Nuevo libro sobre la Magdalena de Vézelay

CARLOS SASTRE
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Nuevo libro sobre la Magdalena de Vézelay

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Ambrose, Kirk. _The Nave Sculpture of Vezelay: The Art of Monastic
Viewing_. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2006.
Pp. 196. $94.95. ISBN 978–0–88844–154–6.

Reviewed by Pamela A. Patton
Southern 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 <i>pectus</i>, "chest," and <i>peccatum</i>,
"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.
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