Pamela A. Patton

title.none: Ambrose, Nave Sculpture (Pamela A. Patton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.025 07.05.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Pamela A. Patton, Souther Methodist University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Ambrose, Kirk. The Nave Scupture of Vezelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing. Studies and Texts: 154. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2006. Pp. 196. $94.95 (hb) 978-0-88844-154-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.25

Ambrose, Kirk. The Nave Scupture of Vezelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing. Studies and Texts: 154. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2006. Pp. 196. $94.95 (hb) 978-0-88844-154-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Pamela A. Patton
Souther Methodist University

This concise, thoughtful study takes a fresh look at the famous Romanesque nave capitals of La Madeleine at Vezelay. Whereas past literature on these capitals has often attempted either to articulate some kind of programmatic order behind the capitals' arrangement in the nave or to connect the iconography of the sculptures to pilgrimage culture and the politics of Cluniac expansion, Ambrose eschews both these paths. Instead, his work aims to understand the iconography of the nave capitals, both historiated and foliate, in the context of a monastic mentality that is to some extent unique to the site.

Fundamental to this analysis is the author's dismissal of the question of a structured iconographic program, defined here as "a predetermined and unifying concept within a series of artworks." (xi) This decision is logical given, as he notes, the relative scarcity--though not complete absence--of such systems in surviving Romanesque monuments; the continuing scholarly uncertainty regarding many subjects depicted on the Vezelay capitals; and the irregular pace at which construction of the nave proceeded in the early twelfth century. If it does not permanently lay to rest the debate over whether an overarching scheme of some kind played a role in shaping the subjects and organization of the nave capitals, this approach does facilitate the close reading of individual sculptures that represents the strength of this book.

Ambrose limits his consideration to a fairly small number of examples, comprised of those that he views as particularly innovative. He argues that it is precisely in such novel compositions that the choices of artists and patrons are most clearly perceived. This is borne out by the resulting analysis, which reveals many potential ties between the imagery of the nave capitals and the concerns and practices of the Vezelay community.

The book's introductory review of the foundation's history and construction draws upon sources from Vezelay, along with other fundamental Benedictine texts such as Cluniac customaries, to root the early twelfth-century reconstruction of the expansive new church not, as sometimes is argued, in the impulse to encourage and accommodate pilgrims, but in the desire to create a structure commensurate with the scale of Benedictine ritual and the religious and political ambitions of Vezelay's patrons. This case is persuasively made, and it provides a firm foundation for the following chapters, in which monastic ideology becomes central to analysis of the capitals' imagery.

The next chapter presents a fascinating exploration of gesture, a topic that has excited significant comment in prior literature on Vezelay, although mostly with reference to an imagined lay audience. Ambrose, by contrast, explores how the unusually vivid gestures and postures visible on the capitals might have been understood by monastic viewers, who he argues would have been especially sensitive to the imagery's potential polysemy, as well as to their ability to bring sacred narrative alive. As an example, he ponders the multiple associations potentially provoked by the sinful Adam's touch of hand to chest, a penitential gesture that also might have evoked multiple associations drawn from exegesis and scholarly wordplay (e.g. the similarity between pectus, "chest," and peccatum, "sin"). Ambrose relates this to the many gestures relating to speech (meaningful and otherwise) on the famous Vezelay tympanum, arguing that both demonstrate the importance accorded speech in monastic life and the power of gesture in facilitating monastic contemplation. This line of argument is original and intriguing, and it would have been very interesting to see how it might apply to examples beyond the few analyzed in depth here.

Successive chapters suggest other intersections between the capitals' imagery and monastic life. For example, the presence of several capitals with unusual hagiographic images, including scenes from the lives of SS. Anthony, Benedict, Eugenia, Eustace, Martin, and Paul the Hermit, is explained by Ambrose as related to their exemplification of particular "virtues and practices important to monks." (39) Like the monastery's original patrons Peter and Paul, whose imagery at Vezelay far outnumbers that of the subsequent, and today more famous, patroness Mary Magdalen, these saints were chosen for their embodiment of such key monastic ideals as continence, conversion, or prayer. Certain unusual episodes, such as Saint Martin's miraculous deflection of a falling pine tree, may also have had local relevance: in Martin's case, the miracle was said to have occurred very near the site of the monastery. In a separate chapter, Ambrose asserts the importance of the nave's foliate capitals and borders, to date neglected by art historians, to the viewers' experience of the nave sculptures as a whole. Far from non-narrative blanks, he argues, these sculptures were thoughtfully crafted, meaningful forms that used both repetition and subtle variety to shape the viewer's meditative experience of the nave sculpture in its architectural setting.

A final chapter focuses on the surprisingly frequent motif of a figure undergoing decapitation, often at the hands of an executioner who grasps the victim's hair. The presence of this formula in seven unrelated scenes, even when it is not indicated by either the biblical text or iconographic tradition, strongly implies its semiotic value. The fact that all are Old Testament scenes prompts Ambrose to pursue the possibility of their connection with contemporary religious polemic, a hypothesis difficult to substantiate given the sculptures' early twelfth-century date. While he is quite right that Christian polemicists of this era derogated the biblical Jews' practice of animal sacrifices as barbaric and harped upon their "murderous" antagonism toward Christ, there is relatively little in the texts of this date to suggest that such ideas had expanded much beyond a Biblical framework; it would be nearly a century before charges of ritual murder and other fantastical rumors would contribute to a widespread stereotype of the physically violent Jew. More persuasive is Ambrose's recognition of the possible ritual implications of the motif, with its obvious Christological references, and of other potential ties to the monastic practice of tonsuring, with its own rich network of associations with decapitation, bodily denial, and Christlike humiliation. Scattered throughout the nave, images like these stood to invoke in their viewers, Ambrose argues, an almost infinite range of interlocking meanings, which would have been enriched by both their formal similarity and their varied narrative matrices. The chapter, and with it the study, ends by emphasizing the indispensability of the active monastic viewer to the activation of this and all the nave capitals' imagery, prompted not by the implicit structure of an iconographic program, but by the "physical and cognitive" path (85) that each monk pursued in perusing the capitals in their architectural setting.

The book concludes with a useful catalogue of the individual nave capitals, each documented by a photograph, a brief descriptive analysis, and relevant bibliography. This effectively complements the selectivity of the main text and, as the author envisions, is sure to be of significant value to future researchers. This said, it is unfortunate that the publisher did not give more careful attention to the illustrations for this section, some of which are so irregularly pixilated that their details can hardly be seen. This is not a problem to be laid at the feet of the author, but at those of the press, which should have given this work's production--from reproductions to copy- editing--the meticulous attention that such careful scholarship deserves.

Ambrose's study represents a valuable and original contribution to the wealth of literature surrounding Vezelay and its sculpture. Its persuasive demonstration of the fundamentality of monastic ideals and experience to the iconography of the nave sculptures is sure to reorient the discourse on this iconic monument, just as it raises important new questions for scholars of Romanesque sculpture and Western monasticism in general.