April 29, 2016

At the Met: Capital Inventions

Marble Double Capital with Masks and Birds, French, Languedoc; ca. 1140-60

Medieval artists had wild and inventive imaginative powers, often pointed at the varied tortures of hell, but also showing marvelously in the carvings of churches, such as gargoyles and the capitals of columns. On my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while I was wandering through the medieval galleries, I began to look up more attentively. Above my head were five capitals, each a fanciful composition of human, animal, and plant forms. A man's open mouth spews forth stylized curving forms, which wrap around birds eating grapes. There's a symmetry which rationalizes very strange imagery.

Limestone Capital with Samson and an Attendant Fighting a Lion, North Spanish, ca. 1175-1200

I love the simplification of form in this capital and the one below. The lion's mane becomes a pattern of overlapping shapes, like roof tiles; the carving of Samson's clothing and his hair and beard form linear patterns. There's a solid stillness to the struggle of man and lion.  

Limestone Capital with a Centaur Battling a Man with Bow and Arrow, Northern Spanish, 
ca. 1175-1200

There's no indication on the wall labels at the museum that this capital and the one above are from the same church, but they do seem very similar in the way form is treated. It's interesting the way the upper body of this man-beast is facing backwards, creating a flowing line from underbelly through the head.

Limestone Capital with Lions Mounted by Nude Riders, North Spanish or South French, 
ca. 1200

Here is another image of a man on the back of a lion, like the capital with Samson above. Here the lion's mane has more volume, and flows like little waves on a choppy sea. The curve of the man's back echoes the decorative curve alongside him. There is a snake winding up towards his head in an uneasy dance. 

Limestone Capital with an Angel Emerging from a Cloud, French,Burgundy; ca. 1150-1200

A wide-eyed angel soars above a complex design of beautiful leafy forms; this capital is sheer delight, with no intimations of violence or fear. As aesthetic objects all these capitals are heavenly.


  1. These remind me of how the large buildings used to be so decorative. I so enjoy seeing them. Now days it appears that all buildings are boxes with various amounts of glass. Nothing decorative yet they aren't any less expensive and to my eye not as beautiful to look at.

    1. I do think that decorative elements add expense to a building. But the main thing is that decoration is not in style the way it was in the past. Too bad.

  2. what unfettered fun (in a medieval way)!