14.06.13, Ambrose, The Marvellous and the Monstrous

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Holly R. Silvers

The Medieval Review 14.06.13

Ambrose, Kirk. The Marvellous and the Monstrous in the Sculpture of Twelfth-Century Europe. Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture. Woodbridge:Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 187. ISBN: 9781843838319.

Reviewed by:

Holly R. Silvers
Minnesota State University, Moorehead

Since the publication in 2006 of his monograph about the sculpted nave capitals of Vézelay, Kirk Ambrose has been an instrumental voice in the discourse surrounding the iconographic multiplicity and legibility of twelfth-century secondary sculpture. His latest volume pursues the attainment of a clearer understanding of secondary sculpture by concentrating on specific motifs, as the title of the book implies, and their context within ecclesiastical thought and practice, and in their roles as sculptural devices within a sacred space. Ambrose introduces the root of monstrous sculpture as literally inhabiting the limestone that comprised medieval churches and their sculpture. Laden with the fossilized bodies of prehistoric creatures, this stone is inherently monstrous, an ideal material for the physicality of imagined creatures.

The multivalence of the monstrous is addressed in the book’s introduction and Ambrose distinguishes what qualifies as a monster or monstrous in the context of this book. The majority of his discussion is limited to the ecclesiastical use of centaurs, fauns, eagles, and griffons. These are creatures that seem more mythical than monstrous in relation to the more fantastical characters in the cast of Romanesque figural sculpture, which are addressed in the fourth chapter of this book. Ambrose assigns to his chosen examples a more varied role in the medieval psyche than the predictable fear-producing fiend discussed in previous eras of art historical scholarship. Monstrous motifs were not in place simply to terrify (although that was part of their function), but to promote nuanced and ideological reflection on matters of social, spiritual, intellectual, and political importance.

Predictably, monsters in an ecclesiastical context may serve as admonishments to avoid certain behaviors lest the beholder himself become a monster. But Ambrose’s investigation is directed to more imaginative usage and complex meanings of these invented creatures. While a monstrous being may have sprung forth from the mind of its creator as a cautionary figure or a device to instill fear, as the first impression of such motifs suggest, it may also have been employed to instruct or offer a positive model of behavior. In Chapter One, Ambrose illustrates this transgressive duality by investigating examples of the centaur and the faun as examples of noble spirits in monstrous forms that figured into the codified works of classical writers like Ovid and in the theological treatises of Augustine. The positive functionality of these creatures stems from an etymological root (the seeds of which were planted in the volume’s introduction) in which terms used for faun and other monstrous beings carry philological associations with learning, approval, and showing (16, 35). Ambrose's initial examination of these motifs focuses on examples inhabiting the nave capitals at Vézelay as well as on the tympanum at Varax, where motifs of the centaur and the faun probably played an important role in the practice of monastic meditation. Ambrose identifies the faun depicted at Varax as having special iconographic significance to the life of saints, particularly Saint Anthony, who experienced an edifying, transpositional encounter with a faun that supports the transformative tenets of monastic reading and reflection (39). The level of morality assigned to such beings implies a nobility of character not usually correlated with medieval monsters. These invented creatures share popularity from the trope of the honorable beast, which Ambrose illustrates by invoking the legend of the martyred dog-saint Guinefort, killed by his owner who incorrectly assumed the beast had mauled his infant son. In actuality, Guinefort had performed an act of gallant selflessness by trying to protect the child from an attack by a snake. Subsequently, a cult grew up around the noble hound and his bones, which were believed by cultists to possess the power to heal children (32).

The second chapter moves from the etymological ramifications and enlightening nature of the monstrous and the marvelous to an examination of their physical forms. Turning again to Antiquity, Ambrose connects Bernard of Clairvaux’s attempt to create real space in his Apologia through the use of place markers to similar ekphrastic practices used in classical texts, like Virgil's Aenid (45). Bernard's space is chaotic and disorganized within which he creates for his reader a jumble of "deformed beauty / beautiful deformity." The juxtaposition of beauty existing in the midst of chaos emerges as an aesthetic trend in the twelfth-century fascination with the sculpture of Antiquity, especially the nude, which was employed with symbolic connotations ranging from pious humility to erotic temptation. In a Romanesque context, however, the classicized nude form is not always fully human. Turning to the example of the centaur, Ambrose highlights the monstrous as a clearly manifested form of the Other to whom people turn as a source of knowledge, or simply for visual pleasure due to the beauty and unusualness of its form. This point is illustrated by noting that the bodies and faces of certain monstrous creatures, like the centaurs at Mozac, are rendered as beautifully as any human form and given similar prominence in placement within the church's decorative program. Thus, the monstrous can be interpreted as noble of spirit and pleasing in form despite its non-human status.

The multivalent functionality of monstrous motifs within their spatial context is addressed in the third chapter. Ambrose suggests reading these motifs as iconographic glosses to other sculptural elements and contextual aspects where monstrous creatures appear. He illustrates this method by using a bicephalic eagle on a capital at Moutiers as an example, interpreting this creature as both a negative gloss as well as a reinforcement of the doctrinal promise of salvation for Christians. Ambrose also considers the ways in which audiences move through the space inhabited by these sculptures and how that action affects the reception or interpretation of the motifs. In this case, Ambrose challenges the idea of secondary sculpture being employed as a unified program, and instead suggests random (or at least non-thematic) distribution of decorative components.

Having explored the realm of the monster by examining the properties of mythical creatures with Classical roots--what their etymological and literary history implies, what they look like, and how they inhabit space--Ambrose devotes the fourth chapter to twelfth-century inventions (like hybrids) and their place in the delineation of sacred and profane space through deceptive devices, including their own physical forms. Ambrose notes the importance of the dichotomy of monsters in sacred space, namely, their function within a church that would counter the argument of their presence as a manifestation of visual and financial overindulgence. The effect verse and reflection of textual construction on the creation of these medieval creatures emphasized throughout this volume culminates with the comparison of multiple appearances of the monstrous in a particular location to the repetition of words in monastic poetry (115). Ambrose also proffers the possibility of transmogrification of monstrous forms from static sculpture to moving image similar to those experienced when rapidly scanning manuscript imagery. This effect can be achieved by wrapping those forms around three faces of a capital (116-117), thus transforming the perceived calm stasis of a broad sacred space into small, dynamic areas within the sacred whole.

The final chapter of the volume examines the use of animals and monsters in the sculpture of Portugal, a vastly underrepresented area in the scholarly discourse of Romanesque sculpture. Ambrose argues that the political ramifications of Portuguese patronage and the creation of national and institutional identity are reflected in sculptural practice. This inquiry begins with an examination of Burgundian iconography in Portuguese sculpture. This iconography is most probably due to the transference of the kingdom by Alfonso VI to Raymond of Burgundy in the late 11th century, and was employed in an effort to differentiate Portuguese iconography from that of their Galician neighbors (129-130). By the twelfth century, Portugal developed a rift between the secular and the sacred, with the Church pushing back against increasingly popular secular rights and boundaries, and the secular head embracing “foreign orders“ of monastic communities and military orders, like the Cistercians and the Templars (132). Here, secondary sculpture reflects relevant material for spiritual mastication, as well as an iconography that serves a political agenda. Ambrose contends that the intentional archaizing style of ecclesiastical imagery on the thirteenth-century Augustinian church of Rio Mau (especially on its western portal) is implicated by the use of motifs like sirens, griffins, and birds. These figures indicate a preference for sculptural forms that lean more towards the symbolic rather than the narrative, as did earlier and more traditional forms of sculpture in Portugal and Galicia. This iconographic swing denotes a desire to articulate a cosmological order, a division and classification also to be found in the paintings of contemporary Bibles (139). The use of the natural world to help define social order was also a common theme in literature, and is seen in works such as Hugh of Fouillou’s Aviarium,Bernard Sylvester’s Cosmographia and Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature. This shift in iconography implies the development of a more political or pseudo-scientific image of self than the more spiritual one of prior ages.

This slim volume is comprised of an introduction and five chapters, each a perfectly balanced combination of Ambrose’s original contribution to the field and meticulously detailed references to the vast body of scholarship he consulted during the course of his research (which is also reflected in an impressive 31-page bibliography). The volume's content has been carefully indexed. The illustrations are few, but they are adequate in number and quality to provide a satisfactory visual reference to Ambrose's text. Upon first reading, one wishes for a broader corpus of examples that venture further into some of the more terrifying monstrous Romanesque figures that cannot be traced to Classical antecedents. However, by limiting his discussion of motifs, Ambrose provides a critical departure point and inroad for others to participate in and expand upon this discourse.

Regrettably, Ambrose's excellent work has been undermined by the publisher's copy editing. There are numerous distracting typos, including sentences with extraneous or misplaced words and punctuation, content errors, and incorrect translation (page 112 offers a translation of nunc homo, cras humus as "today a man, tomorrow a human"). One hopes that future editions of this book will be reviewed meticulously and those errors corrected. The cost alone of this small volume warrants more careful editing and the high quality of the scholarship requires it. Apart from those detractions, Ambrose's scholarly contribution is fundamental to the progression of the study of Romanesque sculpture and will appeal to many types of readers from graduate students (and perhaps perceptive undergraduates) to scholars of multiple disciplines under the umbrella of Medieval Studies.

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Author Biography

Holly R. Silvers

Minnesota State University, Moorehead