The Nave Sculptures of Vézelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing

By Carruthers, Mary | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Nave Sculptures of Vézelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing


Carruthers, Mary, The Catholic Historical Review


The Nave Sculptures of Vézelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing. By Kirk Ambrose. [Studies and Texts, 154.] (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. 2006. Pp. xiv, 148; Plates 26, Figures 110 capitals. $95.00.)

This study, the author's dissertation, of the nave capitals in the Benedictine church of Vezelay, argues against the thesis that churches of ample dimensions were built mainly for the pilgrimage trade and not for the monks' own devotions. Ambrose argues that Vezelay's nave was constructed as a setting for the regular orthopraxis of the opus Dei.

Ambrose focuses on a few themes, such as decapitation and hair-pulling (his attention to the theme of hair-tonsured among the holy, wildly flying among the demons-is particularly lively), the saints' lives featured in the narrative capitals, and the use of gesture and gesticulation. This latter he identifies as peculiarly twelfth century, and analyzes in terms of speech-act, performance, and theatricality. He notes that forty percent of the nave capitals "feature speech." These represent "carved gestures with communal meaning [which] encourage the viewer to engage in a process of contemplation. . . . The images mimetically reproduced performances within the cloister."" [T]he repetition of a variety of speeches throughout the sculpture of the nave encourages the viewer in a process of comparison and contrast that delimits proper speech" (pp. 33-34).Trying to apply such a fundamentally literary analysis to visual material is a challenge that Ambrose is not quite up to. Much of what he terms "theatricality" and "speech act" is better accounted for using the terms of rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar which lay at the heart of monastic compositional analysis, of buildings and music as well as words.

He is more persuasive in a chapter on the little-studied foliate capitals of the nave, to which he applies an Oleg Grabar-inspired analysis of their role as "the syntactic structures that govern the production of meanings. …

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