudela; and the third, the cathedral of Tarragona.

All three cloisters are normally dated between 1185 and 1225 and related in style, but this is not primarily a stylistic study, and Patton’s main interest in them is as examples of “a specialized form of narrative cloister program” (9). She further postulates that these programs responded to the particular practical and ideological needs of the communities for which they were conceived.

Individual chapters are dedicated to each of these monuments. San Juan de la Peña, in northeastern Navarre, is on a precipitous site, and its church is therefore unusually oriented south-north. The east gallery of the cloister, adjacent to the church, was destroyed, as was the south gallery, although that has now been partially reconstructed. Despite the damage, Patton has been able to identify a dynamic undulating rhythm in the cloister formed by alternating single and double columns punctuated by clusters of four. Sixteen narrative capitals survive in the north and west galleries together with three fragments now in store. This sculpture provides a linear sequence of the life of Christ from Infancy to the Passion and Resurrection, preceded by Genesis scenes of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel. Together these constitute a salvation history focusing on the exemplary and redemptive role of Christ. In itself this is not exceptional, and similar narrative sequences of this kind can be found in other architectural contexts, for example the eleventh-century doors of Hildesheim cathedral, but not in such an extended form in surviving cloisters. Peter Klein (“Topographie, fonctions et programmes iconographiques des cloîtres: la galerie attenante à l’église,” in Der Mittelalterliche Kreuzgang: Architektur, Funktion und Programme, Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2003) has shown that such scenes are found typically in the cloister gallery that is adjacent to the church, although they may extend occasionally into the gallery in which the chapter house is located. However, Patton rightly highlights the more extensive chronological installation at San Juan de la Peña and its unusual disposition. Patton sees this choice of decoration as reflecting the meditative practices of the enclosed Benedictine monks, which is an intriguing idea that would bear further in-depth study.

In the cloister of the Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor in Tudela, less than ninety kilometres to the southwest—not the southeast as stated in the text—of San Juan de la Peña, the sculpture is better preserved, and the programme more complex. Here the architectural rhythm of the cloister is dictated by double and triple colonnettes and a two-tier design on the corner piers. Across this structure, forty-eight capitals survive in situ. The Christological narrative begins with the Infancy in the north gallery, adjacent to the east end of the church, where it continues as far as the Last Supper. The east gallery takes up the chronological pattern, and the capitals depict events from the Garden of Gethsemane to Pentecost. In contrast, the south gallery features scenes from the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin along with episodes from the lives of St. Paul, St. Andrew, St. James, St. Lawrence, and John the Baptist. The west gallery and the southwest pier, abutting the north transept, change the theme almost completely and, apart from scenes of the life of St Martin, display only fantastic, allegorical, and apocryphal subject matter.

Within the extended narrative sequence, Patton highlights the prominence of the apostles in a high proportion of the scenes, especially those following the Resurrection, where they can demonstrate their roles as witnesses, founders and missionaries of the early church. Plausibly, she links this particular emphasis to the Augustinian Canons’ dedication to the vita apostolica, which they pursued through preaching, cura animarum, and hospitals—all activities that were, Patton argues, even more important in this frontier region. If she is right, and the case is well made, this is an important example of the kind of iconographic link that Pressouyre sought to identify between a building and the Order that inhabited it.

Like the structure at Tudela, the cathedral and cloister at Tarragona were new buildings for a new population, and part of a revival of the Tarragonese archbishopric and its external influence to the south and west. There were two campaigns of construction in the cloister, and the one of interest to Patton’s argument is that completed in the first decade of the thirteenth century. However, Tarragona is the exception that proves the rule in this thesis, as its narrative imagery is comprehensive, but not ordered chronologically. As Patton recognises, the architecture of the cloister owes much to Cistercian design, and the contrast between the massive compound piers and the delicate colonnettes lent itself less well to a chronological narrative. Scenes from Christ’s Infancy to the Entry into Jerusalem are found on capitals in the north gallery adjacent to the church; scenes from the Crucifixion to the appearance to the Holy Women at the tomb are carved on the northeast pier near the entrance to the church; whereas the Resurrection and appearances to the Magdalene and St. Thomas are out of sequence on the central north pier. The south gallery intermediate pier and the east face of the northeast pier differ again in that they display Old Testament narratives focusing on patriarchal imagery including Adam and Eve, Abraham, Cain and Abel, Joseph, Jacob, and Noah. Nonetheless, Patton argues that the arrangement at Tarragona is not reverting to earlier non-narrative approaches, but is instead a deliberate fragmentation and rejection of the chronological narrative, a disruption that reflects what she sees as “the spiritual and political fragmentation” of the community (182). However, it is not clear that these Canons and their Archbishop were significantly more challenged than many other cathedral communities nor that they would have chosen or allowed any such tribulation to be represented in the decoration of their cloister.

The final chapter looks back at the case studies and assesses what can be deduced about the role of narrative and history in these cloisters of northeastern Spain. Patton is particularly good on sculptural detail, which she convincingly sees as reflecting the twelfth-century theological interest in the literal-historical. To support this, she draws on Beryl Smalley’s work on medieval exegesis encompassing, for example Peter Comestor’s historicising treatment of the Bible. The instances of this ”new realism” include a detail of the city of Jerusalem on a capital at San Juan de la Peña that features a “large, lobed dome . . . presumably in reference to the hypothetical dome of the Temple of Solomon” (65); and, at Tudela, the trousers, slippers, and hoods of the Jewish figures and the chain mail and greaves of the soldiers in the Passion scenes, which reflect contemporary dress and everyday life. However, Patton further links this literal-historical impulse to the universal histories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which treated biblical narrative and history as one continuum, and thus created a teleological universal history. She ties this view of history to the increase in the use of synoptic narratives both in manuscripts and in these cloisters at the same period. This part of the argument would be stronger if there were supporting manuscript evidence from these specific communities, as such universal histories had been written since Eusebius, and these cloister narratives do not, unlike the histories, offer a narrative that integrates biblical narrative and contemporary historical events into one sequence.

Two questions remain: do these extended narratives constitute a real difference in approach and meaning, and how useful is narratology in determining this? There is no doubt that the sculpture of these cloisters follows that at La Daurade in clearly directing the narrative at the viewer. The most important figures and episodes of the narrative are placed, in the main, on the faces of the capitals that are easily visible to someone walking down the cloister gallery, who thus has a clear view of the narrative progression. Patton contests that this emphasis on narrative and on the ways in which it was manipulated in each instance shows that the sculpture was designed specifically as a ”community mirror” to reflect the preoccupations and ideologies of the individual monastic or ecclesiastical audiences. This may be so, but just as each of these cloisters does not quite provide the elusive entire and coherent iconographic programme that some art historians seek, narratology offers some interesting insights but is not a sufficiently strong tool to substantiate the case.

The function of imagery in cloisters is a difficult area that is much contested, and there is no doubt that Patton’s study moves the debate forward. It leaves us wanting to know more about the historical background and the liturgical practices, including, as Peter Klein has identified, the washing of the feet of the poor and, above all, the daily Bible readings that may have taken place in these and other cloisters.

Rose Walker
Courtauld Institute of Art